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"writing, not drowning" - 5 new articles

  1. 'Only remembered for what we have done'
  2. 'You may have the universe, if I may have Italy'
  3. Who by fire?
  4. On pesky viruses and perfect companions
  5. Where is love?*
  6. Search writing, not drowning
  7. Prior Mailing Archive

'Only remembered for what we have done'

So, that was January 2016. It will not be missed, unlike the people whose passing it marked. A strange, dark time, during which we seemed to reel from one unbelievable headline to another. There is nothing unbelievable about death; it is inevitable for each of us - but still we reeled. So many cultural icons felled within so few days. I avoided writing; there were words enough in print and in cyberspace and others, I kept thinking, had already found the right words.

My eldest nephew, now in his mid-fifties, had been a fan of David Bowie from the age of 14; he posted his thoughts on Facebook and his words were as eloquent and as moving as those of any of the professional commentators paid to write a eulogy for the broadsheets and elsewhere. But having lost his younger brother, a sister, and his mother within thirteen months of each other in recent years, my nephew is already acquainted with grief. He has the words. Then there were Bowie's own words, in Archive on 4, David Bowie: Verbatim, with the man himself, laughing, joking, and reminiscing about the Marquee, the Ricky Tick in Hounslow, the Craw Daddy in Richmond, Eel Pie Island, all the places that many of us of a certain age had flocked to in the 1960s  . . . for the music. He had been there too.

On the day that Alan Rickman's death was announced, I called a close friend who had once known him well and who had introduced me to him 40 years ago. (I wrote about that meeting here.) And we talked about the strange, difficult emotional hinterland we must occupy when someone to whom we have once been very close dies. (In that coincidental way, Woman's Hour touched on that very subject later in the week.)

And so the announcements continued until yesterday, the last day of the month when we heard, first about Sir Terry Wogan, then Frank Finlay . . . and suddenly it was 1966 again. I was 18, six months pregnant, and sitting in my Dear Old School Friend's father's mini-van; she driving round and round Parliament Square, trying to find the right traffic lane for Westminster Bridge. The Dear Old School Friend had just passed her driving test and we were on our way to the Old Vic, to see what was to become one of the definitive 20th century stagings of Othello: Laurence Olivier in the title role, Maggie Smith as Desdemona - and Frank Finlay as Iago. We arrived with minutes to spare, she hauled me up seemingly endless flights of stone steps to the gods, and we watched the entire performance sitting on hard wooden benches. (I did wonder whether my memory was playing tricks. had there really been wooden benches at the Old Vic in the 1960s? I checked; there had been, indeed, wooden benches in the 1960s.) I also found this page on Frank Finlay's website and could not agree more with Sir Anthony Sher's words about the exceptional acting that we saw that day. How very lucky we were. I told the Dear Daughter yesterday that, at the time, I had hoped that the experience would have some sort of in utero impact on my unborn baby. It must have worked: she has always loved Shakespeare . . .

By mid-morning, yesterday, I found I could listen to no more words on BBC Radio 4. (It might have been listening to Bill Gates's off-putting voice on Desert Island Discs that did it.) I switched to Radio 3 and the day became brighter at once (it was Folk Connections weekend on Radio 3).  I was adding pieces of music to my BBC Playlister, almost without stopping, until this song, which - in every sense - stopped me in my tracks: Only Remembered, words by John Tams. If you have seen War Horse, the song will be familiar and you can see John Tams performing it with the War Horse cast here. However, the version broadcast was this one, by Coope Boyes and Simpson, which I found on the No Glory website and which is where I discovered that Alan Rickman had been an early signatory to the No Glory letter. Alan Rickman and many others whose work - and words - I admire. Everything is connected. Everything and everyone. And we can remember. We do.



'You may have the universe, if I may have Italy'

Who am I to disagree with Giuseppe Verdi? I am, in fact, in total agreement and have been for, oh, more than half a century. And every year, usually in spring, I long to be there. These days, however, I don't manage to visit as often as I would like so have to settle for spending some time with my nose in a book, or books, about Italy. This year, the Italy-yearning surfaced in late September and certain books in the waiting-to-be-read pile beckoned . . .

The first, a novel set mainly in Rome and which had garnered enthusiastic reviews, was somewhat disappointing, with characters whose dialogue I never found wholly convincing. I won't name it, not least because I do appreciate the effort that goes into writing a novel and then actually having it published, although you may be able to work out the title from the 'Read 2015' list on the right.  

So I moved swiftly on to Elena Ferrante, for whom I had been saving myself - and I was holding my breath. There had been so much publicity and speculation about the reclusive author and so much praise heaped upon her novels that I could hardly bear the thought of a second disappointment. My relief, as soon as I started to read My Brilliant Friend was palpable. I loved it and have ordered the second, third and fourth of the Neapolitan novels from my local library; Ferrante, I feel sure, will carry me through an English winter.

I did have one or two qualms about the occasional Americanism in Ann Goldstein's translation but, having read this interview with her on Lizzy's Literary Life blog, I now appreciate the challenges she faced in translating Ferrante.

My Brilliant Friend is a wonderful evocation of adolescence - and adolescent friendships - in post-war Naples. Some of its themes are particular to the time and the place; others are universal and I can understand, completely, how Ferrante's work has suddenly captured the imagination of so many readers beyond Italy. 

Although I try to avoid too much self-referential thinking when reading, the setting for some of the most significant moments in the narrative - the shoeshop owned by Lila's father - took me straight back to a particular time in my own post-war adolescence. It was 1961, I was 14, staying in Liguria in northern Italy, and made friends with a girl of my age called Marisa. Her family owned a shoeshop in a narrow street in the centre of the town and I had visited the shop with my mother to buy some sandals. Marisa served us and we embarked on a  fractured conversation, she in her limited English and I my limited Italian. But the spark of friendship was there and I was soon spending every spare moment that I could with Marisa, initially at the shop, and then with some of her friends and family, including Alfredo, who worked at a nearby hotel and, a cousin, Giacomo, who was a student at the University of Turin. We went to an open-air cinema and although I can't remember what film we saw - and my Italian certainly wasn't up to the task of following the dialogue - it was all very heady romantic stuff for a impressionable young teenager from the west London suburbs . . . and it left an indelible mark.


I had grown up listening to fragments of Italian; my father had been a prisoner of war in Italy during WWII. He and his sergeant had escaped after bribing a guard, then lived a hand-to-mouth existence in the mountains, moving from safe house to safe house, sheltered by partisans for four months - until they sought shelter in a house that turned out not to be safe. (They ended up in another prisoner-of-war camp, this time in Germany.) It's amazing how proficient one can become in a foreign language when it is a matter of life or death.  

So, I was already familiar with a cluster of familiar words and phrases, although 'we're exhausted'; 'is there somewhere we can sleep?'; 'we are very, very hungry'; 'can you spare something to eat?', and 'we have nothing' were not going to get me very far on the Italian Riviera in 1961 . . .*

I learned more with Marisa and, at 16, I had the opportunity to study Italian O-level and A-level at school. If it is possible to fall in love with a language, I did; I'd already enjoyed studying French and Spanish but Italian was something else. It became a passion. Something similar happened to my daughter a couple of decades later when she spent a summer as an au pair in Florence and took Italian language classes; she went on to read Italian at university.

I try not to let my Italian turn to rust and, despite Ann Goldstein's mention of the challenges of Ferrante's language and sentence construction, I'd like, some day, to attempt to read Elena Ferrante in the original. 

Reading about Lila and her family and the calzature made me wonder what had happened to Marisa; we stayed in touch for a while, via postcards but, by the time my Italian was up to letter-writing standard, we had lost contact. However. . . it seems that the family still has a shoeshop in the same town but it is larger, grander and in a more fashionable location. A very smart sign hangs above the entrance to the shop. 


*Although I was aware of the bare bones of my father's escape from the prisoner of war camp, I knew few of the details, and I certainly did not appreciate how gruelling those four months hiding out in the mountains would have been. Not until, that is, I read Iris Origo's War in Val d'Orcia: An Italian War Diary 1943-1944 a few years ago. I realised that I had had no idea but, by then, it was too late to ask the questions . . .



Who by fire?


In 1994, I met someone who was to become - and who remains - one of my closest friends. We had embarked the previous year, but at different colleges, on a demanding and challenging journey of learning - studying homeopathy - and, at the end of the first year, she joined our college. We discovered that we lived near each other, she at the time in Kensington, I in Notting Hill, and, given the enormity of what we had to understand and learn, we decided to get together twice a week for study sessions. We did this for three years . . .

We were very disciplined but rewarded ourselves at the end of each session with the telling of stories: our stories, the stories of our lives. And, despite having grown up in very different circumstances, in different parts of the world, we soon discovered degrees of synchronicity and resonance in those stories and in the way that we had responded to our life experiences. Those study sessions became the crucible in which our friendship was formed. In the ensuing years, we have become ever closer; we have travelled together - journeys of deep significance for each of us - and we have continued to tell our stories, which are now inter-woven.

Hers is extraordinary and it made a great impact on me when I first heard it. But, although I am familiar with that story, to see it written down, as it now is - or as it is beginning to be - the impact is, if anything, even greater. For my friend has now started a blog and is recounting her story, many decades after it began, although the word 'blog' seems hardly to do it justice because it is that rare combination: perfectly crafted words and images. Visual poetry, on a screen.

You will find it at still point, world turning - coming through fire, and I would recommend that you start at the beginning and read on . . .

So, this post is a tribute to my brave, bright, deep-thinking, deep-feeling, and stalwart friend; the photograph is of a place of spiritual and emotional pilgrimage for both of us: the Paradesi Synagogue in Kochi.


On pesky viruses and perfect companions

Hmm; no sooner do I take to the blog again than I am knocked almost hors de combat by a virus that has been unpleasantly similar to the one that arrived last September and took nine months to shift. And I don't mean a computer virus. This time, however, I have taken homeopathic action sooner rather than later and, three weeks on, I think the virus has got the message.

So where were we? A month ago - the last time I posted - I was about to fly to Madeira, courtesy of the Grown-Up Children, which I did. It was a delightful, happy week, with the sort of temperatures I love (35 degrees Celsius or thereabouts), and much swimming, a huge amount of reading, and generally relaxing in the sunshine. It was just what we all needed.


We did a memorably unenjoyable all-day mountain trek; unenjoyable owing to the weather (it was the one bad day, rain and mist, so no views) and a rather strange guide, who made us listen (more than once) to his birdcall impersonations in the pouring rain, and who told off-colour jokes. We knew the experience would eventually turn into a family joke, as these things tend to, but at the time . . . 


When I left Funchal, I was still warm and glowing from the sun; I arrived at Bristol Airport in the middle of the night, to be greeted by howling winds and torrential rain. Oh, British weather, what would we do without you to take the shine off things?

As a result, I have been doing only the essentials, that is, walking the dogs twice a a day and trying to remember to keep up my intake of fluid. It was while I was sitting around doing not very much that I found myself missing my dear old cat, Mr C. I didn't write about it at the time but he died of heart failure in March of last year and I still miss him, not least because this has been almost the first time in my life that I have not had a cat or three as part of the family. I thought how comforting  it would have been, when I was at my most under the weather, to have had Mr C sitting on my lap, purring away. He was the most affectionate of cats.


I was very taken with the resident hotel cat in Madeira - a tabby, like Mr C. He (or she) was very popular with the guests on the sun terrace, overlooking the sea where the Walnuts (a term coined by the Son-in-Law) could be found stretched out on loungers every day. (I was with the Walnuts; the Grown-Up Children preferred the more exotic palm tree shaded Garden Pool area.) Hotel Cat was very savvy and absolutely knew how to work a sun terrace. Every evening, one of his (or her) band of devoted admirers would appear with a dainty dish of sardines. Hotel Cat would scoff the lot, lick his paws, then execute a rather fine curl of the tail and stroll off.


At least there were two very special dogs waiting for me when I got back to England; I never under-estimate their importance in my life. As all my viral symptoms have been better in the fresh air and even better by the coast, we have done plenty of walking and, for a few days, when the sun shone last week, we even managed long walks by the seashore.


These days, only one of my dogs, Miss P, does long walks. The Edinburgh Boy is now the Venerable Old Edinburgh Gent and he is 13 today. He is taking it easy, as befits a very elderly Labrador, but there have been a few extra treats. He spends many, many hours asleep and  I often see him doing that doggy dreaming thing, his paws moving as if he is running, accompanied by a series of quiet, breathy 'woofs'. Perhaps he is remembering what life was like when he was in his prime and he too could run along a shoreline and race in and out of the waves. He is the very dearest of dear old boys and I love him more than words can say.



Where is love?*


I have been thinking about my mother a good deal in recent days, not because there has been a significant anniversary but because I have found myself longing to discuss with her the plight of the Syrian - and other - refugees.  

My mum was the most compassionate person I ever met. She didn't judge people on the grounds of their gender, sexuality, race or religion. She was forever helping people in distress, often simply by listening to their stories. Listening without judging, she believed, was one of the most compassionate things we can do for another human being.

There certainly was an absence of compassion in some of the posts I read on Facebook this week. To be honest, I'm a relative newcomer to Facebook, having been put off by much of what I read about it, and having therefore resisted for several years. But, eventually, it became apparent that this was probably the only way of keeping in touch - and keeping in touch simultaneously - with many members of my large, extended, and international family, not to mention several friends. Today, however, I came very close to leaving Facebook; instead, I simply 'hid' posts and 'unfollowed' people. 

I'm not sure what my mum would have made of Facebook; she would have been shocked and saddened by the vitriol and ranting that was pouring out this week but gladdened by the positive connections that people were making, sometimes with complete but like-minded strangers. She would have been moved, this week, by the kindness of strangers. She would have loved looking at photos of family and friends and hearing their news but would have had no hesitation about deleting anything that distressed or disappointed her.

My mum loved reading, wrote brilliant letters, and never had any difficulty finding the right word at the right time. If she were still alive, I think that these are the words she would have chosen to put on Facebook today:


*My mum, who was a professional singer and dancer when she was young, loved musicals; Oliver was one of her favourites and this, one of her favourite songs.

(And I put this post on Facebook . . . )


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