A Cold Wind off the Arno

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The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the invention of spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places, and now the wind unpacking the great planes, ransacking the great planes…

Lawrence Durrell – Justine

Although we were far from the sea, and it was a golden day in late summer, there was no better evocation of the weather and landscapes we were passing through, travelling across the spine of Italy. The tops of the plane trees were swaying in the wind that swept down from the Apennines, the sun a nacreous glimmer behind the white sky, the sound of cicadas on the platforms of drowsing train stations. The Tuscan landscape slowly unveiled itself to reveal low, undulating hills upon which stood the small stony outcrops of villages, with square church towers punctuating the skyline. It was a local train on a Sunday afternoon and we stopped frequently, picking up passengers who were heading to Florence.

Florence… there was something lovely in the name; something flowering or flourishing, with perhaps a promised ending of romance. The kind of city that you didn’t consciously decide to love – you just found that at some point you had begun to. It was as if the banality of various practical civic functions went on as a backdrop to a place governed by aesthetics, where art was steeped in the very atmosphere. Everywhere you looked there were statues, buildings of extraordinary beauty, galleries. It seemed, in some respects, the very pinnacle of human civilization.

Our taxi nosed along cobbled streets that were thronging with people, where it felt as if the mass of pedestrians dominated the spaces rather than vehicles. Through the open window I heard snatches of conversation as we passed people at little more than walking pace. There seemed to be lots of Americans. We entered a small square and the taxi halted. “You have to walk from here,” said the driver. “Just down that street.” A short way along it, past a bicycle shop and then a flower stall, who seemed to have combined their interests with a bicycle parked outside full of flowers, we found the address of our apartment. It was an old building which had been converted into separate flats, just across the street from the Palazzo Vecchio – the imposing town hall. The rooms were huge and airy, exquisitely furnished, with tall windows that looked out across the rooftops. Across the walls of our bedroom hung dozens of paintings; it was like being in a gallery. Everywhere the eye came to rest there was something beautiful.

If Florence inspired romance, however, there were many suitors vying for her attention. Everywhere you went there were hordes of them: a line of sightseers stretching round the Duomo and off down a side street; huge queues for the Uffizi; a wait at the viewpoints on the Ponte Vecchio as people took turns to photograph themselves pulling silly faces before the River Arno. Even in early October the city was groaning with tourists. They marched about in phalanxes following tour guides who had little coloured signs held aloft, sometimes emblazoned with their national flag. Sometimes, incomprehensibly, a group broke into a trot; perhaps they had got too far behind their leader, someone had panicked and the herd galloped to catch up. I saw one couple walking up and down a street repeatedly, nose in their guidebook, until on their third pass they spotted the building they were supposed to take a photograph of, and duly did so. It put me in mind of Lucy Honeychurch in E. M. Forster’s novel A Room With A View, who, having forgotten her guidebook, wanders around Santa Croce wondering which of the many tombs she passes is the one really worth seeing and whether she has missed it. With no authority to tell her what to see, she has to fall back on the uncertain reserves of her own personal taste: “Of course it must be a wonderful building. But how like a barn! And how very cold!”

It’s not easy to be a traveller these days. On the one hand it’s easier than ever – international flights  deposit you anywhere in the world in a matter of hours. Local currency is easily available from cash machines. The notion of spending weeks in considerable discomfort just to get somewhere is, for most, inconceivable. But what this has done is blurred the line between travel and tourism, as the industry is known, into a seamless elision with nothing left between them. Whether you are on a week-long tour of Italy’s cultural artefacts or a six-month fully-paid-for expedition into the rainforest with a side order of volunteering at some worthy cause, you’re a tourist, like it or not.

You don’t have to be a good tourist, however. We were not. We missed the Duomo entirely, put off by the queues. The Uffizi was closed – it was a Monday. We failed to muster the enthusiasm to line up to look at Michelangelo’s David – the original one in the Accademia. Instead we admired the replica of it in the Piazza Signoria, which is where it was originally intended to stand. Ironically by moving it indoors and placing it behind a glass barrier for protection after one of its toes was smashed by a hammer-wielding vandal (reminiscent in many ways of the mummified corpse of St Francis Xavier in Goa having its toe bitten off by a devotee in search of a mouthful of holy relic), David is completely out of proportion for the space he currently occupies in his Accademia alcove: huge-headed, with overlong arms and a posterior which, frankly, was not exactly as pert as the rest of him. He was in good company in the piazza – there was a veritable crowd of statuary along the alcoves – and Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus was designed as a companion piece for David in its original location. Cellini was unimpressed, describing the muscles in Hercules’ bulging back as looking like “a sackful of melons” – a description so shrewdly acerbic that once you’ve heard it it’s impossible to see in any other way.

Lucy Honeychurch, presumably, hadn’t noticed. Forster captures all the yearning, all the longing, of a young woman on the brink of something without quite knowing what she wants or how to set about it:

“Nothing ever happens to me,” she reflected, as she entered the Piazza Signoria and looked nonchalantly at its marvels, now fairly familiar to her. The great square was in shadow; the sunshine had come too late to strike it. Neptune was already unsubstantial in the twilight, half god, half ghost, and his fountain plashed dreamily to the men and satyrs who idled together on its marge. The Loggia showed as the triple entrance of a cave, wherein dwelt many a deity, shadowy but immortal, looking forth upon the arrivals and departures of mankind. It was the hour of unreality — the hour, that is, when unfamiliar things are real. An older person at such an hour and in such a place might think that sufficient was happening to him, and rest content. Lucy desired more.

E. M. Forster – A Room With A View 

Naturally it is romance that Lucy desires, and naturally enough, having thrown away her guidebook and begun to actually enjoy herself instead of continually striving for self-improvement, she finds it in the end. By literally falling into its arms, as it happens.


The notebooks:

Wandering hand in hand along a street after dark we suddenly heard the most beautiful singing. We halted entranced outside a church. Through the open doorway we could see twelve girls in long black gowns, standing in a semicircle, singing in a choir. The interior of the church seemed full of golden light, their voices high and pure and clear, echoing around the interior. Gradually other details came into focus: there was an audience before them, sitting in rapt attention on folding wooden chairs. We stood listening… and then, suddenly, a small group of tourists rushed over from the street and began crowding around the doorway. One man took out an ipad and began filming, blocking the view. I twitched in annoyance. K looked at me, slipped an arm through mine, and we walked back down the steps and into the street. I could still hear the singing behind us, and smiled, determinedly recalling their angelic voices, not allowing the boorish tourists to ruin it.

Just around the corner, not five minutes later, we came across a small crowd in the street gathered in silence around a television set outside a restaurant. The diners had abandoned their meals, and sat craning their necks to see. Chefs in their whites stood in a line, watching, arms folded. The security man from a nearby bar was a head taller than everyone else and oversaw proceedings from the back. What could have happened? Some disaster? The mood was tense. I squinted and made out… an expanse of green. Small figures running. The camera panned over a crowd of spectators. And at the top of the screen: Fiorentina 0 – Inter 0. It was the football, and it seemed as if the entire street had come out to watch.

Round the next corner we heard music. The limpid plucking of a lute, the hoarsely mellow baritone of woodwind, and then, soaring above it, a violin. A chamber orchestra, playing baroque instruments, seated beneath the colonnades. It sounded like Albinoni. From behind us came a sudden roar, cheering, car horns: Florence had scored. Seconds later, with a slight delay, another loud cheer from a nearby apartment. The conductor gave the faintest of smiles, paused the fluid movement of his hands just for a moment as the cheering died away, and then the chamber orchestra played on. How could one fail to love such a city?


 

A friend in London had long been extolling the virtues of Italian leather jackets, and claimed that Florence was the best place to buy one. There certainly seemed to be many shops selling them – we passed dozens on our walk that evening. However, none that I saw looked particularly inspiring – they were all in a similar ‘bumfreezer’ style, rather short and cut very slim. But then, just around the corner from our apartment, I stopped in my tracks. There in a shop window, adorning a mannequin, was the nicest leather jacket I have ever seen. It was in a kind of mid-brown or dark tan, and looked very soft. I hadn’t planned on buying one, but took a picture of it, just in case, noting down the street name. On we walked, up to the Ponte Vecchio – the old bridge which was lined with buildings just as the bridges of London used to be in Elizabethan times. Sitting on the low wall we looked out at the lights of the city as their reflections swam in the dark water. A cold wind was blowing off the Arno, scalloping the surface, the river burnished gold in the setting sun.

I couldn’t stop thinking about that jacket. Turning to K I said: “Would you mind if we go back for another look? They may still be open.”

“Sure, OK.”

We walked back towards the shop. There it was again in the window, just as I had remembered. I wondered if it would look anything like as good on me as it did on the mannequin. We went in.

The shopkeeper was Jordanian, it turned out, and had the bustling sales patter familiar from countless souks, which somehow implied an understanding that you, the customer, clearly appreciated quality merchandise, and that for someone with such heightened aesthetic sensibilites, something as sordid as money shouldn’t be of paramount importance.

“Here, try these on,” he said, laying out jacket after jacket upon the counter. He rather casually flung them down, just as I had seen carpet sellers do in Marrakech, and then fingered the material lovingly. “So soft! And sir, admire please the quality of this stitching. This is only possible to find here in Florence.”

“How much are they?”

“Sir!” He looked shocked. I had, indeed, committed a breach of protocol at this stage in proceedings. “What value does one put on something? I could send you to this shop, that shop, who sell factory jackets” – he pronounced the word with a moue of distaste – “but I can tell that you are an admirer of fine products, beautifully crafted. Where from sir?”

“London.”

“Ah, London. Welcome in my shop sir. Now, this one is very latest Italian style. Here. Let me assist you.” He held it out behind me and I slid into it. It was nice, certainly. K looked me up and down noncommittally.

“I’m not sure it’s me, really. How about that one in the window? On the mannequin?”

“That one sir, is our finest quality. Very beautiful jacket.” He took it off the mannequin as if helping a lady out of an evening cape, every gesture solicitous. I admired his act immensely. It was working on me alright. Then I caught a glimpse of the price tag, and recoiled.

“€780! You’re kidding. That’s way over my budget.”

He batted away such technicalities with a wave of his hand. “Sir, please! Budgets… We can make discount. If this is the jacket you desire, we shall do everything to accommodate you.”

“Yes, but still! I’m not spending that.” He slipped around behind me and held it out. I put my arms in. It really was a very nice jacket. Looking up I caught K’s eye. She slowly nodded, suppressing a smile.

So now the work really began. As far as he was concerned, I was English. He didn’t know the extent to which I had been trained by the vendors of India. We took our places for the theatricals that were to follow. I took off the jacket, and he twitched. I laid it on the counter and picked up another cheaper one in a sort of hideous dung-brown. No – they really don’t have anything we like, do they dear. Shall we go back to the hotel? What time is it? Fancy some dinner? He picked up the jacket again and helped me back into it. “Look sir, you can roll up the sleeves! So soft! It is made of goat! Mountain goat!” K, poker-faced, turned to inspect the street outside. I knew she was trying her utmost not to laugh. If I caught her eye we’d be sunk. Bakri, bozak, buzechini. A crazy old goat in a goatskin coat. I had to have it.

The calculator came out. He typed in a negligible discount. I took off the jacket. He picked it up again and knocked a significant chunk off the price. Mollified but playing hard to get, I put it on, and stabbed out an outrageously low price. He looked insulted. I took it off and made for the door, pursued by him, brandishing calculator, this time with another figure. Better. But still. I made another offer, prompting a long lament. I began speaking to K in Hindi, which unnerved him. He tapped out another price, and laid the calculator gently on the counter for my inspection. I began to unzip the jacket and he hit Clear and knocked off a bit more. I visibly became attentive. It was already a tremendous bargain now. But then, with the full ruthlessness of Chandni Chowk bazaar, K intervened. For the sake of 30 euros. I was pretty much set to take it then and there, but no. She wanted a number and would get it. He begged. I demurred. She curled her Parsi nose at him and rolled her eyes at the door.

At that moment, with wonderfully serendipitous timing, two Americans walked in and began browsing along the rail. His attention was torn – he wanted to go over to them, you could tell, but we weren’t going to budge. I tapped out 250 on the calculator. He looked at the Americans desperately – they showed signs of leaving.

“Cash?” he said.

“Sure. Cash.” I counted out the last of my money, and borrowed more from K. He stuffed the jacket unceremoniously into a paper bag, I gave him the cash, and that was that – he went over to the Americans and started work on them. We glanced at each other and left.

“Did we just get a leather jacket priced at €780 for €250?”

“Yah.”

“How the fuck did we manage that?”

“Teamwork.”

“Haan. Teamwork. Would a high five be appropriate?”

“I believe it would.”


 

Rising early in the grey half-light of dawn the next morning as K’s warm shape slept on beside me, I went out onto our small balcony to look out over the rooftops. You could tell it wasn’t a place that got much rain – the tiles were full of gaps and wouldn’t have withstood one decent autumn gale. In the bathroom I inspected myself in the mirror, stooping over the low sink as I washed my hands. Then, turning to take the towel off the rail beside me, there was a sudden loud snap in my neck and a bolt of pain along my spine. I let out a gasp of surprise; I knew something had just gone seriously wrong, and fervently hoped it would right itself in a minute or two. It didn’t. Carefully I straightened upward, then ducked again, wincing, as a spasm shot through me. I couldn’t stand up.  It was 6.45 in the morning, K was asleep next door, and we had to pack up, check out, get to the station and catch a train across half of Italy to Venice that morning. I wasn’t sure if I might in fact be going straight to hospital instead. Was my travel insurance still valid? I tried to remember what date I had gone to Australia the year before. I had a nasty feeling it had run out a week earlier. I tried to stand upright again and there came a series of cracking sounds like a brushwood fire, each sending off little sparks along my neck. This was not good at all.

Painfully slowly I made it along the corridor, opened the bedroom door and crept into the room. My stealth was betrayed by a loud groan as I tried to turn my head. Keeping it dead level as if I were balancing a book on it I sank to my knees and lay down on the floor, trying to find some relief. It was no good.

“Hun? You awake?”

“Mmmmf.”

“We’ve got a problem. I think I’ve broken my neck.”

Long pause. Then, flatly: “Again?

This was true. I had technically broken it years earlier, sustaining a small fracture in a rock climbing accident. I had been carried off the mountain and transported on the flatbed of a truck along a dirt road to the nearest hospital. It had never been quite right since.

She sat up blearily. “What happened?”

“I dunno. I just turned round and it went snap. I think it’s quite bad.”

“I’ve got pills if you need some.”

Like all Indians travelling in parts of the world with dubious healthcare systems, such as Europe, Australia or North America, or indeed anywhere outside Mother India, she carried a small suitcase full of medications which listed their ayurvedic credentials. And, open-minded as I am about these things, I wasn’t sure it was going to cut it. Still, worth a try.

And so it was that dosed up on “Combiflam”, which sounded like something out of the 70s cookbook, and slathered in enough Tiger Balm to make anyone’s eyes water within a 5 metre radius, we somehow managed to pack the bags. But I couldn’t lift it. It was pathetic – I was helpless. What is a backpacker without a backpack? A tourist, I suppose. I thought of the octogenarians I had seen bravely shuffling around assorted piazzas the day before, and sympathised with them wholeheartedly. Fortunately the owner was solicitude itself: she recommended that I try shiatsu, which had helped her back problems, called a taxi for us to the door, and carried my bag down the stairs herself (no small feat for quite a small lady), seeing us safely into the cab. The route the driver took led around the back streets towards Santa Maria Novella station, which naturally were all cobblestones. I groaned periodically as we bumped over them, and received reassuring pats from K.

Pulling up at the station, nose in the air like a governess, I minced carefully across the concourse towards the information board, checking what platform we needed. As I did so, there was a voice at my elbow. A girl with a big backpack decorated with the Canadian flag:

“Hey, do you happen to know which platform for Venice?”

“Aaaah!” I went, as a spasm shot through me. “Aah. Um, no – I’m looking for it myself. The 1255?”

“Yeah.” She looked at me a little strangely. “Are you OK?”

“Faaark! Sorry. It’s my back. It’s busted.”

“Oh wow, sorry to hear it. Hey, are you Briddish?”

“Yes. If you find out what platform it is, would you mind coming and telling me? I don’t think I can move.”

“Sure, no problem. Hey, feel better.”

“Let’s hope so.”

It was now 1240 and our train still wasn’t listed. Then the pixellated letters flipped through their cycle and there it was: the 1255 Italo to Venezia. But there was something not right. The train number didn’t match the one on my ticket, bought weeks earlier. Surely there couldn’t be two? What if the original train had broken down? Did they base the numbers on engine, or was there a different code? Through a mental fog of pain and Combiflam I fretted, wincing occasionally. Two Chinese girls with enormous wheeled suitcases barged into me, and I snarled at them. They fled. This was not the time to lose my temper. Seeking consolation in literature as always, I recalled an entry by Robert Byron in The Road to Oxiana:

BANDAR SHAH (SEA-LEVEL), 26 APRIL 1934
Under arrest! I am writing on a bed in the police-station.

We are in the wrong, which makes it the more annoying. Having waited at Gumbad-i-Kabus till four o’clock, when there were still no horses to be had, we decided to go back with the car, and avoiding Asterabad, reached here at ten o’clock. There was nowhere to sleep but the station, and the station-master, a wilting young man, was not pleased at our disturbing him so late. The train this morning was due to leave at seven. He told us to have the car ready by the siding at six. It was. But the truck for it did not arrive till ten to seven, and we suddenly saw that the station-master, out of spite, had sent the train off without us. The pent-up irritation of seven months exploded: we assaulted the man. There were loud shrieks, soldiers rushed in, and pinioning Christopher’s arms, some struck his back with the butts of their rifles, while their officer, who was scarcely four feet high and had the voice of a Neapolitan tenor, repeatedly slapped his face. I escaped these indignities, but we share the confinement, to the bewilderment of the police, who find us a nuisance.

They threaten us with an ‘inquiry’ into the ‘incident’ in Teheran. We must grovel to avoid this at all costs. It would take weeks. I wonder—we both wonder—what madness came over us to jeopardize our journey in this way.

Robert Byron – The Road to Oxiana

Well, it happens to the best of us. But no, in my condition I didn’t need slapping by a four foot high Neapolitan tenor, of which there seemed to be several about, nor indeed by anyone else. Reasoning that since they travelled along the same track, that there could only be one Italo train bound for Venice at 1255, we decided to get on it.

The problem was, there were people already in our seats – a pair of sun-wizened rustics, man and wife, who showed no inclination to move. I showed them my ticket and sighing, he dug his out. We both had the same seat number. Then I saw his departure station. Napoli. They must have been on this train for hours. Was he in fact four feet tall? Could he sing? We tried two more seats but another couple arrived, profusely apologetic, and claimed them. I certainly wasn’t going to stand for three-and-a-half hours. We spotted two empty seats in the next carriage, and stole into them surreptitiously. I plugged my ears with headphones, stuck my shades on and put my hood up. Do not disturb. We slid silently out of Firenze SMN station, the train pouring through a tunnel until the sudden reappearance of apartment blocks sliding by the window. We picked up speed steadily, until we were whizzing almost soundlessly through the Italian countryside in air-conditioned comfort. A speedometer on the TV screen overhead indicated we were travelling at 250kmh.

After halting briefly at Bologna we resumed our flight across the fertile flatlands of northern Italy, the speed now showing 280kmh, briefly crossing the River Po, longest river in the country, in a flash of water and a whoosh whoosh whoosh as the bridge went by beneath us. The conductor entered the carriage and began making his way down it. I hoped there wasn’t going to be a problem with the ticket; being kicked off the train at some tiny hamlet, unable to carry my own backpack, was something that I wasn’t really in the mood for, although it did fit our general pattern of spontaneous adventures. He reached us and I proffered our tickets.

“Grazie,” he said, checking us off against a list of names. His pencil paused. He looked at the ticket again, and switched to English.

“You are in different seats?” Clearly our names were hopelessly unItalian compared to the ones on his register.

“Yes, there were another couple in our seats, so we moved here,” I said.

The train was half-empty by now anyway, and he gave a slight but clearly visible shrug, ticked us off the list and moved on. We were in the clear.

The train halted again at Mestre, the unlovely industrial city on the mainland overlooking the Venice lagoon. At that moment the music changed on my headphones and I found I was listening to Scheherazade by Rimsky Korsakov, played by the St Petersburg Philharmonic, who I had seen perform it at the Proms a few weeks earlier. The wonderful, lyrical longing of the strings tightened around the heart, accompanying us as we made our way out onto the bridge across the lagoon, over green water flecked with whitecaps. My first sight of Venice was of a low smudge on the horizon transforming itself into distant spires which grew in size as the music swelled, the city assembling itself before my eyes. There was a quickening sense of excitement; which of the invisible cities would reveal itself to me first? I knew there were many.

I was reading Jan Morris – her wonderful book Venice is essentially a long love letter to this most extraordinary of cities, or perhaps a romantic, impressionistic painting of it, and one particularly interesting given that she first visited as a young man named James Morris. As she put in a preface to a later edition, “It is Venice seen through a particular pair of eyes at a particular moment – young eyes at that, responsive above all to the stimuli of youth”.

It is very old, and very grand, and bent-backed. Its towers survey the lagoon in crotchety splendour, some leaning one way, some another. Its skyline is elaborate with campaniles, domes, pinnacles, cranes, riggings, television aerials, crenellations, eccentric chimneys and a big red grain elevator. There are glimpses of flags and fretted rooftops, marble pillars, cavernous canals. An incessant bustle of boats passes before the quays of the place; a great white liner slips towards its port; a multitude of tottering palaces, brooding and monstrous, presses towards its waterfront like so many invalid aristocrats jostling for fresh air. It is a gnarled but gorgeous city: and as the boat approaches through the last church-crowned islands, and a jet fighter screams splendidly out of the sun, so the whole scene seems to shimmer – with pinkness, with age, with self-satisfaction, with sadness, with delight.

The navigator stows away his charts and puts on a gay straw hat: for he has reached that paragon among landfalls, Venice.

Jan Morris – Venice

 

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The Eternal Traveller

I was walking up a hill in Assisi, dragging my case behind me. The rhythm of its wheels on the cobblestones seemed familiar. Da-Dah da Da-Dah da Da-Dah da Da-Dah. The wheels jolted over the ruts and set up this continual refrain which I couldn’t quite place. Then it came to me slowly: I had the couplet in my head for years, but couldn’t remember the words – only the sound and rhythm of it, and the rough English translation of what it meant. It was a description of the sacking of an ancient city by the Mongols. Where had I heard it? I thought it Persian, and very old. I walked up the hill, mentally chanting nonsense words: “The hatstand the milkman the brassband the land!” I couldn’t get it. Into the mental archives it went. Later, after we had found our accommodation, a small cavern owned by a poet, built into the hillside and beautifully furnished, I took out my notebook – a battered black moleskine – and wrote down: hatstand, milkman, brass band, land. Persian? Balkh? Bokhara? 

Hoping the language hadn’t changed much since antiquity, I messaged a Persian-speaking friend. “How would you translate something like: ‘They came and they destroyed and they burned and they looted and then they vanished?’”

He came back with a line of text in which some of the words were familiar – amdand, kushtand, sokhtand – but the rhythm was missing. Round and round in my head it went. Virgil wrote a Latin equivalent in hexameter: “Quadrupedante putrem sonitu quatit ungula campum” – “The qua-druped’s gall-oping hoof shakes the ground”. Da Dah-da-da Dah-da-da Dah-da-da Da! But what was it in Persian?


The Notebooks:

In France these notebooks are known as carnet moleskines: ‘moleskine’, in this case, being its black oilcloth binding. Each time I went to Paris, I would buy a fresh supply from a papeterie in the Rue de l’Ancienne Comedie. The pages were squared and the end-papers held in place with an elastic band. I had numbered them in series. I wrote my name and address on the front page, offering a reward to the finder. To lose a passport was the least of one’s worries: to lose a notebook was a catastrophe.

In twenty odd years of travel, I lost only two. One vanished on an Afghan bus. The other was filched by the Brazilian secret police, who with a certain clairvoyance, imagined that some lines I had written – about the wounds of a Baroque Christ – were a description, in code, of their own work on political prisoners.

Some months before I left for Australia, the owner of the papeterie said that the vrai moleskine was getting harder and harder to get. There was one supplier: a small family business in Tours. They were very slow in answering letters.

“I’d like to order a hundred,” I said to Madame. “A hundred will last me a lifetime.”

She promised to telephone Tours at once, that afternoon.

At lunchtime I had a sobering experience. The headwaiter of Brasserie Lipp no longer recognised me, “Non Monsieur, il n’y a pas de place.” At five, I kept my appointment with Madame. The manufacturer had died. His heirs had sold the business. She removed her spectacles and said, almost with an air of mourning, “Le vrai moleskine n’est plus.”

Bruce Chatwin. 


My notebook copy

My own moleskine lay open on the table before me, broken-backed, its flyleaves speckled with a kind of international grit. Unlike Chatwin, in twenty years of travel I’d never lost one yet – although I often kept several in circulation at once, rotating them. The opening lines of this one began: “New Delhi, Christmas Day 2010. Pigeons are landing on the maidan playing field in small, ochrey puffs of red dust. They are thin-looking creatures, as are the Indian crows. Call of mynah birds overhead. Faint tang of drains, incense, sandalwood soap, Wills Gold Flake cigarettes. It feels like a long time since it last rained.”

In the small pocket at the back were: a ticket to the Proms at the Albert Hall in London; a sun-faded postcard from Kyneton, Victoria, showing the bank, the old mill and the hotel known as ‘The Swinging Arms’; a pass for the Annapurna Conservation Area; an entry ticket to the Durbar Square in Bhaktapur, Nepal; ten Indian rupees, and a twenty Afghani banknote. I began to write some first impressions of Assisi:

Hollow metallic tontin of tongue-lolling churchbells. Crucifixes for sale and T-shaped Tau signs. Small religious figurines of St. Francis and enormous, head-sized meringues in the cafes. After the hordes of Gore-tex clad tourists vanish at dusk, the alleys become the preserve of huge cats in residence beneath battered Fiats – the only cars small enough to negotiate the narrow bends. The Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi stands overlooking the plain below. A sense of something spiritual – a special place.

We walked along the dark and winding streets in search of dinner. Down towards the Piazza Communale we found a small restaurant which was almost deserted, but seemed nice. It was run by two brothers, and had only recently opened. They specialised in local cuisine; very local – they could tell you the provenance of just about everything on the menu. For antipasti we selected a cheese platter, which came on a long, olivewood board. There were four kinds of pecorino, all at different stages of maturity.

“I suggest,” said the owner, “you begin at this end, with the mildest, and try it with some honey. Then progress towards the more mature ones, which you should try with either the fig jam or the chilli preserve.” He was right – it was a delicious combination. Then, another Umbrian speciality: Papardelle con Ragu Cinghiale – wide pasta like tagliatelle with a wild boar sauce. The sun was dipping behind the distant hills in shades of vermillion and purple, silhouetting the poplar trees. Lights began springing up across the darkening plain, and in the distance a lone church bell began tolling, melancholic and solitary in the evening chill.


It was a wild November night on the Suffolk Coast – a gale in the autumn of 1989. Rain spattered the windows and the TV aerial on the tiled roof of the Red Lion pub across the road was swaying back and forth in the wind. The pub sign squeaked on its hinges. On the wall by the yard was a sign that said: “Private Property – No Access. Rights of Way Act 1942”. The sign looked like it had been there since the war. And in the distance, out in the blackness, the sea boiled and roared, the crests of the waves whisked into sprays of silver in the light of the moon. It was easy to imagine a U-boat in 1942 waiting for clearer weather just offshore, lying calmly just beneath the surface, and the captain peering through the periscope at the shimmering lights of the town as the waves washed over the lens intermittently in their remorseless progression towards the land.

In the tall, thin house that smelt of wood polish and echoed to the slow tick of the grandfather clock in the hall, we sat in a small pool of golden light on the second floor, my grandfather in his armchair doing The Times crossword, my father sitting on the sofa nearby, reading another section of the paper, and myself, aged 16, listening to the storm outside and half-watching the TV that was on in the corner. It was an arts review programme, I remember, and the presenter was talking about a new book – a novel about Meissen porcelain – “Utz”, by Bruce Chatwin. It was the last interview he ever gave, explained the presenter, before his death from AIDS at the age of 48.

On the screen a gaunt figure, skeletally thin, sat with staring, bright blue eyes. He never blinked. His hair had almost gone. In an eerie, high-pitched voice, plummy as an old lady, he spoke about Meissen, and a man he had come across in Czechoslovakia who couldn’t bring himself to flee the Communist regime because it would mean abandoning the art collection which he loved – a man who was also in love with his maid, who looked after the small porcelain figurines. “And the maid wins!” he cackled. His nose was running, and he sniffed repeatedly. It was pitiful to see, and utterly haunting.

I’ve almost finished my big book – there’s a terrible old character with a twisted gut called Hanlon – and now I have a whole novel growing in the notebooks too. I can see almost all of it. It’s set in Prague and I shall call it “Utz” – “Utz!” Anyway, one day you must tell people Redders, but not now. It’s a fable. It’s all there, ready-made. And the moral is simple: never kill yourself. Not under any circumstances. Not even when you’re told you have AIDS.

Redmond O’Hanlon – Congo Journey

Chatwin had considered taking a trip to Switzerland, to the top of the Jungfraujoch, and jumping off. Or of going back to Mauritania, to the nomads there, and just taking off all his clothes and walking off into the desert. But he couldn’t do it. As Hermann Hesse says in Steppenwolf: “Suicide cases… are those individuals who no longer see self-development and fulfilment as their life’s aim, but rather the dissolution of self, a return to the womb, to God, to the cosmos… They see death as their saviour, not life, and they are prepared to jettison, abandon and extinguish themselves in order to return to their origins.” Chatwin, though, knew deep down that he wasn’t prepared to give up like that. That self-development and fulfilment was something to follow to the end, to be “defeated and laid low by life itself, rather than by one’s own hand”.

Dad looked up from his paper and frowned. “Poor chap. He really does look ill.” Grandpa’s paper came down and he peered at the screen. There was something mesmerising in this ghoulish spectacle – Chatwin’s passion for his subject, his enthusiasm and the fire in him despite his failing body. He spoke, in that strange, slightly querulous voice, of art, and Patagonia, of Aborigines going Walkabout, and nomadism, and the aesthetic imperative that leads to the mania for collecting, possessing that which cannot be possessed. “Of course, art always lets you down.”

Chatwin died soon after that interview. I didn’t know who he was at the time, and hadn’t read any of his books, but I have never forgotten it. In the writing of this piece, to try to confirm the accuracy of my own memory of the event, I searched for the interview online, and found a clip of it. I wondered whether to include it; people should remember him as he was when he was well, remember him for his writing, his beauty, his manic intelligence, his adventurous spirit and his extraordinary journeys. Not as a gaunt and haunted figure with so much still to say in the few remaining moments of lucidity left to him. His mind was going. But it was him, unquestionably, and still there, and still bursting with ideas and enthusiasm.

https://youtu.be/aN3tyNfVzjI

Though he was very weak and so thin you could see the white bones in his arms, his telephone was still plugged in to its socket. He was making and receiving calls, talking to his friends all over the world.

 Redmond O’Hanlon – Congo Journey    


Assisi was all about Saint Francis, and in numerous shops small plasterwork figures of him stood in rows in cabinets, styled in various poses. One of seven children born to a prosperous cloth merchant, he had a fairly wild youth, and had gone off to war against Perugia in 1201, when he was taken prisoner and held in captivity for a year. On his return to Assisi a serious illness led to what has been described as a spiritual crisis, but the following year he joined another military expedition to Apulia. On the way a strange vision convinced him of the need to return to Assisi at once and devote his life to God. He took a vow of poverty and spent the next years living essentially as a beggar in the surrounding countryside, wandering.

Reading the account of the saint’s life, I was put in mind of another soldier called Francis who had experienced a revelatory vision, but one who couldn’t have been more different. Sir Francis Younghusband, imperial soldier, diplomat and explorer, pioneered a route into Tibet on an espionage mission, and became the British resident in Kashmir in 1906. He became increasingly absorbed in mystical religion after an experience in Lhasa which he described as “a curious sense of being literally in love with the world”. He published a number of New Age books on his return to Britain, and became a proponent of free love, “the freedom to unite when and how a man and woman please,” as he put it, and wrote to his friend and lover Lady Lees saying: “I have made the discovery that bodily union does not impair soul union but heightens and tightens it”.

The Basilica of St. Francis was perched on a hill at the far western edge of Assisi – a site that used to be known as the Hill of Hell, as criminals were put to death there by being flung off it. Now it is known as the Hill of Paradise. The basilica itself consists of two churches, one on top of the other. The Upper Church was Gothic, the interior decorated with frescoes thought to be by Giotto. Overhead a cross-vaulted ceiling was decorated with golden stars on a deep blue background, and induced a light and airy sensation of soaring aspirations. Below, the Lower Church was an enormous crypt, entirely in the Romanesque style. It was dark and lit with the flickering flames of long, tapering candles. The atmosphere was one of introspection, contemplation.

In a nave off to one side there was a small chapel to St. Mary Magdalen, and at a bench before the altar a priest was praying with his eyes shut – a man in his 50s, with tight-curled iron-grey hair – his hands clasped before him, lips moving silently. As I entered the nave soundlessly on my rubber-soled shoes he suddenly looked up, startled, and saw me. I wondered what psychic field I had brought into the church to interrupt him so. What was the state of my soul, to have this effect? It meant no harm. We held each other’s gaze, deeply and questioningly, wide-eyed as if seeing something in each other for the first time. Then, embarrassed at disturbing him, I dipped my head, placed my hand over my heart in apology in the Islamic manner – a gesture I have always found touchingly respectful, however automatically ingrained it may become – and retreated. He closed his eyes and resumed his prayer once more. Perhaps I could have gone and prayed next to him. But I didn’t have his faith, and felt no urge to – no Franciscan revelation impelling me to do so.

I’ve always been interested in accounts of life-changing revelations. As humans we walk along our familiar pathways too often with eyes half-shut, and have at times to make a deliberate effort of will to notice things. Travel can introduce a kind of artificial jolt to the system, where you are physically transported to a different environment which sends you into a kind of sensory overload, where everything is unfamiliar so you are forced to see with new eyes; not just physically transported but also spiritually. And yet you can’t induce the pliant and open state of mind that is necessary to achieve this artificially – merely travelling somewhere different is not enough; one has to endeavour to see differently too. A concert can do it, music transporting you, manifesting itself in great emotion – your hair stands on end, your eyes fill with tears and you feel unable to breathe, filled with love. It leaves you changed somehow. Art can do it – I remember standing before a Caravaggio and having that same sensation, of a great pressure building up within me, right in the centre of my forehead, and I felt deeply moved and filled with tenderness. It transports us in time and space and we are not the same afterwards; we have altered our gaze and induced a new perspective, become beautifully broken.

I read a review the other day of an art exhibition in Goa: Julian Opie’s landscape prints titled “Winter”. Reviewer Madhavi Gore described the artist using satellite imagery and Google mapping to convey the wintry French landscape, there in steamy, tropical Goa, and spoke of the tradition of landscape painting as being rooted in the desire to possess, to inhabit those landscapes, in a claim of ownership: “Opie’s installation reminds us of humankind’s constant and consistent need to plot and map our footprint or location, and acquire a position of perspective – visual, aural, existential.”

http://www.huffingtonpost.in/madhavi-gore/julian-opie-brings-a-fren_b_8366440.html

It made me think about that action of plotting and mapping. What was the one group of people who did this to a greater extent than anyone else? People who actually described their world as it occured, footstep by footstep, mapping its features and by doing so, bringing it into being, constructing their own creation mythology in the process? It was the Australian Aborigines. The Songlines.

In the early 1980s Bruce Chatwin travelled to Australia, inspired by a book he had read, Theodor Strehlow’s Songs of Central Australia. Chatwin had been trying to write a book on nomads for years, but had got bogged down in the weight of research and had to abandon it. Now, Strehlow’s account of Aborigine traditions and mythology suddenly shone a new light on the subject. For Chatwin it was the missing piece in the jigsaw, or rather several missing pieces. He couldn’t quite see how it was going to fit together, but knew that this was an important area that was little understood, and felt “it might answer for me, the question of questions: the nature of human restlessness”. The book he ended up writing, The Songlines, described how the Aborigines, despite belonging to many different tribal groups, dispersed across vast distances and with often no language in common, nevertheless had a similar series of creation myths or ‘songs’, which connected together. In their songs they had created not just a physical map of their immediate surroundings, but also a moral universe, and these formed a network that spread out across the continent of Australia:

Every song cycle went leap-frogging through language barriers, regardless of tribe or frontier. A Dreaming-track might start in the west, near Broome; thread its way through twenty languages or more; and go on to hit the sea near Adelaide.

“And yet,” I said, “It’s still the same song.”

“Our people,” Flynn said, “say they recognise a song by it’s ‘taste’ or ‘smell’… by which of course they mean the ‘tune’. The tune always stays the same, from the opening bars to the finale.”

“Words may change,” Arkady interrupted, “but the melody lingers on.”

“Does that mean,” I asked, “that a young man on Walkabout could sing his way across Australia provided he could hum the right tune?”

“In theory, yes,” Flynn agreed.

Bruce Chatwin – The Songlines

“Walkabout.” As a term it is still little understood. Merriam-Webster traces it back to 1908, making reference to “a short period of wandering bush life engaged in by an Australian Aborigine as an occasional interruption of regular work”. Wikipedia adds that “the only mention of ‘spiritual journey’ comes in a usage example from a latter-day travel writer” – that travel writer being none other than Bruce Chatwin. But The Songlines was published in 1987. Was it really possible that there had been no deeper understanding of the term in all that time?

A film called Walkabout [spoiler alert] was directed by Nicolas Roeg in 1971, which was the story of two white children – a teenage girl and her younger brother – who become lost in the Australian desert where they are rescued by an Aborigine boy. Together they travel through the Outback, in a landscape which author Louis Nowra described as being: “of an almost hallucinogenic intensity. Instead of the desert and bush being infused with a dull monotony, everything seemed acute, shrill, and incandescent. The Outback was beautiful and haunting.” But it’s also a film about the mysteries of communication and cultural incomprehension. The Aborigine boy, increasingly drawn to the girl, paints his body with white clay in ritual and performs a courtship dance outside the hut where she is. He dances all day, and then all night, but she ignores him. That is to say, she cannot bring herself to look; we get the clear impression she knows what is going on, but lacks the equivalent language to be able to process it and respond. In the morning the body of the Aborigine boy is hanging from a tree outside. Rejected, he has taken his own life. And, years later, in an apartment block overlooking Sydney harbour, the girl stands in the kitchen as her tired husband comes home from work, loosening his tie, complaining about his boss, and her eyes over his shoulder seek out the distant horizons of the Outback again, and a memory of her and her brother swimming in a billabong together with the Aborigine boy, laughing and naked:

For we never hold hands, nor kiss,

Nor were we ever more than children.

Ricardo Reis – Come sit by my side, Lydia


In a caravan somewhere near Cullen, Australia, trapped by a storm that had turned the roads to mud, Chatwin settled down to write. He describes having a presentiment that the travelling phase of his life might be passing – a tragically accurate prediction, as it turned out – and wanted to reopen his old moleskine notebooks before the malaise of settlement crept over him. Twenty years of travel, questions, quotations and encounters, with the theme of restlessness and nomadism running through it all. Pascal, he remembered, opined that all of man’s miseries stemmed from his inability to remain quietly in a room.

“Could it be,” Chatwin mused, “that our need for distraction, our mania for the new, was, in essence, an instinctive migratory urge akin to that of birds in autumn?” (O’Hanlon recalled Chatwin telling him a story about a female southern albatross that wandered into the wrong hemisphere and built a nest in Shetland, waiting for the mate who never came.) The notebooks ranged far and wide, both geographically and metaphysically. And then, reading The Songlines again, in the section where he is leafing through the notebooks, one entry leapt out at me off the page:

Amdand u khandand u sokhtand u kushtand u burdand u raftand

They came and they sapped and they burned and they slew and they trussed up their loot and were gone.

A survivor’s account of the sacking of Bokhara by the Mongol cavalry in the 12th century. The rhythm of the Persian words describes the thud of horse hooves over the plain.

Bruce Chatwin – The Songlines

There it was. I had read The Songlines years earlier, and the line had embedded itself in my consciousness, the rhythm of it thrumming away until suddenly it surfaced again in the rumble of wheels over cobblestones in a small Italian hilltown, rather than hoofbeats across the great plains of Asia. The contempt of the nomadic Mongol horde for the settlers of Bokhara, undone by a sedentary life. A similar divide occurs amongst African tribes between the hunter-gatherers and the farmers, the cattle-herders who go in search of fresh pasture and the cultivators across whose lands they pass. Here, in these pages, was the book on nomadism he never wrote. And at the end of the book, in another eerie presentiment, which I find haunting and yet strangely beautiful at the same time, he describes being led to an ancestral site by his guide Limpy and coming across three Aboriginal men:

In a clearing there were three ‘hospital’ bedsteads, with mesh springs and no mattresses, and on them lay the three dying men. They were almost skeletons. Their beards and hair had gone. One was strong enough to lift an arm, another to say something. When they heard who Limpy was, all three smiled, spontanously, the same toothless grin.

Arkady folded his arms, and watched.

“Aren’t they wonderful?” Marian whispered, putting her hand in mine and giving it a squeeze.

Yes. They were all right. They knew where they were going, smiling at death in the shade of a ghost-gum.

Bruce Chatwin – The Songlines


Bruce Chatwin died in Nice on the 18th January 1989. In the last months of his life he had astonished friends by converting to the Greek Orthodox faith, and his ashes were scattered near a Byzantine chapel above Kardamyli, in the Greek Peloponnese. The chapel was near the home of his friend and mentor, the writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, with whom Chatwin had stayed for several months while working on The Songlines. “There was never, not a word about God,” said Leigh Fermor reflecting on their conversations. But the notebooks told another story. “The search for nomads is a search for God”, read one entry. Another: “Religion is a technique for arriving at the moment of death at the right time”. Writing of a journey to Stavronokita on Mount Athos, he wrote: “The most beautiful sight of all was an iron cross on a rock by the sea. Just below the monastery the dark cross appeared to be striving up against the white foam of the sea.” And finally, one last entry: “There must be a god.”

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