Monday, February 28, 2011


There often, with the benefit of hindsight, seems an inevitability about what happens to people. One believes the clues were there all along, compressed into conversations, encrypted into encounters, like a word whose meaning one was then yet to learn. But one wonders a bit about hindsight. Is it really all it’s trumped up to be? Would I now with hindsight not have stolen money from my mother’s purse when I was ten? I doubt it, even though I was eventually caught and the crime caused some domestic distress. The amphetamine rush of creping into the bedroom while my parents watched television directly below and spying the bag on the bed was a reward in itself. That to me was life on a scale worth living. And the possibility of outrage and punishment was part of the pact. Hindsight hasn’t done the planet much good either. I suppose because, like apologies, it always arrives too late. Sometimes I think history is a bit like Cluedo. This time round it was Professor Plum with the lead piping in the conservatory. So what? Next time it might be Miss Scarlet with the dagger in the ballroom but the plot is always the same.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Losing my Virginity

When I was fourteen or fifteen a boy at school told me a woman had two entrances – a right one and a wrong one. This of course was an alarming idea. A year or two later, when I realised the girl I was kissing was prepared to go upstairs to the bedroom, the idea was still there in my mind - a grotesque insistent thing with a leering mocking mouth. Therefore I excused myself for a few minutes and made straight for the drinks cabinet. I was as na├»ve in those days about alcohol as I was about a female’s sexual anatomy. I gulped down the contents of the first bottle that came to hand. The only thing I therefore learnt from my first sexual experience was that it is a very big mistake to frantically drink large quantities of sherry.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Physical Exercise

Last summer I spent a few weeks living alone in a farmhouse in the Tuscan countryside miles from civilisation and carless. The first time I ventured out on a bike was to be the last. It was all tally-ho fun to begin with, flying down one curving incline after another, with my shirt catching the breeze and billowing out behind me (it hadn’t yet occurred to me that I would have to pedal back up all these fun slopes: I rarely dwell on the likely consequences of my actions). I bumped and flew past the small lake at the foot of the valley where cattle were drinking and began to feel a bit thirsty myself. The thought of a bar became my oasis though I knew it was still at least six kilometres away from any outpost of civilisation. Then I hit a series of uphill slopes, one after another and finally had to get off the bike and walk it. A sign announcing that Paganico, the nearest village, was still five kilometres away and the sight of another steep incline ahead finally defeated me and I decided the only thing to do was to head back. For a while I sauntered back down slopes with butterflies fluttering in my flight path and lines of white gulls waiting for the fields to be sown again but after a while arrived the relentless uphill part of the journey. Even pushing the bike exhausted me and several times I had to stop to catch my breath. When I could finally see the eccentric little yellow house across the valley I was virtually hyperventilating and feeling sick. The flies buzzing in my ears I told to fuck off and even the sweet smells of the wild roadside flowers began to smell like mockery. When I reached the house of the neighbouring farmers I began retching - in full view of their windows and I bet they had a giggle at my expense. Finally I dumped the bike and staggered home. When I could smoke again I made a vow – from now on, I said to myself, I will limit my forays into the realms of physical exercise to carrying my dictionary from one side of my room to the other.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


     I open my copy of the King James Bible.  If thou seekest her as silver, and searchest for her as for hid treasure: Then shalt thou understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God.  I enjoy opening the Bible at random and reading the first few lines on which my eyes alight. It’s like putting to the test the power of circumstance to body forth an oracle.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Breakfast in Italy

There’s probably a campanile within sight. And at some point a bell will chime – bold timeless strokes which, like light after rain, will give to the moment an undertow. The play of shadows on a medieval wall will draw attention to the history of the stones, the struggles of blood and line they have witnessed. You’ll be sitting at a table with the sun warm on the back of your neck; scooters will fizz past; and then the waiter will arrive. “Cappuccino,” you say. Bliss.

Saturday, February 19, 2011


 One's sentiments, one's fidelities are so instinctive that one hardly knows they exist; only when they are betrayed does one realise their power. That betrayal is the end of an inner life, without which the everyday becomes threatening or meaningless. At the back of the spirit a mysterious landscape, whose perspective used to be infinite, suddenly perishes.

Friday, February 18, 2011


Novel’s gone off on its first round of submissions. All the big guns. They were given a deadline to make up their minds – which is today. So today I dare not venture anywhere near my yahoo inbox. Then, after lunch, I came across some very appropriate lines from Byron’s journal on the subject of hope –

Why, at the very height of desire and human pleasure – worldly, social, amorous, ambitious, or even avaricious – does there mingle a certain sense of doubt and sorrow – a fear of what is to come – a doubt of what is – a retrospect to the past, leading to a prognostication of the future? Why is this? I know not, except that on a pinnacle we are most susceptible of giddiness, and that we never fear falling except from a precipice – the higher, the more awful…

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Walking by the sea

Walking by the sea. I took off my shoes and let the waves wash over my bare feet. Mills, my father’s whippet, was with me. Now and again I raced her over the sand. She would shimmy past me like a rugby wing back avoiding a tackle. I needed to feel like a teenager again. Needed to reassert a vigorous ongoing relationship with the soil underfoot. Finally I sat on some rocks and watched the waves.
       When I turned inland I saw two moving white columns in the sky which at first glance I thought was smoke. The two encroaching formations rippled into funnels and then spread out beneath the labyrinthine coral of clouds into fans. My vision blurred for a moment. Then I realised I was witnessing two perfectly synchronised flocks of birds.  The abstract shapes they formed were flawless . I stood with my hands on my head as the birds tapered into a long undulating line which gently vanished behind the surface of things. The same thing happens when people die - they vanish behind the surface of things.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


   I spent the afternoon in the church of Santa Trinita pretending to be a middle-aged English woman with a guilty secret lodged in her breast. Would all those sacred images have thawed her brittle crust and inspired in her a longing to let out the truth? The wooden Magdalene might have shaken her. The idea of Magdalene with the vessel of consecrated oil is fascinating: it's a metaphor perhaps of the female's power to heal, an emblem of her sexuality and its powers of replenishment and protection, though the Church would not see it quite that way. And despite her wizened corroded appearance the Magdalene in Santa Trinita still has her healing balm.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

My failure to win her back (part two - and again never sent)

The almond trees are in flower - the white flowers like snow blossoming from scarlet buds with tiny thumbprints of golden pollen on the anthers - and something of their wistful haunting beauty now hangs lazily over the city at night. As I write laughter rises up from the bars down below and the smells of Florence at night in springtime....In this rustling air, our bodies quiver. All's possible, all's unpredictable.
    Today, up in the hills, out on my own, I was suddenly, as if the wind had made your skirt rustle and lifted up into the air the familiar smell of your skin, granted a vivid sense of your presence. Now and again these moments arrive when we're able to see things as they really are, in relation to eternity and not to the thick fog of our fears, insecurities, conceits and hurts. When I returned to Italy after the summer I had a first class sleeper on the train from Paris all to myself. I was too excited to sleep and didn't. I remember in the early hours of morning the train stopped at a station - there were palm trees and marble platforms and a certain distinctive smell - and my whole body with a joyful shout knew it was back in Italy. Italy in that moment became everything I've experienced here - all the train journeys, all the conversations, all the embraces and all the goodbyes. Everything I had ever strongly felt here was returned to its original purity, endowed with its virgin vitality. It was almost as though I had died. I remember then wishing that you could see me just for a moment, just long enough for me to give you back the smile you so often inspired. In that moment all the horrible aggressive bullying and sermonising I was guilty of fell away and there you were again - curving like a question mark and forging in me a longing to hear your answering voice in the dark. I realised then that in all probability we will die without ever again speaking...

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Letters of Love Never Sent

This will be the last letter I ever write from my room by the river and it's probably appropriate that it should be to you since you are without question the person I've thought most about within these four walls. I'm sorting through my possessions and have realised how little you gave me, how little tangible evidence I have that I even knew you - two letters, a few photos, a few scraps of paper with messages on them.
     Last Saturday I went to a wedding. It was in a beautiful 13th century abbey in the Tuscan countryside. At one point I went outside and sat on the steps - there was a beautiful choir with these ethereal voices silvering the air and the meadows were bristling with poppies and cornflowers and as always happens when life is suddenly too beautiful for words you become part of the moment.
     Perhaps I didn't admit it to myself but I realise now there's always been hidden away in me the hope that you might suddenly discover one day that actually you couldn't go through the rest of your life without seeing me again. To imagine that moment - you shyly telling me the more vulnerable truths - enables me to realise how vast still is my capacity to be happy. That's another gift you've given me - because even if it never happens it's very close, like something in a neighbouring field which if I stand on tiptoes I can see and embrace as an inspiration at least. 

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Constancy vs Betrayal

Constancy... that small change of love, which people exact so rigidly, receive in such counterfeit coin, and repay in baser metal.

On the money or too cynical? But having come across this quote of Lord B’s in his letters I was reminded of Joyce’s The Dead which I’ve recently reread. For the uninitiated the story undergoes a transfiguration when a husband discovers his wife has always secretly loved someone else. The husband suddenly sees his wife in an exalted light. Joyce loved his epiphanies and some were more successful than others. This particular one always struck me as bogus – an awkward artistic device to arrive at the required emotion, like Hollywood distorting historical facts to give a film more scope for cheers and boos.
But then I thought about it some more. Essentially we demand constancy from our lovers and friends to keep our illusions about ourselves in tact. Ironically though it’s often the act of betrayal that knocks us out of our pinched complacencies into a wider world. So Joyce, albeit a tad clumsily, was right after all…

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


Historically nature, like the moon, the sea and sensuality, has always been represented as feminine. Because of its tidal procreative function. Also associated with the feminine are certain traits, like passivity, receptivity, tears, while their opposites, assertion, projection, shouting are traditionally considered masculine. Nature and the conflict between male and female principles has always been the subject of art and literature. Every good book or painting has something fascinating to say about nature and sexual identification if you perform a little archaeology on it. Every period in history also has a distinctive attitude towards nature, often reflected in the art and literature of the time. What is our present conception of nature? In our virtual technological world nature has once again been exiled into sentimental notions – adventure holidays, Sunday afternoon flower arranging, workshop breathing exercises and diagrammed sexual callisthenics. In other words, Nature isn’t the stinking slop in a sewer pipe or the bloody beak of a bird spiking a live worm; it’s the rolling Tuscan hills or a pack of puppies playing in a park. Nature though is a vampire. It exists to suck our blood. The beautiful male vampire is another of our attempts to glamorise and romanticise nature. But, interestingly, an attempt to make Nature male.