Waterlogged

In winter, you wake up in this city, especially on Sundays, to the chiming of its innumerable bells, as though behind your gauze curtains a gigantic china teaset were vibrating on a silver tray…You fling the windows open and the room is instantly flooded with this outer, pearl-laden haze, which is part damp oxygen, part coffee and prayers.

A bit of an odd choice to read about Venice in winter in June, but Joseph Brodsky’s essay was just what I wanted for a bout of travel lust. Each winter for seventeen years he’d return to Venice for a month:

This is a time for reading, for burning electricity all day long, for going easy on self-deprecating thoughts or coffee, for listening to the BBC World Service, for going to bed early.

”Waterlogged” by Joseph Brodsky

 

4th July

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In the Second World War, John Steinbeck wrote a weekly column for the American press about the war. It was heavily censored, and certain themes (the tough decency of the American soldier, in particular) got repeated a lot. But one of the best was from the first 4th July in London after America entered the war. In a few hundred words, Steinbeck both pays gratitude to the English girls trying so hard to be neat in their worn dresses, making friendly conversation, and ruefully acknowledge that the cake and sandwiches can’t beat hotdogs, sweet corn and lobster on the beach, that the cool dancing in Trafalgur Square can’t replace the raucous chaos of Coney Island not the friendly girls “Mabel on the Ferris wheel”. It’s a brilliant snapshot of nostalgia and two nations.

Detail from a painting by Childe Hassan; Steinbeck’s collection “once there was a war”

Rain-washed mountains

“Your father says it’s Gaelic and pronounced Camasunart,” said Mother, “and it’s at the back of beyond, so there you go darling, and have a lovely time for the birds and the – the water, or whatever you said you wanted.”

I sat clutching the receiver, perched there above the roar of Regent Street. Before my mind’s eye rose, cool and remote, a vision of rain-washed mountains.

”D’you know,” I said slowly, “I think I will.”

Gianetta Fox sets off for Scotland in Mary Stewart’s “Wildfire at Midnight”

A modern Mrs Miniver

The Mrs Miniver columns – a series of gentle musings on a new notebook or whether to buy a bunch of chrysanthemums – were hugely popular in the late 1930s, even though, as the author’s granddaughter has now detailed they were also a definite wish fulfilment exercise for the writer that also camouflaged her far more complicated, not quite as glamorous, life.

Reading a recent article, the house tone at Vogue doesn’t seem to have changed much since then; there’s still a local celebrity to be “thrilled” about, a little dialogue about all the visitors and their dogs who are renovating a house, and a dependable, cheerful husband who is straight man to all the endless whimsy:

I opened a box sash window above the front door and said good morning. It’s a habit I have developed since living here, which makes me think of people behind battlements with vats of oil…

My husband Andrew came down the stairs to open the knock. “Please stop popping out at people from that window. It’s eccentric, bordering on impolite.

Pieces like this are a guilty pleasure to read, because it’s so twee and safe it’s as soothing as a bowl of mush, but I can also rather unfairly have a good time rolling my eyes at the Marie Antoinette smugness of it. Or how about:

there’s a mustard-hot rumour that Ptolemy Dean, the architect in residence at Westminster Abbey, will be in charge of the renovation. Andrew and I discover that we were just as thrilled by this as everyone else. I joined the residents association.”

In fairness, it’s very hard to write columns based on your life (Nora Ephron in Heartburn talks about feeling like she’s living with a cannibal with her second husband who is always making their life into 850 words, syndicated.) and also to get the right balance and style so that your readers feel that nothing’s changed since 1933 and a silk dress will sort all ills, but I can’t really read too much before wanting to scream at the smugness of it all.

Much better stick with The Real Mrs Miniver and read all about the real character’s scandalous second life in wartime America.

Granite Island

We envied the Cesari. They had leisure, and we had not had any for several years. The farm work seldom needed more than two of the brothers at any one time; the sisters got through the household chores in a couple of hours of the day. In the long intervals between work Francois shot hare in the maquis that Antoinette cooked in a pot on the open fire with olive oil and whole cloves of garlic; Antoine and Jean-Baptiste repainted the living-room, experimenting with pale Etruscan red framing several shades of blue and grey; Marie embroidered sheets with intricate patterns of roses; Pierette studied a book of the geography of the world….there were hours too when no-one did anything…

In London I had not taken the true measure of our deprivations. I had not understood how far  my daily load of anxiety was a craving for the things every peasant know: space, silence and food that was not stale.

Dorothy Carrington first went to Corsica in 1948, and large sections of the book are infused with a postwar melancholy about the effects of civilisation and the need to retreat to a rough landscape and older society.

But there’s also a much more contemporary zest, akin to Patrick Leigh Fermor’s writings, of discovering beautiful vistas and a motley crew of companions, albeit in Dorothy’s case more archaeologists and shepherds than Leigh Fermor’s east European aristocracy and Consuls.

The simmering pot was taken off the fire; it contained a mutton stew, thick with vegetables. But first we had plates of smoked ham and several varieties of smoked sausage, and tomatoes and raw onions swimming in the local unrefined olive oil which gave to all this food a provocative musky flavour; and afterwards came a homemade cheese made of ewes’ milk, oddly tasting for nuts, and finally small, very sweet melons.

If the book had stayed with this it would have been nice enough – I am enthusiastically reading myself into the holiday I’m currently dreaming of – but what makes it really special is that quite soon, Carrington turns the book into a serious and detailed history of Corsican society, from the mountain peaks to the fishermen, from the vendetta, the folk singers, the people cursed to predict and bring death to those they know and the soothsayers, from the revolutionaries who attempted a parliamentary democracy in the 1730s to the prehistoric statues and spirit huts near the capital Ajaccio.

This was completely fascinating – Carrington’s love for Corsica comes through, and she must have carried out huge amounts of research, from Greek texts to political treatises, but wears it lightly. Most praiseworthy of all, she definitely lives up to that other heroine, Gertrude Bell, in her willingness to scale a mountain in pursuit of an archaeological quarry.

Harriet would have dined out on that name for a week

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Katy MacScott (@katymacscott) walked from Holland to Istanbul last year in memory of her late friend Harriet, with hops on trains to keep time, as she didn’t have as much time as Patrick Leigh Fermor did on his original journey. Now she is posting memories of her encounters on Instagram, and I particularly loved her encounters with feisty pensioners in Holland. On the first day she encountered Map and Henkel:

Map – a derivative of Margaret – approached me with a pot of jam, as I sat on a bench in the rain, in the village of Zuillichem. When she offered me a cup of coffee by the fire, I didn’t have to be asked twice…Her husband, Henkel, returned from his errands and they proceeded to tell me, in halting English, about their travels. They were now in their late 80s, but had travelled all over the Middle East in their retirement.

Henkel revealed that like many Dutch children he was sent to England after the war to recover from years of malnutrition. After another hot meal, Map and Henkel passed Katy on to a local photographer Cor de Cock (“Harriet would have dined out on that name for a week”) and eventually to Jet, a former piano teacher, with a “wicked bark” of a laugh:

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She confessed that she’d put away her wine and cigarettes before I arrived, because she thought that someone doing a trip like mine would have ‘high morals’. I quickly put her straight and we enjoyed these vices for the rest of the evening.

Over asparagus risotto and radishes Jet and Katy discussed the audio books for the blind that Jet narrates, Jet garden, Chekhov and Harry Mulisch, and her brother’s paintings.

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And it’s only Wednesday

Harriet’s father was called George Johnson. He had a shop. It was not a usual sort of shop, because what it sold was entirely dependent on what his brother William grew, shot, or caught…

One of the things that was most trying for the whole family was that what would not sell had to be eaten. This made a great deal of trouble because Uncle William had a large appetite and seldom sent more than one of any kind of fish or game…

“What is there for lunch today, Olivia?” George would ask, usually adding politely “Sure to be delicious.” Olivia would answer “There’s enough rabbit for two, there is a very small pike, there is a grouse, but I don’t know about that, it seems very, very old, as if it has been dead for a very long time, and there’s sauerkraut. I’m afraid everybody must eat cabbage of some sort, we’ve had over seven hundred from Uncle William this week, and it’s only Wednesday.”

White Boots by Noel Streatfield. I always like her humour.

Meatless Days

For the next several years Pip let himself occupied by inventing newspapers and procreating: Shahid was born in the year the Evening Times became a morninger; the Times of Karachi and I followed close behind.

Sara Suleri’s Meatless Day’s is a series of essays that collect together not just her family, a failed lover and an irritating friend she can’t drop, but also the birth of Pakistan, where her father was a Dickens-style newspaper editor and her Welsh mother taught literature in the universities.

Ifat, Shahid and I greeted a goat into the family with boisterous rapture, and soon after he ravished us completely when we found him at the washingline nonchalantly eating Shahid’s pajamas.

The early morning was my favourite time, because then those flowers felt firm and fresh with dew. I would go to the vegetable patch and squat over the cauliflowers as they came out one by one, hold them between my knees and chew as many craters as I could into their jaunty tightness. Qayuum was crushed. “There is an animal, Begum Sahib,” he mourned to my mother, “like a savage in my garden. Maro! Maro!”

Childhood reminiscences scatter through each piece, her eccentric and stubborn grandmother who had a direct line into God and would also sit in the empty dining room crying “Oh God give me tea” in order to annoy her son, that same grandmother accidentally setting herself alight by making tea on an open flame one night and the grisly business of tending her burns, the eccentric cooks they had and the scorpion stings she incurred when her brother made her clear out the swimming pool.

Most present of all is the constant, double dislocation of grief and physical exile as her mother and eldest sister are killed in traffic accidents and the remaining family scatters to Kuwait, England and the US. 

I was pleased to have my mother to lead me through those shelves and see the pleasure it conferred on her when she told me contemplatively, “Yes, now you’re old enough to read Jane Austen.”

Soon, I think, we will put the clock forward, obliterate one April hour, and the day will make a startling leap into expansive evenings, creating ample setting for lucid conversation.

Even happy memories carry a load of melancholy and loss, and a weaving together of personal and national histories

when in her nineties she was dying, frail, my brother Irfan was deputed to transport her from Lahore to Islamabad: he chose to take a train, since Pakistan is still a country that takes railways seriously. Such commitment makes of stations, however, a seething mass of life: once they reached Ralwapandi and Irfani had looked first at my grandmother and then at the density of bodies around him, he decided that he had no choice but to pick my Dadi up and, holding her above his head, go running through bodies like a coolie, crying, “Jan dus! – Give way! Give way!” Light and tiny Dadi, the luggage on that coolie’s head, sent wraiths of wails toward the ceiling: “Irfan, Irfan, Irfan”.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the title essay Meatless Days, where an amusing memory of how the meatless Tuesdays and Wednesdays imposed by Pakistan’s first government led to a triple slaughter on Monday’s rather than the efficient rationing that was hoped for merges with a memory of kidneys as a punishment meal as a child, with the gradual adulteration of food (including milk watered with paraffin) in 60s Pakistan and the wider metaphor for disappointment in life that what was a potato on the fork became a turnip in the mouth:

So long before the kapura made its comeback in my life, we in Pakistan were bedmates with betrayal and learned how to take grim satisfaction from assessing the water table of our outrage.

In a confectioner’s window

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“She walked on, between kaleidoscopic peonies massed in pink clouds, black and brown tulips and fragile mauve stemmed roses, transparent like sugar flowers in a confectioner’s window – until, as if the scherzo of colour could reach no further intensity, it broke off suddenly in mid air”

F Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night.

Regal of tempo and temper

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Troppo Allegro

Remember seasons? Seem to recall those once were easier
Reasonably sequenced, regal of tempo and temper,
Reliable change flipped heads-over-tails each quarter
Recovering the hemisphere with four fine suits, knock-off designer.

Recently, someone shuffled, cut the deck into disorder:
Relapse, tic, hiccup, snap, weeks issued like hipster
Rediscoveries…join the club! No closer
Reading required to diagnose this crazy weather…

The start of Christopher Spaide’s “Recycler” and a kitchen sink drawing by Lucinda Rogers. I quite like non music things that reference music; here “troppo allegro” means too fast. I think the kitchen sink anchors it.