Dear Little England
(Yes, you, with your “Ooh, we don’t
want that, it’s foreign”, and your
uninformed nostalgia for Empire) I know you well, I grew up with you and you
made me what I am, until Italy completed the parts that you could not reach.
You are my mother(land), and like all children I’ve loved you but now I am
ashamed of you. With your lack of vision beyond your own tidy little garden you
have spoiled the future for your children and grandchildren, for the population
of Great Britain and for millions of Europeans who have loved you too (in spite
In my twenties I voted into the EU,
while in 2016 I was deprived of my right to vote because of the 15 years rule.
Where did that arbitrary number come from? What other country denies voting
rights to its citizens dispersed around the world? At this point I have no
option, after 40 years of EU citizenship, but to request Italian citizenship,
like thousands of other Brits in Italy. I’m sad and angry and deeply
disappointed in you, Little England.
Victoria to Gatwick
We are all sitting quietly and comfortably, not too crowded, not too early in the day nor too late, just out of Victoria. Along the aisle comes a thin, clearly drunken man in a dark grey, very crumpled suit. He reels past me, his beery breath preceding him, and flops down into a seat nearby. Hard on his heels comes the ticket inspector, a little man with a mobile-featured face. It seems that the drunken man must leave the train, which will make an unscheduled stop at Clapham Junction for this purpose; he must leave the train because he has insulted the ticket inspector. The offended party had asked him – politely and correctly, yet firmly, as is his way – to leave the First Class seat he had been occupying unlawfully and the passenger had responded by intimating that if the ticket inspector did not leave him alone he would “knock him from one end of the train to the other”.
Faced with this dreadful squalid tale we, the hapless passengers, the captive audience, sit quietly and say nothing. Some of us hide behind books or newspapers but we are all listening intently, casting furtive glances now and then at the principal characters in
this melodrama that we are so fortunate not to be a part of.
The train makes its stop at Clapham and the drunken man refuses to move. A Higher Authority is summoned. In his neat suit the HA makes his speech – each word distinct and complete, no abbreviations and the stress on normally unstressed words, as is the Briton’s
way when he is standing on his dignity.
“I am afraid, sir, you will have to leave the train.”
The drunken man protests feebly that he has to catch a plane, like the rest of us, an idea with little credibility as his only piece of luggage appears to be a golf club. After ten minutes of stalemate posturing (some of us are now nervously consulting our
watches) he consents to leave the train, assuring us all that he will write to the EHA (Even Higher Authority) about the whole unjust affair. We leave him on the empty platform at Clapham, in bewildered, crumpled solitude. With a clearing of throats and a that’s-that shake-out of newspapers, the passengers settle down again and the train resumes its journey and even arrives on time.
Taranto to Torino
We arrive half an hour before the train is due to leave, to be sure of finding a seat – it is a public holiday. In fact, it is not so difficult, because the train starts from here, the edge of Italy, and it is empty and dark when it rolls in alongside the platform. However, most of the front carriages appear to be First Class or Sleepers, with the result that the handful of Second Class carriages are taken by storm, swamped by a pressing crowd of people and baggage. The noise is a few notes short of panic. Disbelieving in this nonsensical arrangement of carriages, we peer into a First Class compartment and oh! there is a little white sticker on the window proclaiming – or better to say whispering, it is so small and almost invisible in the dark – ‘2nd Class’. Still disbelieving, it is essential to check by asking at least two people to verify this change of class. Satisfied, we begin to fill the six-seater compartments, stowing away our cases and placing little bags of food handy for the long night ahead. About one hour later we roll into Bari station, the platform wet with rain that has been threatening all day. The train sits for quite a while, people come and go continually along the corridor, heaving luggage alongside them and gradually it becomes clear, from the increasing volume of noise coming from the next compartment, that some kind of argument is brewing. The voices continue for a while, getting faster and louder, and other passengers begin to emerge from their compartments into the corridor to see what is happening (if something interesting is going on it will help to pass the long boring night; one can talk about it for ages afterwards.) Something has happened: a confused situation involving the declassed carriages, a pregnant woman, seats booked and occupied by others, and now the station police are coming onto the platform in their navy-blue uniforms.
By now, the corridor is crammed full of passengers who have left their seats to watch and listen; they are hanging out of the windows because some of the row is taking place on the platform and some of it on the train, and by now everyone has chosen which side they are on, the State Railways or the pirate passengers who are steadfastly refusing to budge from their seats. The whole situation is escalating, the spectators (ah, no! there are no spectators here, everyone is part of the drama) are now forming little groups to argue what has become ‘their’ case and to shout one another down with accounts of previous misdoings involving the State Railways.
The issue threatens to become political.
Something, at last, after almost an hour, is decided upon in such a way that everyone is partly satisfied. Somewhere in the dark station a whistle blows, long and loud, more so than usual as if to say ooooh, we’ve managed the impossible once agaaaain, and we start rolling northwards again. Gradually everybody filters back into their seats, the night settles in, food bags rustle: the curtain has come down.
Below : extract from THROUGH THE GATE - a childhood home revisited by Jean Meyer (2015)
When I rang the bell, the
nurse who opened it looked surprised. Do so few people come here? I
gave my father’s name and she opened the door a bit wider to let me
in, standing aside in her pale blue overall. Then off up the corridor
she went, walking briskly into a big room, and I followed through the
ranks of slippers and stained cardigans and toothless jaws. Into the
big light room we went and I looked hard to find him because they all
seemed to be similar, like variations on a theme: dementia
senex. The tall
windows, without curtains, threw light in abundance into the middle
of the floor but the men were all arranged in chairs against the
walls. The chairs in such places always look uncomfortable, with
their wooden arms and thin backs, without cushions as if people who
are losing control of their minds do not need soft comfort. The walls
behind them were green to just above their heads and then an
indefinite shade of beige up to the ceiling, which was very high.
There were two or three tables, one with a folded newspaper on it,
the others bare, but no cupboards or shelves. One solitary bad
landscape painting was hung on one wall. Some of the men were asleep,
leaning to one side in their chairs; some were conversing with their
demons; others were staring ahead of them. It seemed like a station
waiting room in a bad dream.
When I did spot him it seemed
absurd to me that I could possibly have confused him with anyone
else, despite his shrunken frame.
got a visitor, Alfred”.
I was momentarily shocked by
the use of his first name, as if the nurse had known him all her
life. He belonged here now, he belonged to these people.
sat with his arms laid along the arms of the chair and his feet
together, gazing across the room. He had the regulation tartan
slippers they all had, a baggy pair of grey trousers and a beige
cardigan a bit stained down the front. His tie was still knotted
carefully at his throat. There was a second when he looked at me and
I was nothing to him, and I thought I would die if it went on, but
then his filing cabinet of memory, which had been ransacked by an
intruder and everything thrown up into the air to settle again
anyoldhow, still managed to come up with the right reference, and he
smiled; his tongue leaping about like an oyster in its toothless
cavern, he smiled at me and his watery eyes wrinkled up, his glasses
gone now. As a child I had always been alarmed when he took off his
glasses – those bushy brows! They were grey now but still had the
same power to alarm when they shot up: at the nurse who witholds the
biscuit; at the brisk young fool of a doctor; at the idiot in the
next chair. He held my hand and laughed a lot. I had never seen him
laugh so much, this new world seemed a great joke. He pointed to a
button on his cardigan.
at that,” murmured the mathematician, running his finger round the
edge of it. “It’s perfect.”
we bent our heads and contemplated the satisfaction of a perfect
I remember you: the one who cut his food into precise pieces before
eating, who had to have the tablecloth square on; who went to bed
like a letter going into an envelope; who paid the bills the day
after they came, keeping careful accounts of so little; a man walking
on a tightrope, fearful lest he should drop it all into the abyss and
go hurtling after. “Ask your father, he’ll know, he’ll decide.”
But there was a wild untended place in the garden, and I woke in the
night and Dear
he was sobbing, help
first, mother had come a few times, refusing to recognize that this
was no ordinary spell in hospital, bringing receipts of bills for him
to see, holding them under his nose.
I’ve paid that then Alfred, see...”
would not look at them but gazed into the distance, infuriating her
because it was so unlike him. He had forgotten how to read, in any
case, words had become once again just black marks on paper, as they
were in the very beginning. He was unlearning all his skills: reading
forgotten, and the use of a fork getting more difficult day by day;
soon he would unlearn how to walk; shedding all the accumulated skins
of being grown-up, he was retreating down a long dark tunnel, smaller
and simpler he was becoming, laughing and waving, free at last.
nurse in a green overall was urging somebody across the room, her
voice bright and brisk:
follow your stick, George!”
passed us by, a powerful smell of urine about him. He was wearing
faded pyjamas, those old-fashioned blue and white striped pyjamas
that my father had worn, with the drawstring waist. In his haste to
get to the bathroom they were coming undone, his withered old sex
trembling in the shadow. I wondered if George had anything to ask
forgiveness for, if he had ever been heard weeping in the night.
only journey I had ever made with my father, as an adult, was the one
that took me away from home for the first time, the one that began
with leaving mother crying into her apron on the doorstep. In the
echoing main-line station I stood with my luggage - the least I have
had in my life – while father queued up to buy tickets. There was a
long queue and I spent the time looking around at the people coming
and going, thinking that I was about to become one of them, and when
I glanced back at the queue to find out how much progress he had
made, I could not find my father. For a moment I felt a slight panic,
thinking he had changed queue and not told me, but then I recognised
him. I had not seen him immediately because I had been looking for a
tall man and my father was the shortest man in the queue.
My father is a small man.
was a four-hour journey down to London and I cannot remember any kind
of conversation between us. He left me at my lodging, walking away to
the bus stop with straight shoulders and high head as if it didn’t
matter, but I knew, I knew.
He had kept all
my school reports. That last summer, before I left home, he did
nothing but take photographs of me.
Once I found him furtively copying out the address of a boyfriend I
had. Once I had even wished him dead.
looked down at my hand holding my father’s hand. They were both
cold, they might have been a marble sculpture. He does not know.
Nobody can tell him, and perhaps he would not even understand it now
if they did.
I looked at an old man who was
sitting opposite us, nodding and chuckling, his open mouth showing a
few brown stubs of teeth. He seemed like an evil dwarf laughing at
head was bent between thin cardiganed shoulders. His elbows were
stuck out to steady him and his free hand shook the air in front of
him as if testing for invisible obstacles. His baggy pyjama trousers
wrinkled up over the slippers, too big, that splayed out to left and
right as he made his lonely, inch-by-inch journey across the floor to
the toilets. No crossing of continents or oceans was ever such an
looked around me. It was the only time I had ever been in a room
where there were so many men present but so little sense of power in
the air. So – this was Man, made in the image of God, shuffling in
a stained cardigan and flapping slippers along the corridor, spittle
brimming on a slack lip.
(Through the Gate is available from Mereo Books, paperback, and also online)
The Artist appeals to that part of our being which is not dependent on wisdom; to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition - and, therefore, more permanently enduring. (S)he speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives: to our sense of pity and beauty and pain.
Joseph Conrad (with a tiny addition from this artist)
Bringing Down the
She is small and this is her world, a small world.
The house is a brown rectangle with a brown triangle on the top. Two
windows upstairs, two downstairs; each window is divided into four and has blue
curtains looped up at the sides. A red door fits in the centre of the
rectangle, with a number on it and a horizontal letter-box.
The tree is a tidy, solid tree that spreads its red-brown skirt slightly
at the hem and holds its tightly-permed green head straight up on its neck.
This tree would fear no wind.
The four flowers are huge uncompromising blooms; one of them would fill
a room of the house. Blue, red, yellow and orange, they hold up their leaf arms
The sun – the Sun, because it must have a big S, this one, it is so bright and so very
hot – is yellow. Like a god it reigns over the picture, all-seeing from its
glorious corner, shooting out its rays to the rooftop, the treetop and the four
She stands next to the house, in a stiff little red skirt, holding out
both arms to something that she cannot name, cannot draw yet, smiling towards
This is her world, that she says onto her piece of rough paper with her
bright crayons; that she sits back to see, coming out of it, going back into
it, her head on one side, her tongue between her lips. Over her world she must place
the sky. Bright blue it runs from left to right, the ribbon, sky-river, the
half-inch that protects her from infinity. Small, we cannot bear infinity.
Large, we cannot bear it either but by then we have devised enough ways of
being too busy to contemplate it for long. Small, it threatens to destroy us so
we carefully crayon in, from left to right, with patient even strokes, our
strip of blue sky.
One day, we bring down the sky.
It is an act of daring, a feat of magic.
A child stands in the garden, arms stretched out, triangular skirt like
the roof of the house, and slowly the sky is falling upon her. Little by
little, in tenths of inches, the sky comes down.
What will happen when it touches her head?
Will she be crushed?
Will she be swallowed up and vanish completely as the blue wave sweeps
down onto the grass?
Surely she will be suffocated, the sky filling her mouth, her eyes, her
It goes on. Oh, the daring!
The stump of crayon gets shorter and the sky goes on falling.
She brings down the sky and as the last little corner of white paper
disappears the truth leaps out suddenly like a great bird hidden in the grass,
unfolds its splendid wings, startling her, then flies away. Astonished, she sees
what she feared most to lose with her daring: the smiling child in the garden
goes on stretching out her arms; the fierce flowers have grown even brighter;
the great sun glares down tremendously from its corner. All around them, the
blue wave becomes the wind, there is no suffocation but air, space, room to
breathe, walk, fly.
She is small and this is her world, getting bigger. She takes a black
crayon and carefully writes her name in the long green grass.
Ma lei accetta
le rughe come si accettano le piogge ed il sole, l'inverno e
l'estate, la vita e la morte: con la serenità di chi capisce che la
stagione delle avventure è finita e bisogna pur prepararsi a
vestirsi di grigio per tornare un giorno al villaggio.
But she accepts
the wrinkles as one accepts the rain and the sun, winter and summer,
life and death: with the calm of understanding that the season of
adventures is over and one must surely get ready to dress in grey to
return one day to the village.
Oriana Fallaci, interview with Ingrid Bergman, 1962
SNOWMAN SNOWMAN by Janet Frame is the loveliest short story I know and the first paragraph is pure poetry:
"People live on earth, and animals and birds; and fish live in the sea, but we do not defeat the sea, for we are driven back to the sky, or we stay, and become what we have tried to conquer, remembering mothing except our new flowing in and out, in and out, sighing for one place, drawn to another, wild with promises to white birds and bright red fish and beaches abandoned then longed for."
Later on, the Snowman of Janet Frame thinks that the trees are dying of some terrible disease when he notices the swellings on their limbs, mistaking the signs of life for the signs of death.
What a splendid piece of writing.