Autumn in the Spring
I sit down opposite Gabriella in the cafè. It is 11 a.m., the
time we have always chosen to meet for our coffee in the fifteen years I have
known her. Today she had turned up at 9.30, despite the mail I sent her,
despite the phone call to drive it home. “I came at 9.30 but there was nobody
here so I went home again.” She smiles as she says it and when I remind her
that we agreed on 11.00, she just smiles again. Gabri is older than me, she is
75 now and Alzheimer has taken her arm – just gently at first, two fingers on
her sleeve – but never to leave her and eventually to hold her in a final,
dreadful ambrace. I know, I have seen it close up in my own family.
We sit and drink our coffee and she talks happily about when
she was young and working. She had three children and for each one she
continued to work until the final month and returned shortly after. Quite a
feat for an Italian mother of those years. But Gabri is not a traditional
Italian mother; she dresses, even now, in sporty clothes with running shoes
(and sometimes she runs in them), she has short, unkempt hair and no problem
about showing her multitude of wrinkles to the world. Until recently she went
to the gym and the pool every week and she walks eveywhere now, having put away
her bike for good. Exercise, good diet, no smoking and mentally alert; yet here
he is anyway, uninvited, Alzheimer with one foot in the door.
Gabri talks to me about the far past, but I am reluctant to
ask her about yesterday, I don’t want to see her at a loss for words. She looks
out of the cafè window at the poplar trees that are just putting out their new
leaves for yet another Spring, almost imperceptible like a green mist. She
voices this thought as we gaze and says how lovely they are. I don’t think she
has ever said anything like that, about a natural phenomena, as long as I have
known her. I am reminded of my own new, amazed recognition of the beauty in
pieces of music that I know well but seem, now, to be hearing for the first
time. So we are becoming old – and the world slowly reveals itself to us in all
its splendour because soon we must leave it.
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.
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.
I don’t know how old Laura is. Her head and body are strangely at variance with
each other: she has a large head with greying (but not grey) straight hair
parted on one side, jaw length and done in the style of a little girl, held
with a clip above one temple. Her large eyes watch the world above a small bony
nose and a chin that could be held between thumb and forefinger.
Her body is the wreck of a physical life. Lying down, with her head almost at right
angles to her skinny chest, she barely raises the sheets with her torso, while
her bent knees hold up the fabric like tent poles. She has a pacemaker inside
her but you would wonder where they found enough flesh to hold it. When the
nurses come to wash her and pull back the sheet, she appears as a heap of bones
draped with yellow, spotted skin. Her left hand is completely deformed by
arthritis, as if a great weight has crushed and forced the fingers sideways.
She can do nothing with it.
The body betrays, it wears out, shrivels, fades, cracks, deforms. You would wonder
how we go on from there. Looking at a body like Laura’s, you would say – There
is nothing to hope for from this. It is all over here, in this heap of bones
and dry old skin.
Then the mouth, in all that ruin, opens and Laura speaks.
She makes words work for her purposes; she observes, she questions, she comments,
she laughs – she laughs! – and Life itself says, loud and clear, Here I Am in
the midst of all that decay. To judge from her body, her words should be a
jumble of nonsense, unfinished, muddled, a pathetic whisper petering out
inconclusively. Instead, she is sharp as a needle, nothing escapes her, her
observations are acute and she makes others laugh.
Suddenly I understand. This understanding will fade, I will lose it in the days that
follow, it will slip from my grasp again, but now, now in this ward, it is
wonderfully clear to me. Life is what is left when the body finishes. The soul, the spirit, whatever you want to call it. The soul – Life - does not die.
The means of communication of the soul die, because words are formed by the
body and the body ends. The soul goes on and – I must suppose – finds another
form of expression.
For a moment I am sure of this. Looking and listening to Laura I am utterly
convinced of this. It seems the most obvious thing in the world, so much so
that, right now, ‘dying’ would not matter that much.
Hours later, days later, this glimpse has vanished and I am fiercely attached to my
bodily life again. But the memory remains.
Black Rook in Rainy Weather (Silvia Plath)
the stiff twig up there
a wet black rook
and rearranging its feathers in the rain.
do not expect a miracle
set the sight on fire
my eye, not seek
more in the desultory weather some design,
let spotted leaves fall as they fall,
ceremony, or portent.
I admit, I desire,
the mute sky, I can't honestly complain:
certain minor light may still
of the kitchen table or chair
if a celestial burning took
of the most obtuse objects now and then ---
hallowing an interval
bestowing largesse, honor,
might say love. At any rate, I now walk
(for it could happen
in this dull, ruinous landscape); sceptical,
whatever angel may choose to flare
at my elbow. I only know that a rook
its black feathers can so shine
to seize my senses, haul
eyelids up, and grant
brief respite from fear
total neutrality. With luck,
stubborn through this season
fatigue, I shall
together a content
sorts. Miracles occur,
care to call those spasmodic
of radiance miracles. The wait's begun again,
long wait for the angel.
that rare, random descent.