Turin and Pavese by Mary Woodward

Mary Woodward finds the connection between place and poetry astonishing, as in Turin’s streets and squares she hears echoes of the poet, Cesare Pavese

All is the same
time has gone by –
some day you came
some day you’ll die

Last Blues Cesare Pavese

I’ve never met anybody who’s been to Turin, though I meet plenty of people who have never heard of it. ‘Where’s that? ’they say. Even Italians look blank. Or disapproving. Why go there? Northern, industrial. Why not Florence, Rome, Siena if you’re going to bother to go to Italy at all in winter.

I persuade myself with the prospect of shimmering Alps encircling a shadowy, elegant city of Baroque streets. City of book shops, and Vivaldi manuscripts, and Camparis at seven o’clock on the way home. Pavese and Primo Levi’s city, the home Levi walked back to from Auschwitz. I buy two maps, one laminated to withstand the rain I guess will be falling on the colonnaded street corners, and a real O.S. map, vast, on thin white paper, as easy to fold as dealing with the canvas on a yacht in the wind.

In the evenings before going, I spend hours looking at the neighbouring valleys and hills with a magnifying glass, scrutinising the city, giving names to streets and piazzas. The clocks go back. My life becomes two thirds night and one third the steel half-light of November days. This is a good time, the year’s eleventh hour, to visit a city which is reputed to be magic, one of a white (or black, depending on who you read) magic triangle with London and San Francisco, Prague & Lyons.

My brain concocts an atmosphere of its own for this unmet place, Roman military nerve centre, the eyrie of the Dukes of Savoy, the place where Italy itself was plotted and planned in the great coffee houses. I imagine Pavese, heir to all this, sitting in the Cafés Elena, and Torino, and San Carlo, and Flora. ‘Turin…City of fantasy…city of decorum…city of passion…city of irony,’ he says in his diaries.

As the plane eases into its long sweep down over the autumn slopes of the Alps, I start to feel I am cheating, that I have taken a shortcut instead of what should have been a test of my determination, that I should have walked and struggled to reach here. That’s what people did, isn’t it, for millennia? Everybody once, not just Levi. Walked through these valleys, or rode horses. Stayed at small pensiones and set off for the next day’s cold journeying. It is not meant to be this easy. But when I arrive I am absorbed into the evening rush hour crowds as if being welcomed. It is warm. The trees which line every street and square are copper and sepia as if it were still September.

Turin

That first night I go to the opera, an English company doing Billy Budd. The Via Roma is lit across from column to column for Christmas; further along a Jenny Holzer poem is moving in ten-foot-high white letters up and over the Palazzo Madama in the Piazza Castello. Time is short, just enough to get into my black dress, a half hour to eat pizza, and drink prosecco, in the cafe next to the Teatro Regio. The opera house is like a shoot in Italian Vogue, dark red walls and carpets, a cloud of glass chandeliers and sweeping low aero-curved staircases; Carlo Mollino’s risen from the ashes of World War Two theatre, Mollino the mysterious magic-obsessed Torinese architect who flew Spitfires and designed a racing car which won at Le Mans. All the fur-coated women dangle Hermes or Chanel handbags. I already know the Hermes shop in the Via Roma is the only one in the world to use plain carrier bags – a benchmark of Torinese discretion. You can be rich here, but only with simplicity a la Carla Bruni. Anything else would be bad manners.

Afterwards in the Cafe Mokita I have a negroni so fragrant with orange peel that the vermouth and campari and gin fade to innocence in the hefty crystal tumbler. Hungover, I wake the next morning to a cold sunny civic utopia of eighteenth-century streets. I try to read La Stampa, which I’ve bought at the newsstand by the triumphal arch at the end of the Piazza San Carlo, over macchiato and brioches in a small, darkly-panelled room in the Torino. I bite into a fat dome of pastry, into thickly sweet preserve of some kind. I cannot identify it. Not apricot, not fig. Almost pure honey. My hangover recedes.

The chessboard precision of the grid of central streets is still undisturbed by traffic. To the western end of each long Baroque vista the Alps rise up, peaks just touched with snow, cinematic, hallucinatory, while to the east the city drops back down towards the river Po. Now and then, as people start to crowd the streets on their way to offices, galleries and cafés, I half see a dark-eyed man in a sand-coloured raincoat, walking fast away from me, an almost-smoked cigarette held between the fingers of his left hand. He is working on another poem for his poems about the workers of Turin, the people he had grown up with in the Langhe Hills, now workers in factories – Pavese knows only too well their sense of loss –

On the street no one

Ever reveals the pain that gnaws at their life

Poetics

Then, in the shadows of the porticoes, he is gone.

Each evening before falling asleep I read the poems; of course they make more sense here. From the flats behind the hotel, through the silver grey five o’clocks of all the mornings, comes a burst of an Italian song, of that passionate, heroic kind which shows an unlikely connection between opera and rock, at a volume which can only be described as majestic. It wakes me every time, and I lie there wondering if I really want a pee or not. The fact I am even thinking this makes me put on my raincoat to pad down the broad hallway to the bathroom.

The hotel is the fourth floor of a seventeenth-century town palazzo and the graciousness of its dimensions gives the dawns a still seriousness undermined only by the bubbling sound from the huge fish tank in the foyer. When I come in and out during the day I greet the big goldfish living there with a finger touch on his glass; he pushes his orange O-mouth towards it and circles his pretty pleated fins with excitement or anger or curiosity. I remember, Pavese says Turin can be a prison.

Brilliant sun, icy azure air, the cinnamon gilded trees in the town squares… the dry whisper of leaves shifts backwards and forwards under my feet. Down by the great silent river the boat sheds are locked up (Pavese loved rowing on this stretch of river), the tennis courts empty, the hills opposite streaked with tawny shadows. Everywhere dark yellow, snub-nosed trams thrum like cats as they corner or speed up. I wander from bookshop to cafés to bookshop. In the Café Elena I sit in the window, watching these trams pass up and down the Piazza Vittorio Veneto; Pavese must have done exactly this on autumn mornings, the kind of morning he describes in ‘Indian Summer’:

The piazzas and streets

give off the same scent of warm sun

as these trees. You can go back to your town.

But Turin is the most beautiful of all towns.

Maybe here he met Constance Dowling, the Hollywood starlet who finally broke his heart – looked up from his espresso one day and there she was, proof that the war was over, that a new world of movies and sandals and dark red nail varnish had arrived. But his relationships with women were always doomed, crippled as he was by a cold childhood and the misogyny of his time and place.

I am worrying, as I knew I would, about why Pavese killed himself. I think again how I, and the rest of us, have been cheated. Done out of maybe another twenty or thirty years of poems and novels. Why do writers think they only belong to themselves? I want him to walk in, sit down and explain himself. The last poems are sad, yes, and haunting but not truly despairing. Failed love affairs are grist to the mill to a poet, surely, less of a death sentence than a happy marriage. But he’d probably just shrug. He would drink his coffee, of course, fast at the bar like all the locals, and then swing out into the piazza, raincoat almost catching in the doors. I can see him. I have a face and a voice for the poems. But it still doesn’t add up to an explanation.

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Cesare Pavese

One afternoon I catch a 35 from the Porta Nuova to look at the Lingotto, the 1914 Fiat plant converted into a mall and gallery. Before that I walk through the great train station and read the destination boards: Venice, Milan, Genoa, and the suburban train which sets off six times a day up into the mountains, up towards the snow and the skiing and the pines. I’d like to do that, just catch a train up into the Alps. Leave everything behind and disappear up there for the cut of the air and the light-headedness of being higher, and looking down on the city and its lights.

At the Lingotto I walk round the shops. I pace up and down the mile long boardwalk and try to imagine this place in its heyday as a factory in the twenties, producing millions of little cars which were to drive out all the horses, and fill the mountain valleys with their chugging engine noise and the smell of petrol; I imagine the men working here, dark men from the south with a different accent, or boys who’d grown up on farms round here but wanted a modern job, who’d abandoned the little fields and the vineyards for Fiat’s wages. The young men who walk the streets of Pavese’s Lavorare Stanca. A factory the size of an ocean liner, its workers on their way to another future.

On the Eastern side of the building the huge windows are filled with a frieze of Alpine peaks. I glance quickly… I think for a second what strange 1950’s wallpaper, and then my mind clicks: no, it’s real. It’s real. Real Alps. The sun is brushing the peaks with a glow which can only be described with the clichés of cosmetics advertising: blush, peach, rose, nude. Snow which is like warm skin. I buy a copy of Pavese’s Il Mestiere de Vivere in Italian, a beautiful Einaudi edition with a Francesco Menzio painting on the cover. I buy a bottle of mineral water in one of the little takeaway shops at the west end, and sit down near a children’s area. There are lots of wooden toys…horses and tiny ladders and chairs…but no children. Though it’s calm and silent my head starts to ache. I take a couple of Nurofen.

That evening I eat at the Café Kipling in the Piazza Bodoni. Earlier there had been music coming out of the open window of the Conservatorio Verdi – a trumpet, joyful and acclamatory. November – and yet warm enough for all the windows to be open. I wander back to the hotel though the tree-crowded squares of quiet eighteenth-century apartment blocks. The sky is black-ultramarine with a perfect half moon stitched lightly to it. A clear sky, the moon but no stars. Not one. I cannot work out how that could be.

In the square leading to the Piazza Cavour two ten-foot-high jets of water dance upwards. It is very, very cold without being frosty. Like the surface of another planet, one further from the sun. Pavese would have walked home fast on nights like this, wearing his leather jacket and his white evening scarf, slightly drunk sometimes though I imagine he could knock back Vermouth and gin, whatever, you name it, without ill effect. He would have become quieter as he drank, just quieter and even more thoughtful until he pushed back his chair, said goodnight, and headed off though these exquisite and silent piazzas. And then once home, the door shut, his jacket thrown on the back of a chair, he wrote.

On the last day I walk miles from the market in the north of the city down to the Gallery of Contemporary Art. I pass the Fontana Angelica, boarded up to be cleaned. The guidebook says this is a magic fountain, indeed the gateway itself to infinity. I am relieved it is inaccessible. Maybe another time. I pass beyond the Fontana down the Corso Re Umberto, the road where Primo Levi lived all his life apart from when he was a prisoner. I would like to look for his apartment block but I’m not sure how long it will take me to reach the gallery, and I have to be back by five. In the broad streets down here there are unused tram lines everywhere, an iron archaeology of the twentieth century. This must look just as it did when Levi walked along it when he returned from Auschwitz, the desired and longed for, most beloved road, the road home.

I have learnt to watch my step as I run across the cobbles, not to catch my foot in the gaps around the unused rails, which trace ghost runs for trams full of young men in pinstripe double-breasted suits, and their girls in print cotton frocks and turban headscarves and straw wedge platform shoes, these great corners where there is no traffic passing now, nothing now but the drifting leaves.

Back on the pavement, under the colonnade there’s the air of an imperial thoroughfare where the Corso Vittorio Emanuele runs up from the Porta Nuova, the momentary appearance of nineteenth-century Italy, of urban space and monuments and unachieved majestic ambition. There are mahogany and gilt cafes, and chocolate shops of gold-lettered opulence. I walk faster. The bustle of the centre fades behind me. The gallery is on the south side of this great street, and is of much more recent date, disconcertingly like the Hayward. I am led to it by neon letters six feet high along the edge of the roof which declare ‘All art was contemporary once.’ Yes, in English. At the steps up to the doors there is a big, light brown cat waving his tail and being stroked by visitors. I hurry up so I can meet him too, but when I am almost close enough he has disappeared under the steps and away.

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Piazza San Carlo

Tra fiori e davanzali

I gatti lo sapranno

The Cats will Know

The first and only gatto I have spotted in Pavese’s city of all-knowing poetic cats and he has gone. Entry to the gallery itself is almost as elusive. The staff don’t speak English. I cause consternation by trying to go in without checking in my bag. Eventually, bagless, I am let loose in the empty spaces.

I have come here to look for work by the Turin Six, painters working between the wars. I like them, these landscapes and summer afternoons and interiors, lying about a calm and peace which did not exist. There is a small painting of three windows opening inwards. Hills in the distance. Empty chairs. No people. Jessie Boswell. Born Leeds 1881-1943. How on earth did Jessie Boswell get here from Leeds, why has she fetched up here with the Turin Six? And did she ever sit in the Flora or the Elena or the San Carlo with Pavese? The gallery does not believe in overdoing information. Only the paintings speak for their makers’ lives and they’re not saying a lot. More opinionated siblings may well be gathering dust in the basement. And while these were being painted Pavese was exiled in Brancaleone, watching the summers of Fascism pass, bored and longing to be back in Turin.

I walk back toward the Porta Nuova to check the times of buses for the airport – unmissable, these buses – bright blue in a world of yellow public transport. One is at the stop. The last suitcases are stowed in the side and then it pulls out, signals and turns with an air of finality back down the opposite carriageway away from the heart of the city towards the airport. The sight lowers my spirits. I do not want to leave.

I cross over to the Piazza Carlo Felice and walk up through the porticoes towards the Saturday clamour of the Via Roma. The stately dark wood and gold entrance of the Hotel Roma is open on my left. These are the doors Pavese entered… it must have been hot, a late August day in 1950. Easy to imagine how both brilliant and dusty Turin is in the summer, the stone everywhere broiling with the heat. I have more questions. Why did he choose this hotel? The most central? The most anonymous? Or the shrine of particular memories, memories he wanted to wrap round him as the barbiturates took effect? He never left that evening, lighting a cigarette, as he must have done on other days maybe after a long afternoon in a darkened bedroom. With a lucky woman who knew his voice and the way he talked and what he worried about. ‘Don’t gossip too much,’ he says in his final note. Some hope. We have gossiped about him ever since.

I feel again that irrational fury about losing a poet too young. There’s a long list of them. But with Pavese it’s worse than the others. More intimate, for it is also his personal glamour, his watchful, clever, distanced temperament, his difficult presence which fascinate me. And what would he have had to say about Europe in the following decades, Pavese, the poet of workers and struggle and the cruelty of the emerging modern world, who as a boy playing football in the suburbs heard the gunfire of the Turin massacre of trade unionists in1927. It would have been worth reading.

On the last morning it is still nerve-cleansing Alpine weather. I am laden with bags of hazelnut amaretti and porcini bought from a market smallholder who has a trestle table laden with open sacks, smelling of black earth and bark. As the plane takes off and then banks up over the mountains, the sky to the West is crimson-scarlet like the walls of the Teatro Reggio. A horizon like an opera. The city falls back away from us into its safe place overshadowed by the peaks. ‘Turin, my favourite subject,’ Pavese says in his diary for February 1936, Pavese who never left it voluntarily, for whom it was home and workplace and theatre. Now I have seen it I am closer to those poems I love. Poems can belong to a city, are the voice of its streets and squares. Sometimes you just have to get up and go there. The connection between place and poetry is astonishing. Of course, poems can exist elsewhere but they can use their own energy more fully in their own place.

All the winter through I come back to a quiet, empty house. His raincoat is on the back of the door, and there’s the smell of a dark tobacco in the solitude of the evening air. I open his poems, the streets outside are no longer the known streets of home, but Turin, after the battles of WW2 have fallen silent, and the troops have gone, and the prisoners of war have been repatriated; a city where the cafés once again have enough cake and little satin-ribbon-tied bags of hazelnut chocolates to stack on the glass counters; a city where they are just starting to feel optimistic enough about the future to think of rebuilding the opera house.

Disaffections: Complete Poems 1930-1950 Cesare Pavese Carcanet 2004

This Business of Living Diaries 1935-1950 Cesare Pavese Transaction 2009

This was first published in Tears in the Fence No. 70 Autumn 2019

Mary Woodward describes herself more a writer of poems (one full collection The White Valentine, Worple Press 2014, one pamphlet Almost Like Talking Smith Doorstop 1993, poems in magazines including Poetry Ireland, The North, Southword) than of prose.

She has written for The Guardian newspaper (she won their fashion writing competition in 2003) and pieces for literary magazines (The North, Agenda, Tears in the Fence etc) and has published short fiction in anthologies and been shortlisted for short story competitions including the Asham Award and Fish.

“I made a visit to Turin a few years ago to see the place which had been the home of two writers I love, Pavese and Primo Levi. I was not disappointed – it is a wonderful city – and wrote this piece to try to keep a sense of it alive for myself. I hope it will also act as encouragement for others to read Pavese’s wonderful poetry. I am not a travel writer but, as some people say, places speak and I found Turin to be highly conversational…full of wisdom and thoughtfulness.”

A PDF can of the piece can be found here:

Learning to Breathe With Trees Sarah Salway

a place close to home becomes important as Sarah begins to recover from Covid-19

‘You have to breathe properly,’ Richy, the Filipino nurse, tells me on my first night in the COVID isolation ward, his visor misting up with his own breath. ‘You are too shallow. If you leave here, you need to put yourself out in the world more. Breathe. Breathe.’ 

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Covid isolation ward: patient’s eye view

While I’m deep breathing – slowly in through the nose, puffing out through the mouth, putting myself out there – I remember reading that every window in this hospital is supposed to look out at a tree. Somehow I manage to shuffle to the window but all I can see is a concrete courtyard and two people smoking by some bins. Determined to see some nature, I stand on tiptoes, squashing my head sideways against the glass. Ah, there it is, the top of something that looks like a … 

‘What are you are doing?’ Richy has come into my room without me hearing him. A feat indeed in full PPE. ‘You’ll exhaust yourself. Get back to bed.’ I remember his ‘if’ and not ‘when’ about going home, and go back to practising my breathing.

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‘All I can see is a concrete courtyard’

*

The Grove, a small park behind my house was given to Tunbridge Wells by the Duke of Buckingham in the seventeenth century. It was planted thickly and mostly with oaks as somewhere for visitors to promenade when they were tired of gambling. 

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After the 1987 hurricane destroyed many of the park’s trees, other varieties were planted. Before Covid, I had a plan to identify them all, and had bought an old hardback book, Trees in Britain by L J F Brimble from our local charity bookshop. 

It was only when I’d got home that a postcard fell out –  the original handwritten order from W H Smith & Son of Thames Street, Windsor, dated 22nd July 1948. I was intrigued to see it was addressed to D H Hardwick of the Military Wing of Harefield County Hospital in Uxbridge. That’s interesting, I thought, putting it aside to investigate when I had more time.

‘It was only when I’d got home that a postcard fell out – the original handwritten order from W H Smith & Son’

*

One of the common symptoms of the Corona Virus is a difficulty in breathing, but doctors are finding some patients have Silent Hypoxia, the medical term for when someone has dangerously low oxygen levels but is still able to function. This is the case with me. 

I’m hesitant about ringing 111 at first but once the paramedics arrive and test me, it takes just minutes before I’m in an ambulance. From my seat in the back, I hear fragments from urgent sounding telephone calls, ‘Red route,’ ‘Need to be quick’, and I wonder which poor person they are talking about. Then I realise it’s me. An hour later I’m in a hospital bed on oxygen, remaining there for six days. 

When I eventually come out, it is to a different world. The country’s in lockdown because to touch someone could be to kill them and we are only allowed out one hour a day. I’m still frail anyway, so it is enough for me to totter round The Grove barely noticing the trees. But doing the same route daily means I’m aware of how much stronger I am getting as the weeks creep by. Like many others, I also start to hunger more for nature.

‘Was this tree always this colour?’ a man asks me during one walk. He’s standing by a copper birch, its rich purple leaves showcased by the smooth grey bark. I tell him I can’t remember, but has he seen the Christmas tree blossoms on the horse chestnut? We agree that all the trees are particularly amazing this year. 

It seems the perfect time to go back to my plan of learning the trees in the park by name. I get out my old book, and the postcard falls out again. 

*

It’s easy to find out about Harefield Hospital, the address my book was originally sent to. It’s now one of the ‘lost hospitals of London’ but was once the home of an Australian family, the Billyard-Leakes. They’d offered it to the Australian government in wartime for the treatment of injured Australian and New Zealand soldiers, and by 1940 it had gained an international reputation for treating disease and injury to the lungs and oesophagus.

D H Hardwick, the man, takes longer to track down. Eventually I find out he was an officer of the Royal Air Force Voluntary Reserve, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross during the Battle of Arnhem. This was a brutal battle and out of nearly 9,000 men taking part from the 1st Airborne Regiment (which my D H Hardwick as Flight Officer belonged to) only 2,000 came home. So the man who first owned my tree book had officially been a survivor. 

*

And now I am one too. Apparently I have ‘battled’ through, I’m a ‘warrior’, and I’ve won the ultimate medal for 2020: ‘Covid Survivor’. But when I talk to others who have shared my experience of being admitted to hospital, we agree that we were never in a state to fight anything, and if there’s a metaphor that works better for us than war language, it’s the idea of a computer virus. Our bodies have been contaminated with unsafe messages rushing through our veins. So much of what we thought we knew – such as how to breathe – has to be wiped clean before we can function again. 

*

Stalking D H Hardwick online proves to be the perfect gentle distraction as I recover. From military websites, I’ve found out his first names were Dennis Henden and he was born in Auckland in 1917. In fact, he was one of many New Zealanders who joined the Royal Air Force, and his squadron was involved with the SOE, or Special Operations Executive. He was also described as a ‘surveyor’, which probably involved him staking out enemy territory. What I still find most interesting about him though was how, while he was recovering in a hospital so far from home and several years after the war had ended, he had ordered a book so he could learn more about English trees. 

It seems an almost heroic curiosity, and makes me ashamed of how I’ve always been too busy to bother learning my own landscape properly. There are so many things we take for granted until we nearly lose them. Every day now, my phone fills with photographs of flowers and skies from friends, and I study every one closely as if the natural world is a book I need to translate. Images of trees fill me with special delight.

*

My daily breathing exercises seem to be helping. Although it looks as if one of my lungs may have some permanent damage, my oxygen levels are nearly back to normal. However on a Whatsapp group imaginatively called, ‘Covid Survivors’, we talk openly about PTSD and panic attacks. It’s the sort of thing none of us can discuss easily with friends and family, because we’re aware of how much they want us to be back to ‘normal’. 

I think of my father who never talked about his war experiences, and I can understand better why this was now. His bad memories were a living reminder that trauma not only sticks around, but may even be contagious. We are luckier nowadays, and in my Whatsapp group, we share the names of our therapists, talking about how they help by letting us go over everything to someone who isn’t emotionally involved. We don’t want to upset our families, or as one member calls everyone who hasn’t had the virus, ‘the civilians’.

*

Dennis Hardwick flew a Stirling IV. I know this because, during one of my internet searches, I find a photograph he is credited with taking of this plane. It looks like a bulky insect, and I imagine it buzzing through the trees, dropping spies into enemy territory like eggs. I read his citation for when he received the Distinguished Flying Cross. In 1944, he was flying to drop supplies to British ground forces in Holland when his aircraft was hit, killing one member of the crew and wounding another. The aircraft went out of control, diving steeply, but Dennis succeeded in levelling out. The citation says, ‘Although the damaged aircraft was difficult to control this resolute pilot flew it to base and made a safe landing. Flying Officer Hardwick displayed commendable skill and coolness in hazardous circumstances.’ Even though it’s ridiculous to be proud of someone with whom you have no connection, I can’t help stroking my/his book. Well done, I whisper to it.  

*

A few years ago I went to a workshop on Natural Navigation for a magazine article I was writing about getting lost. We were a diverse group, brought together only by a desire to learn how to find our way using clues from nature. In our introductions, one man announced he was a pilot. He could navigate anywhere in the sky, he said, but on land he was always getting lost. 

I think of Dennis Hardwick as rather like that pilot. Still in a Military Hospital in 1948, unlikely to fly again, he must have been navigating a way through his new landscape tree by tree by tree. 

Did he know then that the average tree produces enough oxygen in one year to keep a family of four breathing? Both Dennis and I found ourselves desperately in need of oxygen, but I think trees gave us more than simply being the world’s lungs when our own weren’t working. Through them, we learnt a different language, a better way of understanding the world that we had been given this second precious chance to walk in. Perhaps us both owning this book at our different times of need is a sign of how we refused to take that for granted. Learning to call the trees by their real names was the least we can do. I imagine both of us wheezing gently through the same pages of the book, taking it out to the same type of parks, staring at the same leaves. 

*

I still don’t know what happened to Dennis after he left the hospital, but every time I search for D H Hardwick, almost the first hit is for a logging company in New Hampshire. Part of me hopes this business wasn’t set up by my Dennis, and that his interest in trees wasn’t just so he could learn which to cut down. 

Now when I walk round the Grove, with Dennis’s book in my hand, I am able to identify the lime, horse chestnut, holly, birches (both copper and silver), yew, whitebeam, hornbeam, and also the two Scotch pines that have sprung up in the corner where we used to be allowed to dump our Christmas trees. 

It’s true that knowing the names of the trees changes my walks. Because I don’t just go ‘tree tree tree’ any more, it slows me down. It feels as if I’ve added another layer to my landscape, almost as if the dial on a telescope has been turned so everything is in focus. 

*

I’m looking at trees so closely that I develop favourites. Number one for me is the Turkish Oak at the entrance to the Grove. It was planted in the 1600s and is so huge that one of its limbs would be wider than most of the other trees in the park.

In fact, its size makes me nickname it the Tree Boss. Trees communicate with each other through their root systems and I like to imagine Tree Boss comforting the others, telling them that it will all be OK, that this too will pass. 

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‘Tree Boss’

There’s something so reassuring about this fantasy that one day I take a picture to use as a screensaver. Just as I’m putting my phone away, a stranger walks up to me. 

‘Sorry to interrupt,’ she says, ‘but I saw your story in the paper and I wanted to say how pleased I am that you survived.’ 

It’s not the first time this has happened, and I’ve learnt just to smile and say thanks. My therapist has suggested that I stand for something bigger than myself because I’m an example of how it is possible to come through a plague alive and smiling. Perhaps this is why Dennis has come to mean so much to me too. When I walk by ‘my’ tree now, as well as touching it – hello, old friend – I wonder just how many pandemics it has seen, from the Great Plague of London through Spanish Flu, smallpox, measles, polio and more. Because long after Covid, perhaps our Trees in Britain book will find its way to another person just when they need it, and because long after us both, long after me, this tree will still be standing.

Sarah Salway is a novelist, teacher, journalist and poet. She has given a TEDx talk in praise of everyday words (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_KVNGzoGfrA), and currently runs a reading group in Kent for the Royal Literary Fund. In March 2020, she was hospitalised for COVID pneumonia, but has now happily recovered. www.sarahsalway.co.uk

© Sarah Salway

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‘5, 4, 3, 2, 1. We have lift-off!’ – a Zoom Launch

On 7th December Blue Door Press held a launch for my new collection of short stories Kremlinology of Kisses. I was thrilled with the number of people who came along, over 100 households signing up for it. Zoom launches, in these times of Covid, may seem like a second-best option and it’s true that not being able to chat to people before and afterwards, share a drink and allow everyone to see and hold a physical copy of the book (and have it signed) is a major drawback, and was rather a disappointment.

But there were some other, quite significant, compensations. Friends and family were able to come from far and wide, including Scotland, Norfolk, France, Germany and the USA. The audience was much bigger than it could ever have been in a hired venue and there were no worries about how much wine to buy, transporting wilting canapés and no fears about either ending up with a big empty, echoey space or a horrible, sweaty crush.

Another benefit is that Zoom allows you to record an event automatically, and given that my wonderful work colleague, Lucy, had ensured that the whole thing worked like clockwork, with all the transitions between me and others being quick and faultless, the recording ended up being a great record of the event. I’ve now put it up on my website, so it’s available to those who wanted to come but were busy that evening…and it’s now available, of course, for others to watch too.

For anyone interested, it includes a reading of one of my favourite stories in the collection ‘The Sitting’, an interview between me and award-winning writer Lawrence Scott and an audience Q&A. The interview was a lovely opportunity for Lawrence and I to discuss the collection, my writing process, my views on short fiction in general and others aspects of my literary life.

Here’s the link if you’d like to see it:

https://www.barbarableiman.com/events

The book is available here:

Barbara Bleiman

BDP’s Who Do You Love is now an audiobook! Free copies to give away!

Blue Door Press is delighted to announce that the audiobook version of Who Do You Love (BDP 2017) is now available for sale on Audible, Amazon and iTunes.

It was quite a journey working with the voice artist and actor Christopher James on the novel during this lockdown period.

He and I talked quite intensely about the novel via email as he grappled with the novel’s difficult subject matter and extended narrative. I believe he’s done a magnificent job. I know I am biased, but I found the process of listening to the novel again gripping!

For those of you who are not authors: it can be quite painful listening to your own words read back to you again by someone else, particularly if the reader isn’t that great! But Chris is a wonderful interpreter, and after the initial feelings of ‘uh-oh, is this novel any good?’ I found my self immersed in the story in a way I hadn’t been before. I know I had written it, but I finished the book over three years ago now, and I feel I have moved on as a writer, and I wondered if the narrative would ‘stand up’.

For me, it triumphantly did, thanks in part to Chris, who managed to give the narrator of the novel, Nick, an energetic but melancholic aspect and read the dialogue really brilliantly. The other characters of the novel really came alive for me. These are my highlights and thoughts on these characters.

For those of you who are not familiar with the story, this is an amplified version of its blurb, which I’m quoting now so that you understand my comments about Chris’s interpretations of the characters which follow.

Nick is cracking up. In his mid-forties, he has just been sacked as an arts journalist, with little prospect of getting such a well-paid, prestigious job again. Even more worrying for him is his suspicion that his wife, Hadley, a Deputy Head at a school, is having an affair with a much more successful person: does she want to trade in Nick for a better model? His marriage problems are now exacerbated by money worries and concerns about the future for his nine-year old son, Jack.

But most devastating of all is the fact that he learns that a former lover, Ellida, has died.

Unable to find a new job, Nick miserably fails, despite his best attempts, to be pro-active and positive, and retreats into memories of the past. He remembers the romantic times he had with Ellida in the 1980s and 1990s; times when, as a student, he wrote and directed a crazy mime play which was performed in Sussex woodland on the summer solstice; the wild parties and alcoholic picnics by the sea; and, most poignantly for Nick, an impossibly romantic holiday on the Northumbrian coast at his grandparents’ picturesque farmhouse. But Ellida and his grandparents are now dead. Can Nick ever recover his lost happiness? This is his search in the present. He meets up with Ellida’s former husband, an eccentric music composer, Arnholm. and his daughter Isolde; her friends and seeks recover ‘lost time’ by visiting the places of their past loves. Sometimes he travels with his young son, Jack, and at others, he goes alone.

The novel is, above all, an evocation of the character of Ellida, who, for Nick, was the most magnetic person he ever met.

Given this basic plot outline, hopefully you can understand my responses to Chris’s reading of the various characters without having read the book:

Ellida. She is the heart of the novel; the passionate, destructive Norwegian lover of Nick. Chris succeeds because he manages to give her a plausible Norwegian accent – or a sense of her foreignness to Nick – and a humanity, a sanity even. Ellida does some crazy things in the novel – demanding sex in wild locations, getting drunk in strange ways, swimming in dangerous waters both literal and metaphorical – but she is, for me at least, clear-headed much of the time, damaged but perceptive of herself and the world. Chris’s reading provides this strange mix of wildness and clarity very well in his reading.

Hadley. She is the American teacher-wife of Nick, and is an ordered, thoughtful person, caring and a good mother. Possibly one of the issues about her is that she could be seen as strangely unsympathetic because she is so ‘together’. I felt that Chris’s reading made her a moving character; he gave her dialogue a moving quality, a vulnerability which I hadn’t heard before.

Arnholm. He is the former husband of Ellida, a selfish, narcissistic composer who is Norwegian/Catalan. I felt that Chris captures his accent very well, and this works excellently in the dialogue scenes when Arnholm is speaking to both Nick and Ellida, as their contrasting voices give the audio book the quality of a play at this point. For me, Chris really inhabited Arnholm.

Isolde or Izzy. She is the troubled, wayward, damaged daughter of Ellida who Nick connects with many years after his affair with Ellida has ended. Chris catches her accent – which is British – nicely, and the scenes at the end of the novel with Izzy and Nick have an emotional quality. I felt he captured Izzy’s sadness. I was very moved by his reading of the last scene.

Jack. He is Nick and Hadley’s young son, upset by the difficulties in his parents’ marriage. Chris gives him a suitably plausible boy’s voice; again, a really tricky thing to do, but he pulls it off, and the scenes where Nick and Jack talk about life, relationships and everything are believable and funny.

Mercy. She is a Nigerian-English academic who plays an important but small role in the novel. This was a challenge, but I felt that Chris conveyed her humanity without descending into stereotype.

Other characters: Ellida’s parents, Nick’s grandparents. These were smaller roles, but once again because Chris read the novel so carefully before reading it aloud, he really ‘got’ them, the nuance and importance of them in the narrative.

So, what am I saying here? Listen to the novel if you want! I felt immersed in the world of Nick as I listened to Chris read the book: I wanted to know Who Did He Love?!

There could be many other interpretations of the book; it could be read in a more male way, with more bravado, possibly at a greater pace, or it could be read more slowly, more lugubriously. I think the novel is open to both interpretations, and a lot of others! But I liked Chris’s mix of keeping the pace up and yet emphasising the emotional side of the narrative.

Below, you can listen to a section in the middle of the novel where Nick has returned from Brighton to his wife, Hadley, and child, Jack, having met his lover’s grown-up daughter Isolde, who has got drunk with him and then tried to go to bed with him. Nick has rebuffed her advances but is shaken and lies to his wife about seeing Isolde, saying he was seeing his friend George instead.

If you’d like to review the novel and thus acquire a free audio download of it, please email me: sir@francisgilbert.c.uk There are only a limited number of free copies so they will be issued on the basis on your willingness to offer a review (if only a brief one) and on a first come, first served basis.

The audiobook version of Who Do You Love (BDP 2017) is now available for sale on Audible, Amazon and iTunes.

Kremlinology of Kisses

What’s in a kiss? Desired, unwelcomed, missed?

In these twelve short stories, Barbara Bleiman explores the significance of a kiss in the lives of multiple characters. From Renaissance Italy to a prostitute’s bedroom in contemporary London, from the USSR under Brezhnev to a 1970s package holiday in Spain, from a hospital ward today to a ‘bubble’ far in the future, the stories adopt different voices and genres, creating a kaleidoscope of contrasting angles and styles.

Inspired by Chekhov’s iconic short story, ‘The Kiss’, this richly varied collection –  wistful, sensual, painful and at times quirky and comical–  appeals both to the head and the heart.

Bleiman’s precise, economical prose vividly evokes a remarkable variety of characters, situations, emotions, times and places.

Nicholas Tredell

I thoroughly enjoyed being immersed in these rich slices of life.

Kate Clanchy

Kremlinology of Kisses is published on Amazon, as a print-on-demand paperback book or an ebook. It is available here

Kremlinology of Kisses: a reflection and its launch

I’ve always loved short fiction. When I went to my interview at Birkbeck for a Creative Writing MA, over a decade ago, I had in my bag Flannery O’Connor’s collection A Good Man is Hard to Find. It was my talisman. I’d always loved the way O’Connor married emotional truthfulness and precise detail about a specific region, the deep south of America, with something more strange, mysterious and full of wonder. I entered the world she created and, on the final page of each story, I remained there long after closing the book. There was always more than met the eye, a conundrum or a human puzzle, a question left unanswered, a marvelling at the oddness (yet unsurprisingness) of human life and behaviour. As O’Connor herself said in her writing about fiction, a story is not a story if it can be summed up, if its ‘theme’ can be announced plainly, as if it were an argument. For her, fiction is all about ‘mystery and manners’. Fiction cannot be fully explained.

At that Birkbeck interview, I was asked why I had applied and what I wanted to learn. The answer was quite simple; I wanted to know how to tell, withhold and reveal, and how much, in other words how to get that fine balance that writers like O’Connor and Alice Munro and William Trevor achieve, seemingly so effortlessly, between the reader knowing too little and knowing too much. 

In my MA dissertation I decided to submit a collection of short stories, inspired by reading Chekhov’s famous short story ‘The Kiss’. I started to explore the significance of the kiss in many different contexts – something rather taken for granted perhaps in everything other than romantic fiction. The chance to workshop the stories helped me enormously in having a live audience who could respond to drafts. My co-students gave me invaluable feedback on many aspects of my writing, including that most important issue for me, of what to withhold and what to reveal. Some of the stories in my new collection, Kremlinology of Kisses, and the whole concept for the collection, emerged from that work. I then added to these, bit by bit, over time

The stories in Kremlinology of Kisses are all very different. They’re written in multiple styles and voices, in different genres. They span different times and places. They certainly don’t have the stability of setting of Flannery O’Connor’s regional work, or of William Trevor’s Anglo-Irish stories. And yet there’s a common thread to them and a set of ideas about people and their lives that allow the stories speak to each other, as well as to the reader. They explore ideas about intimacy, or the lack of it, about opportunities grasped or missed, about the importance of a kiss and what it might signify. I hope they will provoke questions as much as offering answers and that, like the bowls of porridge, the chairs and the beds in the famous fairy tale, I give away not too little, not too much, but rather what’s just right!   

Kremlinology of Kisses is published on Amazon, as a print-on-demand paperback book or an ebook. It is available here

Blue Door Press is pleased to announce the online launch event on December 7th at 8pm, where Barbara will read from the collection and be interviewed by writer, Lawrence Scott. There will also be a Q&A session.

Please book here if you wish to join us.

https://www.barbarableiman.com/events

The fantastic launch of ‘Hidden’

Watch the wonderful launch of Hidden, Annabel Chown’s marvellous new memoir here:

Annabel Chown writes of her launch:

I am no stranger to sudden change, as you’ll discover if you read my memoir, Hidden. Still, I couldn’t quite believe that my beloved London, in which Hidden is mostly set, could be plunged into lockdown. At first, I mourned the absence of a live event; everyone crowded together in the same space, chatting, drinking and hugging. Things that until recently I’d taken for granted.

I realised I needed to create Plan B, as Hidden still deserved its launch. Enter, Zoom. Something I’d not even heard of until March this year. I kept the same format I’d designed for the library: a short reading from Hidden, an interview with my brilliant journalist friend, Paola de Carolis (who normally interviews the likes of Ralph Fiennes!), and the chance for the audience to ask questions.

Of course it was different to a live event. But there were also advantages to having it online. Unlike at the library, there was no limit on numbers. And it was exciting to see a grid of faces on the screen – both familiar and unfamiliar – many of whom could have never attended in person. We had people from as far afield as California, Zurich, Frankfurt and North Yorkshire.

Life has taught me that even the most challenging situations can offer us opportunities we might not otherwise have had. This is a theme of Hidden, and perhaps one for all of us in 2020. 

What happened to the New Man?

As I’ve pointed out in previous blogs, the process of listening to the audiobook of Who Do You Love has been enriching for me, making me return to the text some years after writing it.

Christopher James  reads the book more slowly than me, taking his time, giving the narrator’s voice a melancholic, deadpan quality. This works well. As a listener you are given the room to feel the words. It’s made me realise that the book is very pictorial, or at least it has that quality for me. I feel like I am inhabiting the rooms, the streets, the countryside, the coast lines, the different eras of the novel as I listen.

One of things that really struck me was the way the different time zones encountered so far in the novel, 1987 and 2013, act as counter-points. I’ve been watching the Netflix sci-fi horror drama Dark which is, in part, about certain people time-travelling between 2019 and 1986: two eras I’m very familiar with! The Gothic sci-fi is completely different from my realist novel in so many ways, but one thing I’ve felt they’ve shared is that sense of ‘the uncanny’. I suppose this is because Nick is, in so many ways, my alter ego; and it’s a bit like standing outside myself as I listen to the novel being read by someone else. As the great literary theorist Stuart Hall said, ‘This experience of, as it were, experiencing oneself as both subject and object, of encountering oneself from the outside, as another – an other – sort of person next door, is uncanny’.

In Who Do You Love, in 2013, Nick is sacked (from his job) as an Arts Editor at a London listings magazine and can’t find another job; when he learns that a former girlfriend, Ellida, has died, he finds himself remembering his times with her in 1987. In his  first ‘remembrance’ (involve him) he recalls how he directed a strange mime play about the 1986 hurricane in a half-destroyed wood  on the summer solstice in June 1987. I found Chris’s reading of this section particularly effective because he evokes the different accents of the main characters so well: the emphatic tones of Nick’s friend George, the cheeky-clever voice of Luke, Nick’s other best friend, the Catalan accent of Arnholm, Ellida’s husband – done particularly well I think – and, of course, Ellida herself. Chris manages to make the relationship between Ellida and Nick seem very tender.

Another thing that struck me was just how much it is about different phases of male crisis: at the onset of forming adult relationships in late teens/early twenties, and at the classic ‘mid-life’ point where everything comes into question in your forties. The section where Nick describes the Men’s Group really brought memories back to me of the late 1980s where there was a real focus upon the idea of the ‘new man’; the emotionally literate, caring, responsible man who listened to women. The talk, as I remember it, was all very ‘gendered’. There was both explicitly and implicitly then the assumption that men and women were fundamentally different in so many ways; biologically, neurologically, genetically and psychologically. The idea of the ‘new man’ was that he would be attuned to these differences, not mocking of them, but understanding. But looking back, I believe it brought into play an ‘essentialist’ narrative – that men and women are essentially separate beings – in a way which is strikingly in contrast to essentialist thinking about gender now. Gender determinists now, such as the likes of Jordan Peterson and horrific Incel, are, I would say, virulently, violently misogynistic. The new man movement in contrast trod softly around these issues, and, at its best, questioned such essentialist assumptions, but I think, as the following extract shows, often fell back on tired stereotypes of ‘men being men’ and ‘girls being girls’; I use the word ‘girls’ advisedly here because the word frequently was used to describe women in a patronising way by ‘new men’. Listening to the section about the Men’s group felt quite an accurate account of what I encountered back then.

Here’s the section 8th July 1987:

I showed a draft of this article to the BDP team, who all commented on it in their habitual useful way. Barbara Bleiman made this perceptive point: ‘ Perhaps there are possible implications for all writers, at a drafting stage, when they hear the words they have written being uttered in someone else’s voice? Maybe it’s about realising the extent to which the reader always brings their own interpretation and that a different actor might have brought something quite different to it, illuminating it for you again in other ways.’

Yes, I would agree with this, and it makes think I must get other people to read my work out aloud during the drafting stage in future. It’s not something I’ve done, but I think it’s clearly a valuable exercise and could really help me improve my writing.

Listen to the first 15 mins of Who Do You Love for free here!

I’m writing this blog post on the summer solstice, 20th June 2020, which is an important date in my novel Who Do You Love. In fact, I like to think the events on the summer solstice June 1988 in a Sussex wood, devastated by the hurricane of October 1987, are pivotal in the novel. They are loosely based on real events that happened to me, when I directed and produced a mime play, performed at midnight at that time.

In the novel, the protagonist, Nick is rescued from a bad mushroom trip by Ellida, the passionate Norwegian woman who becomes the love of Nick’s life.

A tree spirit from the Song of the Falling Trees, June 1987, standing next to an uprooted tree in a wood in the Sussex Downs, fictionalised in Who Do You Love

I’ve been thinking a lot about Who Do You Love recently because I’m working with actor and voice artist, Christopher James, on an audiobook version of the book. He’s now produced the first fifteen minutes for me, which you can find here:

Audiobook version of ‘Who Do You Love’ to be publish soon on Audible!

I hope you’ll agree that he’s read it magnificently! I felt his accent and approach was just right for the narrator Nick: energetic but mournful, which is a difficult combination to get. There’s a sadness, as I see it, in Nick’s voice which he captures well. He also reads the book reasonably slowly and clearly, while maintaining a sense of pace, again this is tricky: you can’t read the novel too fast because the images, the descriptions and the dialogue can be marginalised in a fast reading.

Listening to it was immersive for me. I was actually more present with the book than when I wrote much of it. This said, writing the first draft of it was an enveloping experience: I virtually free-wrote a draft of 120,000 words over the space of six-eight months! I had just started my PhD in Creative Writing with Blake Morrison in 2009-2010; I had got my place on this prestigious programme by proposing another entirely different book, but changed tack when I learnt about the death of a friend. Blake was great because he allowed me to change direction and recognised how I wrote. He let me ‘splurge’ away!

The process of editing and pruning and changing after that was not as hypnotic. I had to have a very critical eye while re-reading what I had written. I must confess editing is not my strongest suit. I can, at times, take the foolish road of publish and be damned, particularly with some of my blogging and journalism!

I have never done this with my fiction, but the temptation is still there. Listening during lockdown to the audio book, I made entry into Nick’s world without that wincing editor’s eye inside my head. This was a rare treat for me. I felt immersed back in the fiction: I was there as Nick gets the news he’s been sacked; I felt for him as he listens to his wife, the New Yorker, Hadley, give him lots of sensible but hard-to-hear advice; and I felt his pain again! This was, I felt, because Chris captured his pain in his voice.

I particularly enjoyed the reading of the second chapter, which is Nick’s memory of the hurricane of October 1987. Chris captures the different voices and accents of the students in this scene beautifully: the dominant, angry George, and the cheeky, clever Luke. This worked well I thought; the reading never strays into parodic student talk in a way some people have complained happens when you read it straight off the page. That’s what a good actor can do: bring a sense of gravity to things that might look a little silly on the page. 

Making an audio book out of my novel, Who Do You Love

I’m very excited to be working on an audio book version of Who Do You Love, my novel which I published with Blue Door Press in 2017.

I have investigated ways of doing this over the years, having a go at reading myself. I found that although I can be an expressive reader — some would say too expressive! — I don’t have the skills of a properly trained actor and audio book reader. To be a great reader of audio, you have to have a lot of different skills: you’ve got to interpret a story meaningfully and emotionally, you’ve got to read it in a dramatic but not too dramatic fashion, you’ve got to be able to voice the different characters properly, and you’ve got to give it all drive and energy. I think I have found just the person after quite a bit of searching, in the voice of the wonderful actor and audiobook reader Christopher James. I found him through ACX, the audio partner it seems of Amazon’s KDP. The process for me was great because it was so simple. I posted my book for auditions and was surprised to find quite a few auditions up within a matter of two days. I listened to them, and picked Christopher as the most suitable for the book. All of them were good, but it was the accent and the nuanced reading that I was looking for, which I really found in Christopher. Here’s his audition tape:

My soundcloud file of Christopher James’ Audition

Reading Who Do You Love well is really tricky. Not least because the novel explores the emotional experience of a contemporary male, something not frequently done. There are not a lot of novels like this around, with the possible exception of David Nicholls, the author of One Day and Us. Christopher and I have talked about this because it affects the way the novel should be read: it can’t be too deadpan, nor too over-the-top in terms of sounding emotional. The other tricky thing in the novel is the range of accents: the Norwegian lilt of Ellida, the heroine, the refined New York accent of Hadley, the Spanish accent of Arnholm, Jack’s older child voice, and the narrator’s own southern English accent, which is neither posh, nor particularly cockney/local. I felt Christopher captured all of them really well. I was delighted by the way the novel suddenly came alive for me again. Anyway, we are just at the beginning of the process; he’s reading the novel just as I write, and will be recording the whole book quite soon. I hope to keep you updated about how it’s going.