6th February 2016
Yesterday we returned to Tuscany after 2 weeks in London and I was surprised by the sadness I felt to leave my “hometown.” Perhaps it’s because it was the first time in many years that it actually felt like my hometown and not like a mutant offshoot of New York. It would seem to be another example of how important it is not to cement anything or anyone or anyplace into a once-and-for-all judgment or ideal.
London is the place I ran to when I ran away from home at 16. I had no idea then that I was about to spend 3 years living in the place in the world. London in the 60’s was equivalent to Paris in the 20’s; revolutionary, wildly creative, ‘mod,’ avant garde; A thrillingly reckless time in a once staid city of bowler hats. In truth, it was also overwhelming in that it still carried, along with its anything-goes new image, a deeply rooted class distinction and prejudice, the hierarchy of which deigned that those of us on the lower rungs would never gain acceptance into the loftier realms, nor enjoy the freedom and privilege such status bequeathed to its heirs. So, on the one hand, I might go to bed with anyone, irrespective of class, but breakfasting together could well be out of the question.
Now, 50 years later, I launched my new novel there, a homecoming I could once have only dreamed of. What a thrill, to sit in the beautiful lounge of a friend’s house, the fire gently burning and read from a narrative that takes place before another fire in another lounge. How apt that the novel’s central theme is the nature of personal belief, why we have them, and how they affect one’s life and the lives of strangers and loved ones. I, who would never have believed that one day I should hold sway in such a home, never mind provoke discussion.
The gathering was a mix of family, friends and strangers from different backgrounds, yet in modern day London we all have the right to freely express ourselves. To the 6 beliefs in the novel 6 more were added in the discussion that followed my reading: altruism, empathy, dreaming, individuality, family and responsibility. I only wish we had discussed them at greater length. But what I am most grateful for is that this little book has the ability to make people think.
The other reading was to standing room only audience of 130 + at the Photographers Gallery Bookshop. Not a place where one would normally expect to read fiction. At the director’s request, I was able to find a way to tie the novel in to photography as well as to the essay I wrote for Joel’s new book: Morandi’s Objects. And I must thank both Morandi and Meyerowitz whose coattails I gladly held in order to gain entry.
After reading the essay, Joel gave a beautiful talk and power-point presentation describing how he has journeyed from street photography to the still life. Then I sprung back up before anyone had a chance to sneak out, inviting all to strike the downward facing dog pose, or let out a primal scream in order to energize the reading which I cleverly (I thought) presented as a series of portraits, choosing to read a short childhood flashback into each of the 6 characters lives. And joy of joys, no-one left and many bought books!
I was 19 when I left London with a cheap blue suitcase and 2 pairs of shoes, to begin what I thought at the time would be my around-the-world-in-2-years trip. I never did make it back home as I had assumed I would, to live out the rest of my life. Over the intervening half-century I have visited England many times, experiencing varying degrees of belonging, outsider-ness, familiarity and sometimes, unrecognizable traits of stupidity in a nation once known for its common sense. This time it felt as though the city and its populace had settled back into the best of itself, taking those values along in a manner both positive and creative. There is an air of tolerance in the city, which nicely goes hand-in-hand with an acceptance that anything could befall us at any time.
And what joy to speak my native tongue…English, not American or Italian. Only by living in other cultures amid other languages can we fully understand how much we are formed and influenced by the place in which we grew up. These familiar pieces of ourselves we pack away in order to take on the new. Some of them, mothballed as they may be, stay intact and like a pop-up sponge soaked in water, can be revived and put to good use.
Maybe because Joel and I have now lived in Tuscany for 2 years, a life uninhabited by a lot of friends or ease of language, it allows us to slip easily into the city current; to be surrounded by friend and make new ones, to pop off to the theatre or cinema on a whim, to say yes to dinners and museums or dash off to Portobello with Pip.
Talking of dinners and museums, on our last day we did both and each beautifully underscored the importance of diversity and the acceptance what we have different needs at different times. We fell in love with each other all over again as well as falling in love with London. It was about people really. We felt as though we had been reminded of a part of ourselves that had been up in the attic for a while and we both wanted to bring our intact selves home to the farm. So we made a dinner party for 14 in the little rental flat and wrapped ourselves in laughter and friendship.
Earlier in the day we had visited the Royal Academy to see the glorious exhibition: The Modern Garden; From Monet to Matisse. For 2 hours we were inside nature and light as we entered the artists’ gardens. Even then, a hundred years ago, they were speaking of the need for nature as the antidote to the brutality of industrialization and city life. Not to mention war. A whole room was give to paintings Monet made while surrounded by WWI, the wall text, and I paraphrase, quoting Monet’s statement that if the savages wanted to come, then let them kill him in front of his life’s work. A modern garden indeed.
And now we have returned to ours. The sun, low but not yet setting, rakes the hillsides startling the winter crop into virulent green; the olive groves a shimmer of silver in the still air. In the garden, the rose plants are sprouting their first new leaves and there is much weeding to be done in the Mediterranean beds. Rain is forecast for the next three days; a wonderful excuse to lay low by the fire, to read, to paint, to write. By Tuesday the earth will be softened, making those weeds easy to pull. London will be a memory and the river will rush onward to the sea.
NB. A gentle reminder that my novel : From Dusk to Dawn is available as hardcover or e-book from: Amazon, Barnes and Noble, IndieBound. Tell your friends!