Directions to Rome

 Posted by at 10:46 am  Atelier, OUT in the WILDERNESS  Comments Off
Feb 202008


- "all roads lead there", as it is commonly said.

Fewer have listened to the antique Roman saying in full –

If you do not know where you are going,

all roads lead there”.

A useful proverb for those lost on journeys, and especially at clefts in the road, since it could be read two ways, both as a joke upon the human condition and the absurd notion that anybody really knows where they are going in life, and also as a argument for contentment and staying put, and a gentle warning against having fixed views about destinations.

Directions to Rome: EXEMPLUM 1.

The early map drawn by Piero le Rouge and published in 1488 has a typical medieval european design with Jerusalem (rather than Rome) being placed at the centre of a circular world. So for pilgrims setting off from a misty isle shaped like a narrow wedge far to the north, the general direction of travel for Rome would be south, east then being more towards Jerusalem, along the path to paradise towards the City of God, west being towards the Mahgreb, the very edge of the world, and further south towards all wickedness and iniquity of Africa. The 1511 world map by Bernades Sylvanus a few years later expanded the world sideways, stretching it both east and west, the centre sagging downwards like a pizza dough, thereby significantly changing both the compass directions and most direct routes of travel from England towards Rome, and the centre.

The great Albrecht Durer woodblock maps printed in 1515 restored a circular world, but Jerusalem was no longer to be found at the centre. Durer’s map had added a vastness of land and water both to the east and to the south, and the centre of the world has shifted and was now to be found in the sea to the south of Arabia on a passage to India.

Durer’s map was also surrounded by the faces of the twelve winds all blowing their hardest [Homer wrote of four winds - Boreas, Eurus, Notus and Zephyrus - Pliny in his Natural History of two wind systems, one of four and one of twelve. The common names for the twelve winds, which Durer also used on his map were as follows (beginning in the North): Septentrio, Aquilo, Caecias, Subsolanus, Vulturnus, Euronotus, Auster, Libonutus, Africus, Favonius, Corus, and Thrascias]. The twelve winds with their puffing cheeks told of the high risks of making journeys, and the extreme uncertainties of both direction and destination for any pilgrim setting off from London towards Rome, Jerusalem, or a trackless oceanic centre.


After all it is Lent

 Posted by at 12:18 pm  OVER and BEYOND  Comments Off
Feb 142008

“Auden accepts the correction or reform of the self as a prime human responsibility and a matter with which poetry should be concerned, difficult because of what he called ‘the radical gulf between Christian faith and all worldly values.” (Frank Kermode in the LRB 7.2.08,

Here we were again; in that same sharp, awkward search for words in order to make, to hack out from the raw materials, a conversation; to fight our way forwards – across Auden’s gulf.

I sat back and watched the conversation drifting like cigarette smoke (suddenly deposited into a movie from the forties or fifties, I guess), slowly dispersing, but over the decades the countless talk has left a veneer of sticky tar on every surface. Without explosive force, lasers or x-rays – the demolition gang – we will eventually choke to death; our throats closing, a final rebellion against all the old ways: the desire for the end of it all surpassing the transient hopes of finding the new song.

Longing for the night, we walk down unrecognised streets long emptied of all meaning except the will to inflict damage. Behind lowered blinds plotting continues deep into the night. The noxious fumes from the bomb factories leak out, wrecked cars pile up, police patrols know never to visit. We are pursued by giggling harpies; swift on their long legs, their hair flying on the wind of their own desire, buoyed up by mad and colourful cocktails.

I do my best to avoid a Lenten struggle – isn’t my life Lenten enough? Who will judge? Meanwhile I’m attracted to the idea of a quiet joy; feet on the ground, amazed at the vast array of phenomena endlessly changing, endlessly interesting . . .

I imagine her saying: ‘if only we could find the right way to love.’ Her eyes probed, sought the evidence of his heart.

He thought: she wants so much, if I don’t give it, it will be torn out of me . . . or I’ll be destroyed . . . Her words were engraved in a place he didn’t even know existed, branded in white-hot needlepoint. When he came to reflect on the events, later in the boredom of his own bed, he found it very hard to remember precisely what had happened.

Feb 132008

If only we could find the right way to love” EXEM PLUM 3 – by drum, dance and song – a poem, one sentence at a time:

A sweetness taken and not taken towards the mouth, sooner or later seeking out the pleasure of her company, touch, the young waitress with East European looks had wiped the round table

like sticky tar, the desire for death surpassing all transient pleasures, clearing the dirty coffee mugs and plates, while the flexed wrist of her other hand rested easily against her hip

(“If you tell anything illegal, I am bound to report you”, she had said. It was a way of keeping the lid on things, the threat of kinetic action, because if the doors became leaky everybody could be in trouble and he might end in jail)

and it was the leaking across two surfaces, one clean the other soiled, the pure and the impure, the uncivilised and its opposite, her smile, which he transgressed, sliding, skidding, skewing, to give pleasure simultaneously, sometimes to as many as six together, and to rest soot-blue black motionless on the gleaming rock hidden deep in the cave within the cliff, as if lying on an ocean of sleep but the eyes ever-open.

It was Krishna.


Feb 092008

It was Friday, and I had arranged to meet CT for lunch. We met at one of those  fashionably upgraded pubs of West Dorset that receive write-ups in the Saturday papers. We both ate fish, spicy squid, because after all it was Lent.

CT was a writer, so we were having a kind of literary lunch. He told me that he had three books on the go. One of them was a novel. He had finished it, but was having trouble with the ending and was re-writing it. Over coffee CT told me the plot.

“If only we could find the right way to love”: Exemplum One

‘An older man recalls his youth, and a love for a young woman that never happened. Or rather it had happened but then the love had been lost, and the rest of his life, outwardly brilliant and materially successful, has been a waste.

‘One day the older man goes back to the place of his first love. His memory however is false, everything is changed and he finds nothing. Instead he meets a man, and during a long conversation everything is changed.

‘He returns home, and then the story ends – it is a conversion story.’

- What happens right at the end? I asked. I was wondering if the man died.

- He dies from lung cancer, CT replied, but he writes to the man he has met and tells him he is at peace.

- It is a good ending. It reminds me of the end of Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, I added.

Secretly I was dissatisfied. This was only the beginning, I thought. What really matters was what happened afterwards. After conversion, when the glow has faded, how did he live his life? Live life, especially the way things were in the world these days, and with the way he had lived up until now. It might be very funny. It might be very sad. Probably both. I wanted another 20,000 words. But I restrained myself. CT was a new friend, and after all it was Lent.

Towards the end of lunch, I realised that I had told CT very little about my own writing. I always found it difficult to categorise.
“If only we could find the right way to love”: Exemplum Two

- I write about pilgrimage, I said.

It was clear CT did not know what to make of that. Fiction or fact? I didn’t know which it was either, and the conversation did not progress. Still CT gave me some very good advice about the daily practice of writing.

- And the practice of only writing one sentence at a time, I added.

- What do you mean? a puzzled CT asked.

It was a bad habit. I was always being distracted by words. I would start one sentence, and then halfway through begin another, and then a third and so on. Sometimes I would have five or six on the go at the same time. It was the same with baklava. I would be walking purposefully down the street of some great city, but then whenever I saw a shop selling sticky sweet-meats, I could not resist.

CT was too kind to tell me what he thought of all that. – I was a full-time journalist for thirty years, he said. You get into the way of writing less.

He was right. Restraint. After all it was Lent.



 Posted by at 12:11 pm  Atelier, IN Conversation  Comments Off
Feb 062008

‘Where is the furthest you have walked to in your life?’ Overton asked me over dinner last week-end. It was a splendid occasion, a four course meal, with candles and fine wines (although these days I don’t drink), and distinguished guests. A real celebration.

I tried to recall the most steps I had ever made across the ground on foot, and the furthest distance I had travelled, but always a car or bus or train intervened, and a warm bed at night, and meals in a house.

‘At the most three days. Once walking across the plains south of Hanover in Germany. I had twisted my ankle and been left behind’, I replied. It was a long time ago. I had been an Army reservist and on a training exercise.

‘Several people I know have walked to Rome’, Overton continued. ‘They tell me it takes about eight weeks’.

From London to Rome – or perhaps starting from Canterbury – I had not expected the suggested destination to be Rome. The possibility… the possibility of the first step towards that great city.


Feb 012008

She, the living God, and ‘was’ – the condition of being past – a tense that is refused, and Elena worships her, calling her Mother, Mum or Ma:

- ‘Nothing will happen to me’, her mother says in a trembling voice.

- ‘But Ma, what if you had an accident?’ Elena asked, Ma was the name she most preferred.

Unsaid; the possibility of her death, because her mother is in poor health, overweight with a weak heart and mothering them all exhausts her. Mothering, not only the four children she has given birth to herself, and her own own mother, Elena’s grandmother, but also the others, her two half-brothers, and their children, the cousins and the whole extended family, and her children’s friends and their families, caring and loving them all, and they all love her too so that it is impossible for anyone to hear her say – I am Ma, and one day I will die.

- ‘ You don’t understand the pain I am in,’ she says instead to Elena, ‘it is worse than giving birth’. Her unlined face breaks into a radiant smile.

Elena drew closer – ‘Oh Ma’, she said extending both hands towards her.

- ‘Please don’t come near me, darling, I smell horrible’, her mother says. These are the words the Gods use when they begin to die. This is now the end of the living feast she has prepared for her daughter and it is beautiful as far as the eye can see.

But for Elena it will always be betrayal.