I’m not sure whether the sound of rain, falling against the window directly behind my head as I write, is soothing or not. It is mirrored by the rhythmic beat of rain falling on a small balcony in the next room; the two are separated by a double sliding door, a common feature of houses here in the Twenties, where a bedroom and sitting room were laid out next to one another in the small living area of a house used elsewhere for business. More soothing, I suspect, would be the steady sound of rain falling on a larger expanse of water, a lake or small sea, which can be watched from the shelter of a house or mountain hut, far away from the pressing rush of civilisation. The reality, of course, is something different. My neighbour does have a small lake in his back garden, but it is not yet completed and hardly something where I would sit and watch the sun going down. Rather, I think of the streets in this small town, and the rain cleansing a day’s grit and grime from the surfaces. I imagine small waste paper boats swirling along gutters and disappearing down storm drains. Sometimes my imagination takes me back to a visit to the medieval town of Freiburg, here in Germany, where deep gutters carry swift flowing water along and under the streets at all times, whether it is raining or not.
Then, at other times, my memories return to my earliest visits to Paris, where the rain really was cleansing; where the smell of the rubbish lingered in the back streets of the poorest quarters and only the rain could wash away the recollections of poverty and despair. Perhaps I am overstating it somewhat; my mind was very imaginative in those far off days, it has settled with time and experience to accept the realities. Not that, in some parts of the world, the reality is so far removed from imagination. Paris was, and is, a beautiful city packed with adventure for a boy of fourteen – as I was then – as much as it is for an older man now. London too, but I am slightly biased since it is the city of my birth, and I have seen all its various sides, in good and in bad times.
For eagerly is trampled what once was too much feared
wrote Lucretius, and the sound of a major storm late at night, as a small child in a room high above the street, brought fear with it: the crashing thunder, the blinding lightning, and the constant drone of water cascading across the glass of my windows, down the guttering and away, unseen into the darkest depths of night. The stuff of nightmares, as a child. And today? Today I sit and wait for the storms to pass, during the day time, and sit at the window watching through the night. What was once feared brings a certain level of peace today, and thoughts over the inestimable power of nature. Back then, in the fit of youth, it was as if the ancient gods had come back down from their safe refuges on Olympus to wage war against us mere mortals, to avenge their banishment and reassert their rights on the planet which had once been held so tightly in their grasp. To return to our memories as gods fitting of a rightful place in society, of our blessing and fidelity. The thoughts and fears of a child.
I would dream of monsters: faceless beings which advanced across my small room, ever closer, growing in fearsomeness with each silent step, often surrounded by cold flickering flames. I imagined them dragging me down into the world of Hades, which I had recently discovered through the writings of Dante – I was seven at the time, very impressionable – and saw myself within a multitude of others my age, carried off by these dark monsters of the netherworld who were, as Juvenal puts it:
Burning with rage within, they’re borne
Down headlong, just like boulders from a mountain torn;
The ground gives way beneath, the hanging slope falls in.
and so into the outer rings and the eternal punishment for being a mortal with sin. The sin being, of course, that which has been passed down from one generation to another since the First Man, coupled with the ravages of myth and legend and the images of Dante, Milton, even Coleridge and his lost mariner. I can see, now, many decades later, why some felt it unwise that I should be allowed free choice of what to read. In fact, as was later discovered, the flames, the dark shadows, the movement within my semi-darkened room at night were the first signs of a loss of sight which, since I was but a mere child, none believed.
And now the weather is soothing, and all fear seems to be gone. The streets are cleaned, the refuse disappears along the gutters and into the drains, and the world is ready to present itself, clean, fresh and renewed, to all wishing to view its revitalised beauty. A few drops still, falling from the first spring leaves, caught on wire fences, glistening on bare branches above our heads, remain. I can return to my writing without fearing the revisiting memories of youth.
There is no fear. I sometimes feel that we allow our thoughts to take us in the wrong direction, that we do not necessarily consider what a course of action may bring with it, that a sense of fear is a good thing. We are taught, though, not to fear: we must be brave and do our duty; we must stand up to the foe, whoever it may be that day, that hour, and do our utmost. In business, at home, during our leisure hours: live up to the standards of someone else who, we suspect, cannot live up to them themselves. And thus this constant sense of fear, impregnated in us by those other people, by parents and teachers and bosses who have the power over our lives. Thomas Carlyle wrote, in his diary entry for November 15, 1857:
I return, not like a warrior to his battle-field, but like a galley-slave scourged back by the whip of necessity.
For those of us, and it is many, who do not enjoy what they do. He, however, loved what he did. His only problem on this one day, as compared to countless other problems which he faced every other day of his life, was the long illness of his wife, and the fact that he was required to write a review of some work by Sir Walter Scott, who he clearly did not like.
Oh that Literature had never been devised! Then, perhaps, were I a living man, and not a half-dead enchanted spectre-hunted nondescript.
He also did not like Charles Dickens, for some reason, and considered the Pickwick Papers, which we see as a classic of modern literature, to be the lowest trash. I also love what I do, which is write, and would never wish to give it up, despite the many hours of consternation, of blankness, of fighting to find a single word with which to begin, with which to end, with which to make some form of sense for the reader as much as for myself. The readers which we, as writers, rarely see but always feel, breathing down the back of our necks, demanding more or better, or both. Something like the rain, perhaps, a mixture between soothing and the dreams and nightmares of youth.
Like Carlyle, though, I cannot turn my back on literature, no matter how it may bother, no matter how much stress and strain it brings. There is a certain fire in the mind – once upon a time it was in my blood, coursing through my heart and veins – which insists that we carry on, that we read and write until that self-same heart bursts. Better, though, that both mind and heart burst with imagination, with the fire of creativity, and that we put this all down on paper or, as with so many modern things today, commit everything to the machine, the computer. Our lives are effectively controlled by computers today, be they big or small, watching or waiting, and even literature has changed to meet the times. Although I much prefer the printed book: the feel of paper in my hands; the smell of an older volume discovered on the shelves in a second-hand store; the satisfaction of being able to turn the pages one after another and greet each new revelation, each new event without needing to fear an electrical failure, a dead battery, a glitch in the machine. It’s hard to explain to the youngest generation, as they move into an age without books, as they see it, and I sit here, surrounding by nothing but printed pages, with the rain drumming down on the window behind my back. I heard someone boast that they had a capability of twenty thousand volumes, the capacity of their hand-held machine, where I have only seven thousand or so, and need rooms to store them. I forgive him his boast, knowing how quickly such a library can disappear: a momentary lack of concentration, and it sits in the pocket of another; a slight slip, and it lies on the unyielding ground, deceased, wrecked, surrounded by the shards of its former being.
It is surprising what makes the heart race. As a child, for me, it was stormy weather, being alone in my room under the rafters with no escape from the monsters. Now it is the excitement of literature, of history, of reading, discovering, learning, of building up experience and experiences. For others it is sport: football and softball, skydiving and rock climbing. We all have our adrenalin points, our something special which makes the soul sing, which makes the blood pump and ring in our ears. I wonder whether someone who has been physically active all their lives – and, yes, I have been too – can understand the draw, the appeal of the written word in the same way. And the draw of learning, not just from books and in the lecture halls, but out there in the real world – or as much of the real world as is available to them – of experiencing either with their own eyes, their own senses, or through others who are there, have been there, are moving on to the next experience as if there is no tomorrow.
Then, as I became used to the weather and accepted that my chances of being dragged off to the outer rings of Hades were rather limited, the excitement came from travelling. Physical and mental travelling: the reading and entering of different worlds through the personalities someone else had created on the printed page; the physical movement of myself, with or without parental permission, to all ends of the country and then, sublime and without permission, the exploration of a foreign city. My first visit to Paris was at the age of fourteen, during the Easter vacation, when everyone who cared to care believed I was walking across some shallow hills in the middle of England and sleeping in safe, secure youth hostels along the way. Sleeping bag, change of underwear, pocket money.
Here the idea of sleep and the rain changes for me: getting drenched while looking through the books on offer from the Bouquinistes along the banks of the river Seine; finding shelter for the night in the stairwell of a high-rise car park next to the Gare du Nord, despite the stench of urine and the strange noises of the night; walking the streets before the first people had opened their wooden shutters; eating piping hot croissants dipped in fresh jam from the bakery and watching the bakers at work; exploring the antiques markets, the theatres, the museums and galleries without an adult telling me where we would be going next, what the plans for the day were, like it or not.
Wherever the tempest drives me, there I land
as Horace wrote, but the tempest that is within, not the tempest wrought by others. Strange to look back now, when it feels as if all these events – and there are many more over the decades – were just yesterday.
The rain has long since abated and the sun has fallen beneath the horizon. I wonder, sometimes, what it must have been like to work by candlelight, to have to hand write entire books, as Henry James and so many others did. The advent of the typewriter made matters so much easier, not necessarily better, but easier. I shall retire from my day’s work, curl up with a new cup of tea and my copy of Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time for an hour or so before preparing an evening meal, and then returning to my book. Tomorrow is a new day, and I have either Denis Feeney’s Beyond Greek or Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature to look forward to. Every time I think my To Be Read pile is going down, something new attracts my attention which, I think you’ll agree, is a good thing. Cobwebs in the brain, not here, thank you very much!