A day spent travelling through the mountains. On the higher passes. creamy-white erica flowering at the road verges. Mist slowing the traffic, a crowd of cyclists in training, bright blur of yellow, reds, greens, hot rubberised pinks. All the heroes have tumbled from glory with Oscar Pistorius, Lance Armstrong.
Standing in a corner of the deli, holding in one hand my basket of wild mushrooms, red bell peppers, sweet smoked paprika, local cheeses, I looked up and saw myself on security video. A sterner, older face, that whimsical charm of my 20s gone forever. Upright careful posture, the patient weary expression that strangers and acquaintances know so well, the self shielded behind a mask of age. It always startles me, this unfamiliar person whom I would have passed in the street without a second glance years ago. That social invisibility that afflicts all of us in time.
Luxury of sipping espresso under oak trees, that kick of caffeine like a lightning bolt. Then browsing in a secondhand book shop, the owner thrilled to see us again, book lovers who still buy actual physical copies of books, those grubby, overlooked artefacts. She would like it if I bought new books, the latest James Patterson in hardback, thrillers and bodice-rippers with shiny laminated covers. She peers at my choice with fond bewilderment. I am delighted that she has no idea of the literary fiction tucked away on her shelves: a first edition of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers, copies of Jose Saramago’s The Double, Adam Thorpe’s 1992 cult read Ulverton, Claire Messud, an old Muriel Spark in good condition, a thumbed copy of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods for 20 cents.
As a poet, he was used to his work being greeted with a deafening silence. “Publishing poetry is like, as Ezra Pound put it, dropping a petal into the Grand Canyon and waiting to hear the echo,” he says. “The first review of Ulverton was mediocre, and it is an eccentric book: whole chunks of it are in dialect. So I wasn’t expecting much.” But then something odd happened. It wasn’t only that there were some good reviews (one notoriously sensible critic even acclaimed it as a “masterpiece”). At bookshops, it began to fly off the shelves; caught on the hop, his publisher could not keep up with the demand. In the fullness of time, it went on to sell 70,000 copies – and without even winning a major literary prize (the closest it got was being short-listed for the Whitbread first novel prize).
And even the most dog-eared and neglected masterpieces will survive as long as there are readers. Home in the blowing shivering mountain mist for a bowl of rock lobster bisque, listening to news of the death of Venezuela’ s Hugo Chavez at 58, more reports of police brutality, the elections up north in Kenya.
Sun shining wet through mist.
When she turned 45, my mother told me she stopped looking in the mirror, she saw only loss. How can we learn elementary kindness to the ageing self? My Lenten reading is filled with that alcoholic and sorrowing Catholic punk mystic Franz Wright.
Is there a single thing in nature
that can approach in mystery
the absolute uniqueness of any human face, first, then
its transformation from childhood to old age—
We are surrounded at every instant
by sights that ought to strike the sane
unbenumbed person tongue-tied, mute
with gratitude and terror. However,
there may be three sane people on earth
at any given time: and if
you got the chance to ask them how they do it,
they would not understand.
I think they might just stare at you
with the embarrassment of pity. Maybe smile
the way you do when children suddenly reveal a secret
preoccupation with their origins, careful not to cause them shame,
on the contrary, to evince the great congratulating pleasure
one feels in the presence of a superior talent and intelligence;
or simply as one smiles to greet a friend who’s waking up,
to prove no harm awaits him, you’ve dealt with and banished all harm.