THE FADING MARGIN: serial 25

Chapter THIRTEEN

Literary Leanings

Part One

A feet-on-the-ground assessment of my circumstances would have counselled almost any half-sensible course of behaviour other than the one that I now proceeded energetically to embrace. I was thirty-three. Unlike my closest friends without exception (it was a circumstance the significance of which could not be over-estimated and would never diminish) I enjoyed no private income. The ten years of my life over which I might reasonably be said to have had control had yielded nothing by way of recognizable qualification for any respectable revenue-earning occupation. Harry Oppenheimer had generously said that I would be welcome to join some part yet to be determined of his exceedingly large international spread of business interests. The owner of the English prep school to which my recent pupil had been sent, possibly the most esteemed and expensive prep school in the land, had offered me a job teaching French and Latin. Grateful though I sincerely was, I had taken advantage of neither suggestion. Leaving South Africa, I had been given not only a box of 50 Romeo Y Juliet Havana cigars (a taste for which, like Bollinger, I had acquired under the Oppenheimer roof. Tubed, I have two of them still), but a cheque for a sum which, prudently managed, might have provided shelter for the proverbial rainy day that even the most judiciously chosen career would inevitably have entailed. Instead, I bought a little Austin A35, a state-of-the-art tape-deck recorder  (the Walkman was more than 20 years in the future) with the BBC in mind and began studying motor routes to Calabria.

Impossible, at this remove, to be sure of the genesis of the idea, but I had recently heard a talk on the wireless about what the speaker had called “unknown” Calabria and it is at least likely that a tortuous process of mental cross-reference had occurred. The name Calabria already meant something to me. Old Calabria was the title of a travel guide by Norman Douglas (a copy is still on my shelves), who had also written the (then) well-known novel, South Wind, a story set in an island which the author calls Nepenthe, but which is obviously Capri. Popularly famous not so much for the novel as for the 1934 song and for Axel Munthe’s phenomenally best-selling The Story of San Michele, Capri held a particular and acutely painful interest for me. The year before, with South Africa and the prospect of six months of separation approaching, I had discovered that a long and increasingly close friendship had become a deeply serious love affair. There had been tears and the tenderest of embraces at my departure. By way of comfort I had said that six months was no time at all: in the autumn, I would stop off on my homeward flight from Johannesburg, she would fly from London and we would have a reunion in Rome, which neither of us had yet visited. It would be very romantic. We would have long dinners in Trastevere. We would throw coins in the Fonte di Trevi  (the Academy Award-winning song was barely two years old), thus ensuring a return together. Risking a gilding of the lily, we would take the train down to Naples and the ferry over to the Blue Grotto, Anacapri and the Faraglioni, not to mention Tiberius’s (but not Gracie Fields’s) villa. Capri! It would be the holiday of a lifetime. No need for tears.

In the autumn, the tears had been all mine.  Over a candle-lit dinner in the soft evening air of Trastevere she had told me that soon after I had left London she had met someone else. He was almost 40 years her senior, famous in a scholarly profession, star of a popular TV game show, three times married and notorious for his extra-marital liaisons; but inexhaustibly interesting, boundlessly charming and “very kind”:  in short, irresistible. She had not resisted. Over dinner on a terrace looking down to Marina Grande on Capri (I had judged it too defeatist simply to return to England directly from Rome, and in my traumatised state hoped for some sort of miracle) she pleaded for understanding. As I had already discovered in our pensione overlooking the Piazza Barberini in Rome, “Noli me tangere” had been the watchword for the trip earnestly enjoined by her new paramour and faithfully to be obeyed; all the same, she insisted, our relationship, though now irrecoverably changed, was and always would be very precious to her. The candles guttered in the evening breeze and I was aware of a loss that seemed more terrible than I had ever known. Now, only a few months later, and whatever the prompting, like a veteran returning to the scene of some near-mortal wartime experience, I had a compelling desire to go south again; but with funds already grievously depleted by car and tape recorder, how to pay for it?

During the long vacation of 1953, Mac and Denise, my wartime Belgian friends, had taken me on a memorable trip to the south of France. In the ensuing Michaelmas term at Oxford, encouraged by my small Undergraduate Page success of 1951, I had again submitted an account of it to The Spectator and once again, to my genuine surprise and no less joy, it had been published. It was the first travel piece that I ever wrote and was to be of seminal significance .

 

DEEP DEPRESSION

 

The notice outside the café was pathetically eloquent: “Service à l’intérieur.” It was raining on the Côte d’Azur. It was no isolated phenomenon. If the newspapers were to be believed, the whole of Europe was in the grip of weather, which, for August, could be considered severe. But while in London or Paris or Berlin, it had meant little more than the carrying of umbrellas and the modification of week-end plans, on the Côte d’Azur there had fallen a gloom and a chill which gave the lie to the promises of the travel agents and made nonsense of the brochures of the Syndicats d’Initiative.

 The comment of the facteur as he produced the letters from inside his dripping oilskin was briefly to the point: “Le temps est devenu fou.” From the Pyrenees to the Alps all reasonable forecasts had been confounded, all precedent overthrown. From Cannes to Menton and beyond, from Les Iles d’Hyères to St. Tropez, the pleasure boats were hugging the harbour walls and heavy clouds lay low across the hills. At Monte Carlo the beach was deserted. At Villefranche the streets were almost empty. And at Nice, “Jewel of the Southern Coast,” a wind from the sea was driving the waves against the promenade, sending the poor to their boarding houses and the rich to the refuge of the Negresco lounge.

At no point on the coast could the weather have caused any satisfaction, but at Le Lavandou it brought a dismay and a disorganisation which quite overwhelmed the little town. The rain fell upon a region unprepared and unwelcoming. It fell upon the red rocks where, the day before, people had been sunning themselves in between expeditions at pêche sous-marine. It fell upon the gaily-coloured beach tents, upon the white-walled villas and the cushions left lying on the lawns; upon the jasmine and the oleanders and the geraniums in the blue window-boxes. It beat through the pine trees and stirred the needles in their shade; beat upon the rocks and made the lizards scuttle for shelter in the crevices and thick undergrowth; and, higher up, where the ripening vines were watched over by the cypress trees, it fell upon the brown earth so that the dried-up drainage channels began to run again. The rivulets flowed into the gullies, the gullies into the bed of the stream, and the stream flowed down to the coast, gushed out from its grating at the end of the little promenade and sent a great brown stain spreading slowly out to sea.

Although the rain had begun falling long before dawn, neither natives nor visitors had dressed appropriately, for there had been no popular belief that the outrage would persist. Now, when luncheon was already being served, the cafés were crowded with those who had been exiled from the beaches and whose picnic baskets impeded the waiters’ feet as tray after tray of coffee and cakes were brought: “One could not just sit there without having something.” So they sat, toying with unwanted delicacies, subdued and shivering in shorts and slacks and open-neck shirts, wet from their dashes through the downpour, filling the atmosphere with a scent of sodden misery.

 It was a misery which was compounded of disappointment and frustration and, clearly identifiable above all else, a hurt and bewildered unbelief. It was a misery which ousted initiative and decision, leaving only a sad and confused uncertainty. The waiters and the barmen and the longshoremen were asked for their views, and, knowing well that they were expected to give expert and cheerful reassurance, they had at first obliged. “Ça ira,” they would say nodding towards the sea and the sky. “Ça sera vite passé,” as a doctor still groping for his diagnosis might seek to placate the fears of a nervous patient. But as the day wore on without any lightening of the skies they too began to betray a deep concern. Their manner changed from bluff confidence to uneasy doubt and then to ashamed silence, or, if pressed, to an attitude of defence and apology. “Mais c’est jamais comme ça,” they would say. “Je n’ai jamais rien vu de tel.”

Hour by hour there grew in the town a feeling of helplessness and futility. At the bigger and more fashionable resorts there may be many other things to do when the sun does not shine. There are the great hotels and the bars and the cinemas, entrenchments behind which the shadow of a cloud may be ignored. But in Le Lavandou there are few such retreats; they are not desired; one goes there for the simple life – and for the sun. And so, when the sun did not appear, and when the rain fell unceasingly, the brooding frustration grew. One was as if in a theatre where the star of a one-man show had not arrived in time for curtain-up.

 If the audience was depressed the staff were no less affected. In the narrow streets shopkeepers stood disconsolately in their doorways, watching the cars appear and re-appear, their foreign number plates somehow reproachful, their tyres swishing slowly and sadly through the puddles as yet another drive was made along the front to look for some sign of a change. Trade was almost at a standstill. At the boulangerie a mound of unsold loaves bore witness to the deserted shore. At the épicerie the wasps had to crawl beneath layers of sacking to find the fruit which should have been in open baskets on the pavements. The ice factory had suspended work. The post office was almost empty, and at the wine merchants, where by twelve o’clock not four litres of rosé had been drawn from the casks, the proprietor was asleep in his office, his apron hanging undisturbed upon the door. There was nothing to be done. That evening Le Lavandou went early to bed, tired with the wasted day, fearful of tomorrow.

 During the night the centre of the meteorological depression shifted more than a hundred miles to the northwest and its periphery cleared the coast. At six next morning a mist was rising over the town as the sun resumed its rule. The stream from the hills had shrunk to half its volume of the day before, and the sea was calm. The lizards came out again on the rocks, and in the streets the awnings were drawn out over the pavements. If, in passing, one remarked to a native of Le Lavandou that yesterday had been dreadful, had it not, or that it was good to see the sun again, one would be answered with the sort of smile which admitted nothing, hinted at delusion, implied that the morning sun could be taken quite for granted. “The sun?” it seemed to say. “But the sun, of course, on the Côte d’Azur!” It left the impression that the weather was hardly a topic for conversation, and that one’s own remark had not been in the best of taste.  *

 * Reprinted from The Spectator December 14, 1953

 ________

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