THE FADING MARGIN: serial 26Posted: June 14, 2013
If The Spectator had liked my piece about the south of France, why not one about the south of Italy? And what would be on the way there? Why, Capri! (Never waste good agony, said Baudelaire.) Politely, The Spectator declined the offer, but almost by return of post, and to my astonishment, came an acceptance from The Tatler, provided that I could supply good photographs. At school I had been secretary of the photographic society. From a fellow officer in India I had bought a little Zeiss Ikon camera which he had acquired in Germany as an involuntary loan from a captured member of the Wehrmacht. Oh, the rapture a month or two later of a double-page spread of my own black and white pictures, accompanied by my own laboriously-crafted words! My abiding memory of Calabria, I said, was ‘of mountains and sea; of olives trees and umbrella pines; of hedges of wild rosemary; of gorse in flower; of fields of purple clover; of oranges and lemons, and of the sun’.
Six more Tatler pieces in the archive of my earliest published journalism not only mark the way things went over the next two years, but offer an explanation. June 1957 saw another of my own pictures displayed over a huge false double (two thirds of a double page) to illustrate the account of a walk to Nea Moni on the Greek island of Chios. In September, again with another magnificent false double, but this time of the harbour front at Saint Malo, I was telling Tatler readers that there was ‘a comfortable, no-nonsense atmosphere about all things in Brittany; born, perhaps, of sunshine and rain in the right proportions, of strong winds and soft breezes, of a coast that is here all granite, stark and unyielding, there all green fields and pine trees and infinities of tide-washed sands’. I was telling them, too, of a dinner at the Moulin de Rosmadec in Pont Aven where I chose ‘a Montrachet 47 to keep company with lobster and a tarragon sauce; the second course of a dinner that I remember with an almost idolatrous delight’. (The Moulin is still there; still among the Michelin stars.)
‘Nigel Buxton recalls some incidents that have highlighted journeys he has made to different parts of Europe’, says an introduction to a general travel feature in the Tatler of January 1958, but the accompanying pictures are agency ones; not mine. The following July has my byline attached to words and pictures on the subject of Kastoria, in Macedonia, and in September I am enthusing about walking in Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland and reporting on a climbing school at Rosenlaui.
That summer, also, I must have met Godi Michel, legendary head of the Oberland tourist office, for in the Tatler of January ’59 I am reporting on an October chamois hunt with him, again in the Bernese Oberland.
‘We got to Lauterbrunnen at about four o’clock and took the Mürren funicular. At the top we left the station on foot and for more than an hour, Michel leading, climbed steadily upward through the trees. The pace seemed tediously slow at first, each step studied, deliberate and sure. After a while I realized that it was exactly right: that even with burdens far heavier than our rifles and small rucksacks we could have sustained the same gentle process for hours on end. The only sounds were made by our footsteps and the falling rain. By half past five we had cleared the tree line and were following a track along the steep side of a valley. A wind was blowing the rain hard in our faces. The cold struck even through my waterproof and a thick sweater. The track became steeper. The wind increased. The rain ran down my face and was salt on the lips. The bottom of the valley was hidden in cloud and darkness was coming on. I was wondering how much further we had to go and whether we would need our torches when Michel paused and pointed up ahead, higher still. In the gloom was the outline of a hut with a chink of light at a window. Suddenly I felt desperately tired.
It was very good to reach shelter. Two other hunters were already there and the stove was well stoked with pine logs. Food was cooking in black iron pans. Michel and I had brought whisky with us and, while the others ate, sat drinking by lamplight, happily aware that the hut’s crude comfort was yet wholly sufficient. Later, we too ate, then climbed a ladder into the loft and lay on the mattresses of deep box beds with federbetten to cover us. Comfort was transmuted to luxury by the sound of the wind and the rain’.
The archive yields no more Tatler. At some juncture or other, still drifting in the general direction that I evidently thought consistent with my abilities and fancies, I had joined the so-called ‘Press Office’ of a large drug and chemicals company four stops from the Essex end of the London Underground’s District Line. My dealings with the press proved to be minimal. Instead, and to my liking, I found myself doing the job of an advertising copywriter; but not only composing text; charged also with the appropriate visual conception. It was nothing if not ‘creative’. It was fun. Occupying the desk opposite me was a girl who was good company for lunch, the Proms and bistro suppers. Yet in retrospect, what happened was almost inevitable. When the last love affair had ended in a cry, six years before, I had had Oxford and the ineluctible necessity of staying the academic course to keep me on the rails. After South Africa, I had been almost wholly bereft. The travel and freelance writing had provided me with a succession of short-term objectives. Dagenham had required the establishment of a daily routine and a temporary illusion of long-term purposefulness. But all no better than anodyne, all killing time. And to what end? I was still in London with all its painful associations, doing nothing purposefully, replaying the past in an endless loop of self-flagellatory regrets, trapped in an emotional wasteland as deplorable for my friends as for myself. Something had to change. All else apart, my press office salary was woefully unequal to even the unambitious, unpretentious, very rarely saturnalian London way of life that, willy-nilly, had fallen to me. No mere geographical shift would be likely to achieve a miraculous rehabilitation, but surely a sweeping change of scenery was a necessary start.
One Essex lunchtime at the end of March, I had taken a rudimentary picnic to unkempt open ground adjacent to the administrative complex and was lying on my back in long grass, gazing up beyond cirrus cloud opaque enough to temper but not wholly conceal the sun, daydreaming of eternal summer and wine-dark seas. All at once a famous line from Goethe, often read, never intentionally committed to memory, came into my head: Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn? Goethe had been reminiscing about Italy, but then I had ignorantly believed he was referring to the Balearics. It was as if I had been waiting for a signal that had come as suddenly as the report of a starter’s gun.
What? Shall I ever sigh and pine? My lines and life are free …… there was wine before my sighs did dry it: there was corn before my tears did drown it. I struck the board, and cried, ‘No more. I will abroad’. **
Reodorants were among the company’s chemical products and it would be nice if the floral fragrances —albeit artificial— of border and boudoir were to enhance my curiously clear recollection of the moment. Sadly, it is the stench of pyridine* that in memory pervades it as powerfully as it pervaded the Essex air between Upney and Upminster when the wind was unfavourable. Within a month, I had abandoned Dagenham, injudiciously let my flat to the friend of a friend, and on a day when the plains beyond Palma were glorious with almond blossom and it was impossible to envisage the circumstances of George Sand’s notorious A Winter in Mallorca, was driving up into the hills above the northern coast to a chance encounter six months hence that would determine the course of the rest of my life.
* George Herbert, 1633
* * Pyridine is indispensable to the manufacture of a host of chemical products. Wikipedia describes it as having “a distinctive, unpleasant fish-like odour”. This is to put it sedately: it stinks to high heaven.