Quills

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.

Ernest Hemingway

A couple of years ago I was tired of the spectre of writing.  All my life I’d dreamed of being a writer, but now that I had the time to write the words weren’t forthcoming and I was sick of the constant niggling feeling that whatever I was doing, I should really have been writing instead. I thought at that time that if some fairy godmother or genie in a bottle had given me permission to never write again, I’d have been relieved.

I do not feel that way anymore.

Have you ever seen the movie Quills? Geoffrey Rush plays the scandalous Marquis de Sade, a (real-life) writer and revolutionary in 17th-century France whose libidinous acts landed him in prison, where he spent much of his life and did most of his writing. When, as part of his punishment, the Marquis de Sade is deprived of pen and paper, he takes to writing with wine on the bed sheets, or with his own blood and excrement on the walls.

The whole film is a treatise on the act and importance of writing. Apparently the tune that the Marquis de Sade constantly hums is the children’s song Au Clair de la Lune, the second line of which translates as “lend me your quill so I can write a word”. Apparently every line that was cut from the film’s script made it into the film in one way or another, either written on clothing or bed sheets or on the walls of de Sade’s prison cell. Not a word that was written was lost or wasted.

Not every writer achieves the Marquis de Sade’s notoriety. Not every writer is even published, and some successful writers are scathingly critical of the fact that in these days of blogging and self-publishing, every wannabe writer can find a voice. I don’t think Milan Kundera meant it in a positive way when he wrote, in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

The irresistible proliferation of graphomania among politicians, taxi drivers, childbearers, lovers, murderers, thieves, prostitutes, officials, doctors, and patients shows me that everyone without exception bears a potential writer within him, so that the entire human species has good reason to go down the streets and shout: ‘We are all writers!’

But sometimes the words that we write can make a difference. They can make a difference to those around us, or just to ourselves. Or, like the words that sprung from Eve Ensler’s pen when she sat down to write The Vagina Monologues, they can make a difference to millions around the world.

If a genie in a bottle were to grant me three wishes now, I would not wish never to have to write again, but rather that I will always have the right words to say what I need to say, and the tools with which to say them. I admire the Marquis de Sade’s determination, but I think I’d rather drink my wine and leave my blood flowing in my veins so that I might write another day.

Give me a quill or a computer. And leave the rest to me.

Killing Christmas time in Calais

You’re driving overnight towards Calais and the leaves leap across the road ahead like frogs.

Then you keep driving and the wind picks up and the frogs grow in number and turn into swallows and swoop up and down before you, spiraling.

Then you keep driving and your phone bleeps and it’s a message from P&O saying the ferry service is suspended due to bad weather at Dover. You keep driving anyway, hoping to make it home to England for Christmas.

And then the swallows lose their wings and sprout tails and scuttle and squeak across the road in their hundreds, vicious and determined in their hunt.

And you wonder how your aged mother-in-law will take it when she arrives home from the hairdressers tomorrow and hears that you won’t be home for Christmas.

And you keep driving, thinking about the feast being prepared for you in a gorgeous home in Brighton, worrying about what John will do with the food he’s made when you’re not there to eat it.

And you can still see the glow of the bright lights in the night sky above Paris.

And Elbow nudges out LCD Sound System which slips into The XX.

And you keep driving, hopeful, watching for signs in the wildlife in the wind.

My Old Man’s a Dutchman

A man travels the world over in search of what he needs
and returns home to find it.

George Augustus Moore, The Brook Kerith

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My dad’s more of a philosopher than a scientist but even so it seems that he may have found a way of avoiding jet lag. To ensure that you’ll hit the ground running after a 24-hour journey across the world, all you have to do is emigrate from your homeland, live in a foreign country for 60 years, learn a new language, raise six kids and reluctantly retire. Then 60 years later when you fly back to the place where it all began, you’ll be so full of joy at being back in your mother country that the concept of jet lag won’t even occur to you, and you’ll spend a week running around the country with the energy of a man a third of your age.

OK, so the evidence may be apocryphal but that’s the way it worked for Dad when he flew in from Australia last week to spend four days in his hometown of Amsterdam and then travel south to see a live performance by his favourite musician in his hometown of Maastricht.

Last Monday morning at 6:00, I was waiting at the arrivals gate for Dad’s flight to come in from Perth via Kuala Lumpur, having myself flown in from Geneva the night before. This was to be the first time I’d seen Dad since I’d spent a month with him in Australia after the sudden death of his second wife eighteen months earlier. I knew that he was a little nervous about travelling alone so I was not just looking forward to seeing him but also anxious to make sure that he was OK after the long journey.

Passengers coming out at Arrivals 2 could exit from one of two doors, so I was standing back a little to ensure that I had a good view of both when a man approached and spoke to me in Dutch. Embarrassed as always about my linguistic incompetence I confessed that I don’t speak Dutch, at which point he seamlessly switched to English and said, I hope you don’t mind but I’ve been watching you since you were sitting over at that café earlier. Your face is so full of love, anticipation and excitement, I just had to come over and ask who it is that you’re waiting for. They’re very lucky to be so well loved.

Soon the man’s wife arrived, as did one very much loved Old Man, and I was relieved to hear that all Dad needed to recover from the flight was a nicotine fix. As we headed outside Dad filled me in on the details of his journey and I realised that I should never have had a moment’s concern about him travelling without a companion; a man of Dad’s charm and chattiness will never travel alone. People had gone out of their way to help him along the journey, showing him to his connecting flight and waiting with him as he collected his luggage at his final destination. Ah yes, I remembered, people are kind.

Once the fix was in we took a train into Amsterdam Centraal and then a taxi to the houseboat I’d got the keys for the night before. The taxi driver entered the one-way street on one side of our canal, the Prinsengracht, and was about to cross the bridge to go back the other way on the side of our houseboat, when Dad joked to him that he could just let us out there and we’d swim across. OK! said the driver, slamming on the brakes and waiting for us to get out. Ah yes, I thought, that Dutch sense of humour! I remember it now!

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I’d thought that Dad might be keen to get some rest after his epic journey across the world but the first thing he wanted to do when we got to the houseboat was unpack a gift he’d made for me and carted all the way from Australia. When we were kids, Mum and Dad had a nativity set that they’d set up every year in the fireplace of the house that we all grew up in, the house where Dad still lives now. (By some amazing coincidence of the orientation of the earth, it’s only at Christmas time that a small, rectangular shaft of sunlight shines down the chimney each year and falls directly onto the little baby Jesus in the centre of the scene. To six little Aussie kids in the seventies that seemed like something of a miracle.)

Now that Dad’s finally given in to the joys of retirement one of his hobbies is making nativity sets reminiscent of that one that we all loved as kids. I knew that he was making one for me and I also knew that he was going to the trouble of making it flat-pack so he could carry it in his suitcase. What I didn’t know was that he’d based the structure of my nativity set on the photographs he’d seen of the house that M and I are renting in France. Within minutes of our arrival on the houseboat, Dad had constructed an instantly recognisable Petit Chateau. We left it set up on the kitchen table for the four days we were there in Amsterdam, so that every time we got home to our little houseboat in Holland I also got home to my little house in France.

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Once the Petit Chateau was constructed, Dad was keen to get out and soak up some of the vibe of his old hometown. Within minutes of stepping off our houseboat we’d seen the famous Skinny Bridge and stumbled upon the De Magere Brug café-restaurant, which immediately became our local. It may only have been ten o’clock in the morning in Amsterdam but Dad was on Perth time and four o’clock in the afternoon was certainly not too early for his first Dutch gin of the day! It was also his first proper opportunity on this trip to chat with people in his mother tongue; at this little café and in every place we visited in the days that followed, I watched as Dad’s town and its people re-embraced him as one of their own, laughing with him and enveloping him in a warmth and solidarity that’s surely reserved for a returning prodigal son.

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One of our first intended ports of call after that liquid sustenance was the street that Dad’s family had lived on until they commenced the five-week-long boat journey that would lead to a lifetime’s stay in Australia in 1952. Dad remembered from his childhood that we could take a No. 13 tram from somewhere near Dam Square. When we looked around for a while and couldn’t see a tram No. 13 Dad started to wonder whether his 60-year-old memories might be muddled, so we got on another tram going vaguely in the right direction. Dad rapidly realised that we weren’t heading back to his old haunts, however, and after a long walk and a short journey on a metro train we were eventually led back to the correct tram – the No. 13 – which took us right to Dad’s old door.

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After Dad and I had spent four beautiful days in Amsterdam, the holiday got even better when one of my four gorgeous sisters flew in to join us from her home in Inverness. One of the first things she commented on was that the woman sitting at the table behind us in the airport café looked exactly like Dad’s sister. It was true; everyone in Amsterdam could easily have passed as one of my sisters, my brother, an aunt, uncle or grandparent. The twisted diphthongs and guttural consonants of the Dutch language were a strange and beautiful music to our ears too, reminding us as they did of our childhood.

When my sister and I checked Dad into his room near the Vrijthof Square in Maastricht, we sat around chatting and at one point got onto the subject of passports. I became a British citizen about four years ago but haven’t got around to getting my British passport yet so I still travel on an Australian one, and I also have a Swiss Carte de Legitimation. Dad also has an Australian passport, having decided just before his fifth child was born in 1970 (me, as it turns out), that he should be naturalised Australian to avoid being dragged away from his family in the (however unlikely) event that war should break out in Europe. And my sister, having been born to a pre-naturalisation Dutch father, has been able to claim on that heritage to get a Dutch passport. The irony is that Dad, a fluent Dutch speaker and the most Dutch man you’ll ever meet, is no longer able to get one of those, having renounced his citizenship all those years ago, although I have no doubt that with a few quiet words and a joke or two in the right ear Dad could manage to rectify that.

My now Dutch-Scottish-Aussie sister, (let’s call her Kalinka here, as Dad does), has decided that there’s something other than a nativity set that she’d like to have created for her in Dad’s wood-making workshop. Just as we were leaving Maastricht on our last morning in the Netherlands, she saw some ornamental Amsterdam houses in a shop window, and realised that there could be no more fitting gift from Dad than a symbol of his beloved homeland. She put in her request to Dad and he assures her that when he gets back to Australia her wish will be granted.

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I made a wish before I left the Netherlands too, though I’m not sure who will ever be in a position to grant it. My wish is that when I return to my hometown of Northam in 35 years from now, which will be 60 years since I first left, I’ll be welcomed back with the same warmth, joy and enthusiasm that Amsterdam offered to my Dad during our wonderful stay there last week. I think to have any chance of this wish ever being granted I’ll first have to ask Dad for some charm lessons… Oh, well. Happily I have  a few years to work on it.

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It’s only words

Poets, priests and politicians
Have words to thank for their positions
Words that scream for their submission
And no one’s jamming their transmission

The Police

Dome of the Rock

 A few years ago I was invited to attend the baptism of the baby of some great friends of mine. These friends are not religious but they knew that the Irish Catholic side of the family would be uncomfortable if the baby was denied the usual insurance against eternal damnation. They also thought, quite rightly, that a christening was as good an excuse as any to invite everyone to Dublin for a rollicking good party to celebrate the arrival into the world of their beautiful daughter. So the arrangements were made, the marquee ordered for the back garden, the food and wine planned and the godparents appointed.

Ah yes, the godparents. Standing by the baptismal font on the day would be the baby’s aunty and a lovely man who had been a great friend of the couple’s for many years. This man was also a great friend of mine, so I was party to the dilemma he faced in being conferred with this honour. While he knew that his atheism was of no concern to the baby’s parents – they’d chosen him for his loveliness and wanted him to be a special part of their daughter’s life – he was suddenly overcome by an uncharacteristic level of superstition about what might happen to him if, while standing in God’s very own house, he made all sorts of declarations that he didn’t actually believe to be true.

During a Roman Catholic christening, the parents and godparents of the baby have to make three declarations – that they believe in God, that they repent of their sins and that they deny evil. So the ironies here are interesting… Our friend doesn’t believe in God, but the religious superstition which still permeates even a reasonably secular country like England was enough to give him the uncomfortable feeling that God might smite him for his heathen deeds if he stood in a church and said that he did. It’s rather a muddle that organised religion has created here, wouldn’t you think?

The responses, psalms, prayers and practices of a Catholic Mass are things which I’m sure I’ll never forget, even in the unlikely event that I make the effort to try; one doesn’t come out of even a happy religious upbringing without some of its residue clinging insistently. But during this baptism ceremony, the only way in which my lips moved was in smiles at my friends and slight quivering at the inevitable emotion aroused in me by big events with friends and family. When we left the church, another lovely chum, who was also brought up Catholic and who had made the polite decision to respond to the priest and to say the prayers during the service, asked me why I hadn’t.

You must remember it all, she said, after so many years of going to church.

Yes, I said, of course I remember it, but I don’t believe in those words any more so I won’t say them.

Oh, she shrugged, they’re only words.

This morning, a Jewish Israeli man was shot dead by security guards at the Western Wall in Jerusalem because he shouted Allahu Akbar, which, of course, is Arabic for God is great. They were only words, and still this man, who had his hands in his pockets when the guards pulled their guns on him and fired, is dead. I’m writing this a couple of hours after the story broke, when little is known about what actually happened, what the man’s motivation was in saying what he did (if indeed his words weren’t misheard), or what provoked the guards to respond so brutally. All that is so far clear is that just two small words escaped from the man’s lips, and because of the place where he was standing when he said them, the circumstances in which they’ve been said before and the strength of belief and the fear and superstition that surrounds them, he will never say these or any other words ever again. This is just the latest terrible tragedy in a country which is sickeningly familiar with religious and territorially motivated tragedies, and it was only words that made it happen.

On the night of that wonderful Welcome to the World party in Dublin, there were pestilential winds of a biblical proportion. I still remember one friend doing a hilarious Irish jig in the pouring rain while the people around him struggled to secure the moorings of the marquee. Perhaps the wind and rain that night were signs of God’s displeasure at the fact that people had stood in his church and lied when they said that they believed in him. Or perhaps the wind and rain happened because we were in Dublin. Either way, while I choose not to be afraid of a potentially vengeful deity, my fear of terrified and small-minded people with deadly weapons is very well-founded. So although, as the Bee Gees would have us believe, it’s only words, I’m going to continue to be very careful about how I use them.