Out There Somewhere


I was sitting on a bit of ruined abbey nursing the book I was supposed to be reading, enjoying the breeze and the faint brown smell that mulched York.
I tweeted something like: “What a magnificent city this is. Like a goddess! I am stumbling around like a primitive something.”
This was not altogether true, I was now sitting and stumbling only inwardly.
I started trying to write what follows in the past tense which I find very awkward, like writing left-handed. But here I went.

A friend of mine spent her school years abroad. She studied English literature and history and watched a lot of BBC television. After about eighteen years she finally set foot in Europe, was granted some sort of residential permanency and set about the serious business of assimilation.

She started in Rome. Being a trusting and naive member of the European diaspora she believed Europe to be some sort of cultural aggregate. (She later learned this to be an accurate but uncommon view which for a time she found confusing.)

In her far away studies she had spent many hours poring over street plans and elevations of urban, C 14th Rome. She knew which chapels bristled from which naves of which cathedrals and whose canvases and sculptures would be found in them. She knew which galleries and palazzi owned which works by whom and even which were of doubtful provenance. She knew the mythical stories depicted in fountains and on plinths and how the whole buildings had once looked, where now stood roped-off stony outlines. She knew these outlines too.
But, she said, no essay or exam preparation had prepared her for the shock, the smack of realizing that THIS Rome, thrumming with Piaggios and boys with nice jumpers and combed hair, THIS Rome was THAT Rome. The microfiches and slides, the imported catalogues and postcard reproductions of Great Works she had consumed, the material that constituted her entire education was this: this gelato, this boy in D&G glasses, this nappied toddler scrambling over this fallen column lovingly guarded by this black moth of an Italian Mama – this was that.

And here she was in it, drinking in the sun, the shameless admiration of Italian boys, and the starry glasses of prosecco.
She could recite this literature, she could draw maps of these streets possibly better than the people who lived on them, but she still thought: “Why didn’t anyone say?”

It wasn’t that she felt deceived or deprived, she said. Neither was it like she had turned up to a party the morning after, only to find everyone gone – though she admitted it was sometimes a little like that.

It was more like, and she said this was the best she could explain it, that she didn’t know who to thank.

As I wrote this I thought, as I often do, that had I been sitting where I then was, exactly 400 years earlier, I would have been part of a thick stone wall. I wondered how many centuries-dead people might have leant against that wall crying or laughing or bursting to go to the toilet, praying or farting? What might I, Wall, have seen or heard?

I finished writing and was walking away now remembering a documentary in which a scientist described how one day we will be able to hear all the sounds that have ever been emitted on the earth. Yes. Everything that has ever whispered, plinked or fizzed. He said it was all out there – the sound was all still out there: dinosaurs’ yowls, Shakespeare’s discarded drafts, Jesus’ teachings – we just have to develop a way of capturing it. An ear for the universe.
And then we will know.
What a reckoning that will be.




Of course I can see the sea.  I can see the sea from my window.  Sometimes it is lost in a sky but there is still a gap in the hills where I know it is.  I wake to gulls.  I can see the sea.

My six-year old gets weepy before bed.  His brother is asleep beside him.  He talks through chokes and gulps.  His deepest wails are silent, that is how he cries when it is dark. Some nights those silent cries wake me up.

We have little dark, huddled conversations about the differences and the not going home.  He is searching around – wondering what he should be worried about.  He knows only that he is disturbed like a room after a burglary when nothing has been taken.

In the daytime it is like this:

“I want to go to America.”
“We might one day.”
“I want to see that big lady.  That statue.”
“The Statue of Liberty.”
“The Big One.  Really Big.”
“The Statue of Liberty.”
“What’s Liberty?”
“Liberty is like freedom.”
“What is it for?”
“I don’t know what it’s for… she was the first thing that lots of people who left here, Europe, after the wars – she was the first thing they saw when they got to America.  And lots of them were sad because maybe their parents or their family had been killed in the war.  They were going to America hoping they could be happy and not be poor any more.  Many of them were very poor in their countries.  And the Statue of Liberty showed them that they were welcome in America and that they might be happy there.”

He is skipping, happy with that explanation – now he is ready for a day at his new school.  We walk into his playground and he  stumbles up the steps to his classroom because some classmate is hugging the new boy as he tries to climb the steps and they are both being pretty stupid as I walk away but he manages a giggling thumbs-up.

When I think of Ellis Island I see patient queues of people, forlorn and stoic as children.  There’s something – what is it? – about the prevalence of suitcases and the tik-a-tik-tik of the arrivals board.

Boots in Box

Everyone tells me it is extremely stressful moving house – it is meant to be the equivalent of a major car accident. How was that ever calculated?

I am wondering if a major part of the stress is simply the reconsidering of Everything that Previously did not Need to be Considered.


Most of what we now own is either in a box or in a recycling depot of some kind. A small part is in drawers and on walls and the kind of environment those objects call home. For the next few months when I need something I envisage where it was in our old house, recall the moment of packing it and go in search of that box. It is like looking for things in an unfamiliar supermarket. The smoked salmon is not going to be very far from the… Humous? Or maybe fish? Perhaps blinis? There have to be some universal rules.

So I am looking, for instance for my hiking boots. I find the wellies. No boots. I find the ski stuff (woo dusty). No boots. I find the tennis racquets. No. I find the box marked “kitchen jumble”. There. Oh yes.

I curse the movers for two days for losing my essential kitchen equipment. I cannot cut an onion with a SPOON. I refuse to buy any of it again. Any part of it. I refuse very loudly. With a plate. The children go quiet and helpful. The missing things were in a drawer. Which? The drawer in the side of the dresser. This? That. Look.

And the essential kitchen items jangle a bit as I open the full empty drawer.

The difficulty is that the drawer is no longer in the kitchen so I could not conceive of its containing the same objects once it had moved. It simply is not the same drawer. I suffered an Expectation Shift Breakdown. They are everywhere.

They are actually everywhere everyday. When I write a short story I expect it to build to a punchy end. When I get to Act Three of The Seagull I expect to finish it tired. When I get to the beginning of my second glass of Cava I expect to finish it sober.

Did you get that? Hiking boots. Another reason I don’t know where anything is, is simply because I am distracted by views like this:


My Life in Art has a whole new meaning.