The Writer’s Project Blog
Each day as I walk to work I pass two statues.
The first represents the Ancient Greek wrestler Milo of Croton, who was so strong he could carry an ox on his shoulders. The statue shows him at the peak of his power, rippling with muscles, a paragon of physical fitness, although things are about to go badly wrong. As he attempts to free a wedge from a split tree, the trunk springs shut on him like a trap. He is caught fast, to be eaten by wild animals: a man destroyed by an inflated sense of his own power – hubris the Greeks called it.
For such a grim subject it’s an elegant statue, about 30 inches high, cast in bronze and set on a pedestal among the geometrical flowerbeds and box hedges of the Dutch Garden in Holland Park. In summer he floats on a sea of tulips, joyous in his strength. In winter the pale green tints of his craggy form seem charged with frost and ice: the invisible hand of death is already reaching for him.
As I walk past I avoid thinking too often or too hard about the moral lessons he represents, although it’s tough. Once you know who he is and what his hands are doing in that tree you can never un-know it. All that wrestling with tricky opponents is also a bit too reminiscent of the struggles of writing… I like to use my daily walk as a way of freeing my mind from all the worries and grim thoughts that besiege it during the night, and the bronze wrestler in the Dutch Garden doesn’t help, except by reminding me of places I don’t want to go, like the red zone on a dial. On good days I acknowledge him with a little shudder and pass on.
By the time I reach the second statue, Lord Holland, the fresh air and exercise are having a good effect. Henry Fox-Vassall, 3rd Baron Holland (1773–1840), looks like a genial old bird who never had to do anything more strenuous than eat three good meals a day. In fact he was a hard-working Whig politician who held several offices of state. The 55 acres of Holland Park were once his private garden. I used to imagine that he had donated these precious acres to the public as a philanthropic act but the facts are less glamorous. His great house was devastated by German incendiary bombs in 1940 and the estate was bought by London County Council in 1952.
Lord Holland sits comfortably in an armchair, often adorned with pigeons on his shoulders, head and arms. They daub him with streaks of white that run like sweat down his shiny forehead, disfiguring him until he is washed by the next shower of rain. On clean days he looks the perfect host, welcoming, kind-hearted, good humoured. People gather by his statue to chat and take pictures; they seem to absorb something positive from his presence. I am happy to take a moral from him as I go by. Some books have the knack of making you feel like a guest at a friend’s table. They restore and heal, making life seem good. I used to think this made them superficial, but I no longer think that. There is enough misery in everyday reality without adding to it through gloomy thinking. We all need encouraging, consoling, strengthening for the next round of the fight.
Eclipsed in Amsterdam
Amsterdam in the spring. I’m here at short notice, called in to look after my two teenage children while their mother deals with a family crisis back in the UK.
My visit coincides with a partial eclipse of the sun. But that is not due till the end of the week. This Tuesday morning I am strolling through the Spui area in warm sunshine, the day spread invitingly before me.
But the invitation isn’t reaching me. Prey to the predestined movements of the creative cycle, I am suffering a personal eclipse of the spirit. The birds have fallen silent, colour drains from the scene and the world is overtaken by an aching sense of premonition. The crazy crooked houses lean at their comic angles, the canals snooze soothingly, and the locals – all under thirty and over six foot tall – breeze by at break-neck speeds on their antique bicycles. But life has lost its lustre. My heart is indifferent to the enticements of this Dutch spring.
Indeed, I am not really here at all. Instead, I hesitate at the dark entrance to a Second World War pillbox hunched on the bank of the river Thames. Inside the corpse slumps awaiting the attentions of my detective duo, Chief Inspector Dalliance and DS Riley. Once I step through the portal of death, I am committed to driving them through the twists and turns of the mystery. For weeks I’ll sleepwalk through my own life, obsessed with the lives of the characters I have made up, minutely focused on their motives and the shifting tide-tables of their alibis.
The start of another book. All writers must know this threshold of dread, and loathe it as much as I do. ‘Another day,’ the little cowardly voice whines. ‘Put it off another day.’ And so you do, but at a terrible cost, because your self-reproach contaminates everything. And that includes this lovely spring day in Amsterdam.
Which even I can see is profoundly stupid. At least, I argue with myself, stop this meaningless mooching. Pull your notebook out and get some local colour down. Then you won’t be utterly wasting your time. Who knows, Dalliance and Riley may have to follow a suspect to Amsterdam one day.
And so I do. And am rewarded within a few random turns by the colourful scene of one of the city’s famous squats being repossessed. Half a block is daubed with graffiti, cartoons and slogans, the tenor of which is neatly captured by a banner hanging from an upper window. It depicts a unicorn whose horn impales a man wearing a hard hat. ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE, it proclaims.
‘In your dreams’, the cynic might respond, watching the real, unimpaled hard-hats going about their business of retaking the property for the developers. But although the myrmidons of capitalism are clearly winning this battle, it is invigorating to see the radicalism that has leaked out of UK politics is still alive and kicking over here. An unmistakable whiff of pot from a nearby coffee shop is a further reminder of student protest in the seventies.
In a nostalgic haze, I saunter in the sunshine, taking snaps on my phone. Suddenly I am joined by a group of young people who cluster on the pavement and start snapping away too. It’s not until an earnestly bearded youth starts addressing them that I twig they are some sort of tour group. I can’t understand what he says to them, though I guess he’s of the unicorn rather than the hard-hat party. I bow out, amused by an example of Amsterdam’s habit of turning anything into a tourist attraction: the Red Light district, the cannabis coffee shops, the campaign against the counter-culture: all grist to the sight-seeing mill.
A girl who has made herself a nest of cushions on her windowsill continues to read her book, indifferent to the hard-hats and the sight-seers alike. She is, I realize, demonstrating the Amsterdammer’s almost feline ability to create a private bubble in full public view.
Beginning to feel rather more laid-back myself, I retrace my steps to my tram stop and prepare to resume my parental duties. By Friday I am fully acclimatised. My alarm wakes me at six, and I get the kids out of the flat before seven as they have to cycle across town to their incredibly liberal international school. So relaxed is it that they are often back soon after lunch, giving me the luxury of what is now referred to as ‘quality time’ with them. I have been to my son’s football training at his new club next to the old Olympic stadium, impressed by the quality of the facilities and the high standard of the coaching. And one afternoon my daughter and I find our way to Rembrandt’s house and take photos of each other standing in his studio.
On the night before the eclipse I give the standard lecture about not looking directly at the sun. In the event cloud cover makes it a non-event. The day is so dull there is no discernible dimming at the appointed hour, no darkness at noon. As the week winds down, I notice that my own inner eclipse has also faded. Real life has won, hands-down. Fiction can wait till I get home. The portal of death will still be there – and I will step through it, strengthened (I hope) by my time away.
Simon’s first Inspector Dalliance mystery, Bodyline, is published by Nine Elms Books, an imprint of Bene Factum Publishing, in May 2015. The Pillbox Murders is ambitiously promised for the autumn.
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Turin 2013: AfterLife of a biographer
Biography is always a race against death.
First you race to catch your subjects’ friends before they die, then you race to finish the book in time for them to read it. (‘If you want me to read this book, you’ll have to hurry up,’ Primo Levi’s friend Luciana Nissim said to me, forthright as ever. She was the one who, after surviving Auschwitz, chose cremation: ‘You miss the greatest opportunity of the century,’ her friend Alberto Levi said, ‘and now you want to pay for it yourself?’)
You may win a heat or two (though I lost this one – Luciana died just before my book came out.) But death is bound to triumph in the end, as it always does.
Over the years since my biography of Levi appeared, his friends have gone, one by one. As I prepared for my return to Turin this year I rang one of the few who remained, Levi’s cousin Ada Ortona: only to hear that ominous click, followed by emptiness, that tells you that another conversation is over.
This meant that of all of the friends only one is left now: Bianca Guidetti Serra, aged 94; the famous ‘red lawyer’, l’avvocatessa rossa, the friend to whom Primo, Luciana and Vanda, who wouldn’t survive, addressed the card they threw out of the transport to Auschwitz: ‘Tutti in viaggio alla maniera classica. Saluta tutti. A voi la fiaccola’ – ‘We’re on the classic voyage. Greetings to all. The torch passes to you.’
In the meantime Bianca has had her own biographer, Santina Mobiglia (Bianca la rossa, Einaudi, 2009.) When I rang Bianca’s son Fabrizio to arrange a meeting he said Santina might visit that day as well, and indeed she did.
So there we were, two biographers and Bianca, still racing death, and still just winning – for Bianca is very frail now, her mind and sight going, her hearing gone, but doughty as ever. ‘Do you both live here?’ she asked, smiling with a steely edge, over and over – not recognising either of us any more, not remembering her question or hearing our answer, but still the investigating lawyer.
When I interviewed the friends many years ago she was the toughest of all, the most loyal to the Turinese code of riservatezza about all things personal. I returned many times, determined to charm her, persuade her, challenge her – whatever would overcome her reserve. But nothing would. It was as though in 50 years of close friendship all Levi had ever said to her could have gone into a public lecture.
The day before I left Turin I went to see her one last time. With nothing left to lose, I looked her in the eye and said I simply didn’t believe that he had never once spoken to her from the heart. She looked straight back and said: ‘Primo told me everything. But I shall take it with me to the grave.’
She is on her own classic voyage now. But she won’t be forgotten. There is Santina’s excellent biography; and while I was there, several lorry-loads of her papers were being transferred to the Centro Studi Piero Gobetti, a library of 20th century political thought in Turin. Greetings to all, they’ll say to the young. The torch passes to you.
The event that took me to Turin, however, was in memory of another friend of Levi’s: Gabriella Poli, author of one of his early biographies (Echi di una voce perduta , Echoes of a lost voice, published by Mursia in 1992, now reissued by La Stampa, the Turin paper.)
Gabriella was even more Turinese than Bianca, if such a thing is possible – small, self-effacing, of iron reserve; with the principles of an ascetic and the work ethic of a Stakhanovite. In the days before computers and Levi’s Collected Works she tracked down and assembled for her book every interview he ever gave and every article he ever wrote, all of which she gave me for mine, with rare generosity for which she refused to hear a word of thanks.
She died last November, at the age of 92; and this November a room was inaugurated in her name in the Centro Studi Sereno Regis, a centre for peace studies built on the site of the oldest cinema in Turin (and below that, it turned out, a medieval church, dating from around the year 1000.) It was a wonderful, very Italian occasion, with mountains of food and endless speeches, such as only Catholics trained to Masses from early childhood can bear.
The best speeches, to my biographer’s ear, were the personal reminiscences of Gabriella’s fellow journalists on La Stampa, where she worked for 26 years. For Gabriella, as all the speakers repeated, was the first and so far the only female capocronista (head of news) in the whole of the Italian press – something which, with typical Turinese modesty, she never mentioned to me.
One old journo remembered how, after working to 2 or 3 in the morning, Gabriella would spend another 20 minutes going around the Stampa offices turning off all the lights; another recalled how she never took any break herself, but when he asked to go home for lunch (standard Italian practice even today) she said ‘Of course’. But then, knowing it would take a good 40 minutes each way, she added firmly, ‘But no more than half an hour.’
The best speech of all came from Gabriella herself, as recounted by a grey-haired man (they were all men) with a lined, humorous face. When he was a new young reporter, he said, Gabriella wasn’t keen for him to take on an important assignment. ‘Are you sure?’ she asked tartly. But when he said ‘Yes,’ she accepted straight away. And then she gave him the best advice of his career, he told us. ‘Make sure you take a photographer along,’ she said. ‘Photos are key. People see the words, but they read the pictures.’
So, following Gabriella’s advice, here are the pictures.
Bianca Guidetti Serra, November 2013. From left, Fabrizio Salmoni, Bianca’s son; Santina Mobiglia, her biographer; Bianca.
Gabriella Poli’s grave, Central Cemetery,Turin