I’m not a historian — I have done my best to avoid inaccuracy in my book. But I’m quite sure that specialists of the place and time will find matter for a snigger or two. I don’t believe in previous lives, have no explanation for ‘Miss Winthrop and the Pursuit of Happiness’ arriving fully fledged one morning, almost a decade ago, from nowhere. I felt a duty, on receiving such a gift, to sit down and write it, almost as dictated by a pernickety, ghostly presence. On reading it afresh I am struck by its relevance to the America of today.
What is life?
It is the flash of a firefly in the night.
It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime.
It is the little shadow which runs across
the grass and loses itself in the sunset.
Crowfoot, Blackfoot warrior and orator 1830 — 1890
I’ve always had a passion for Native American Indians. Like the original inhabitants of Australia, they tended to get along with each other. As Captain John Underhill remarked in his 1638 ‘Newes fromAmerica’, ‘They might fight seven years and not kill seven men.’ They fought ‘more for pastime, than to conquer and subdue their enemies.’ They looked after each other, they loved their children deeply — so much so that it was common practice for the settlers to abduct them for bargaining purposes. Wives and husbands chose each other mutually, women were treated well and protected.
The tribes were to a certain extent matrilineal, the women willingly did most of the work, owned the dwellings they built, and could well be tribal leaders. ‘There are no beggars amongst them, nor fatherlesse children unprovided for’, observed Roger Williams in the 17th century, contrasting it with the ‘civilised’ land he had left behind where children starved to death in the streets of London. The Indians made beautiful and practical objects with the raw materials they had around them, they abhorred greed. They left a very light footprint.
It was our belief that the love of possessions is a weakness to be overcome. Its appeal is to the material part, and if allowed its way, it will in time disturb one’s spiritual balance. Therefore, children must early learn the beauty of generosity. They are taught to give what they prize most, that they may taste the happiness of giving.…
The Indians in their simplicity literally give away all that they have–to relatives, to guests of other tribes or clans, but above all to the poor and the aged, from whom they can hope for no return.
Ohiyesa (Charles Alexander Eastman) — Wahpeton Santee Sioux
This apparently naive lack of materialism, the extraordinary generosity of the natives — mocked and exploited by the settlers — was the foundation of their system of welfare support and gave the tribe internal cohesion as well as forging mutually protective links with neighbouring tribes.
Among the Indians there have been no written laws. Customs handed down from generation to generation have been the only laws to guide them. Every one might act different from what was considered right did he choose to do so, but such acts would bring upon him the censure of the Nation.… This fear of the Nation’s censure acted as a mighty band, binding all in one social, honorable compact.
George Copway (Kah-ge-ga-bowh) Ojibwa Chief — 1818–1863
The newcomers were compelled to admire the orderliness of Indian life, and to respect the sagacity of their sachems or leaders, both male and female. Though they had absolute authority, they took no action on collective issues concerning war, laws or taxes without a general consensus. According to most, this version of democracy worked. Of the sachems, John Lawson said at the beginning of the 18th century ‘they discharge their Duty with all the Integrity imaginable, never looking towards their Own Interest, before the Publick Good.’
Before our white brothers arrived to make us civilized men, we didn’t have any kind of prison. Because of this, we had no delinquents.
Without a prison, there can be no delinquents.
We had no locks nor keys and therefore among us there were no thieves.
When someone was so poor that he couldn’t afford a horse, a tent or a blanket,
he would, in that case, receive it all as a gift.
We were too uncivilized to give great importance to private property.
We didn’t know any kind of money and consequently, the value of a human being
was not determined by his wealth.
We had no written laws laid down, no lawyers, no politicians,
therefore we were not able to cheat and swindle one another.
We were really in bad shape before the white men arrived and I don’t know
how to explain how we were able to manage without these fundamental things
that (so they tell us) are so necessary for a civilized society.
John (Fire) Lame Deer
Sioux Lakota — 1903–1976
‘Once I was in Victoria, and I saw a very large house. They told me it was a bank, and that the white men place their money there to be taken care of, and that by and by they got it back with interest. “We are Indians and we have no such bank; but when we have plenty of money or blankets, we give them away to other chiefs and people, and by and by they return them with interest, and our hearts feel good. Our way of giving is our bank.“‘ Chief Maquinna, Nootka
It reads like Golden Age socialism, an instinctive christianity with love at its heart that Christ himself would recognise and applaud. Like Christ, the Native Indians were dignified martyrs, much more sinned against than sinning. The newcomers manipulated them — as Cortes did the Guatemalans — setting each tribe against its neighbour in order to speed up genocide. The Indians manifested childlike trust, and the cynical exploitation of this innocence by the immigrants transforms the Native Americans into saints and their adversaries do not show up well by contrast.
If the white man wants to live in peace with the Indian, he can live in peace…
Treat all men alike. Give them all the
same law. Give them all an even chance
to live and grow. All men were made by
the same Great Spirit Chief.
They are all brothers. The Earth is the mother of all people, and all people should have equal rights upon it.…
Let me be a free man, free to travel,
free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to think and talk and act for myself, and I will obey every law, or submit to the penalty.
You might as well expect the rivers to run backward as that any man who was born free should be contented to be penned up and denied liberty to go where he pleases.
Heinmot Tooyalaket ( Chief Joseph), Nez Perce Leader
Promises, lies and greed still characterise political (and some might argue, religious) behaviour universally, though the gap between the political promised land and corporation poisoned reality is most glaringly apparent in the USA (and an unpopular export). Like the Indians before them, the majority of the present-day population of the United States is easily led, happy to believe the comforting words and overlook the sinister deeds, subjected to the infantilising indignity of having to overlook manifest untruths that emphasise the people’s impotence. The precedent Native American phrases are familiar, but still forceful due to their truth, simplicity and powerful imagery. ‘Forked tongue’ says much in two words.
‘How smooth must be the language of the whites, when they can make right look like wrong, and wrong like right.’ Black Hawk, Sauk (1767–1838)Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak
Be careful when speaking. You create the world around you with your words.
from the Diné
Like Cassandra, the Indians were condemned to make predictions of frightening accuracy only to have them consistently ignored in the unscrupulous rush for power, land and wealth.
Only after the last tree has been cut down, Only after the last river has been poisoned, Only after the last fish has been caught, Only then will you find money cannot be eaten. Cree Prophecy
‘Yet hear me, my people, we have now to deal with another race — small and feeble when our fathers first met them, but now great and overbearing. Strangely enough they have a mind to till the soil and the love of possessions is a disease with them … They claim this mother of ours, the earth, for their own, and fence their neighbours away; they deface her with their buildings and their refuse.’ Sitting Bull’s Speech at the Powder River Council, 1877.
‘No tribe has the right to sell, even to each other, much less to strangers.… Sell a country! Why not sell the air, the great sea, as well as the earth? Didn’t the Great Spirit make them all for the use of his children? The way, the only way to stop this evil is for the red man to unite in claiming a common and equal right in the land, as it was first, and should be now, for it was never divided. We gave them forest-clad mountains and valleys full of game, and in return what did they give our warriors and our women? Rum, trinkets, and a grave.’ Tecumseh — Shawnee
The Indians loved and respected native animals and plants and knew how to husband their resources. They loved their land and its bounty with a humble, spiritual, and economical devotion.
‘When we Indians kill meat, we eat it all up. When we dig roots, we make little holes. When we build houses, we make little holes. When we burn grass for grasshoppers, we don’t ruin things. We shake down acorns and pine nuts. We don’t chop down the trees. We only use dead wood. But the white people plow up the ground, pull down the trees, kill everything. … the White people pay no attention. …How can the spirit of the earth like the White man? … everywhere the White man has touched it, it is sore.’
An anonymous Indian woman
How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us.
If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?
Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people. The sap which courses through the trees carries the memories of the red man.
We know that the white man does not understand our ways. One portion of land is the same to him as the next, for he is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs. The earth is not his brother, but his enemy, and when he has conquered it, he moves on. He leaves his father’s grave behind, and he does not care. He kidnaps the earth from his children, and he does not care. His father’s grave, and his children’s birthright are forgotten. He treats his mother, the earth, and his brother, the sky, as things to be bought, plundered, sold like sheep or bright beads. His appetite will devour the earth and leave behind only a desert.
I am a savage and do not understand any other way. I have seen a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairie, left by the white man who shot them from a passing train. I am a savage and do not understand how the smoking iron horse can be made more important than the buffalo that we kill only to stay alive.
What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, man would die from a great loneliness of the spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts, soon happens to man. All things are connected.
You must teach your children that the ground beneath their feet is the ashes of our grandfathers. So that they will respect the land, tell your children that the earth is rich with the lives of our kin. Teach your children that we have taught our children that the earth is our mother. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of earth. If men spit upon the ground, they spit upon themselves.
This we know; the earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. All things are connected.
Even the white man, whose God walks and talks with him as friend to friend, cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We shall see. One thing we know which the white man may one day discover; our God is the same God.
You may think now that you own Him as you wish to own our land; but you cannot. He is the God of man, and His compassion is equal for the red man and the white. The earth is precious to Him, and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator. The whites too shall pass; perhaps sooner than all other tribes. Contaminate your bed and you will one night suffocate in your own waste.
That (your) destiny is a mystery to us, for we do not understand when the buffalo are all slaughtered, the wild horses are tamed, the secret corners of the forest heavy with the scent of many men and the view of the ripe hills blotted by talking wires.
Where is the thicket? Gone. Where is the eagle? Gone.
The end of living and the beginning of survival.
All things share the same breath — the beast, the tree, the man… the air shares its spirit with all the life it supports.
Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.
Man does not weave this web of life. He is merely a strand of it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.
Christianity played its usual manipulative and divisive role. God is invoked in the annual celebration of Thanksgiving - ironically with a duplicate of the feast innocently provided by the native Americans. As President of the United States, George Washington proclaimed the first nation-wide thanksgiving celebration in America marking November 26, 1789, ‘as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God.’ Gratitude is a noble attribute, but the few remaining Indians could not but take issue with the ‘many and signal favours’ and question the justice of this imported god. They were not fools — innocent and well-meaning, they preferred to sleep easy in their integrity rather than lower themselves to the level of the interlopers — they observed the effects of religion as practiced by the newcomers, and politely repudiated it.
We do not want schools.…
they will teach us to have churches.
We do not want churches.…
they will teach us to quarrel about God.
We do not want to learn that.
We may quarrel with men sometimes
about things on this earth,
but we never quarrel about God.
We do not want to learn that.
Heinmot Tooyalaket ( Chief Joseph), Nez Perce Leader
Brother, you say there is but one way to worship and serve the Great Spirit. If there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it? Why not all agreed, as you can all read the Book.
We also have a religion which was given to our forefathers, and has been handed down to us their children. It teaches us to be thankful, to be united, and to love one another! We never quarrel about religion.
Sogoyewapha, (Red Jacket), Seneca 1752–1830
Their spirituality is close to Buddhism in its sense of connection with everything, and its conviction that the Great Spirit is everywhere, within and without. It is close to Christian principles in its sense of mutual support and the overriding importance of love.
The True Peace
The first peace, which is the most important,
is that which comes within the souls of people
when they realize their relationship,
their oneness, with the universe and all its powers,
and when they realize that at the center
of the universe dwells the Great Spirit,
and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.
This is the real peace, and the others are but reflections of this.
The second peace is that which is made between two individuals,
and the third is that which is made between two nations.
But above all you should understand that there can never
be peace between nations until there is known that true peace,
which, as I have often said, is within the souls of men.
Everywhere is the center of the world.
Everything is sacred.
Black Elk, Oglala Sioux & Spiritual Leader (1863 — 1950)
Epigrammatic wisdom is the one remaining Indian legacy. Their priorities resonate still with a sanity which got lost somewhere, as we grab more and enjoy less. They were courteous — when given the chance. They did not seem to feel the lack of Prozac. They were repelled by dissimulation, ingratitude and ‘a churlish disposition.’ Karen Ordahl Kupperman quotes Rev Morrell saying that they ‘keep just promises and love equitie’, and his ecclesiastical colleague Father Andrew White in 1634 as saying ‘they are generally so noble, as you can doe them noe favour, but they will returne it.’
Treat the earth well.
It was not given to you by your parents,
it was loaned to you by your children.
We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors,
we borrow it from our Children.
Ancient Indian Proverb
We could have learned and gained so much. The genocidal extermination of so many, the destruction of their particular knowledge, of their essential wisdom distilled from silence and a sense of connection, of their way of living has left our world poorer and the continuation of our species parlous.
When you were born, you cried
and the world rejoiced.
Live your life
so that when you die,
the world cries and you rejoice.
I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heapen and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people dream died there. It was a beautiful dream… the nations hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.
–Black Elk, Lakota
‘They jab and sting like swarming hornets, they scar and stab, infecting my skin with weeping sores and suppurating boils. No matter what I do — spew hissing lava to swallow towns, cough tsunamis, roll obliteration across entire coastlands, hammer cities with earthquakes, bury them in mud, incinerate them, smash them — still they take one more, they always want just one more. Busy, mindless of the hell they make, they look away, ignore my warnings.
I have helped these creatures grow, I have given them life. I can diminish them. The greedy, reckless, harmful ones. I gave them antibodies, killer-T’s to scavenge free radicals. To protect myself I must create killer-T’s. To miniaturise them, disable them.’
She sighed as she spun again, and released in that sigh:
A minimising molecule, targeting despots and sadists, wife-beaters and bankers.
A magnetic chemical, tracking the metallic smell of avarice and cruelty, discovering every averted eye, every murder by commission or omission, every act of gargantuan greed that left a nation starved.
A grief-seeking drone, that locked onto the blinkered conscience ignoring rapine, genocide, torture.
In ratio to the hurt they caused, she made the perpetrators shrink.
They learned too late that sighs matter.
Overnight it became apparent that the corner offices, the penthouse suites, the executive jets, the lakeside villas were all empty of their owners.
Conscientious cleaners inadvertently vacuumed their employers along with cocaine and dog hair. Anxious ministers, all unwitting, trod on their tiny, naked superiors while searching for them. Pedigree cats ate them, trophy wives sat on them, the children of privilege flattened their fathers and occasionally their mothers beneath skateboards and rollerskates.
Arms factories fell silent, wars ceased, the weak, the poor, the meek no longer lived in fear. There was enough for everyone.
She smiled as she spun.
‘It’s too hot to go.’
‘Have you seen a manila envelope? Hell’s bells! There’s something I want to show you.’
‘That one?’ Fastening an earring, she indicated with her elbow the small package lying on his bedside table. ‘The food will be awful. She’s the most wearisome, opinionated woman. She has nothing interesting to say, and she says it ad nauseam. Her friends are terminally stuffy. Remind me, why are we going?’
He pranced up behind her and sought her eyes in the dressing-table mirror. She was busy outlining her full lips with a brush loaded with waxy blood-red lipstick, and he knew better than to interrupt. She blotted her lips carefully, patted her black hair — glossy as molten tar and swept up Betty Grable style — and gathered lipstick, powder and a silver flacon of Mitsouko into an ostrich skin clutch bag. She rose, unfurling from her seat to stand eye to eye with her husband.
‘I don’t know how you do that. Three children, and you still rise like Venus from the waves.’
‘You wanted to show me something.’
‘I’ll show you some other time. Beatrice may be dull, but she’s had a consignment of Plymouth gin. And Teddy may yet get us out of here.’
They stepped out into the searing dust, the ragged palm trees, the beggars, the smell of donkey shit, the sound of jingling caleches and men shouting hysterically in Arabic that engulfed them beyond the gates of their small ugly house in wartime Cairo.
Boy — who had a name, Mohammed — had polished the chandelier in Beatrice’s courtyard house, had watered the bougainvillea and strewn the garnet rose petals in the murmuring fountain. He stood, undecided, fingering the buttons on his white jacket, dreading another staccato barrage from his employer.
‘Boy? Boy! Come here. Flowers — flowers for the table. The roses. Where have you put them?’
Mutely he indicated the red confetti dancing on the troubled meniscus.
The blonde dumpling was for a moment paralysed. Sweat pearled her upper lip.
‘Are you mad? Oh my God. Why do you always….I told you to put the roses in water.’
She turned, muttering sticky imprecations, and entered the dining room whose double doors were open to the courtyard and whose ceiling fans rotated lazily. A long table was laid for twenty, crowded with calendared napery, prismatic cut glass, gold-rimmed porcelain and buffed cutlery. It was punctuated at precise intervals by Georgian silver candelabra. It did not need flowers.
‘Boy? Boy! Come here. Fetch candles, from the ice-box’. To herself she murmured, ‘don’t think they’ll melt now. Thank God, it’ll cool down soon.’
At this point Teddy joined her, tall and spruce in immaculate ivory linen.
‘Ice!’ he called after Boy. ‘Well, Bea. Time to see if we’ve been sold a pup.’ He opened the clear glass bottle and was reassured by the sharp cathedral smell of juniper that wafted nostrilwards. ‘Smells like the real thing. Lemon!’ he flung after Mohammed as he shook the bottle of Angostura bitters.
‘Ice as per instructions? Boiled water? Good. Don’t want the High Commissioner to come down with dysentery.’
He rarely looked at his wife these days, finding her a disappointment now that her belly quaked and her dimple was lost in fat. There was no shortage of available women in Cairo, but Beatrice ran the house and looked after his interests. He was sorry for her. They’d never managed a baby. Pity. It would have absorbed her fussing, kept her busy.
Instead he looked at the billowing sails of the Mayflower on the familiar gin label. ‘Tonic, Bea? I’m having a pink gin, there’s some Noilly Prat if you’d prefer…. This glass has got a fingerprint on it.’
Following this discovery Beatrice made a minute inspection of the crystal tumblers, handing Mohammed another that did not pass muster. ‘Look!’ She brandished them under his nose, ‘not good enough.’
‘Who did you invite to replace George Cousins?’
‘It was very last minute. I invited that writer, Lawrence Durrell.’
‘Well! I just hope he behaves. I thought he’d gone to Alexandria.’
‘Someone saw him at the club. He goes back and forth.’
‘You’d better be careful, Bea. They say that since his wife left he’s slept with so many women he can’t remember them. A genuine Don Juan. Apparently women can’t resist him. I’ll be keeping my eye on you.’
‘That’s very crude, Teddy. I don’t believe it anyway. I don’t understand why anyone would fall for him. He’s not exactly Errol Flynn. I hope none of the women tonight…. I don’t think so….we know them all. Well, except Paul Innes’s wife, Eileen? It is Eileen isn’t it? I’ve only met her twice — at bridge and at the Williams’s. She seemed a bit racy. Scarlet lipstick…..No, no…. out of the question, they’ve got three children. And Paul is such a good-looking man. She’s very tall. Durrell’s tiny, shorter than me, and well, that pug nose. Not good on a man. No, I don’t think so.’
She noticed that Teddy was still holding an empty glass.
‘Boy? Boy! Where is that creature? Spends his life in a dream.’ Beatrice marched towards the kitchen.
Teddy, with a narrow catlike smile on his face, moved Durrell’s place card to seat him next to Paul Innes’s wife. ‘Randy, meet Racy.’
‘Well, that went well, I thought. They liked the vol-au-vents.’
‘Paul is quite a raconteur. I’d heard the story about the Chinese cook and the whisky bottle before though.’
‘I thought it rather coarse. I have to say, I really don’t like his wife much. I don’t know why Durrell engineered himself a place beside her — I put her next to that military chap, Ashbury. As it happened, she hardly spoke to Durrell. I almost felt sorry for him. Silly chump.’
‘Didn’t seem to worry him — he was his usual ebullient self after a drink or two. He got her to dance with him. They made a pretty ridiculous couple….She’s a good-looking woman.’
He had been disappointed by the failure of his scheme to reveal an illicit passion. He was embarrassed in fact, to find himself rather taken with her, surprised to have been piqued by a sharp little pinprick of jealousy, as he watched them in the courtyard, dancing close. Twice. Sinatra, ‘All or nothing at all’, and Lena Horne. Nothing remarkable there — everyone was dancing, it was the standard finale to a dinner party. Teddy himself was still in a cloud of Mitsouko after they’d danced to ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ under the stars.
Bea shattered his pleasant reverie. ‘Mother would say she’s got ideas above her station — she comes across as so superior, but what is she? What has she done?’
‘I think she’s a bit of a scholar. Someone said she got a double first at Cambridge.’
‘Well, I certainly don’t believe that. And what about him? He’s nothing special. He’s just a glorified salesman, when you come down to it.’
‘Bea, my angel. If I didn’t know you better, I might think you were jaundiced. Paul kept the Shanghai side of Shell in operation, almost singlehandedly. A bit more than a salesman. They both speak Mandarin. There have been hints that he was placed there by the government. MI6. There’s a rumour that she’s in it too. Did you notice, she didn’t drink a drop?’
‘What? Are you saying that they’re spies? Oh, come on! I don’t know who you’ve been talking to, Teddy, but they need their heads examined.’
‘Who’d have thought she came from Argentina?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous. For God’s sake, how much did you drink? She’s from Bedford. Or Banbury. One or the other.’
‘Bea — when we played ‘Down Argentina Way’, she burst into tears. She grew up on an estancia, near Cordoba. Both her brothers are fighter pilots — she doesn’t know where they are, whether they’re still alive, even. She was genuinely upset — you must have noticed. Don’t give me that look. You don’t know her — you said it yourself. You’re being very unfair.’
‘Well, you two certainly got chummy. I’m off to bed. Boy? Boy! Get him to clear up, will you? I’m asleep on my feet.’
Teddy poured himself another whisky, turned off the lights, and put Lena Horne’s smoky version of ‘Stormy Weather’ on the record player again, low. Resting his heels on the table, by the muted lightning of sputtering candles, he smoked a cigar.
‘Never again. Never have so many dull people been marooned around a table to eat such indifferent food. Don’t blame me if you get dysentery — I saw you wading through those vol-au-vents as if Escoffier made them. What was in them? It looked like vomit. I couldn’t touch them.’
‘You’re a hard woman. By Jingo, I felt proud to be among staunch compatriots: it sounds like our boys are really getting somewhere. Look, this war’ll be over by Christmas and we can go home.’
‘Home? Where is home? I certainly don’t want to go back to Blighty. You go, I’d rather go back to China….England isn’t home. Durrell calls it Pudding Island. Not affectionately.’
‘So you did talk to him? From where I sat, you didn’t seem to have much to say to him.’
‘No. Nor he to me. ‘
Paul was on the balcony outside their bedroom, smoking a cigar. Somewhere in the maze of streets behind the house a woman was ululating — a marriage. Eileen unpinned her hair in front of her mirror. Slender, languorous body hinted at by a nightdress of oyster silk satin — one of the few things she’d managed to bring from China — she was a voluptuary’s dream. He stubbed out the cigar and ran his hands over her shoulders, with a louche grin.
She removed them.
‘Oh, no. Much too hot. Pass me the Pond’s, will you?’
Paul was nettled.
Smoothing cold cream onto her high cheekbones, she continued: ‘For a writer Durrell was curiously inarticulate, well, until the drink got to him. Then he was moderately entertaining. Not my cup of tea.’
‘You danced with him.’
‘You danced with Therese, Beatrice and that giraffe-like secretary from the embassy.’ She paused. ‘What are these? “Apology Card”?’
‘Have a look.’
She tipped a wad of small cards from the manila envelope. She read:
his deplorable conduct while a
guest at your
and humbly craves your pardon
for the breach of etiquette checked in the
‘Oh, really, Paul. What nonsense is this?’
‘Turn it over. I thought I’d send Teddy and Bea one. As a thank you. It’ll make them laugh.’
‘“Spanking female guests. Picking nose at table. Indiscriminate goosing.” Do you really think they’ll find this funny? “Failure to button pants. Failure to unbutton pants.” Oh dear.’
She removed the cold cream with cotton wool. ‘“Locating female’s complex” and “Looking for hidden mole” are amusing.’
She pushed them aside wearily. ‘You’re still a child, aren’t you?’
This hurt more than her rejection of him, and he turned away from her in bed.
And she, who had a secret penchant for short, funny, unmanageable men, and could still feel Durrell’s hand, surprisingly clearly, surprisingly strongly, imprinted on the small of her back, turned away from her husband.
Eileen’s friend, Dilys Arbuthnot, invited her for a birthday drink among the palm trees and jasmine of Shepheard’s Terrace. ‘Eileen, I’m taking you out for a proper bash. Cocktails, like it or not. We’re going to gossip, we’re going to ogle chaps in uniform, and you’re going to get squiffy. You’re only 36 once.’ And so, Paul having previously committed himself to a bridge evening at the club, and the children happy to be in the care of bosomy Khadija who made them sugar and cocoa sandwiches, Eileen went on her own.
Her birthday gift from Paul had been an opulent emerald silk shawl. She knew that such expenditure betokened guilt, but defiantly wore the beautiful thing to signal forgiveness of his venial peccadilloes. Whatever they were. It rippled in the evening breeze as the gharry trotted to Shepheard’s, where she found Dilys toying with a plate of olives, an empty glass at her elbow.
‘Hello Dilys. I’m not late, am I?’
‘No. I was ravaged by thirst. They’re terribly habit forming. Gin fizz. That was my second.’
Eileen raised her eyebrows.
‘I did have some water first, but it didn’t do the job. I needed a proper drink.’
Half-way through her fifth, when her top button had undone itself to expose a heaving, sweating cleavage, and her coppery hair was stuck to her forehead, it transpired that the occasion for this drink was not in fact Eileen’s birthday, but the defection of Reggie who had recently announced that their marriage was at an end.
‘No reason. He said that one more evening with me, and he’d….’ Eileen never discovered what Reggie would do, as Dilys slithered from sight beneath the table, landing with a soft flump.
‘Waiter!’ Eileen stood and waved to attract the attention of one of the boys, whose fez bobbed weaving among the chairs and tables. ‘Oh Madame. Madame is on the ground!’ Someone joined them from another table and between them they retrieved Dilys. The waiter ran to fetch coffee.
‘I know you. You’re the diva from Argentina.’
Eileen looked up, startled. ‘Oh, Mr. Durrell, thank God! I’m so glad to see a friendly face. We were celebrating my birthday, and I think Dilys had…’
‘Five drinks to your one. I know. I was sitting just there.’
‘I don’t know how I’ll get her home. She lives in a flat over by the Services Club. It’s not far, but I don’t think she can walk. I certainly can’t carry her.’
‘I’ll give you a hand. Let me just get my stuff.’ He paid the bill with an involuntary groan, and between them they frog-marched Dilys to a gharry. She lived on the third floor. Getting her there took some doing, but eventually she was in her own bed.
‘Whew! That was warming.’ Eileen passed a hand over her damp forehead. ‘Thank you so much. I’ll stay here with her.’
‘Absolutely not. She doesn’t need you. She’ll just sleep it out. I’ve got a much better idea.’
It was not yet ten when they climbed over the fence of the Services Club. There was some kind of party taking place within. There had been rumours that day of some significant allied putsch, and they could hear Vera Lynn predicting an outbreak of bluebirds over the south coast.
‘My husband was born in Dover,’ whispered Eileen.
‘Shh.’ The garden was absolutely still, not a whisper among the palm leaves that made a mysterious Rousseau backdrop, lit by a cold half-moon reflecting placidly in the pool. She sat on the edge, her feet in the water, and Durrell lay back next to her looking up at the sky.
‘You’ve just had a birthday, so what are you? Taurus. Mmm. Don’t know what Taurus looks like. Bullish I suppose. There’s me. Look, over to the right. There — Pisces. That zig-zag.’ He took her hand and guided her fingers towards the cluster of bright stars.
With a little shock of excitement, she retrieved her hand. Leaving her shoes at the pool’s edge, she slipped into the inky shadows of the garden. A moment later her ghost-white body emerged.
‘Oh, God, that’s wonderful,’ Eileen whispered from the cool dark water.
They swam lazily, and then lay naked on the radiant warmth of the stone terrace. The seductive musk of frangipani floated on the warm air.
‘What’s in the notebook, the book you had at Shepheard’s?’
‘Notes for a book I’m writing about Corfu.’
He turned over and ran his fingers along her upper arm, causing an outbreak of gooseflesh.
This exchange drifted ineluctably into what Eileen referred to, decades later, as a ‘skirmish in a taxi.’
Pisces had almost slipped from the sky when Durrell asked ‘Another swim?’
‘Larry!’ she hissed, ‘Spawn of the devil. I’m in such trouble already. I must go home right now.’
‘Please don’t go yet. Have a last dip with me. You know you want to. Come on. Carpe diem — we may all be dead tomorrow.’
‘Five minutes. That’s it. Oh! This water’s like silk.’
‘You know, I almost wish you didn’t have to leave. I like your company. In Alexandria I’m awash with languorous, musky women craving my body, but I rarely come across an odalisque with intellect.’
‘You didn’t come across me.’
‘Don’t be smutty. You’re much too grand. It doesn’t suit you.’
They stood, very close, in the water.
‘What is this gorgeous amulet?’
‘Gorgeous amulet? Oh, that. It’s a key-ring. Thoth. The Egyptian god of writing. Writing and wisdom. Here, have it. So you remember me when we’re apart.’
He fastened it round her neck, taking his time. She held his face and kissed him, then climbed out of the pool and dabbed herself dry with Durrell’s trousers.
‘Larry, we’ll never do this again. If we meet again, it’ll be as acquaintances, not lovers. You’ve got your life. I’ve got mine — three children and a loyal husband.’ Her voice was firm, decisive.
‘I’ve got a daughter, a little girl too….. somewhere or other….. Penny.’ Very quiet, very sad.
Eileen allowed a glimmer of doubt to dilute her resolve: ‘If we’d met 20 years ago, it would be different.’
‘Yes. For a start I’d be twelve.’ He snorted. ‘I mean I like older women, but…. Oh, hell. You’re being serious, aren’t you?’
Eileen was looking for her shawl.
‘Yes. And I must go. Now. It’s way past midnight.’
‘How will I manage? I need you now. I didn’t know until tonight. Can we write?’
‘No. And no, we can’t be friends. I’m not going to join the sorry ranks of your rumoured liaisons.’
He was quiet for a couple of minutes.
‘OK. So be it. Let me take you home.’
Unknown to them, this very minor skirmish happened to take place on what was subsequently known as D-Day, June the 6th, 1944. It has been estimated that 4,414 allied soldiers were killed during that operation, which decisively changed the course of history.
Exactly 40 weeks later during a relentless, gritty khamsin, Eileen gave birth to another Piscean, a girl whose snub nose was generally considered to be a legacy from her aunt, Daphne. Eileen christened me Miranda.
Eileen’s brothers were both killed shortly afterwards, within days of each other, in the final throes of the war. Their mother Evelyn left Bedford to join her other daughters, Daphne and Clare, back in Argentina. Eileen brought all her four children to the UK in the polar winter of 1947, when Larry and Eve happened to be there. The following year, Eileen took my brother and me to visit Evelyn, coinciding with Larry and Eve’s time at the British Council in Cordoba, a four hour drive away.
When Eileen, Paul and I returned permanently to Pudding Island, the year of the new queen’s coronation, there was no one and nothing there to welcome us. Eileen was not happy in commuter-belt Essex, and an inexplicable rancour had infected her marriage.
With my three siblings away in boarding school, I was a dreamy, withdrawn creature. Eileen had no truck with just wanting her children to be happy. She wanted intellectual superstars, or boys. She was convinced that I was stupid, and could not look at me but with exasperation. I was not a boy.
My parents and I cohabited each in solitary confinement, sharing nothing but the space we lived in. I had not one memorable conversation with either of my parents. I was fond of Paul who provided the warmth my mother lacked. But we didn’t have a single interest or opinion in common. We had no family life — no trips, no holidays, no talk, no jokes, no card games. We were strangers to each other. This is not a misery memoir. One’s family constitutes reality, from which anything else is a deviation, an oddity. The result of coming, as it seemed, from a different planet, is that I live in my head — a convenient locus for a writer. And negative criticism acts like capsaicin, a bracing condiment that unleashes a scribble of endorphins.
When I was 15, Eileen gave me ‘Mountolive’ to read, an event I still remember, as being a unique sign of interest in my cultural development. With embarrassment I confess that I found it boring. It could not compete with the urgent trivia of adolescence: Brook Benton, Buddy Holly, meringue net petticoats and ballet shoes a la Bardot, stalking boys and the hula hoop — although I did read Freud, and filled notebooks with knotted prose.
There were no more references to Durrell until Eileen was widowed twenty years later. After a year of fierce alcoholic mourning, she started reminiscing about that skirmish, implying that Paul might not have been my father, a notion I dismissed at the time as the wishful thinking of a woman who invented what life failed to supply.
Durrell died in 1990, Eileen in 1997, and I forsook journalism in Pudding Island to live in the hills of Andalucia: writing, drinking, practising yoga and Buddhism.
Thoth, battered and oxidised by age, retrieved from the junk in my mother’s red leather jewel-box, sits before me now.
Google is a boon for writers — beyond being a source of information it supplies a tsunami of diversion for those bleak droughts when nothing flows. One such afternoon, when my husband was swaying on perilous scaffolding, painting the high ceiling of the yoga room, I turned to Images to see what Lawrence Durrell looked like.
I called Dan from his painting to have a look.
‘Christ!’ he said, ‘It’s as plain as the nose on your face.’ We were faced with not just me, but my son Leo as well. A possibility, now, that we could wear our noses with pride.
A circuitous path, unexpected connections and coincidences, and I met Durrell’s surviving legitimate daughter. Just four years older than me, Penny was lost in the cloudy purlieus of Alzheimer’s disease. She embarked on sentences that dissolved as she spoke and left her stranded in a strange place. The only identifiable shape that loomed from the mist was suspicion.
It was a meeting of exquisite poignancy: thick grey rain slicking down the drenched Herefordshire grass, a sudden power cut, Dan and me trying to make sense of Penny’s shreds of memory in the softly seeping darkness of a November afternoon, by the light of dying candles wedged into a clotted iron candle-stick wrought by Durrell himself.
Grudging, Penny consented to show me her photos. As she opened the lid of the cardboard crate, I felt a terrific jolt of affinity for Durrell — writer, drinker, yoga student, Buddhist. There he was, at a Buddhist fair somewhere in France, and again, in a fearless Urdhva Padmasana, an inverted lotus pose, in a garden.
She snapped the lid shut. ‘That’s enough of that.’ she said with startling clarity.
Penny’s husband was convinced of my case, constantly remarking that I was a virtual clone of Margo, Durrell’s sister who had lately died. That I even had the same mannerisms. He repeatedly referred to Durrell as ‘your father’ and Margo as ‘your aunt’.
But he refused to put Penny through the ordeal of giving a dna sample. Shortly afterwards she was dead.
I shall never know.
Contact Dan on firstname.lastname@example.org
If it ever crossed your mind that you’d like to be able to do this…..
or even this….
you are in luck.….
has taught drawing and printmaking at Colchester School of Art, and given printmaking and drawing workshops in the UK, Spain and now Italy where he lives.
He is an artist with loads of drawing, watercolour, oils, landscape, portrait, silkscreen printing, etching and even cartoon experience.
From May 8th to 15th this spring he is giving a six-day course
which will whizz you through a formidable grounding in accurate drawing and perspective, swoop you through an inspiring variety of styles, techniques and materials, and send you home with a painting of your own to display with pride upon your mantelpiece. He’s happy to teach students of all abilities.
His masterplan is to cover these areas:
1: Drawing, composition, perspective
2: Basic oil technique, basic watercolour technique
3: Landscape painting/drawing
4: Still life painting oil/watercolour
5: Figure study — drawing technique
6: Composition using students’ reference pix — photos, sketches, drawing books
It may be helpful to have an idea of what you want to end up with — landscape, still life, flowers in the Dutch style or a la Charleston, personal treasures to paint with the sharp delicacy of Elizabeth Blackadder — for which you might bring photos, magazine pages, shells or objets. And, without being too interior designery, an idea of the colour range might be useful. If you have watercolours, please bring them. Dan will provide oils and canvases.
I’m Miranda, Dan’s wife.
In addition to the above, I’m happy to give hatha yoga classes (240 hour qualification, £10 per session) and, if you yearn to write, I have been a journalist for a couple of decades, have published some 20 books and would be delighted to give a little gentle coaching and direction, for which I would not charge.
A typical day
Yoga from 8.30 to 9.30 for those who want.
Breakfast of muesli, eggs, homemade bread, yoghurt, tea or coffee.
Painting/drawing from 10.30 until 1pm.
Light, salady lunch from 1 until 2.30pm
More art until 5.30pm.
Supper from 7.30, with local Madrevite wine
Bed and full board (breakfast and lunch every day, dinner out the last night) £450 each based on two people sharing a twin room. £200 single room supplement. We can pick up Ryanair Perugia passengers, for which we will make a small charge. Or if you fly to Rome, we’ll pick you up from Chiusi Railway Station
The estate looks like this in May
The house is one of thirty or so on a farming estate/agriturismo of 600 hectares. It has an ancient, out of date website www.lecoste.it which probably tells you about its two tennis courts, three swimming pools, football pitch etc, but may fail to tell you about how lovely the nature reserve is, the variety of woodland walks there are, stuffed with deer, badgers, porcupines, rabbits, foxes, stylish black squirrels, wildflowers, funghi, etc etc
The swimming pools, used by all the predominantly English people who live here, are a beautiful ten minute walk away. The prevailing aura is Italian hillbilly. Don’t expect Milan designer chic.
Our house, Santa Lucia, originally built over 100 years ago, was flattened by German bombers in 1944 and immediately rebuilt. Occasionally elderly women fetch up here, who were born, married and had babies here, survived the war and German occupation, the destruction of the house and its reconstruction. This house was billeted to Germans soldiers who slept in what is now my workspace — both women said belligerently that the Germans were ‘Very nice!’
At that time, mezzadria was practised — these big houses were dormitories (10 people lived in this one) for sharecroppers who had to give half of everything they produced to the landlord in the big house on the hill. This — and lifelong servitude to the Catholic Church which also owned slaves who had to give the church half — continued until 1969. There were cattle in what is now our kitchen, goats in our workrooms, plough-horses, pigs, chickens, and the main crop was tobacco, which belonged to the government, whose inspectors would come to count every leaf.
We are equidistant between Rome and Florence — both are an easy daytrip by train. You can see our precise location on Google, PG 06062 is the post code. Moiano is the nearest village, a walkable distance, with post office, new bar, old communist bar, front organisations for who knows what selling handbags, jewellery, Hello Kitty luggage, lifesize ceramic panthers. There is also a very good restaurant, occasionally patronised by someone who has just won an Oscar, whose m-in-law lives up the hill and does yoga with me on Thursdays.
If you would like to know more, please contact Dan at email@example.com
This is the best possible time to be a woman.
In some places.
I hoped to find friends on moving to Italy, but I didn’t expect to find such a shoal of supportive, intelligent, funny, adventurous, positive women. They’re dealing with all the usual stuff that afflicts people on the brink of getting a bus pass — widowhood, errant partners, poverty, illness, grumpy hips, being pulverised between ancient parents and melodramatic progeny — but they make it an absolute priority to gather together and talk, share, cook, laugh, drink. 20 women can confidently arrange an event, men optional, and bask like cats on a radiator in the warmth of each other’s presence.
I’m comparing my privileged freedom to the constraints imposed on my mother’s generation, for whom financial independence was still a chimera. She got a double first at Cambridge, but my father’s career took precedence. She had jobs wherever they fetched up, by definition temporary, ephemeral, chosen to dovetail conveniently into his life.
It would never have occurred to her to invite a coven of mates over for an evening of talk and laughter. She didn’t have them, for a start, partly because of her hauteur, and partly because of their peripatetic life, packing up and going wherever his career threw them: Peking, Nanking, Shanghai, Amoy, Hongkong, the Philippines, Brentwood. (Brentwood? They were so innocent, didn’t know about Essex).
For her generation, other women always threatened to become The Other Woman. There was too much at stake — livelihood, spending habits, status — to let them get too close.
When my sons were small I once got the sour metallic taste of belonging to a man. I don’t blame him, who’d happily volunteer to support another able-bodied adult? But when he said ‘when you make the money, you can make the decisions’, I did make a decision. I chose penurious independence. Laughable, in the eyes of my male employer at Natmags who paid little and expected much, difficult and frightening at times for me and my boys, but a source of self-knowledge and strength to me. I’m not in any way heroic, but I do know who I am. Who are you if you’re defined by your relationship to someone or something else?
A generation ago, your man was not only your Beloved and all that, he was survival. Even if you had a stellar education, talent, and energy, you were still one of his belongings and did as he directed. Cyril Connolly blamed the pram in the hall, the rampant tares of domesticity, among the enemies of promise, meaning of course masculine promise. How much more so for women, for whom babies represent a career hiatus at a crucial juncture, or a source of guilt if they are cared for by a minder. I’ve seen the milky trail of infant puke on the left shoulder, the mask of grief on the face of the deputy editor at Country Living, after leaving her distraught baby in the hands of a nanny.
Felix Dennis said ‘the reason why we’re (men) all so bad-tempered now, Miranda, is that there’s nowhere left to explore.’ His notion was that we could make a bit more space and invent a spot of healthy extreme sport by decamping to the moon, ‘not as physical bodies, Miranda, but as holograms,’ to which I smiled politely and chomped on the Cadbury’s miniature swiss roll that the 74th richest man in the UK served as the grand finale to our lunch of British Rail sarnies. But he’s right — that is how this planet feels now — in the uncaring possession of angry and insanely powerful men who trample about in the slurry they’ve created, looking for a fight. Rampaging around the nursery, smashing each other’s toys.
The dislike and suspicion of women for each other is a myth that men have gratefully exploited. It is called ‘divide and rule’. Given independence and self-respect, women love each other’s company. Contrary to the myth, they work brilliantly together. Anyone who has gone through the pain and hassle of giving birth is more disposed to cooperate with and support other people than to fight them. It is precisely this easy, natural attraction and ability to be open and share experience with other women that is so threatening for men. Having bullied their way to the apex of the pyramid, it is alarming to look down and see the foundations rumbling, the worker ants moving off where they will, congregating convivially with each other, refusing to follow orders.
But the fabulous, feisty women of my acquaintance dance on very thin ice: we co-exist in a time when in some places it is customary to stone a woman to death, justifying this psychotic combination of cowardice and cruelty with the slightest hint of a suspicion. Or where the casual immolation of wives and widows for financial gain is unofficially condoned.
Women are built to work for peace and healing — most women, of course there are exceptions. Women are the custodians of the future. Women are viscerally compelled to ponder the world of their grandchildren: every female foetus has all her eggs four months after conception.
Astounding fact: Your grandmother carried you as an embryonic dot within the growing body of your mother for five months.
It feels to me as though we’re living in a scary age of divergence — just as the gap between rich and poor is widening, so is the gap between men and women. What could be more alarming and call for more stringent strictures than the possibility of women doing it for themselves?
But what women do for themselves and everyone else is provide the social glue that connects people to each other — remember birthdays, invent reasons to bond, share feelings and experiences, find common ground. Necessary for the future of the planet. Long may it continue.