Archive for category Writing

Sighs Matter


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.


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Calling up the Dead

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.’


What what?’

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:


regrets exceed­ingly

his deplorable con­duct while a

guest at your


and humbly craves your pardon

for the breach of eti­quette checked in the

adjoin­ing column.


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.’


Prospero’s Cell.’

Not Caliban’s?’

He turned over and ran his fin­gers along her upper arm, caus­ing an out­break of gooseflesh.

Not Caliban’s.’

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.

Carpe Diem.












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Books — rating and choosing

There are 15 times as many lin­gerie shops in Italy as there are book shops — though Ital­ian women have only one and a third babies. (Greek and Span­ish women have even fewer). I no longer spend hours rootling in Water­stones  — the only thing I miss is the smell of new books. When in the UK I trawl the book shelves of Char­ity shops, which I pre­fer any­way -  to find the weird, the orig­i­nal, the import and the small run which never appear on the 3 for the price of 2 table. In Italy most of the books I buy come from the more eso­teric back­wa­ters of Ama­zon and its subsidiaries.

The Oxfam book that I was ecsta­tic to find for 50p is Stephen King ‘On Writ­ing’. Partly I like to buy books for pen­nies because it means I can deface them with gusto. I’m one of the world’s great under­lin­ers, have a woolly cloud down the mar­gin of entire inter­est­ing pas­sages, hairy taran­tu­las for things I must go back to, excla­ma­tion marks when I take excep­tion to some­thing, and float­ing ufos for phrases that I’d love to steal. So, you don’t want to inherit my library.

I say all this because I was unusu­ally respect­ful of King’s hard­back (which has one of the weird­est cover images I’ve ever tried to puz­zle out). It was a curi­ous expe­ri­ence, read­ing it. At first it raced, then about one third through it slowed to a glacial crawl — or maybe I did. What­ever. I never take longer than 2 days to read a book — this one took eleven. I was wad­ing through mud, fas­ci­nat­ing and thought-provoking, but hard work. He him­self explains this mys­tery at the end. A man called Bryan Smith ran him over, break­ing his leg in 9 places, frac­tur­ing his right hip, chip­ping his spine in 8 places, break­ing 4 ribs and caus­ing sur­face wounds requir­ing much embroi­dery. ’ Writ­ing is not life, but I think that some­times it can be a way back to life.’ There is so much con­fes­sion, so much good sense, his email address even, which make the book a prof­li­gate act of communion.

I like that he doesn’t bang on about plot but just jumps into nar­ra­tive clad lightly in a cou­ple of ideas. He’s very good on back­story and research. Ruth­less with adjec­tives and adverbs. He quotes his high school teacher’s com­ment on one of his essays: ‘Not bad, but PUFFY. For­mula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft — 10%.’ He advises you to find or imag­ine an ideal reader, ‘Try to decided whether he or she will  be bored by a cer­tain scene’. OK, he’s quotable too. ‘The scari­est moment is always just before you start. after that things can only get bet­ter.’  Agents — ‘It’s easy to con a writer who’s des­per­ate for rep­re­sen­ta­tion.’ The book is full of inspir­ing stuff that makes you long to rush off and write. It is writ­ten sim­ply with endear­ing mod­esty. What a lovely man to have on your shelf. 9/10

The Ama­zon book of the week for me was Uzzi Reiss’s ‘The Nat­ural Super­woman’, vehe­mently rec­om­mended by Mar­gosha, an elfin Pol­ish painter whom Anna the Swedish chef met in the pub­lic sul­phur bath at San Cas­ciano Terme  — where they were both audi­tion­ing boyfriends. Uzzi Reiss’s book eulo­gises about bioiden­ti­cal hor­mones, as being the solu­tion to sex tedium, stress, depres­sion, anx­i­ety, insom­nia, osteo­poro­sis and mem­ory holes. It sounded pretty con­vinc­ing to me, but I have no idea what to do about it or where to find these things. But if you enjoy that sense of recog­ni­tion when peo­ple describe your very own ail­ment, you might find this excit­ing. He also rec­om­mends — with sci­en­tific evi­dence — the mul­ti­ple health ben­e­fits of reduc­ing caloric intake by a quar­ter. I could do some­thing about that, but would rather ignore the promised reju­ve­na­tion for heart, brain, bone, mus­cle, skin, sex­ual response, kid­neys, liver, eyes and homones, and have one more piece of but­tered toast and Mar­mite instead. 6/10

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How to Grow a Writer

If you want your child to become a writer it is imper­a­tive that you treat it to a con­found­ing vari­ety of soli­tary and strange expe­ri­ences. It is a good pre­cau­tion to make sure that the child never gets a chance to form alliances. Also an excess of hap­pi­ness is very dele­te­ri­ous to the cre­ative juices, so it is wise to sub­ject it to emo­tional jolts at reg­u­lar inter­vals, with­out ever explain­ing what hap­pened, what is about to hap­pen or why. Any sense of auton­omy might give the child the notion that it can have some influ­ence in the real world, and you may end up with a politi­cian on your hands. Or some­one who can fit in, earn money, marry, have well-balanced chil­dren and a happy life. Appar­ently there are peo­ple who want that for their offspring.

I was the last, very likely unex­pected, child. My sis­ters Jocasta and Judy are 10 and 7 years older than me respec­tively, con­fi­dent, loud, glam­orous and best treated with cau­tion. My brother Christo­pher is just four years my senior.

My par­ents and I lived in China, Xia­men and then Hongkong. We stayed in Hongkong for 18 months, where my mother taught in the Kennedy Road School. For some rea­son she refused to allow me to grad­u­ate to her class when the time came, with the happy result for me that I briefly became a very clever seven-year-old and scooped all the school prizes. I hardly ever saw my sib­lings. They were shipped off to board­ing school when Christo­pher was seven, and stayed with Mrs Dabbs in Fowey dur­ing most of the hol­i­days. How per­verse. Why have chil­dren at all?

In the UK I was sent to a con­vent school, which cured me defin­i­tively of reli­gion, not that I was ever deeply afflicted. Expe­ri­ence of nuns left me with an abid­ing hor­ror of reli­gious hypocrisy, a frisky flight or fight vis-à-vis the gloat­ing self-righteous finger-wag, and the cer­tainty that redemp­tion lay in not get­ting caught. How could you attach your­self seri­ously to a reli­gion whose most pas­sion­ately upheld tenet con­cerned wear­ing a hideous brown, yel­low and blue striped blazer, and white gloves in public?

Jocasta used to come home on brief raid­ing sprees dur­ing the Uni­ver­sity hol­i­days. She would bor­row my things – clothes, jew­ellery, a cute lit­tle card­board suit­case given to me by my father – and I might get them back even­tu­ally, usu­ally minus some vital part.

When, as a rounded nine-year-old I asked her to write in my auto­graph book, her response:

‘Miranda may be a fat

Girl, but she’s none the worse for that’ cured me com­pletely of auto­graph books.

Judy was kinder, but had a con­sci­en­tious head-prefect’s sense of duty. She was always telling me to do the things that I had hith­erto mirac­u­lously man­aged to avoid – wash­ing up, hang­ing out wash­ing, lay tables. And she would always put you right on dates and what peo­ple said. I devel­oped a Fear of Facts so severe that when I was inter­viewed for a place at Brighton Uni­ver­sity, I could not remem­ber my name.

When I was a rotund and cred­u­lous crea­ture, Christo­pher fed me chill­ies telling me they were sweet­ies. Appar­ently, when I was still a small but chunky human blob he took me out for a swim head­ing across the South china Sea in the gen­eral direc­tion of Jalisco in Mex­ico, and it is only due to my mother’s long-sightedness and sprint power that I am still around. I have a sus­pi­cion that he also sys­tem­at­i­cally broke every stick of fur­ni­ture in my doll’s house. His con­ver­sa­tional gam­bit was to say ‘prove it’, to what­ever inno­cent opin­ion was voiced by any­one younger than him­self. Me. So I steered clear of boys, became wary of show­ing peo­ple my trea­sured pos­ses­sions and gave up express­ing audi­ble opin­ions. How­ever, a con­stant wit­ter in the head is a cru­cial tool for a prospec­tive writer. My highly respected ex-editor at coun­try Liv­ing, Deirdre Mac­Sharry, used to describe Ire­land as being full of writ­ers talk­ing out their nov­els. I sus­pect that most writ­ers keep their words locked within, build­ing up pres­sure, until they are forced to com­mit the stuff to paper.

Being part of my par­ents’ bag­gage meant that I did not have much opti­mism where friend­ship was con­cerned. There was Carol Aylen and Fiona Mac­nab, but no sooner had we bonded over cen­tipede dra­mas and eat­ing con­densed milk from the tin than I was snatched away to some new rainy coun­try where I couldn’t speak the lan­guage of my fellow-pupils. Out there — For­mosa (now Tai­wan) — was a lonely and dan­ger­ous place. It was far far safer to spend those lonely hours sit­ting beneath my father’s desk wait­ing to go home – wher­ever that was – with my imag­i­nary friend.

I’m shar­ing this mis­ery mem­oirette because it was some­where here in that mis­fit, soli­tary child­hood that the seeds of writ­ing were sown. Plainly life was nasty and brutish, and the safest place was within my own head. I became a lolly stick nerd. I used to invent sto­ries, and make tiny gar­dens where minis­cule dra­mas were enacted – which is where the lolly sticks were handy. Diminu­tive picket fences for a bon­sai paradiso.

One good rea­son to write – no one could take my imag­i­na­tion away from me. I issued no pass­ports for entry into the mad minia­ture world where I was top despot. My thoughts were my trea­sure, pre­cious, secret, and very often vin­dic­tive. Revenge and anger are high-octane fuel for a would-be writer.

Another fab­u­lous aspect of writ­ing, is that no mat­ter how weird is the thing you absolutely have to get off your chest, you can do it. You can closet your­self with your com­puter and spew it all out, and no one will inter­rupt. My his­tory of occa­sional loud sib­lings has left me with a con­vic­tion that there is no point in try­ing to tell any­one any­thing. So many times I would launch into some anec­dote only to observe that every­one had left the room, or turned on the tv, or felt a vio­lent need to hoover. It gave me a wispy feel­ing of unre­al­ity – so often I would won­der if I had actu­ally said those fab­u­lously witty things aloud, or had they just remained in a thought bub­ble float­ing above my head.

Mar­tin Amis claimed that most writ­ers have at least this in com­mon with Nabokov: ‘I think like a genius, I write like a dis­tin­guished author, and I speak like a child.’ The obses­sion to write must so often grow from a small unat­tended child jump­ing up and down, pulling parental coat-tails, and shout­ing ‘me, me, me, lis­ten to me.’

To be lis­tened to, to be heard, to elicit echoes of recog­ni­tion, to find an inter­ested audi­ence – this is for me the most thrilling aspect of writ­ing. I love get­ting emails from readers.

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Glub’s New Rock

Glub’s New Rock

The third day with no food. The young wild things were cold and hun­gry. Sta­lac­tites of vis­cous green snot streamed from their noses. Most of the time they slept, and when they awoke they howled. When hit hard, they reduced the racket to an irri­tat­ing whim­per. Glub sat on his favourite rock, and beat his head gen­tly and rhyth­mi­cally on the slimy wall of the cave. From time to time he stopped and stared mourn­fully at the shin­ing stone in his hand, turn­ing it over and over and hit­ting it against the wall by way of a change.

He had spent days grimly hon­ing it along the grain, grind­ing it against a darker rock to expose a sharp edge of quartz. This had been a painful pro­ce­dure, as burn­ing flicks of light kept sting­ing his hands. But when it was fin­ished and he finally threw it, instead of arc­ing neatly to catch the flee­ing deer on the neck as his pre­vi­ous rocks had done, it whirled uncon­trol­lably catch­ing the light as it fell and scat­tered his hoped-for victims.

His woman, Burb, glared at him when she had to pick her way past his hud­dled body. She badly wanted to attack him with his own pre­cious tool, but was afraid of his anger. One of their chil­dren had been crip­pled as a baby when Glub, enraged by its cry­ing, had thrown it against the wall. Burb had tried to mend the lit­tle bro­ken body, wrap­ping its crooked limbs with leaves and tying them with her hair, but it died even­tu­ally when the rains came. Her eyes watered still when she thought of it get­ting qui­eter and qui­eter, its mouth open, its eyes dull. She had been care­ful to avoid annoy­ing her man after that, and kept the three remain­ing off­spring well to the back of the cave when Glub was there.

In one of the lulls between howl­ing, she ven­tured out, wrap­ping the stink­ing hide closely round her shoul­ders to keep off the rain and icy wind. She fol­lowed the ani­mal track down to the river, and lay motion­less on its bank for some time. Goosepim­ples rip­pled her back and thighs, but still she did not move. She was rewarded as the day ebbed by a flash of sil­ver, which she snatched as it shim­mied past, and landed flap­ping on the mud beside her.

Car­ry­ing her booty, still writhing, under her arm, she stopped to pick some of the leaves she had seen the deer eat, thought they were dry and dead by now. She also col­lected a hand­ful of the hard brown things that tree ani­mals seemed to thrive on. All the bright sweet fruit was long since gone. Pick­ing her way care­fully in the dark past the piles of crap that Glub pro­duced just by the entrance, she paused out­side the cave and lis­tened. Glub was snor­ing, and one of the lit­tle things was moan­ing, but noth­ing too seri­ous seemed to have hap­pened in her absence.

She put the leaves down, and using them as a sound-deadening cush­ion, she hit the hard brown things with Glub’s pre­cious rock, over and over again. In her heart she wanted to destroy the rock, to break it into tiny pieces, so that Glub would never spend pre­cious days doing any­thing so stu­pid again. She was so angry with it and him. Burn­ing spots of light hurt her hands, but she per­se­vered, and suc­ceeded in crack­ing three of the nuts.

But then some­thing else hap­pened – as she toiled away, the rock quite hot in her hands, the flashes of light became more fre­quent, and finally one of the leaves flared up, scar­let and as bright as the sun. Burb was trans­fixed. She watched as one after another the leaves caught light. She put out her hand to the bright­ness, and snatched it back with an angry yowl.

The oth­ers awoke, com­plain­ing, at this inter­rup­tion of their sleep, and she had to keep the small­est one from putting his hand in the flames just as she had done. The old­est grabbed greed­ily at the nuts she had man­aged to shell, and a fight ensued, cul­mi­nat­ing in Glub hit­ting both the con­tes­tants and giv­ing one a nose bleed. Glub then tried to take a bite out of the fish, failed because of his lack of teeth (lost in the duel for Burb’s hole) and threw the fish into the burn­ing bright­ness with an enraged growl.

He grabbed Burb’s deer hide, and retired to the pile of dried bracken at the back of the cave where he lay with his face to the wall, thump­ing the floor from time to time with his fist. Burb hated him. Because he had no teeth to eat the fish, he had made sure that no-one else could eat it either by throw­ing it on the lit­tle sun thing. She stolidly returned to her nut crack­ing duties, and it was a while before she noticed two things – one that the lit­tle sun thing gave out heat and light which improved that cave no end, and the other was that the fish, rather than ruined, was begin­ning to smell dif­fer­ent, a smell that made her dribble.

Burb and her chil­dren ate well, and exploited their new dis­cov­ery cannily.

Glub sulked him­self to death, and no-one missed him at all.

© Glub’s New Rock. Author Miranda Innes 2009, all rights reserved

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Writing — the pain, the pain.….

Some­where, in this clonk­ing great barn of a house, is a huge box of books all about writ­ing. One of these days I’ll find it.
I expect you’ve met pro­cras­ti­na­tion — one good trick is to read books about writ­ing as one’s courage ebbs.

All my life, I’ve been fright­ened at the moment I sit down to write. Mar­quez
It’s really scary just get­ting to the desk – we’re talk­ing now five hours. My mouth gets dry, my heart beats fast. I react psy­cho­log­i­cally the way other peo­ple react when the plane loses an engine. Fran Lebowitz.
I suf­fer always from the fear of putting down the first line. It is amaz­ing the ter­rors, the mag­ics, the prayers, the straight­en­ing shy­ness that assails one. John Stein­beck.
Blank pages inspire me with ter­ror. Mar­garet Atwood.

These quo­ta­tions are taken from a book that was on the shelves at my last yoga week in the hills north of Rome– I had to copy the entire book overnight on my tiny lit­tle Asus which made me feel very like Shrek, with fin­gers like cricket bats.

The book is called ‘The Courage to Write’ by Ralph Keyes and I really rec­om­mend it. He deals with the whole prickly issue of why, know­ing that writ­ing is the best thing on earth — cosy insu­la­tion against lone­li­ness, mean­ness, bureau­cracy, tragedy; the path of dis­cov­ery yield­ing unex­pected trea­sures and hor­rors; grip­ping per­sonal archae­ol­ogy and effec­tive exor­cism of demons; a way to poke about in an absorb­ing hornet’s nest with­out being inter­rupted or told off — it is so damned dif­fi­cult to get on with it.

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