Archive | October, 2013

Our Chairman

12 Oct

I once knew a gentle man whose lies

Like small birds dressed in velvet

Flew in and out of our ruined minds.

But We Never Climbed the Mountain

6 Oct

Setting out on my morning walk, I was once more seized by the notion that these streets of soft sandstone were actually corridors of captured time where humans chose to live for a while, or rather, in local jargon, where they were lucky enough to be born – though more or less irrelevant except as a continuation. Hence the unimportance of their deeds, the men in bars at nine in the morning, some already with glasses of wine; others with milky coffees, citing their poor digestion; cigarettes smouldering, stomachs distended over their belts like mozzarella.
I crossed the street. The hedonistic urge of Italy is what first draws one to it, and then repels.
From a drain rose a stench of what lay beneath the beautiful idyll of doing nothing – broken things fixed with bits of string because it will do for now, while dismissing the notion of doing things properly. One must always laugh and be superb about every failure. ‘Don’t worry so much, northern man! We come from the ancients; we build Ferraris, we play the beautiful game.’ Sardinians are usually willing to play the Italian card when it suits their purposes.
Just as I was about to turn into the back streets – where those go who would rather walk through mud than endure another conversation – I heard a voice calling my name. There, at a corner table, was a beckoning hand; my friend Roberto, a short and wiry man from the Sardinian region of Barbagia, had slipped out of his child-haunted home for a moment of fraternity. Caught by a tableful of friendly eyes alert to the possibility of entertainment, I trundled back and began the wearisome task of tossing a few scraps of my life into the arena. This was also expected of one here, in this island communality.
Roberto leaned across the table and confidentially dropped his voice: “If you’re not doing anything for lunch, come with us to Barbagia. My uncles have invited a group of refugees. To Punta La Marmora.”
“What’s that?”
“Sardinia’s highest peak. You must go to the peak. Everyone must see the view before they die.”
I looked at his face and I realised he was bored. That made two of us.
“Who’s ‘we’?”

Forty minutes later we were waiting by a new four-wheel drive parked by an expensive-looking house by the river, quite unlike the usual peasant hovels – a converted eighteenth century tannery. The semi-ruined exterior walls had been stabilized and an invisible modernist cube of glass fitted into the middle, filled with wooden floors and stainless steel things: angular stairs, espresso makers, impossible lamps and high-concept Milanese chairs. I couldn’t help noticing a sea-going kayak suspended from the ceiling. Some sort of art installation?
Roberto explained that the owner, Alfredo, was one of the best known lawyers in Italy, famous for putting Giotto, the Mafioso, behind bars. At weekends, Alfredo and his wife Valeria liked to come to their Sardinian retreat to “get away from it all.” And now Roberto had persuaded Alfredo to come along and meet the refugees – possibly also advise them on their legal rights.
“What refugees?”
“You will see, you will meet them; and you will find they are all from Africa,” said Roberto, in a vaguely mystifying way.
In the background emerged the lawyer, casually dressed but wearing a very good shirt. Like a lot of left-leaning, late middle-aged Italian intellectuals, his white hair had been left to proliferate. His slightly younger wife, Valeria, was in excellent spirits, waving to us as she spoke into her mobile, negotiating to have a crate of fish delivered in the evening. “Excuse me,” she said, “Alfredo, will we be home by eight?”
Alfredo looked at Roberto, who nodded and thought eight sounded reasonable.
Introductions were fluidly taken care of, then we climbed in. Even the huge engine growled amicably. Valeria took the wheel. She and her husband had the attractive ease of upmarket Romans, who have been practising their social skills in a highly competitive system for two thousand years. As we left the town, its cafés filled with gossiping men now really hitting the wine in the lead-up to lunch, I was glad to be out of the self-heating kettle of a west Sardinian town.
We headed for the mountainous interior.
After an hour or so, like all Italians, they fell prey to an unspoken need for coffee. We stopped off in a rudimentary café where the pastries looked at least a day old. As we filed in, I looked up and saw a peregrine falcon leisurely winging homeward with a pigeon in its talons. Even the birds were thinking of lunch.
The barman could not quite mask his resistance to this distinguished Roman – although it was mingled with a good deal of respect. Roberto stayed behind after we had tossed back the tiny, syrupy coffees. As if raking over the footprints of these strangers, on my way out I heard him say to the barman in a thick Logudorese dialect, “Give me a pack of cigarettes, I’m gasping.” His comment was greeted with immediate chuckles all round. Not because of what he had actually said but because he chose to say it in Sardu dialect, which was a form of self-assertion, a beating of the chest. In fact I wasn’t quite sure about the last “I’m gasping” bit, but something in the growl of his voice indicated a release of inhibition, as if emphasising to the barman that he was a proper Sard with his feet on the ground.
There is a measure of schizophrenia about the local patriotism of the Sard. However much he respects and approves of an outsider, it can never quite touch the depth of his identification with a member of his own tribe. Outsiders will only be admitted in so far as they are devotees of the Sard way. Critics may as well leave. Once, when an English acquaintance of mine suggested that our town lacked architectural finesse, my Sard friends concluded that he must be fuori di testa – out of his mind.
The road wound upward, grew tortuous, and then threw up stones and ruts. Roberto pointed at some indeterminate point at the far end of the valley and said: “Down there my father keeps a hazelnut grove.” This gave rise to a long conversation about hazelnuts. Italians are not picky about their choice of conversation prompts. I have tried experiments to see whether there is any subject they will not talk about. I have not yet found one. On one occasion I was offered some pickled celery by a factory worker who told me, with a sober face, “If you eat this you will have a good smooth shit tomorrow.” I could not imagine a similar comment at an English lunch.
We had to walk the last half-mile, while Valeria navigated the boulder-strewn track behind us, the four-wheel drive swaying like a sailboat. The mountains were high now, directly ahead of us a triangular peak. Through a dip in the slope filled with stunted trees ran a line of parked vehicles. My heart sank. No one had mentioned a social event. I had assumed there’d be a simple picnic before we climbed the mountain. I had stuffed a hastily assembled cheese sandwich in one pocket and into the other I had dropped a bottle of red wine. I should have known better, I should have remembered that before lunch nothing needs to be done – and after lunch nothing can be done.
We entered the small wood through a cattle gate. Inside, a large group of Sardinians were doing what they love best: preparing a bed of charcoals, spreading their choice meats on it and letting the smoke and flavours rise into the sky. Pots and pans bubbled on gas burners. The tables were set with plastic plates and cups and numerous five-litre bottles of unlabelled red wine. When I hauled out my meagre bottle, the locals congregated with pedagogical smiles and told me they did not drink Cannonau. This was the land of Mandrolisai. Politely they uncorked it, but they left it for me. Valeria brought her cup a few times, announcing that she was quite partial to Cannonau. I shared my bottle with relief. Afterwards I realised this was a perfect example of her good Roman manners.
Evening was not here by a long shot, but it would be here soon enough. The aspiration of the Sardinians was that we’d be eating and talking and singing through the night. Alfredo and Helena unpacked their delicacies, including a large piece of prosciutto which, they said, was only available from a particular stall at the market. It was the best prosciutto they had found in Sardinia, as good as Parma ham if not better. Roberto tried it with a slight frown.
“I’d say it’s salty”, he ventured.
Alfredo qualified this, slightly challenged: “But not too salty.”
“No, not too salty. But salty,” said Roberto, with diplomatic skill.
At the end table in the picnic area sat the refugees, some twelve Africans, mainly men, but also a few women with lavish headdresses. A radio in the middle of their table gave off West African rhythms, which they seemed to prefer to the melodious Italian bouncing off the rocks in all directions. In spite of its tempo, the music seemed funereal; a reminder of a world they had lost. Something about their faces made one reluctant to strike up a conversation. One of them had a terrified expression imprinted on his face and I tried my best not to look at him.
Alfredo explained that the Africans had landed on Lampedusa after being kicked out of Libya during the uprising. One year later they were still holed up in the mountains in an old people’s home, waiting for their Italian identity papers and social security cards. “I suppose the authorities are busy dealing with more important matters, like Berlusconi,” said Alfredo, with an irritated wink.
“But what can be done?”
“Oh not much. Bureaucracy is above the law.”
In spite of their gloom, the Africans were the star attraction of the lunch. The Sardinians ladled sugo and pasta on their plates and scooped parmigiano from enormous tubs. They were displaying their culture and largesse. The Africans seemed tired of the whole business. Maybe they were also embarrassed, as I was, about coming empty-handed? And always holding out their cupped hands – gratefully.
Most of them were Muslims, of course. They did not see the value or importance of Mandrolisai.
I took my binoculars and climbed a path towards the mist-swirled Punta La Marmora. There was no time to go to the top. Lunch had formed itself into a burgeoning Romanic column blocking our path. Would we climb La Punta Marmora, would we see the eastern and western coast merging at the tip of Cagliari? Possibly. But first we must have food.
I saw two golden eagles soaring over a ridge. Then I saw a tall black man in a red jumper scrambling over a crag and descending along the path. We looked at each other as we passed, then stiffly shook hands. His name, as I later found out, was Abraham Darlingtin, and he was from Nigeria.
I realised that the only black men I had seen on the island were hawking beach towels and sunglasses and junk jewellery for the Chinese merchants.
When I returned, the Africans were trying ragù served up by the reverential hands of an old Italian woman, who was sharing with them the very best thing she knew. They poked suspiciously at it, waiting for the grilled meat. What did Nigerians or Sub-Saharan Africans eat? What were they missing here? Goat? Chilli peppers? Barley grain? Or were there just too many Sardinians eager to share their superlative way of life?
Emboldened by a few glasses of wine, I resumed my conversation with Abraham Darlingtin. He was actually not Nigerian, he emphasised, but Biafran. He had been a construction worker in Tripoli until the uprising, which had not in any sense liberated him. One night as he was preparing to go to bed after a hard day’s work, a group of armed men turned up at his door accusing him of being one of Colonel Gaddafi’s mercenaries. After debating whether they should just execute him on the spot, eventually they accepted that he was a construction worker. Just in case he wasn’t, they dragged him down to the seafront and put him on a boat. The scenes on the beach were appalling, a number of people had been shot.
“In our boat we have no food, no water. They put so many of us there, the waves almost come inside. We can’t sit down, even. The boat floated for three days, lost.”
“Were you frightened?” It was a stupid question and he resisted it with a toss of his head.
“Libya was a good country, very good country. Gaddafi very good man, not a tyrant. In Nigeria we have tyrants, we know tyrants. In Libya we have cheap petrol, no electrical bills, cheap rent. I work a lot. Making money. Then stupid people come, they were not real Muslims, they take real Muslims and throw us in the water. And French and English help them, French and English are thieves wanting oil. Also in Nigeria they are thieves. In Biafra we have oil but no power. England sends BP to pump it up and pay the government. You say we are corrupt but you are corrupt.”
“What will you do now, Abraham?”
“When I have money I will go back to Biafra and fight. We will get weapons and kick the English out, the English are the worst, they think they are good but they not. If the Nigerian government sends the army to Biafra we will kill them too, we are better fighters, when we have weapons we will kill them. English do not want a Biafran to be President, they know we will throw them out. English are the worst liars.”
“So after all you’ve been through, that’s all you want? To fight?”
“If Biafra fights Nigerians we will win.”
“And what do you think of Sardinia?”
He pondered this. “They are good here. But they drink too much and talk too much. We don’t have a kitchen. One year with no money or papers and only eating tomatoes and spaghetti and soft rice.”
I offered to help Abraham, to put him in touch with Nigerian exile groups in London.
“I don’t like England, I will go to Holland.”
Nonetheless we exchanged email addresses.
I wondered how many of these refugees wanted to go north to countries where they would not be shown the slightest kindness – in fact, nothing at all except possibly a broom and a couple of euro per hour for sweeping. The reason for their reluctance, I felt, was that southern Europe retains too much heritage, it stifles any outsider bold enough to try and come in. In northern Europe, the enclosed air of Nespresso, frozen pizzas and telly were conducive to mutual disinterest. People formed their ghettos, earned their precarious livings and nurtured their children through university educations. It allowed migrants to stay as they were, in their pocket environments, without the need to change or be subsumed into another culture.
I was also a migrant, but the very opposite of these people around me poking at their pasta, longing for the certitudes of the north. I had escaped to get away from frozen pizzas and the precarious struggle and putting children through university.
So we were both strangers here, strangers passing in opposite directions. I suspect Abraham may have been puzzled by me, a man who had not planned for family or self-advancement and would not fight his corner. What was my purpose, he must have asked himself. Why had I settled voluntarily among these Sardinians?
Equally, I was dumbfounded by an apparently intelligent man whose only ambition, having survived a nasty conflict in Libya, was to go back to his native country and start killing again.
Lunch was turning to dinner. Helena reminded Alfredo that we had to be back by eight for the box of fish. There was just enough time to get out our guitars and sing a few songs. This was protocol. None of the Africans picked up a guitar. The women did not burst into spontaneous chants. They were not being true to type, really; they were supposed to flash their white teeth and dance until they broke into a sweat.
This was almost unfair – Sardinians always stayed true to type. One could always rely on their grilled meats, traditional songs, and patriotism.
The two grim African women stood up and took their radio and walked off. Abraham Darlingtin told me that many women were raped in Tripoli. He shook his head as if to say: well, it is too late now, those women are ruined, they will never be happy.
Thoroughly infused now with the Cannonau, I saw the golden eagles again. I pointed this out to some Sardinians, who categorically shook their heads and informed me there were no golden eagles here this year. Only when I offered them my binoculars did they agree, slightly startled. Those were certainly golden eagles. For a moment I resented their smug self-regard, their confident belief that they were the owners of this land. To me, this was not a Sardinian mountain. It was just a mountain. These were not Sardinian eagles, they were eagles. And that was why an African man walking down these slopes, or me, or any other human being, had equal claim to it.
But at this gathering no one would have listened to a mealy-mouthed relativist like me. Only a forthright type with a gun, or a sommelier, could have made them sit up.
In the midst of these thoughts, Roberto came hurrying. “We have to get back. For Valeria’s fish.”
Of course. Now there was supper to think about.
Alfredo packed up the prosciutto. Roberto said his farewells to uncles, cousins and godparents.
We set off on foot again, while Valeria carefully manoeuvred the four-wheel drive along the murderous track.
When I got home I wrote to Abraham Darlingtin, renewing my offer of help.

But he never wrote back.


My short story collection, Love Doesn’t Work is available from Dzanc Books, also on Kindle. My novel The Maggot People will also be on release from the same publisher at the end of November 2013. 

The Planning Disease

3 Oct

There is no such thing as a perfect man, nor a woman either… I keep telling myself this, because I am often aware of failing myself, failing others, failing the idea I have of perfection, which must be seen as a sort of disease of the mind. In spite of knowing this I often catch myself in a rage at my shortcomings.

My most serious fault, as I see it in my dissonant ramblings, is the wastage of time to which I have subjected my life (that’s an awkward sentence, I know – but I don’t have time to rewrite it). In my twenties I did little more than bum about, while endlessly considering where I should go to do some more bumming about.

Many, many years ago, when I went to India at the age of 22, I spent my days torturing myself about whether to go here, or there, or nowhere. Even on trains, lying in a second class bunk while that continent’s seemingly endless fields, forests, and deserts sped by, I was always fretting about where to go next. There is a simple mathematical equation to it: by going to one place one does not go to another. By not going to another, one changes the direction of one’s whole life. Because every new step we take determines everything that comes after.

While I had been waiting in Athens for my flight, the winter had oppressed us all. I had found myself a cheap hostel, filled with down-at-heel Irish people who were emigrating to Australia and/or had been in Greece for the orange harvest. I don’t remember much about it, but I do remember a cracked window by my bed where a very cold blast of wind disturbed my rest. And I remember a lot of weeping, drunken confessions and Irish voices declaring their love for those they had just met, and would never see again. The departures took place on a daily basis.

When it was my turn to board the plane, I had bought a bottle of very good whiskey, after some raffish traveller had explained to me that one could sell whiskey in Bombay at a premium. My neighbour on the Air Egypt flight, a bearded fellow working for an NGO, shunned me after finding out that I was intending to sell my whiskey for profit – quite rightly, he assumed I was just another brainless, hedonistic backpacker looking to cruise India for kicks. I walked around the streets of Bombay that night and sold my bottle and made ten quid for myself and it didn’t seem worth it. Apparently I had been poorly advised. People are usually poorly advised; it is one of the cardinal rules of existence that advice is always useless, unless it is useful. And you will never know the difference until years later, when you are in an old people’s home.

The journey was eventful. We took off from Athens and stopped in Cairo to pick up more passengers. A savage sandstorm erupted and we spent three days at the airport, which began to look like some sort of world party. Tall Ethiopians in colourful head-dresses, bony Englishmen re-living the joys of empire, gangs of Pakistanis complaining about the lack of facilities for their massive families… I managed to get a room in a hotel at the airport, where I stood watching the sand blowing across the runway; I was ecstatic, more or less, absolutely immersed in Henry Miller’s trilogy, “Sexus”, “Nexus”, and “Plexus”. I wanted that sandstorm to keep blowing.

But all good things expire… the sandstorm passed, we took off and flew across the Indian Ocean into the dawn…

No sooner had we landed, than I followed the other hedonistic, brainless backpackers to the Red Shield Salvation Army Hostel very close to the Taj Mahal Hotel and the Gateway to India. They seemed to know exactly where they were going. The very next morning, they set off in a large gaggle to one of the British-built train stations in Bombay (this one looked exactly like King’s Cross in London; it must have been by the same Victorian architect) to buy their tickets to Goa. I accompanied them for a part of the way, listening to their explanations about why Goa was the best place to start, to relax, swim and surf, dance, sink into the “emotion” of India before putting in the necessary “hard travelling”, the dutiful exploration of the interior or the little-known border territories.

I don’t like reluctant, dutiful things. If there is not some genuine reason for doing something, why not just leave it?

I remember how, at one point, we turned a corner and there before us was a whole street filled with water buffalo, all lying down in the shade and chewing the green fodder that had been put out for them. On the other side of the street, a group of lepers came limping across as soon as they saw us. A long thoughtful silence broke out among the new arrivals. “Yes,” someone said. “Goa is more relaxed.”

I was not sorry to see them all boarding the train and heading off.

Then I spent two days trying to buy a train ticket. The queues were enormous and terrifying, and once you got to the ticket window, you had to know the departure times and various code words or they told you to come back later. After queuing for two hours, this was not an attractive option. Eventually I broke down in tears. Until a very helpful Frenchman and his wife, who to this day seems to me the most beautiful woman I ever met, took me by the hand and led me to the Tourist Office and explained that I could go in and buy any ticket I wanted in ten minutes. I did not know this, because I had not informed myself…

Without exception, all the people I had met were clutching the Lonely Planet Guide to India, which was incredibly detailed, specifying exactly which boarding houses to stay in, which restaurants to eat in, how to buy train tickets, and so on. Armed with this book it was possible to spend three or four months in India without ever having any bother or getting further than four feet from the nearest American/Brit/German travellers, heavily laden with helpful advice about selling bottles of whiskey or going to Goa. I had not bought a Lonely Planet Guide; I trusted in a crude map of India, which I spent many hours staring at, trying to work out from the names and locations of the towns where I would most like to go.

So, a few days after arriving in Bombay, I caught a train into Gujarat where I toured a lot of very small towns that rarely had more than a single hostel, mostly with hard beds and dirty bedlinen and pillows decorated with a large hair-oil patch in the middle, smelling nicely of jasmine. In one of these towns I had to leave, after some locals spread a rumour that I was working for the government as an agent to collect information on some recent anti-Muslim riots.

The high point, or low point, depending on whether you were standing upright or hanging upside down, was experienced in the docks of Ahmadabad at five in the morning, when I found myself walking down a long deserted road between warehouses, with no one around except a strange man following me with a murderous look in his eyes. I bid him a good morning and stared at him so intently that I think he eventually drew the conclusion that I was mad, and left me in peace.

Ahmadabad seemed to be the home of Surreal experience. One day I was walking through a street market when suddenly a naked man came running through the crowd, screaming. A few men picked up sticks to beat him, when suddenly their attention was detained by a rabid dog careering along, foam flying from its mouth. I was transfixed, watching as the men proceeded to club the suffering beast until it was no more than a patch of red gore flattened into the dust.

My agonies grew out of this ignorance of mine, the fact that I did not know which towns were cool, which towns had sacred lakes, which towns had ashrams and freaks and bongs and bang lassis. Obstinately I navigated by my silly map. There were advantages, but some of them could have ended up killing me. On Diu, an island in the north, I ended up climbing into a ruined Tower of Silence, and I must be one of the few India travellers to have got inside a Zoroastrian sacred tower where the bones of the dead are picked clean by vultures. I could tell you exactly what it looked like, but I would never reveal a secret like that.

Now, when I tell the stories of my travels, it all seems so pleasant and decorative. At the time, it was an agony of decision-making. Should I go to this dot on the map, or that one? I never knew from one day to the next where I should bring my bag of bones, my sleepless head. In the end I succumbed to the planning disease. I bought a scuffed old Lonely Planet Guide in a second-hand bookshop in Delhi, and from there on, when I think back, there was an element of predictability to my journey. From being a panicked young man who knew nothing, I had a great deal of superb information at my fingertips. I met other travellers, all extremely confident about where they were going next. And, oh, how obvious it all was.

In those early days, while I was blundering through Gujarat, I took a long walk in a forest one day and, in a glade, I came face to face with a whole pride of wild lions. Females, males, cubs: thirty lions lying there, watching me stumbling into their midst through a bush. That moment when I faced an upright, tensile male, his ferocious eyes the size of tennis balls, will never be forgotten.

My advice, then, is: don’t read the book. Turn off the radio, throw away the newspaper. Smell the wind, check the sky and the clouds and the sun. Then set off and make your journey.

My next book The Maggot People is due out in November but it is available for pre-order on Amazon. My short stories Love Doesn’t Work are available on Kindle or as a paperback. 

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