The shape of Paris

I had somehow got behind with the wonderful graphic versions of Proust by Stéphane Houet, and only discovered it when I bought the latest one – Autour de Madame Swann, tome 2 – and saw in the list of titles that I had missed two. This is the kind of thing that happens when the only bookshop in town with French books closes down. I ordered the missing volumes, and when I opened the first one Du côté de chez Swann, Noms de pays: le nom, felt an almost physical blow: the endpaper consists of a map of Paris, the classic one, the Seine in blue, buildings grey and the rest pink with green all around the outside. There are little vignettes with drawings of the places that are important in the book, but it is the shape of the city that affected me so, a shape that I know as well as the layout of my own house, and probably love a great deal more.

            It is a shape that you can see in the map of the métro, or at least in the old one as it appears, also on the endpaper, in my original little red guide, Paris par Arrondissement, published by Editions L’Indispensable (who else). You would not be able to guess the shape of London from the map of the Underground, but Paris is much simpler to read. To make it even easier the frontiers are clearly delineated as having Portes, and once you have realised – which took me some time as I hardly ever went near them – that these are situated on the boulevards extérieurs, or boulevards des Maréchaux (named after Napoleon’s marshals: Ney, Lannes, Jourdan, etc), which are now the inner ring road, and used to be the outer fortifications, you can see how extraordinarily compact and well organised Paris is.

            And how extraordinary too that my love for it, which started fifty years ago, still endures, and so powerfully as to produce actual physical symptoms. I hardly dare read the book, although it is suitable that it should contain the passages about names, the names of the cities where the narrator dreams of going: Balbec, Florence, Venice. Balbec is the name Proust gave to Cabourg, where we once had dinner at the Grand Hôtel and watched the common people passing by outside, as Proust describes the narrator doing. This is something like walking through Dublin in the footsteps of Leopold Bloom; some writers create a world so much better than the real one that you want to get into it too. In the small town of Illiers, Proust’s Combray – now rechristened Illiers-Combray – the confusion is total: the bakery near the church proudly claims that it is where Françoise bought her madeleines.

            Proust, like Joyce, can be reduced to his essence without too much loss, hence the success of these graphic versions, which are a lot less tiring to read than the book itself. Similarly, walking the streets of Dublin for a day is a considerably smaller investment of time and energy than reading Ulysses. The places are the story, just as they are for one’s own life. I had a shock similar to the one caused by the map of Paris when I went to London for the first time in years, came out of the Underground at Earls Court and stepped right back into my childhood: those London pavements, remembered in the abstract but now suddenly real under my feet, which themselves remembered not to step on the lines (otherwise you get eaten by a bear).

            My Paris isn’t the same as Proust’s, he is associated with the richer parts of the city, where people like myself could only live in maids’ rooms on the 6th floor. The last few times I was there on my own I became rather depressed: so many memories, my whole young adult life, all compressed within those outer boulevards; I seem to manage better with them safely confined to paper. The rue Chaptal shooting straight off from the rue Blanche, the little triangle beside the chemist on the rue des Ecoles, with behind it, lower down, the rue St Victor, the square chunk cut out of the rue de Rivoli by the rue des Pyramides: they are all still there on the map, on all the maps of Paris.

The River

I have been away from France for so long that I didn’t know they have Oxfam shops there now. There was one in Lille, Oxfam La Bouquinerie, the best organised charity shop I have ever seen. I went in because of a book I saw in the window – of course I would have gone in anyway – and was so thrilled by the sight of it that I forgot to put my mask on and only after leaving the shop realised why the woman had been so jittery. The book is a series of black and white photos: A Picture Book of the Thames by Theo Bergstrom, published in 1975. At various times in my life I have been in, on and beside the Thames, far more times than I would have realised if I hadn’t studied this book, which traces the river from its symbolic beginning, the Thames Head, by ‘the grey ash-tree in Trewsbury Mead’, to the sea beyond Gravesend.

            When I was small we lived in Richmond and used to walk along the river; once, when my brother was a baby and my grandmother was staying with us, we were caught by a flood, I suppose from a particularly high tide, and had to climb over a wall to safety. The story became part of family legend: my mother tied the pram to a bench with the belt of her raincoat, and went back to fetch it the next day. I can still hear her telling the story, pleased with her own quick thinking, and see the place where it happened, which is not, sadly, pictured in the book. The photos are taken from water level, which is not how one usually sees the Thames, unless one is actually in it.

            I fell into it once, as a slightly larger child, opposite Syon House, between Richmond and Kew, was fished out immediately, and brought home dripping in a taxi, which was almost as exciting as falling in the river; we had no car at that time and usually travelled by bus. I can’t have fallen in over my head as it was said that then you had to have your stomach pumped. We often went to Ham House, on the other side of the river, a journey that involved a bus ride and a ferry, a rowing boat operated in complete silence by a man who was like Seth from Cold Comfort Farm: shirtsleeves, strong brown arms pulling at the oars, hat – in those days men still wore hats – I don’t know why he should have so stuck in my memory but there he is, endlessly rowing, never speaking. Descending to the jetty and into the boat was also exciting, then the passage across, silent, on still water, at the end of a Sunday afternoon. I do not remember the arrival at the other side at all.

            Once my mother took us to Runnymede, to see the Air Forces Memorial and read the name of my never-uncle, my father’s brother and mother’s first husband, Flying Officer Edward Hart, RAF Volunteer Reserve, died 15 September 1943. The monument to Magna Carta is there too but I remember that less well than the Memorial, both of which are indicated in the Thames book by a half-hidden sign from the National Trust on the riverbank, of which the only legible word is NO.

            But the best place on the Thames was where we sometimes went swimming, a magical place, which I had never been able to identify since; its name forgotten, everybody who would have known it also gone, after so many years away from England I had given up hope of ever finding it. It is the real reason why I bought the book. I remembered the wonder of swimming in a river, the River, the soft feel of the water, its stillness, so different from the sea, the slipperiness of wet grass when one got out, and the sight of one’s muddy feet on the grass. Ordinary swimming was in indoor baths or the chilly seas around Ireland; this was a pastoral delight, an English idyll (also far enough upstream that we didn’t need our stomachs pumped). We only went there a few times, it was quite far from home and swimming there probably forbidden by some mediaeval byelaw.

            I found it in the Thames book: it is Hurley Lock, between Henley and Marlow. I might have thought I had imagined it, or read about it somewhere, but it is real, people still swim there, although now they call it wild swimming. The photos of its vicinity in the Thames book have the dreamlike quality I remembered, and from water-level too. In the map at the back of the book you can see the long and winding course of the Thames, it meanders about from one English name to another, like my path, and the book’s, from England to a charity bookshop in Lille. I did a lot more walking around in Lille but I never came across that Oxfam bookshop again.


Reading Maria Stepanova (in In Memory of Memory) on how she remembers the pictures on the transfers she used to stick on the base of a lamp when she was ten, I clearly remembered having such transfers myself, how you soaked them in water, then carefully spread them out without creases, but I couldn’t remember a single picture on any of them. What were they? Farm animals? Cartoon characters? Perhaps it was the soaking and spreading that were the point, not the pictures. Remembering things from one’s childhood is supposed to be a reward of growing old, but when you only remember parts of it, and other people write in such detail about what they do remember, it seems less reward than punishment. Or a particularly refined kind of torture, which leaves you soaking and spreading precisely nothing.

            It sometimes seems to me that when my brother died he took a lot of my childhood with him, but perhaps this is only true to the extent that I can no longer be reminded of things by him, or check them with him. Having mislaid my password on a website this morning I had to fill in the answers to the security questions, one of which was ‘Which town did your youngest brother/sister last live in?’ At first it was upsetting, as if the website should have known: I only had one brother and he is dead. Worse, I could not answer it: where was he living when I filled in the answers to those questions? I have to start all over again on the site to prove my identity; the man at the helpdesk said I should choose questions to which I knew the answers.

            Thinking of those transfers I tried to summon up the actual material proofs that I had a childhood at all. There is one photo album and a few slides, there used to be some stuffed toys – but where are they now? – and amongst my brother’s things was the inventory of the objects in my dolls’ house that I made three days after my birthday in 1960, the year I got a date stamp. But fortunately, apart from this random and not entirely convincing collection, there is the overpowering glory of my childhood books, not all of them but the best, saved from when my parents moved house and jealously guarded since.

            Quite a few of them also have that date stamp; when I was ten I wanted not only to write books but also to stamp them, as they did at the library. All the Arthur Ransomes are there, many of them with the drawings coloured in; the E. Nesbits, the lesser known ones in hardback, others in paperback; M. Pardoe’s Bunkle series, some of them sold off from Boots  Booklovers Library, I remember the excitement when we found them, rare even then; The Family from One End Street by Eve Garnett – I thought I was the only person to have read this until I discovered that Annie M.G. Schmidt translated it – and Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild, a Puffin paperback that has fallen apart.

            I reread all of these regularly, except the Eve Garnett, which is missing its last page. They are battered, dog-eared and defaced, but I am sure that even without them I would still remember the illustrations (some by the authors, like Arthur Ransome and Eve Garnett, others by artists like Julie Neild and H.R. Millar) just as well as Maria Stepanova remembers her transfers. She writes that cataloguing those transfers seems to be her life’s work: ‘As if that is what I grew up to do.’ Her transfers have disappeared but I still have the illustrations in my books. It sometimes feels as if the last part of life is there to make sense of the first part; when I look at those books I am back in the time when I knew the answers to all my security questions, when everything was still all right.


My parents had a friend called Coralie, who was the kind of fussy older lady one looks at and shudders. Everything in her house was perfect and matched everything else, and once, at one of her exquisite tea parties, she said that she no longer read fiction, only memoirs and biographies. That sounded like living death, I thought; imagine never wanting to read novels any more. And then it happened to me: that endless supply of good novels that I had seen stretching far into the future turned out not to exist. I have become Coralie. Recent novels are either bad, too long, or both; I pick them up in the bookshop or order a sample on Kindle, read a few pages and reject them. There is the odd exception, the last one being Summerwater by Sarah Moss, quite recent but both good and short.

            Sybille Bedford is one of my favorite authors, I have given copies of Jigsaw, her masterpiece, to almost everyone I know. So when I saw that there was a biography of her by Selina Hastings, who wrote an excellent one of Evelyn Waugh, I ordered it at once. The day after my copy got here Private Eye did a hatchet job on it; I left it lying around a bit before I dared start on it. Sadly, Private Eye was right; it is a terrible book, far too much of it about Bedford’s conquests, all called Esther, Evelyn and Eda, all falling in love with each other, and apparently obliged to support Bedford financially long after their affair with her was over. That men in such biographies are referred to by their surnames and women by their first names is also irritating, as is Hastings’s characterisation of the occasional woman who resisted Bedford’s advances as ‘a man’s woman’. The reason one reads authors’ biographies at all is to get a glimpse of how it could be that this real person wrote that marvellous book, but no hint of that is to be found here. The only remedy is to read something by Bedford herself again, anything, even the travel pieces.

            And then I picked up Sue Prideaux’s biography of Nietzsche, I am Dynamite!, which I bought some time ago because of the wonderful reviews, with very little expectation of actually reading it (my father was the only person I have ever known who would come home with a new book and immediately start on it). Here too the reviews were right; it is an amazing book, wonderfully well written, clever, witty and exhilarating to read. The story of Nietzsche’s friendship with Wagner alone is fascinating, the early parts of it described with the perfect balance between seriousness and gentle mockery. You don’t quite learn how Nietzsche wrote what he did, but certainly that he could do nothing else, and the tragic story of his final years and what happened to his legacy in the hands of his ghastly sister is most affecting.

            In France they used to say, probably still do, that the biography is irrelevant, it is the work that counts. This is true in the case of Sybille Bedford, and it also means that I must now actually read Nietzsche. But in the meantime I find that Sue Prideaux has written biographies of Munch and Strindberg, both of whom were influenced by Nietzsche, and I have ordered them. These are probably not the kind of biography Coralie meant; so I won’t despair yet about becoming old and fussy, it could be worse.

Hearing voices

I have been watching films from the Amsterdam Documentary Festival online, it is a heavy and varied diet; they are all very different, with so many languages and so many subtitles, some of the latter illegible on the small screen.

            The best film so far was Iranian, with a voiceover so clear that I actually understood some of it, as well as little snatches of French. It was called Radiograph of a Family, directed by Firouzeh Khosrovani, and it is the story of her parents’ marriage, told with family photos and extracts from films, some documentary, some home movies. Her father was a radiographer who worked in Switzerland and would have liked to stay there, but returned to Tehran for the sake of her mother who, once she was home, became more and more pious, even fanatic. Khosrovani tells their story without taking sides, returning over and over again to changing images of a house to indicate the different stages of the lives of these two very different people. She avoids describing clashes between them; she just tells how they lived, how she grew up, and how what was going on in Iran in that time affected them. Actors voice the parents, and the father’s voice saying her name is so tender that you wish you were called Firouzeh too; ‘I never understood the words of my mother’s prayers,’ Khosrovani says, and at the end of the film her mother reads – without subtitles – from the Qur’an.

            Another good film was Le temps perdu, about the Proust book club in Buenos Aires: mostly older people, sitting in a café, silently watched over by a waiter, who have been reading Proust for 17 years. When they finish they start again. One man had read it four times, he also, suitably considering the theme, said this at least four times. They read the text in Spanish, there were English subtitles, and my fruitless attempts to reconstitute the the French text beneath the Spanish made it sometimes hard to follow (one of the characters being referred to as Albertina was also a little estranging). But the film had a kind of intimacy, as if one were looking into these people’s lives, which made it quite fascinating.

            It was also inspiring; there is something about Proust makes one want to read him again, or perhaps just never stop reading him, and a lockdown winter seems to me the ideal occasion, this time skipping the dullest bits (as one of the readers said, ‘Proust can be very boring.’). I have tried it before and read the first parts several times, so I started now with A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, and read myself straight into a tiny bit of lost time.

            It was the voice of an old friend, dead for many years, who also, on retirement, reread Proust. He spoke excellent French and, having lived in Cairo, could also imitate the Egyptian accent in French; whenever I hear such an accent I hear him explaining that one had to use the word ‘vraiment’ a lot, as in ‘vraiment très souvent’. But what he said now, as clearly as if he had been in the room with me, was, ‘Vous avez un chef de tout premier ordre, madame.’ Words from dinner parties, long ago: he was quoting M. de Norpois, the diplomat, whose every long-winded pronouncement the narrator’s parents believe. Having been a diplomat himself he particularly appreciated M. de Norpois; I had remembered that, but I had forgotten these words. He spoke them, as I read them, with a characteristic laugh in his voice, partly delight in the absurdity of the character, partly pleasure in saying exactly the right thing to one’s hostess. There are other sounds from the past I would like to hear again, but this one will do very well for the moment.

White clouds

It is a fine irony that after all those years of studying Chinese the first calligraphy scroll I have bought should be Japanese. But its sentiment is Chinese; it is the last line of a poem by a Tang dynasty poet, Wang Wei (699-759), and the characters are Chinese. It happens to have been written by a Japanese Zen Buddhist monk, but that is just a detail, particularly in the light of its tremendous energy and its direct path to my heart strings.

            I thought that I would spend my life reading Chinese, translating poetry and doing research, but things turned out differently. So now the time when I still expected that seems like a kind of golden age, which can be very precisely pinpointed to the years of Donald Holzman’s poetry seminars in the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme on boulevard Raspail. These were on Wednesday afternoons, and afterwards we would go to the Hôtel Lutétia for tea. It was an expensive hotel, the waiters were very polite, but they didn’t know how to make tea – two of us came from countries that do know how to make tea – so we would order two pots of tea and three of hot water, and stay there, topping up, almost as long as the seminar had lasted. Later, and that was when two of my fellow students began to call him Sensei, ‘master’, Holzman started a class of Japanese for sinologists, also followed by tea, the European kind; no doubt the Lutétia has Japanese tea nowadays but it didn’t then, and we probably wouldn’t have ordered it anyway.

            A lot of Chinese poetry is about parting: the poets were often civil servants and were sent off to distant parts of the empire, or withdrew from public life to become recluses. The line of poetry on my scroll comes from such a poem, its title is ‘Farewell’: Where are you going? One poet asks the other. I didn’t achieve my ambition, comes the answer, I’m going to rest in the southern mountains. And the last line: ‘There’s no end to white clouds there.’ Five Chinese characters written in one flourish, the brush hardly taken off the paper, the ink itself streaky as a cloud with the white paper visible through it, the scroll is taller than I am: one glance at it and I am the person I was then, with my old ambition.

            It seems that I am not the only person who has bought a Japanese object to make up for a missed trip to Japan, but I may well be the only one who did it because the object is to all intents and purposes Chinese. But it does come enclosed in the Japanese way in not one but two wooden boxes, with an inscription on one of the lids by the abbot about his sensei, his master, the calligrapher. And of course if a Japanese were to read it out loud it would sound very different (just as Chinese characters pronounced in Korean so surprisingly do in the film House of Hummingbird).

            Almost everyone who was at those classes and drank tea at the Lutétia is dead now. Donald Holzman, who was the best teacher I ever had, was twenty-four years older than me (I know this only because he too was born in a year of the tiger), and died last year, as did my fellow expert tea-drinker. Last time I was in Paris I walked past the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, which looked just the same. The Lutétia, on the other hand, has been so spiffingly renovated that I would no longer dare go in.

Cinéma vérité

I have sometimes asked myself what use it was to have lived all those years in Paris, but now I know: it was to have sat in my – isolated – seat at the cinema, unable to move or breathe, while Jean-Louis Trintignant drove through the city at 200 km per hour, ‘grillant tous les feux rouges’, early one morning, fifty years ago.

            It is still quite dark and the camera is almost at ground level so the trees on the avenue Foch look like dark blurs, slightly menacing until I see myself walking along there after classes at Porte Dauphine. Seconds later we are at place de l’Etoile, shooting onto it as drivers always did, as if released from a catapult. I never drove in Paris but if I had done I would have taken the little road that runs round outside l’Etoile, with traffic lights at every intersection. The Champs-Elysées slope downwards, you realise, as the car launches itself onto them. Les Champs, as friends who lived on the rue la Boétie would refer to it, just a street in the neighbourhood. Faster and faster, only the occasional other car, red lights glowing uselessly at the crossroads, breath firmly held. It isn’t bumpy, which adds to the dreamlike quality.

            At Concorde, after a fine view of the Assemblée Nationale, the car veers to the left, past the Louvre, then left again, just time to think there was no pyramid yet, through the guichets, really much too fast. And then even more exciting: he was going to our house! Up the avenue de l’Opéra, round the Palais Garnier, into the rue de la Chaussée d’Antin, never seen it so empty, up round the church of la Trinité, yes, he’s on the rue Blanche – no, he’s turned off into rue Pigalle. Still, I recognise the streets, tremble when he almost turns right into the rue Lepic, then start breathing again once he is past the huge Castorama, which does not exist yet, on the right before place de Clichy.

            The next part, Montmartre, ending at the Sacré Coeur, is less exciting, but a Montmartre telephone number – Montmartre 1540 – is repeated twice in the film, so it does make sense. On closer examination, however, none of it makes sense.

            This sequence is in Claude Lelouch’s film Les plus belles années d’une vie, the follow-up, fifty years later, to Un homme et une femme, with the same actors, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Anouk Aimée. Trintignant’s son, Antoine, is played by the man who played him as a little boy in 1966. The new film has many scenes from the original, but I had no recollection at all of that dash through Paris. In 1966 I was at school, in love with France, and went to see Un homme et une femme with my mother. We drove home through darkened country roads, with the music still in our heads.

            That drive through Paris, it turns out, is actually a short film by Lelouch called C’était un rendezvous (1976), inserted into the new film with a voiceover by Trintignant. Lelouch did the driving himself, racing through Paris at the crack of dawn, jumping all the red lights, without official permission or having the streets cleared: it really happened. It looks like a dream but it is real, it is in a film in which it does not really belong: it is time refound and history rewritten, several times over. Best of all, it is not a chase: the driver is not being chased by anyone, or only by me.

Soda bread

After my mother’s funeral a cousin said to me, quite casually, ‘Of course she had an eating disorder.’ In all those years it had never occurred to me that my mother’s eating habits might have been described as a disorder; it is like a friend of mine whose father was Ukrainian and who was surprised and indignant when her future husband remarked on her father’s heavy accent: ‘My father hasn’t got an accent!’ That my mother, who was a very good cook, never ate any of the delicious puddings she made – the very best kind: apple crumble, treacle tart, rice pudding – was just the way it was. She never had second helpings either, never ate potatoes, or bread, only Ryvita and cream crackers. She was very thin, but then she always had been.

            She didn’t eat bread but she did make it, every week, for my father. A pan of soda bread, white, made in a baking tin, and when she took it out of the oven she put a cloth over it. It was one of the most familiar sights at home, that bread with its chequered dishcloth cooling beside the stove, then later a couple of slices of it in the wooden bread bowl we used to have. That bread bowl is long gone but I can see it as clearly as if it were on the table before me now, and the bread in it, and my father’s hand reaching out for some. He was the only one who ate it, neither of us children liked it, it was too dense, too sour.

            Soda bread is Irish, my father must have grown up with it (my mother too, she may not have liked it but she knew how to make it). You don’t need yeast or even an oven for soda bread, in the old days it was made on a griddle over the fire with a pan inverted over it, and it was said that people were ashamed of it, compared with ordinary bread. I started making it myself many years ago, at a time, as Myles na Gopaleen would have said, when it was neither popular nor profitable, also when my own taste had changed. I make it with wholemeal flour, my mother used white. She did not hand on her recipes, so I don’t know how she soured the milk; that is not a problem here as buttermilk is easy to get. Bicarbonate of soda is more difficult, I bring bread soda from Ireland. All I remember her saying about baking soda bread was that you needed ‘a light hand’, and had to make a cross on the top at the end ‘to let the fairies out’.

            So many people are baking their own bread at the moment that there is no decent wholemeal flour left at the health food shop. The kind I usually buy comes from England, and last time I went all I could find, washed up on the shores of panic buying, was a single bag of white bread flour: of course that would be the last one left at a health shop. But soda bread can be made with white flour, so I bought it, imagining a new departure, a change in my habits, to go with these changed times. At home I found the recipe for white soda bread in The Ballymaloe Cookbook by Myrtle Allen from 1977, a classic of Irish cooking and in fact my mother’s own copy, salvaged from her last home.

            I made it this morning, feeling as if I had never baked bread in my life as everything was different about it, the feel of the flour, the amount of buttermilk, the time it took to cook. But one thing was familiar: when I took it out of the oven it smelled exactly as my mother’s soda bread used to, the smell I remember from our kitchen in England. Bread made by my mother, who was born a hundred years ago last month. In the foreword to her book Myrtle Allen writes about forgotten flavours: ‘”The butter your sister is sending us is very good,” I said to my neighbour one day. “Yes,” he said, “that field always made good butter.” That is long ago, and the fragrance is almost forgotten.’

Magic carpet

‘Yours is a glorious country, Honeychurch!’ These words echo in my head every time I cycle to my allotment these days, although slightly adapted to local conditions, that is, the Rijnsburgerweg in Leiden: ‘Yours is glorious weather, Honeychurch!’ They come from A Room with a View; in the film they are spoken by the wonderful Denholm Elliott, playing the equally wonderful Mr Emerson, and he delivers them with a mad flourish of the hand, as if fencing or doffing an ornate hat. They seem very suitable words for current circumstances, the magnolias may have finished flowering but lots of other trees are in bloom and those that don’t flower acquire a little more green, each one a different shade, every day, making me once again grateful that I have an allotment, and am allowed to go to it.

            Working there yesterday I was reminded of Bob Flowerdew (clearly from the same universe as the Honeychurch family), an unforgettable contributor to the BBC programme Gardeners’ World, in its long ago glory days, when I was first interested in gardening. Bob Flowerdew had a long blond plait, a semi-rural (perhaps Essex) accent and a huge organic garden; he was also full of useful organic tips, the most memorable being recycling the beer he drank by peeing on the compost heap. I used to tape these programmes for friends who didn’t have cable television and years afterwards we were still talking about Bob’s unusual habits.

            One piece of advice of his, which I actually followed, was to suppress weeds by spreading a bit of old carpet on the ground. We happened to have some old carpet, a large expanse of it, muddy brown, not very good quality, in our new house, so I took some of it and laid it out beside the greenhouse. This was old and a bit rickety and the old carpet beside it looked indescribably awful, like a rubbish dump with pretensions. But I believed Bob, and left it there, and after a bit the bindweed appeared, just as it did every spring, but now through the carpet, making it look even worse.

            Over the years the carpet disintegrated, as Bob had said it would, and I hadn’t thought of it for ages, not until yesterday while weeding that area. There they were, little tufts of brown nylon mixed in with the weeds and the seedlings to be saved, and there can be few more ridiculous things to bring tears to one’s eyes. I was on my knees, in this glorious weather, looking at ancient bits of carpet, but what I heard was Rudy’s voice saying how utterly – one of his favorite words – hideous it looked. It was as if he was right there beside me, more real than when I deliberately try to summon him up. And he was right, of course, it did look awful. It was ten years ago last Saturday that he died, and there I was, stopped dead in my tracks by what must surely be the strangest remnants of our life together.


I thought I was the only person in this country who roams through a lost house in Kew when they cannot sleep, but now I find that another insomniac, living not all that far from me, does it too, and in a house very close to mine. Maarten Asscher describes this in his book Een huis in Engeland; he has a lot more trouble sleeping than I do and he also remembers – or reconstitutes – much more of that house than me, but otherwise so much of what he writes, the names and the places, is so familiar that reading his book I felt as if he had written part of my autobiography.

            It is only the years that I spent in Kew, until the age of ten, that he writes about, but he knows exactly what they were like: in Kew Gardens almost every day, trips to Whipsnade Zoo, Wimbledon on television, taking the Underground into London: oh, the names of the stations: Gunnersbury, Turnham Green, Stamford Brook, Ravenscourt Park! They could not be more suburban but they sound like battlefields; I went through them every day on my way to school in Hammersmith. The difference is that while I was growing up there, Asscher was on holiday, staying for a few weeks every summer with his Dutch grandparents, who had moved to England after the war. He was almost next door to us, they lived at 34 Pensford Avenue, less than twenty minutes’ walk from our house at 4 Pagoda Avenue. Perhaps we saw each other in Kew Gardens, walking round the pagoda and wishing it was open, or waited for the train at Kew Station, which – I was there two years ago – has not changed in the last sixty years. The pagoda, on the other hand, has finally reopened.

            There is something special about staying with one’s grandparents; we did that too, also in another country, and in a place, the village of Kilcoole in Co Wicklow, that has imprinted itself on my mind in the same way as Kew has on Maarten Asscher. The landscape, the colours, the different – better – taste of the food, the small disagreements between one’s grandparents (his quarrel about English, which his grandmother has a better grip on than her husband; I can hear my grandmother snap at my grandfather, and see my great-aunt, who lived with them, restoring the peace), the gentle routine of a house inhabited by old people, so different from the boring school and homework routine of home.

            There is a secret at the heart of his book, which he does not reveal until the end, and which casts a different light on this paradise. It concerns the war, and his Jewish family; he did not know it himself at the time, children were not told much about what happened in the war. My parents hardly talked about it either, and the only thing I remember my grandfather, who was in the army in France in the First World War, saying about it was when I asked him if he had seen the Angels of Mons: he couldn’t have, he said, they were only seen by those who died. At the time, a child with a very literal mind, I was very impressed by this reasoning.

            As a child, therefore, you do not know the things that the adults know, but I wonder how much that matters. Asscher was certainly better off not knowing the family secret, although perhaps in a way he did know it, or anyway knew there was something. Just after I had finished his book I read something Philippe Sands wrote about grandparents: ‘There is a singular form of communication that exists between grandchild and grandparent, not necessarily in a spoken form. It was finely explored by Maria Torok and Nicolas Abraham, two Hungarian psychoanalysts who sought to understand how secrets skip a generation and are transmitted from the first to the third generation. “What haunts are not the dead,” they concluded, “but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others.”‘

            In the meantime, eyes closed, I shall go on entering the front door of 4 Pagoda Avenue, turning left into the hall, and left again into the kitchen. There is Timmy the budgie in his cage; I have brought him some groundsel. We are back from a walk in the Gardens, through the Lion Gate, then turning to the right, the path du côté de chez Oliver, my childhood friend, who lives in Ennerdale Road, his house making a triangle between mine and Maarten Asscher’s. It is almost time for tea.