Walking into the story
Coleridge thought nothing of walking from Nether Stowey to Bristol; Virginia Woolf, for all her fragile elegance, would often walk the eight miles from Rodmell to Charleston to visit her sister; Keats tramped Scotland, and Emily and Anne Brontë made a holiday of walking from Haworth to Keighley and staying there overnight.
There they go, all of them heroic walkers by our timid twenty-first century standard: John Clare, James Boswell, Jane Austen, Dorothy Wordsworth, Henry Mayhew, T S Eliot haunting the brown London fogs, Katherine Mansfield discovering the New Zealand backblocks, D H Lawrence on the coast path from Zennor to St Ives. They are on foot, observant, seeing, smelling, touching, hearing, getting blown about and rained on, sinking onto milestones or sheltering in the lee of thorn-hedges, carrying stout sticks, losing their way and finding it again, meeting leech-gatherers, bores, beggars, prostitutes, drunks, thieves, flower-sellers, and writing about all of them.
What chance would they have had, from the inside of a Volkswagen Golf? Driving doesn’t just get you from place to place rapidly. It provides you with a mobile private space, which you can control even when you are stuck in a traffic jam. You listen to your own music, choose your own climate, and need speak to no-one. You are outside, but inside, moving from place to place yet never in public. In a car you’ll never smell the warm, metallic wind that gusts down a tube platform, be thrown forward as you negotiate the aisle of a badly driven bus, give up your seat or have one given up for you, be asked for money in a dozen languages, negotiate a street full of chuggers, steer clear of drunken football supporters, smile at somebody else’s baby, overhear the broken bits of conversations, watch the dexterous flicker of a blind man’s stick, hear the creak of the school crossing-lady’s slicker as she lifts her lollipop, or smell the pungency of the first drops of rain hitting summer pavements. In your car you won’t be greeted, smiled at, shouted at, cursed. Or if you are, you won’t have to deal with it, except by driving away fast. You won’t get caught by the weather, and your legs won’t ache. Above all, you will never share the neutrality and anonymity of the streets.
Maybe, for many, those are fine reasons for taking out a bank loan fast, and buying that car. Muggers and drug dealers come to outweigh the exhilaration of walking late, brilliant streets, and who wants to be bothered with picking their way over fast-food litter? We may still go for walks, in landscapes of our own choosing, but we prefer them to be beautiful. And so as we grow older we grow safer, until we shame ourselves by not knowing the fare to anywhere, and having no shoes in which we can walk more than a few hundred yards.
Besides, there’s the dimension of status to be considered. Success steps out of its black Mercedes and walks into its intimate venue. Mediocrity plods.
But writing hasn’t changed: it’s still the stuff that you do when you are not at your desk. Maybe it’s because the first things I wrote were poems - and very likely the last things will be poems too - that I’m convinced work has to grow into its own rhythm, inside the head. And there’s no place better for composition than a road. It has everything: space, time, an inner solitude which is constantly interrupted by everything from the scent of lavender rubbed against the fingers to a stretch of police tape where a murder’s been committed. Such qualified, interrupted solitude may be better for a writer than conditions which are more obviously ideal.
And nothing more quickly calms the stretched, exposed mind after a day’s writing than to walk. Walking dissolves tension, anger, disappointment, anxious self-regard. What seems important at the beginning of an hour’s walk is not the same as what seems important at its end. So much has happened. After walking past a house a dozen times, you notice that high up on the wall there’s a plaque that says that Amy Valence and Katherine Louise Medlicott lived there from 1822 to 1869, ‘devotedly serving the poor of this parish’. Or there’s a sudden, sharp quarrel between two men outside a sandwich shop which uses ‘only halal meat’. And then, after a couple of miles, the reward of a Cadbury’s Flake - and all at once the characters who were sullenly frozen begin to move inside your head, or a piece of dialogue picks up speed.
Recently some well-known writers, including A S Byatt and Minette Walters, allowed a documentary film-maker to follow their writing process from the beginning of a book to its end. Maybe the idea behind the programmes was that television might capture that invisible moment when dithering disguised as preparation becomes the thing itself: creation, the slippages of the brain as it accelerates into words that go down as fresh and wet as paint. And once that creative moment is recorded, maybe it can be pinned down, analysed, imitated.
Many of us, it seems, whether we’re writers or not, like to know how the process works. At readings, the most frequently asked questions are those about a writer’s procedure. Hours of work, discipline or lack of it, how many words per day, how many drafts per manuscript, how many years make a novel and how many novels make a professional. Absinthe or Ovaltine, Mac or PC, sitting or standing, Google or British Library, caf or decaf, fags or nicotine patches .....
But the moment of composition may have nothing to do with sitting in front of a screen, or putting words on paper. It’s a moment that does not want to be recorded, except by the one person who can find a form for it. And as the camera approaches, the moment, like the writer, retreats and walks away, becoming the shape of Coleridge with his coat on, striding across the Quantocks and into a poem.
(This article was first published in The Author)
A storm blows on Porthmeor Beach. Waves burst behind Man’s Head, sending up shocks of spray. The black rock shows for an instant, ribbed white by backwash, and then the swash thuds in again and smothers it.
The north wind thumps. Pancakes of foam fly off the sea and skitter down the beach. Two children play daredevil on the white sand, high up, safe from the pouncing waves. The chopped, messy, lumpy water struggles to make sense of itself. Today, there’s no-one in the sea.
There’s nearly always someone in the sea. On rainy November evenings, as the light fades, surfers paddle out one last time. A black figure shows like an insect, then another and another. November is a good month. The sea won’t reach its coldest until February, and the summer crowds are gone. Waves are territory and in winter you define what is your own.
The rain drives harder. Lights come on across the crouching land, but rows of empty cottages stay dark. There are phone books in plastic wrappers stuffed in doorways and they’ll stay there like that for months, until the summer people come. The town lives on tourism. Stories, paintings, photos and the seamed faces of the very old tell of times when things were different.
But things were always different. The past was always retreating from the touch of the present. That is where the Alba was wrecked: look, just there. At low tide the snout of its wreck appears, where the lifeboat went out and was taken by the same black, roiling sea that had driven the Alba aground. And then the next year the lifeboat went out again and capsized at Clodgy. All but one in the boat were drowned. Twelve men gone from the lifeboat crew within twelve months. Men who looked into that sea and knew what it was and what it could do. There were cars lined up on the road above Porthmeor, the night of the Alba wreck, shining their headlights out to sea to help the rescue. Beneath the shriek of the wind, the sound of engines revving in case the batteries ran down.
Anchor chains coil around the gravestones in Barnoon Cemetery. Mariners, master mariners, men lost at sea. At night the sea pounds Hellesveor cliff, and the noise is animal, growling.
Flat calm. An August day dissolves into evening, and on Porthmeor the day-long camps are dissolving too. It’s time to go home. Men were down here before breakfast to make their settlements, hammering windbreaks into virgin sand. Each day the beach city remakes itself, and by night every trace is washed clean away. A lifeguard picks up the bucket where children stung by weever fish soak their feet in water as hot as they can bear. Beach buggies scud over the sand as the flags are moved for the last time. Down by the tideline a figure walks slowly, surely, the entire length of the beach, as if the whole day has been nothing by waiting for the leaping, paddling, swimming, bodyboarding figures to be cleared away.
The sea barely breathes. A woman pauses before her ascent of the steps, and looks back. ‘At home the sky starts up there,’ she says, pointing at eye-level, and then she puts down her two striped beach-bags and crouches to measure the huge horizon. ‘But here, the sky begins down at your feet.’
The following essay was commissioned by BBC Radio 3 for a week-long series on Tolstoy for The Essay. It was first broadcast on 17th November 2010.
The Five Senses of Tolstoy
A man stays up all night, unable to sleep. Although it is midwinter in Moscow, he sits in his shirtsleeves for hours by an open window, regarding a cross on the dome of a church and the stars that shine above it. As he bathes in the freezing air, he hears floor-polishers and church bells ringing for service. He thinks of eating, but when he puts food into his mouth he cannot chew or swallow. Finally, in the early morning, all his sensations fuse into a moment of rapture.
‘And what he saw then, he never saw again. Two children going to school, some pigeons that flew down from the roof, and a few loaves put outside a baker’s window by an invisible hand, touched him particularly. Those loaves, the pigeons, and the two boys seemed creatures not of this earth. It all happened at the same time; one of the boys ran after a pigeon and looked smilingly up at Levin; the pigeon flapped its wings and fluttered up, glittering in the sunshine amid the snowdust that trembled in the air, from the window came the scent of fresh-baked bread and the loaves were put out. All these things were so unusually beautiful that Levin laughed and cried with joy.’
Levin has just proposed to Kitty, and been accepted. For this reason, it seems, all the doors of his senses open until there is no longer any barrier between him and what he experiences. Nothing is filtered by fear, cynicism or preconception. Levin becomes, for that instant, a visionary like the seventeenth century English writer Thomas Traherne in his Centuries of Meditation. Traherne wrote:
‘The Corn was Orient and Immortal Wheat which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from Everlasting to Everlasting. The Dust and the Stones of the Street were as precious as Gold .... And the young Men Glittering and Sparkling Angels and Maids strange Seraphic Pieces of Life and Beauty! Boys and Girles Tumbling in the Street and Playing, were moving Jewels. I knew not that they were born or should die...’
However, the essence of Tolstoy’s characters is that they were born, and that they will die. Often, the reader accompanies them through these rites of passage, when they are at their most naked and unpretending. Tolstoy’s characters inspire the reader not to wonder, but to a much more intimate sympathy. It is the fact that Levin is only raised to this height of visionary experience for a few hours that makes him so much one of us. On that one night, his senses are supercharged until he sees, feels, tastes, hears and smells with a ferocity which would surely burn him out if it were to last any longer. And even more poignantly, he is able to break through all the barriers which divide him from his fellow human beings. He sees wonderful kindness, gentleness and delicacy in everyone he meets. Friends and acquaintances reveal a sensitivity he has never suspected. Even the hotel attendant, of whom Levin has taken no notice before, turns out to be ‘a very intelligent, good, and above all a very kind man’ who is ready to share his innermost thoughts. These revelations of goodness build up, as if in a symphony, to the moment when Levin returns to Kitty’s house and hears her running to meet him, with ‘very, very rapid light steps on the parquet floor’.
Levin must sink down from this height. Once again he must be puzzled, even befogged by his experience. Like Coleridge in Dejection: An Ode, he must see, but not feel the beauty of the world. A bare few months after his marriage, Levin is close to despair because life seems to have no meaning. He cannot make sense of the human condition, or find a philosophy by which to live.
‘And though he was a happy and healthy family man, Levin was several times so near to suicide that he hid a cord he had lest he should hang himself, and he feared to carry a gun lest he should shoot himself. Bur he did not hang or shoot himself, but went on living.’
The slight banality of that ‘went on living’ is, for me, one of the keys to a love of Tolstoy’s work. After all, not everyone in Anna Karenina goes on living. Anna herself refuses to do so, and throws herself under a train in despair. Anna’s final moments, in all their complexity, are immensely revealing of this tension between passionate love of life and despair which marks the characters to whom Tolstoy appears closest. Anna final coherent thought is ‘I shall punish him (that is, her lover Vronsky) and escape from everybody and from myself’. However, further and perhaps more important processes take place in her mind and soul, just after this thought, in the instants before death. It is a physical act which changes Anna, so that her cold, hard resolution melts into a more complex anguish. Tolstoy, as always, reveals character to us through the body as much as through the conscious thought process, and he also shows that it is often the body which reveals a person to himself or herself. The act of crossing herself, as she has done so many times before, breaks through the frozen darkness that surrounds Anna.
‘The familiar gesture of making the sign of the cross called up a whole series of girlish and childish memories, and suddenly the darkness, that obscured everything for her, broke, and life showed itself to her for an instant with all its bright past joys. But she did not take her eyes off the wheels of the approaching second truck ...’
Anna’s suicide is so tragic precisely because of these moments. In a sense she is Levin’s shadow-sister, who will actually perform the act which he contemplates with such dread. But even at the very moment of death she is, like him, divided, and asks ‘Where am I? What am I doing? Why?’ and wishes to rise and throw herself back. But it is too late for that.
Many writers could have got Anna to the railway station, even to the platform’s edge, and conveyed her despair as eloquently as Tolstoy does. But what constantly astonishes me about Tolstoy’s writing is the way that he dares to stay with a character in its physical, mental and moral extremity, and that he always dares to stay in the body. We are with Anna in the churning darkness of the train’s wheels. With her we feel the ‘huge and relentless’ blow on the head, hear the muttering of the little peasant who is working on the rails, and see the flare of the light by which she has been reading the book of her own life.
The first person who talked to me about Tolstoy’s characters was an elderly lady who lived next door. I was fourteen or so, and in the habit of going over for a cup of tea with her. Often, she talked of War and Peace, and especially of Natasha. She was encouraged by the fact that I was studying Russian, and was sure that I only had to open the book to love it. She hoped to lure me into the world of War and Peace, and Natasha, a girl of my age, was her hook.
How she longed for me to read it. At the time I did not quite understand why. I thought she urged me to read it in the way that adults sometimes did recommend a great classic, because it was important, or because it would in some way do you good. I was used to this way of thinking about books, from school, although it wasn’t the way books were thought of at home. As my neighbour talked I remember feeling a resistance and a determination not to read War and Peace; not now, not yet. And so she never got what in retrospect she so clearly longed for: someone with whom to talk about Natasha, Prince Andrei, Princess Márya and all the rest, endlessly, But with that particular self-willed reticence with which readers choose to come to or not to come to a much-recommended book, I did not then read War and Peace. I denied my neighbour the pleasure of talking about Natasha snuggling up in bed with her mother, talking nonsense as the old countess calls it, or the old count dancing the Daniel Cooper with Marya Dmítrievna, or the cold white breasts of Pierre’s faithless wife Hélène. We never discussed sweet-toothed Petya Rostov’s giving away his raisins - ‘wonderful raisins, take them all!’ - before he is killed in battle at the age of fifteen. It was a year or two later, when I was living in another place and my neighbour was in a nursing home, that I began to read War and Peace, and since then, like her, I have read it many times.
My view of it, of course, has changed over time. The ancient parents of Vera, Natasha, Nikolai and Petya have become young. It no longer amazes me that a woman of fifty can be fresh and vigorous, though it saddens me far more to see her reduced to senility only a few years later. The mystery of Natasha’s transformation from a slender, sparkling, somewhat ruthless young girl to a matron in her late twenties, growing stout and preoccupied with the colour of the stain on her baby’s nappy, is a mystery no longer.
Tolstoy’s disquisitions on the nature of history interest me less than they did, while the fact that Sonya reveals her sexuality only once in her life, when she is disguised as a young man, interests me even more. Like William Carlos Williams, I now prefer my ideas in things. How is it that meek, subservient Sonya will be transformed once she is dressed up as a young man and has a cork moustache painted on her face? And Nikolai, dressed up as a woman, will abandon his habitual idea of Sonya as a pretty, devoted young girl who is love with him but whom he is not is a position to marry. She will become for one night the reality, or ‘thing’ in front of him. Suddenly she is irresistible, ‘totally different and yet just the same’. This is one of Tolstoy’s boldest explorations of how bodily experience not only expresses but actually creates an inner reality. Cross-dressing liberates both Sonya and Nikolai from their social positions and individual inhibitions, and for the first and only time are able to express their sexual desire for each other.
‘He slipped his hands under the coat she had thrown over her head, put his arms round her, pulled her close and kissed the lips, which sported a moustache and smelled of burnt cork. Sonya kissed him back full on the lips, freed her tiny hands and cupped his cheeks with them.’
For a girl of Sonya’s background and upbringing to kiss a man ‘full on the lips’ is an astonishing moment. For once she is brave, dynamic, alert to her own desires. Like Levin on the night after his proposal, she is lifted above herself, and sees, feels, touches, tastes and smells things that she will never experience again. And the truth is that not only will she never experience them again, but she will shrink back into her retiring self and spend her life servicing the lives of others. She will live with Nikolai, not as his wife, sexual partner and object of desire, but a ‘barren flower’, a dependant in his household while he gives his love to another woman and has children by her. Sonya’s is one of the cruellest fates dealt out to any character in War and Peace. Natasha gives her opinion that Sonya ‘does not feel it as we should’, but her judgement seems awry here. Sonya has not been able to live up to the key moment of her own life. She seized her chance and reached out for Nikolai, but no proposal answered her. Unlike Levin after his proposal to Kitty, she is not a rich and favoured suitor, to whom the household will open its doors gladly. Harsh economic reality controls both Nikolai and Sonya, because she has no money and Nikolai must have money. The fact that a fortune will eventually come to him united with the lofty, spiritual, selfless love of Princess Marya does not lessen Sonya’s tragedy. But what is fascinating to me in this scene is the way in which Tolstoy’s ‘five senses’ writing reveals so much about the entrapment of human beings in the social codes of their times.
But how subtle and many-layered it all is. Such scenes can be read and re-read endlessly, and will give back a slightly different light each time. The great paradox of Tolstoy, and the reason I love his work so much, is that he is two very contradictory kinds of writer at the same time. He appears to be immensely didactic, enthralled by his own ideas to the point of breaking off his narrative in order to expound them. At the same time, he is forever subverting these very important ideas through the embodied, sensory richness and complex realities of the scenes that he creates. He gives us the shifting, glancing kaleidoscope of human experience as one being intermeshes with another, and the lonely core of the ‘I’ who remains self-aware even in the instants before death. He is truthful about the way that key moments in public and private life are not always understood by those who take part in them. Why is Moscow deserted by its inhabitants before Napoleon’s arrival, and how does fire break out in the abandoned city? Rather than giving a structured, rational explanation, Tolstoy dramatises the intuitive, complex and often chaotic behaviour of individuals as they are swept into a crowd, and the illusions of those who imagine that they are in control.
Such writing about personal and public history has had a great influence on me. It is not the ideas or the author’s overview that remain, but the fussy movements of Napoleon’s hands, or the bewilderment of a soldier on a battlefield who knows neither where he is nor what is happening, or Natasha’s fury as she forces her family to offload their possessions from their carts in order to take the wounded safely out of Moscow. These moments do not decorate, explain or even describe history; they are history, both public and personal, alive to all the senses like the pigeons or the snowdust or the smell of new bread.
The Voice of Radio
I was a radio child, and I have remained faithful to the voice of radio all my life. When I look back at childhood and adolescence my head crowds with radio voices. When I was very young, we listened to the infinitely reassuring and soporific ‘Listen with Mother’, where the stories always began with its mantra ‘Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin,’ and I would wriggle in my chair, sure that the lady on the radio would be glad that I was sitting as comfortably as I possibly could. Radio was comfort, but it also brought scandal, danger and despair into the sitting room. News of the Bay of Pigs, the Cuba crisis, the Profumo affair in all its shadowed, inexplicit glory, news of Kennedy in divided Berlin and Alec Douglas Home deciding our economic fate with a matchbox.
Newsreaders were dignified and had names such as Alvar Liddell. They did not curry favour with the listener, although they introduced themselves by name as they had done since the war, to foil fake German newsreaders. They were understood to be unlikely to be telling us the full story; listeners did not exactly mistrust the news, but they recognised that, as in music, its silences were as important as its sounds.
It was from Children’s Hour that I first learned about slavery in the United States, and the struggle of slaves for freedom, through a dramatic serial about the Underground Railway. There was Rosemary Sutcliffe’s The Lantern Bearers recreating Roman Britain in it heroic dying days or E. Arnold’s Phra the Phoenician - these dramatised stories were like stabs of brilliant light and colour into my imagination. The Uncle Mac tomfoolery for which Children’s Hour is retrospectively famous does not remain in my memory at all.
Radio at school is another powerful memory. Music and Movement, or Singing Together, where we farewelled and adieu’d to fair Spanish ladies, or learned English folksongs with mystery in their lines; 'The first doe he shot at he missed / The second doe he trimmed he kist / The third doe went where nobody wist / Among the leaves so green oh!
Radio at school was an event, an excitement. To hear a voice in the classroom that was not our teacher’s was a delight almost impossible to recreate now that computers, DVDs and TV are commonplace in primary school. One school teacher recounted her own radio memories of the death of King George V. She recalled this radio announcement word for word and recited ritualistically and with relish: The King’s life is drawing peacefully to its close ..... To ask her about the deaths of kings was a sure way of stopping lessons for a few minutes.
My sister acquired a Roberts Radio. In our shared bedroom we listened to everything, from Round the Horne to Plays Unpleasant by Bernard Shaw, from Wilfred Pickles telling Mabel to ‘give ‘im the money’, to the smug, trim chirps of the children who knew all the answers on Top of the Form. We followed the Archers and thrilled to the birth of Jennifer’s illegitimate baby. Paul Temple with his suave man-about-town voice solved mysteries along with his mysteriously named wife Steve - what a dashing pair they were, never far from a cocktail or a corpse, always hovering on the edge of self parody but not quite plummetting over it. The Clitheroe Kid I found disturbing. His loud-mouth jokery shaded into the sinister once I learned that Jimmy Clitheroe was not really a child at all. How big was he? Why was his voice like that?
Twenty Questions, Round the Horne .... I grasped the existence of homosexuality through Kenneth Williams’ Julian and his friend Sandy. It was all done through innuendo but it caught my attention. Kenneth Williams’ swooping, diving voice had something stretched and exposed in it, that might very easily break. Often, as I listened to radio voices, I had a sense of privileged overhearing. Maybe these voices were not talking to me at all; probably I was not old enough to hear them. But they drew me on, as if magnetically, towards an understanding of a kind. Images would not have done it in the same way: a voice talking to you in the intimate way that radio voices talk has a persuasiveness which perhaps no other medium matches.
Maybe one of the greatest gifts of radio voices is that they can do things they ought not to be able to do. Why listen to a cricket match, when you could watch it? My older sister, at twelve or thirteen, neither played cricket nor went to cricket matches, but for some reason loved to listen to it on the radio. At the time I thought this strange, but now I realise that she liked the pure power of voice, creating in our heads wonderful strokes we would never see, a verbal pace that matched the rhythm of the game, a verbal music of relish over form and style, and a summer day that had never existed, laced with memories which we did not share.
Great events came to me through the voice of radio. We had no television, and my memory of the assassination of President Kennedy is of lying on the floor, so that the grain of its wood was brilliantly distinct, as close to the radio as I could get. I smelled its strange electric valvular scent, and hearing a voice say sombrely, ‘We regret to inform you that President Kennedy is in fact dead.’ Death, and the smell of radio, and the finality of that voice.
One thing that I will greatly miss when all radio is digital is the mystery of tuning into the radio’s voice, through the whine and crackle of distance and interference, finessing with aerial and set angle until the voice suddenly clarifies. . Slipping along the wavelengths like a bandit, searching for Radio Caroline, imagining the grey hulk of the pirate ship turning on its anchor mid-Channel as Simon Dee or Dave Lee Travis clung to the mike, tuning in to Pick of the Pops on a Sunday afternoon top the brazen greetings of Alan Freeman, voyaging out onto the ocean of short wave radio where voices from Prague, Helsinki, Hamburg or Moscow spoke with urgent self-satisfaction, as if we all floated in the same sea of meaning. I particularly liked the voice of radio Moscow, holding up its mirror images of events which we only knew from the other, Western side: Gavareet Moskva .....
Perhaps my purest radio voice experience remains that of listening to lengthy Finnish weather forecasts, when lived there as a young woman. Radio has a special power when you are struggling to glean a little meaning from a field of language. Each forecast brimmed with long syllables delineating the type of snow, sleet or sleety rain that could be expected to full where we were: How the announcers rolled the words off their tongues, without any sense of haste. There was always enough weather, enough time, enough vast and lonely forested miles.
Radio sometimes seems to me to be the music of human existence, frayed, repetitive, but sometimes flooded with an odd, sudden grandeur. It’s the radio voice of the Polish Resistance appealing with increasing desperation for the Western allies to come to their aid. It’s the voice of the old music hall dying away in on the Light Programme. It’s the endless clattering tongues of politicians, the car that almost drove into mine because its driver had just heart on the radio that a second aeroplane had flown into the World Trade Centre, the exquisite lost tones of the Radio 3 announcer, now as rare as the call of the corncrake, the dreadful jollity of Jack de Manio giving the time wrong on the Today programme, the litany of the shipping forecast, the banality of the consumer programme, the rumble of the archives like the noise of a train passing underneath the living moment, the whole murmurous, clamorous voice that doesn’t belong to anyone except to radio itself.
Keats and Pleasure
‘Talking of Pleasure, this moment I was writing with one hand, and with the other holding to my Mouth a Nectarine - good God how fine. It went down soft, pulpy, slushy, oozy - all its delicious embonpoint melted down my throat like a large beatified Strawberry.’
Where Byron drank soda water to preserve his figure and Shelley wrote a treatise on the natural diet, Keats ate his nectarine and we taste it two hundred years later. Keats was always the man for me. I read his letters in my mid teens, before I’d read much of his poetry. He was warm, earthy, self-mocking, funny, endlessly interested in gossip, weaving a brilliant weft under and over the letters’ darker warp of sickness, death and mental anguish.
In the Keats-Shelley House in Rome, you can stand in Keats’ bedroom and see the flowers on the ceiling that he saw when he lay dying. All the other furniture was burned, as it had to be by law, because Keats had died of tuberculosis. He’d foreseen the whole unromantic ugly business from the first moment that he coughed up arterial blood, because his medical training forbad self-deception as much as his nature forbad self-pity. ‘I cannot be deceived in that colour; - that drop of blood is my death-warrant; - I must die.’
The words reveal not fatalism, but an essential toughness. Keats is about seeing things as they are, in all their contradictions. He moves within a few lines from a joke about Winchester’s fresh-flannelled door-steps to the news that he has been writing the Ode to Autumn. He remarks ironically, in one of his most agonised letters, that ‘the knowledge of contrast, feeling for light and shade, all that information (primitive sense) necessary for a poem, are great enemies to the recovery of the stomach.’
All that information (primitive sense) necessary for a poem ... I remember first reading those words, not yet understanding them but getting from them a shock of recognition, almost sensuous: ‘Yes, that’s how it is.’
(first published in The Guardian's 'My Hero' series in May 2010)