August 2020. The barbecue and I have been eyeing each other warily for years, but it’s taken a pandemic to finally bring us together. When my daughters and I bought the beach house in Ciboure in 2011, we purchased a basic cheap and nasty barbecue that rusted to death in the garage during the winter. The same thing happened to its slightly more upmarket successor. After that, I was advised to invest in a Weber, which everyone told me was better, simpler, rust-free, and foolproof. That, it turns out, depends entirely on the fool.
My friend Kathy and her daughter Lara came to visit in May of 2014 (or thereabouts), and they got the thing set up and grilled us steaks. My own attempts a week later pretty much came to grief. It took four hours to get the barbecue lit and supper semi-cooked. The next summer I bought a special Weber chimney to light the little bugger, had another go, and failed again. After that I decided that the beast and I would go our separate ways. It could stay lurking in a corner of the terrace in case the children or the renters needed it, and I would ignore it.
But two months at the seaside avoiding Covid with a succession of barbecue experts have changed my mind. After observing first Annabel, then Tahar, whip up dinner from stone cold to perfectly grilled in half an hour, I made my first solo attempt when my friend Karen came to visit. It was moderately successful. The charcoal got lit with no trouble at all, but the food ended up al dente. Having figured out that I needed to add more coals (Weber’s multilingual instruction booklet isn’t all that clear), I picked up some marinated kebabs from Leclerc, got up my nerve with gin and tonic, and prepared to provide dinner for another friend. It helped that Laure had acquired a good deal of experience barbecuing on her suburban Paris terrace during the confinement. Between us we got the thing lit, added more coals, shoved on the lid, watched the temperature rise on the built-in thermometer (oh yes, all the gadgets!) and grilled the kebabs. They were delicious!
Mastering the barbecue gives one an amazing sense of achievement. There’s a sort of primitive thrill in dominating the Elements – air and fire! – and ensuring one’s Survival in the Basque seaside wilderness. Unfortunately my new next-door neighbour doesn’t think so. As we were cooking the other night, he grumbled something through the hedge about the smell. “But it smells so good!” responded Laure. “No it doesn’t,” he said and stumped off into his house to close the windows. Barbecue Envy? His yard is smaller than mine, and rather more manicured. It looks like something out of Elle Deco, and a barbecue really wouldn’t fit in there. Meanwhile my cooking smells are ruining his curated outdoor haven of Gracious Living.
I, on the other hand, have been suffering all summer from Hydrangea Envy. His hydrangeas are newer and bluer than mine, which are a kind of washed-out white. Life just isn’t fair.
July 2020. The Basques are punctilious about linguistic correctness. All the road signs are in French and Basque (and occasionally Spanish too): the exit from the supermarket is labelled Sortie and Irteera, the town centre is Centre Ville or Hiri Barnea (or sometimes, mysteriously, something slightly different. Do Basque nouns have declensions? I’ve never managed to find out.) But I still have to see anything in Basque inviting me to wear a mask or use hand sanitizer or observe social distancing. Apparently the Language Academy of Euskal Herria, or whoever it is decides these things, has yet to hand down their decree.
Masks are obligatory in certain shops, and optional in others. I was called to order in a shop selling vases and carpets and suchlike, but the post office doesn’t seem to care. On Sunday, the market in Ciboure was pretty well mask-free. A few masks are visible on the crowded pedestrian street in St. Jean de Luz, and quite a lot inside the shops, but there are none on the seafront, and obviously none on the beach. I did read something about an enterprising designer somewhere who produces bikini-coordinated masks, but they don’t seem to have caught on down here. Clearly they wouldn’t do wonders for one’s suntan. Hopefully the fresh sea breezes blow the virus away.
On the train coming down from Paris at the beginning of July, everyone wore a mask except to eat, and since the train left at 12.45, everyone was eating. The train manager meandered up and down at regular intervals. The cleaners were much in evidence. The restaurant car was closed.
On Basque beaches, sunbathers are more or less socially distanced, unless it’s high tide. The tide is no respecter of social distancing. Last week I got to the beach at Socoa with my daughter and grandsons just as the tide was coming in. Everyone was moving further and further up the beach, and closer and closer together. Happily she and I were protected by two small boys shunting round, kicking up sand and brandishing a huge pink plastic flamingo, providing our personal cordon sanitaire.
It’s hard to say at this point if there are more or fewer tourists than usual, and where they come from. The Spanish border is open and the Spaniards are returning; I spotted a car with German plates; but most people seem to be French. Northern Europe usually comes pouring down with their surfboards and camping cars, but maybe this year they’ll resist the lure of the surf. It’s frankly not a good year for border-hopping. The virus has been round the world once from east to west, and seems to be setting out for a second circuit. Russia and Brazil and the United States are experiencing thousands of new cases a day. In Europe, we’re enjoying our little holiday bubble – for the time being. St. Jean de Luz has fireworks every year for the Quatorze Juillet. This year they’ve been cancelled. Rendez-vous in 2021.
May 21, 2020. In the ten days since le déconfinement began, I have not been idle. I got my hair fixed, my feet fixed, and my back fixed. I conferred with my doctor via visioconférence, and extorted extra Stilnox for my sleepless nights. I bought my first flowers in two months from the newly opened flower stall, and some poison to deter the mice that appear in the house at irregular intervals. The gardener came to inspect the overgrown ivy that the little buggers climb up, and says he’ll be back tomorrow to chop it down. I’ve started to write down appointments in the diary I haven’t used since March. Life is getting back to normal. More or less.
I’ve been carrying hand sanitizer round with me since the confinement began, and now I wear a mask when I go out. Not only does it make me feel safer (even if that’s not true), it saves money on make up, time choosing earrings, and dispels forever the agony of bad hair days. Plus it induces a gratifying sense of moral superiority toward the unmasked, who are numerous enough to keep one in a constant state of smugness. Basically it’s old bats like myself who cling to their masks. The under-thirties put their faith in statistics.
For a while masks were the only topic of Parisian phone calls: where to get them, what kind, how much they cost, how long you waited for them, how long they lasted. Weeks of being led up the garden path while the government waited for supplies to appear has made us anxious. (Masks are unnecessary, don’t wear them. Masks are dangerous, don’t wear them. Masks are a good idea, so if you can get them, wear them. Masks are obligatory on public transport and in shops, and you are required to wear them.)
We’re past that now. Pharmacies sell them, tabacs sell them, so do some supermarkets. You can buy cute little flowered ones from haberdashers, interior decorators and the like. You can order them on line. To date my haul includes one homemade one, one pink one, two blue ones, and a box of 50 Chinese surgical masks. The more the merrier. We’re going to be needing them for some time. Yesterday I picked up a free mask from the pharmacy, courtesy of the Mairie de Paris. Before I can wear it, I’m supposed to wash it for 30 minutes at 60 C. This is not one of the options offered by my washing machine. Another thing I’ve going to have to think through. I’ve also heard you can steam them, iron them, or boil them in a saucepan on the stove. For now I favour the surgical kind that you can just throw away.
Today, I took the bus across town to visit my osteopath. An odd experience. Masks are of course required. One seat in two bears a sticker saying it’s off-limits. The driver is cordoned off behind a barrier of red and white tape. Passengers no longer board the bus through the doors at the front and swipe their cards on the machines by the driver’s cabin. Now they get on and off through the middle door, and travel free, since the machines are inaccessible. Some people put their masks on at the bus stop as the bus draws up, and pull them down off their noses once they’ve boarded, which seems a trifle counter-productive.
One lady on my bus sat down in a forbidden seat and shoved her mask under her chin to continue her rather loud phone conversation about people in the beauty business who have jobs that do not conform to their true destinies. She could tell they were on the wrong track as soon as she saw their birth sign. They needed to abjure Beauty before it was too late, yes, marketing managers included. If the conversation hadn’t been so ridiculous, I might not have glared so fiercely. She adjusted her mask, changed seats, and turned her back.
On the bus home, one of the passengers changed his seat four times in the interests, apparently, of social distance, and pressed the request-stop button with his elbow. His mask was lodged comfortably under his nose the whole time. Quite a few parents seem to settle their children’s masks neatly on their faces, and wear their own masks round their chins. You wouldn’t think it was rocket science, but it looks as though a serious dose of Public Mask Instruction would not come amiss.
Back home in front of the box, the television chat shows have switched their focus from the present (overwhelmed hospitals, curves and peaks and death rates) to the future (economic disaster, the Second Wave, and famine). The United States will have more jobless people than at the height of the Great Depression. Africa is heading for major famine. This being France, people are worrying about their stomachs and their holidays. Restaurateurs are lobbying to be allowed to open, and there is great national concern about whether one can go to the beach this summer. During the confinement, access to both Atlantic and Mediterranean beaches was forbidden. Re-opening the beaches must be authorized by the departmental authorities (préfecture) at the request of the local authorities (mairie). France has been divided into red zones and green zones, and both coastlines are green. In both green zones and red we are allowed to travel 100 km from our homes, but no more. According to the news last night, gîtes within 100 km of Paris have been overrun for the four-day Ascension weekend which began today, while seaside towns remain fairly empty. People are hunting for country houses with swimming pools to rent for August. As of last weekend, the beach in St. Jean de Luz is open, but patrolled by police. Sandcastles are acceptable: sunbathing is not. Parks in Paris remain closed. I booked a ticket for St. Jean for July 2, by when I hope we’ll be allowed to leave. The ticket is one way only. We’ll see how it goes.
April 12, 2020. In France, it’s the fourth week of confinement, and we aren’t done yet. They’re doling it out in two-week doses to avoid demoralizing the population. Emmanuel Macron is due to speak on television tomorrow night, and he’s likely to extend our sentence till the end of the month. Beyond that, no one knows. Restrictions might in fact be tightened. In Strasbourg, you have to go for walks on your own now. In Paris, jogging is forbidden between the hours of 10:00 and 19:00. Living across from the Parc Montsouris, which is closed, I’ve had plenty of tense encounters during my daily walks with the Lycra set puffing and spitting their way round the neighbouring streets. Walking is authorized for an hour a day. When you leave your house you need to take an “attestation” downloaded from the Interior Ministry site indicating the date, the time you left home, and the reason you’re out (shopping, work, exercise, urgent family reasons). If you don’t have it, you’re liable for a fine of €135 for a first offence, €200 for the second, and up to €1500 and six months in prison for recurrent offenders. The police, apparently, are raking it in. When you encounter another pedestrian on your rambles, you look at their feet not at their face, gauging which way they’re going to move, and which of you is going to engage in the new self-preserving manoeuvre, the Corona Swerve.
Lately there has been talk about deconfinement. Deconfinement, say the television pundits, is not going to be a rerun of the Liberation, with the occupiers gone and everyone dancing in the streets. Deconfinement will be a gradual and long-drawn-out process, and the older among us are going to need to be patient. The doctors and the economists and the epidemiologists believe that we’re going to be deconfined in stages, according to age and region. Younger people, who are less vulnerable – and who are needed to get the economy moving – will be let out first. The over-65s and the hardest hit regions will be let out last. Living in Paris, aged 73, I qualify for increased detention on both counts. By the sound of it I could be looking at confinement until July or August!
So far I’ve kept myself entertained with long phone calls to friends I’d lost sight of, e-mail ditto, and of course Netflix. My current favourite is Suits, and I’ve just started Breaking Bad (ten years after the rest of the planet, yes, I know). I saw an eye-opening series about the Brooklyn Jewish community called Unorthodox. Someone has recommended La Casa de Papel. I make a point of watching television news and discussion for a couple of hours every evening to keep myself good and scared and resigned to immobility.
I take a walk every day and go shopping about once a week. Some of my more paranoid friends assure me that the supermarket is a den of germs, and no doubt they’re right, but I like to get out and make sure there’s still life on earth. I live in an impasse, and most of the neighbours are gone. If I don’t go out, I don’t see a living soul all day – though I can hear them. The weather is warm, the windows are open, and every evening the kids come out in a nearby courtyard and play some kind of chanting game. It cheers me up. In the supermarket, the staff wear masks, there are lines one metre apart in the queue for the tills, and there’s a plastic screen in front of each cash register. I can find what I need, toilet paper included. If I remember to bring gloves I put them on, and I vaguely attempt to keep my scarf over my face. When I get out to the pavement, I whip out the hand sanitizer that I bought in 2013 for a trip to Sri Lanka and eradicate, hopefully, whatever I might have picked up. When I get the stuff home, I wipe it down with disinfectant.
Obviously I am privileged to be living alone in spacious lodgings with lots of electronic distractions. I don’t have to worry about other family members bringing in the virus from outside (which might apparently be a factor in Spain and Italy, where unmarried adult children tend to live at home), I don’t have to fight for access to the household computer, and I don’t have to manage tension with my housemates. It seems that domestic violence has increased by one-third. Some Parisians fled to the country at the beginning of the lockdown: 17% of the city’s population have been determined via their cellphones to have moved elsewhere. A lot of them are students or young people living in cramped apartments who fled to larger parental homes in the provinces. People with second houses moved out too. Both my daughters took fright at the idea of spending the confinement in city apartments with young children and no gardens, and are currently living in our holiday home near St. Jean de Luz. One drove down from Paris with husband and baby the day before the lockdown went into effect. The other got on a Eurostar from London on the day of the lockdown with her two boys, and spent the night with me in Paris. I barricaded myself in my bedroom and we communicated by FaceTime so the anxious six-year-old could check I wasn’t dead. They got on a train for Bordeaux the following morning, and rented a car for the final stretch down to the Pays Basque. She was stopped twice for questioning at péages on the autoroute, but they let her through when she said she was going to join her sister for the confinement. When she’ll get back to London is an open question.
Not being able to make projects is the worst part of this. You can’t see further than tomorrow lunchtime. You certainly can’t plan travel. I was supposed to go to two weddings this year, one in Plymouth, one in Thessaloniki, and they’ve both been postponed till 2021. Fingers crossed there’s no second wave. The only thing I haven’t yet cancelled is a trip to Switzerland at the end of August. I imagine it’s going to go by the board, but right now it’s my light at the end of the tunnel, so I’m letting it be. So far the weather has been good, which helps a lot. Spring is actually the ideal time for pandemic lockdown. If it was winter with short cold days you’d get depressed. If it was summer with long hot days you’d melt. Nevertheless, every week the confinement lasts is going to make it harder to get back to what we still think of as “normal.” It looks increasingly likely that the Corona Swerve will be wider, longer, and more permanent than we think. Happy Easter!
I’m travelling this summer in time instead of space. Cheaper, less strenuous, and totally addictive. I have a six-month subscription to Ancestry.co.uk, and I can’t tear myself away. With four separate family lines to explore, one for each grandparent, it makes a lot of people. And of course they’re all dead. After a couple of hours, it starts to do your head in.
Sometimes you can piggy-back on to family trees created by other people, and then it goes fast. You enter the data for, say, your grandmother, and if you’re lucky a little box will pop up next to her that says “Potential mother,” and there it is, you’ve got a great-grandmother too. On particularly good days, this can go on and on. Today the little boxes bore me all the way back to 1699, to a lady called Caroline Birchall, who may have been my great-great-great-great-great grandmother. That’s five greats, yes, and I’m feeling a bit weird.
Of course, this may not be true. Mistakes can be made. At some point, I’ll have to go back and check, but I’m learning that you need to focus on one person at a time, otherwise it gets confusing. Especially as there seem to have been only about a dozen first names in common use in the strait-laced God-fearing working-class circles my ancestors frequented, which means that everyone tends to have the same name. If a daughter or son died, they sometimes gave the same name to a child born later. Families of fourteen were not uncommon, though a lot of the children did not survive. In those faraway pre-television days, entertainment would have been limited. (When I use the word “entertainment” I suspect I’m referring to gentlemen only. I’m not sure how the ladies felt when they realized they were embarking on their tenth or so pregnancy.)
And in any case, there’s a missing link in this particular chain: my mother’s father, John Valentine. He died in 1947, and while we must have briefly crossed paths – I was born at the end of 1946 – I have no memory of him at all.
John Valentine first appears as a grandchild, aged five, in the 1871 census, living in the household of William and Catherine Valentine. Or so I thought. Later cross-checking showed that the head of the household was actually called John. The handwriting of the census takers leaves a lot to be desired, as does their spelling.
So if John and Catherine were his grandparents, who were his parents? Where were they living? Why weren’t they with John? Where, for that matter, is young John’s birth certificate, which would show the names of his parents? Coming at the available data from different angles, I’ve been unable to locate one. He is a man who was never born. Either his birth was not declared, or he was registered under a different name. None of John and Catherine’s other children seem likely parental candidates. They’re all too young.
In England, the census was taken every ten years in April. Respondents were listed by age rather than date of birth (not helpful). John, as I finally found out from data from 1939, was born in September 1865. In the April 1881 census, aged 15, he’s listed as an Apprentice in what looks like “Engine Fitting.” The elder John has died, Catherine is listed as head of the household, and he appears as her son.
Biologically, this could be possible. Catherine would have been about 46 at the time of John’s birth in 1865, and it seems it was not uncommon for women to go on bearing children well into their forties. Like I said, lack of entertainment. But she already had a son called John still living at that time. Surely they wouldn’t have called two brothers by the same name? Young John is looking more and more like a changeling.
Fast forward ten years to 1891. John is 24, unmarried, working as a “Slotter Iron Foundry,” living as a boarder in someone else’s home. This seems strange. Entries for other families often show sons of his age still living at home. Did Catherine throw him out? Or was it he who decided to leave? Did he march out and slam the door and never speak to his family again? In 1901, aged 34, he’s a “Steam Engineer Metal Planer,” still unmarried, boarding with a different family.
Not until 1911 does he finally appear as Head of Household, 44, a “Colliery Engineer Planer,” with a wife and three children. Records show that he was married in Atcham, near Shrewsbury, in the third quarter of 1903. My grandmother, Ellen Tomlins, a Shropshire girl, was married in the same place at the same time. Hopefully they married each other. I would need to order their marriage certificate to be sure. Even then I would have no clue as to how a Lancashire metal-worker hooked up with a country lass several counties away. People didn’t move round much back then. Ellen and her family rambled through the villages around Shrewsbury from census to census, and John seems to have stayed in Haydock most of his life.
I never knew John, but based on the behaviour of the family he left behind, my theory is that John was rejected by his birth family because he was someone’s illegitimate child, and that he transferred the strained relations he had known in his youth to the family he eventually founded in his 40s. My mother and her siblings didn’t like each other. There were an awful lot of strange undercurrents that as a child I couldn’t interpret (not that I tried. I just thought all families ignored each other like that.) Also interesting are the names he chose for his offspring: Edna, Nora, Eric and Harold. A complete break with the multiple Catherines, Elizabeths, Johns and Williams he grew up with. When I unwittingly chose Catherine as the second name of one of my own daughters, the poor guy must have turned in his grave.
There is no one living that I can ask about John. Of course, I left it much too late. My mother is dead, and so are her three siblings. I lost touch with their children, my cousins, years ago. They were all older than me: they might well be dead too. When I occasionally asked my mother questions about her childhood, she wouldn’t answer. “What do you want to know about that for?” To avoid leaving my own descendants in this kind of fog, I’ve started writing a memoir for my grandchildren. Sadly, I haven’t worked on it much lately. I’m having too much fun with the ancestors.
The Canary Islands are technically Spanish, but when you disembark at the airport, a different pecking order is immediately obvious:
It’s mildly shocking to see the indigenous language in third place, and the world’s lingua franca in second (though I suspect we’d better get used to that. Sic Brexit gloria mundi.) Buying a bottle of water from an airport café, I’m asked if I want it mit oder ohne Gas, and told that it costs ein Euro.
The Canaries are an archipelago of seven volcanic islands in the Atlantic, off the coast of southern Morocco. The Romans called them the Fortunate Isles, but never bothered to invade. A Genoese explorer made landfall on Lanzarote in 1302; a Norman adventurer mounted an expedition a century later; the Spanish conquered the islands at the end of the fifteenth century. In 1821 they became a province of Spain, which means no roaming charges. What else? Nelson lost an arm attacking Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1797, and Franco launched the Spanish Civil War from Las Palmas in 1936. Not fortunate for everyone then. These days the islands’ main claim to happiness is as a refuge for the deprived peoples of northern Europe, desperate for sun. The Canaries have near-perfect temperatures all the year round.
My friend Julianne and I chose Tenerife as our destination based partly on personal recommendations, and partly on tantalizing hints of cultural sightseeing, which is rare in mid-Atlantic. We are keen on culture. Avoiding the south of the island where the packagistas are reputed to go, we head for Puerto de la Cruz in the north-west, which Lonely Planet says is the “grand dame” in the island family. A friend assures me, with exquisite tact, that it caters for the more “mature” tourist. He’s right about that: at least three-quarters of the visitors in the streets and in the hotel are well over sixty.
Sticking with the “grand dame” theme, we have opted for the Hotel Monopol, built in 1742, which has traditional Canarian architecture, wooden balconies, and an elegant palm court with a covered roof.
The Monopol has good points and bad. Since 1742, the hotel has been updated with a few modern conveniences, including swimming pool, sauna, sun terraces, and bars. The public spaces are fine, but the rooms are disappointing. “Starting to look a shade worn,” observed Lonely Planet in 2016, and three more years of wear has not improved them. Our double room, Number 25, at the end of a long cold corridor, is small and shabby. The grand dame has fallen on hard times, and the penny-pinching is frankly annoying. One keycard for two people, no free toiletries, prehistoric hairdryer, limited wifi. The water is barely lukewarm. Apprised of our unsatisfactory showers, Reception asks blandly if we’ve tried letting the water run.
Puerto de la Cruz is a pleasant town built around a series of rocky coves and inlets. On one side lies the old fishing village with traditional architecture, narrow streets, and a leafy plaza. On the other side, the newer hotels and flashier restaurants sprawl along the coast. A boardwalk overlooks the sea, the Atlantic breakers, and the rather alarming black sand beaches.
The Monopol has an excellent location on the main pedestrian street, opposite the church and the Plaza de la Iglesia. Next door is Starbucks, which has taken over a cavernous seventeenth-century building with an authentic wooden balcony.
The first day of our stay does not go well. It’s windy and cold, the sea is rough, the waves are spectacular, and the clouds are low. In the morning we trudge dutifully round the town in our fleeces and padded jackets, but after lunch we admit defeat and retreat indoors to speculate gloomily about prospects for the rest of the week. The pool bar is deserted and drafty. Julianne reads something by Colleen McCullough about ancient Rome, and I read a book by Alan Bennett entitled, oddly but aptly, Smut. At the end of the afternoon we venture out for tea and cake. Cake is the best thing about the German invasion. All the cafés have a gorgeous array of gooey, creamy treats. The highlight of my week is Schwarzwaldtorte.
By the next day, the wind has dropped, the sun is out, and we take the bus a few kilometres inland to La Orotava, where there’s a well-preserved old quarter with cobbled streets, sleepy plazas, and traditional Canarian mansions like the Casa de los Balcones where the rooms open off a central patio and the galleries rise to the roof.
The day after, we venture further afield to a town called La Laguna. In the historic centre, brightly painted mansions line the narrow streets that lead off the central plaza.
This grid layout was carried over to colonial towns of South America, such as Salta in Argentina and Oaxaca in Mexico. Behind imposing wooden doors, we glimpse luxuriant plants and charming hidden courtyards.
But the excursion is marred by a mix-up with buses. On the way out of Puerto de la Cruz, the bus goes round and round the mountain in a spaghetti of slip roads, overpasses and underpasses to reach the autopista that runs along the spine of the island, heading for Santa Cruz de Tenerife, the capital. Passengers for La Laguna are supposed to alight at a roadside exchange stop and take a tram into town. Not realizing this, we overshoot, end up in Santa Cruz, and have to go back. The return is no less fraught. The bus is late, and when it comes it’s packed.
This deters us from further excursions outside the town. Too much time spent on transport, and not a whole lot to see. There’s no scenery to speak of. Whole hillsides are covered with seaside apartments, plastic restaurants, and amenities such as Deutsche Frisur and Deutsche Zahnarzt. All along the coast there are buildings. Plus there are churches. There’s a Finnish church, a Scandinavian church, a Lutheran church, and of course the Anglicans and the Catholics are out in force. Tenerife caters not just to the bodies of northern Europe, but to their souls.
The pursuit of culture is starting to seem like hard work. And besides, we’re developing a taste for long lazy afternoons by the hotel pool, which is quiet and sunny. Every day we encounter the same seventy-ish German couple with an unvarying routine: loungers by the pool in the morning, a table in the sun at lunchtime, Scrabble in the shade in the afternoon, loungers again at four p.m. to get the last of the sun. She sometimes takes a swim. He never does. (The pool is supposed to be heated, but it isn’t. As for the sauna, that’s closed.)
By the end of the week, we have our routine down too. In the morning we take a walk around town: once to the port, once to the Botanic Gardens, once to the archeological museum (closed for renovation). Our walks get shorter and shorter and by noon we’re at our usual table by the pool. I read a very long book by Rosamunde Pilcher, and Julianne knits. Culture be damned! Around two we order lunch. We’re too lazy to go elsewhere. Why get dressed and go out and look for tapas when you can just stay in the sun and eat cosmopolitan stodge?
By midweek Paris is starting to seem like an improbable dream. How can there possibly be a place so cold and grey and damp? After only three days, my winter aches and pains have vanished, my sinuses are behaving and so is my skin. I could stay here forever, doing nothing, reading trash – well, another week anyway. “I read, much of the night, and go south in winter.” Discovering T.S. Eliot at seventeen, this struck me as a civilized way to spend one’s life. Now I have proof! Around five, when the sun slides down behind the new wing of the hotel, we relocate to the square across the road.
This is where the natives hang out. Old ladies chat in Spanish, and children play. It has benches and patches of grass and dusty red and white poinsettias. When the sun goes from there too, it’s back to the hotel for an aperitivo on the sheltered terrace before setting out for dinner.
Dinner is a bit of a problem. Puerto de la Cruz has a great many restaurants but many of them serve only tapas and cakes, which isn’t really a balanced diet, and most provide menus in six languages with plastic pictures of the food, which is also a no no. We deduce that most visitors come on a package, take the evening meal in their hotel, and eat only snacks in the town. We consider attempting the hotel buffet, but our nerve fails us.
One night we try a place called Mil Sabores (one thousand flavours), which is alleged to be a temple to modern Mediterranean cooking. The food is fine, but the waiter is a stout, black-shirted man who disapproves of unescorted older ladies defiling his temple, and addresses us sneeringly as “chicas.” We are alternately patronized and ignored. He gets no tip.
Another night we eat in the Don Carlos bar at the hotel. Julianne has ropa vieja (a kind of stew) and I have gambas with garlic. The food is good and so is the wine, the waiter is friendly, and talks to me in German, the chef comes in to chat and explain his methods.
But our canteen becomes El Pescador, which has fresh fish on ice in a glass case, inventive green salads, papas, which are local potatoes cooked in salt in their skins and served with green or red mojos (sauces), a nice white wine, and a truly wonderful selection of obscure American pop music from the 50s and 60s. We go back three times in one week.
Back in Room 25, after three days of planet endangerment backed up by systematic prodding (it helps that Julianne can prod in Spanish), Reception sends a plumber to change the taps. The water becomes semi-hot. No one else has ever complained, says Reception self-righteously, but I discover that isn’t quite true. Back in Paris, I find a TripAdvisor review of our very room from a lady who stayed over Christmas 2018, complaining of the exact same problem. Reception has a short memory. Then again, TripAdvisor is clear: if you can’t complain to Reception in Spanish, you won’t get results. The Germans get cake, the Brits get bacon and egg for breakfast, but only the Spanish get hot water.
There’s nothing more fascinating than a writer’s house. This is the table where they sat to write, this is the view that inspired them, this is the garden they walked in. My novel Compassion, which relates the fate of the Russian intelligentsia during the Stalin Terror, gave me a foolproof excuse to poke around writers’ houses. Nearly all my characters were based on real people, and I went to see the places they had lived and worked.
In 2010, I visited Akhmatova’s house in St. Petersburg (see The House on the Fontanka) and Pasternak’s dacha in Peredelkino (see Pasternak’s Dacha), but before that my husband and I went to Ukraine as pathfinders for my characters in Kiev and Yalta.
Our plane from Paris lands in Kiev at noon. The year is 2007, Ukraine is independent, and the city is now called Kyiv. For the time being, things are calm. Ukraine is opening up to democracy and the wider world beyond the Soviet fold. No visas are required with our European passports. The Orange Revolution is three years in the past. The mood is hopeful.
The Euromaïdan is yet to come, and so is Putin’s annexation of the Crimea.
Kyiv feels closer to Eastern Europe than to Russia. The people in the street aren’t as glum, and the air is lighter. St. Andrei’s Hill is overrun with arts and crafts and restaurants and galleries, all spilling over the cobbles in a relaxed late-Saturday mood. There’s a service in progress in St. Andrei’s Church, which was built in the eighteenth century by the Italian architect Rastrelli (whose main claim to fame is the Winter Palace), and the chanting swells gloriously round the church.
Andrei, the main character in Compassion, arrives in Kiev in 1920 to find a city torn apart by civil war. Andrei is an artist, half-Russian and half-English. Many years later, he tells his granddaughter what it was like:
Some of the houses had been destroyed for firewood, and those that were still standing seemed about to fall down. The streets were clogged with refuse, the shops were shuttered. People in rags shuffled past clutching odd-shaped bundles… Sitting on a broken wall by St. Andrei’s Church… an outline caught my eye, and I looked more closely. There was something interesting about the way the building reared up from the rubble… I found myself reaching for a pencil and paper […] I was so absorbed in my drawing that I jumped when a voice behind me said, “That’s very good.” I turned round and found myself looking at a skinny little man with an ardent, curious face and a mass of curly black hair.
The little man with the curious face is a poet called Ilya Kishkovsky, who will become Andrei’s companion for the rest of his journey through war-torn Ukraine. Andrei is a fictional character, but Ilya is modelled on the poet Osip Mandelshtam, who died in the Gulag in 1938.
The description of Kiev is taken mainly from Mikhail Bulgakov, who wrote about the city in his Civil War novel The White Guard. Bulgakov’s childhood home, which he used as the setting for his novel, stands a bit lower down the hill. Sadly, it’s closed by the time my husband and I get there in the late afternoon, but we admire the façade.
At the bottom of the hill is Podol, the old port area beside the River Dnipro, now gentrified and trendified, with edgy restaurants for gilded youth. Being neither young nor gilded, we take the funicular back up the hill and eat dinner in a restaurant for tourists. The décor is izba-style logs and the waitresses are decked out in traditional embroidered blouses, but the cuisine is post-Soviet cosmopolitan and so are the flat-screen televisions showing the inevitable football match. A delicate balancing act between past and future.
The most sacred place in Ukraine is the Pecherska Lavra, a monastery complex dating back to the eleventh century comprising churches, museums, refectories, dormitories, and a series of caves housing mummified monks (mummification apparently being caused by properties in the soil, rather than a mass outbreak of sanctity). Not much is left of the eleventh-century buildings, and the current style is baroque with some Art Deco touches. The Upper Lavra is a museum now, but the Lower Lavra is a working monastery, and its churches are surrounded by trees: apple, cherry, lilac – all in bloom. It’s like walking through an orchard with golden domes.
The bells toll for the end of the morning service with a persistent monocord clang. A procession of chanting monks walks past amid the trees. With their long beards and soft round black hats, they could be straight out of the time of Ivan the Terrible. The bells stop ringing. An instant of silence, and then more bells chime in from further away, taking up the message. I tried to work this scene into Compassion, but the characters objected strenuously and I gave it up.
On Sunday afternoon, Kyiv’s main thoroughfare, the Khreshchatyk, is closed to traffic, and we join the other pedestrians taking the air. Contrary to local claims, the Kreshchatyk does not rival the Champs-Elysées, but it’s wide and open and tree-lined and a good place to walk. Kyiv is wonderfully green: the streets in the centre are lined with trees, and there are plenty of parks and open spaces. The writer Viktor Nekrasov lived in one of the streets leading off the Kreshchatyk in the 1960s and 1970s, before he left for Paris. As a boy, he lived with his mother on Rue Roli in Paris, which is just across from me on the other side of the Parc Montsouris. Granted, that was in 1910, but I feel a neighbourly interest. After being forced to leave the Soviet Union, Nekrasov became a regular visitor to my office at Radio Liberty, and I have a signed copy of his book Carnets d’un Badaud, which I’m using now as a nostalgist’s guide to Kiev.
Viktor Platonovich would be surprised to see the pâtisseries and chic clothing stores that have invaded his old haunts. The people on the street this Sunday are mostly young. The boys have round open faces, and clutch bottles of beer. The girls wear skimpy provocative clothes set off by demure downcast glances. Traffic in the city centre consists of black Mercedes, black BMWs, and black SUVs. Tinted windows are de rigueur. We have dinner in a restaurant with plush couches, skinny waitresses, hefty bouncers, and bad wine. The service is snail-like but there’s an endless parade of fashion shows on a television screen to distract us. How can the world have so many runways?
[Note: Apologies to readers for the variations in spelling. I’ve used “Kiev” when referrring to the city during the Soviet period, and “Kyiv” when applied to the present. I trust it’s not too confusing. My Ukrainian friends insist.]
O’Keeffe country is the slice of New Mexico northwest of Santa Fe where the painter Georgia O’Keeffe lived and worked from 1949 until her death in 1986.
“When I got to New Mexico,” she wrote, “that was mine. As soon as I saw it, that was my country. I’d never seen anything like it before, but it fitted to me exactly.”
I discovered O’Keeffe at an exhibition at the Tate in London in 2016. She painted like no other artist I had ever seen. Starry skies, desert crosses, city canyons, flowers unfolding – she saw the world in a way no one else has ever seen it. Everyday objects that were familiar, even banal, became infused with magic. It felt as though I was crossing the frontier into another country.
In August 2018, I get the chance to see her country for myself. My friend Kathy and I fly to Albuquerque and rent a car.
After a late lunch of margaritas and quesadillas at a place called El Pinto on the outskirts of town, we head north to Santa Fe. The landscape is rocky and the houses are poor. Indian-run casinos are advertised along the road.
Our Airbnb is located in a development called Pueblo del Cielo a few miles out of town. It’s an adobe house furnished in a style I can only call Southwestern Gothic. Lots of local rugs and stylized animal heads, plenty of leather and marble.
On first sight it’s daunting, but by the end of the week we have grown into our surroundings and feel quite at home. The giant television screen is visible from the sitting room, the dining room, and the kitchen, which are on different levels, and this allows Kathy to watch John McCain’s funeral and keep up with Rachel Maddow as we potter round the house and do our laundry.
Outside there’s a barbecue, a shady patio, and a collective swimming pool. The house is set amid Mediterranean-type vegetation. The air smells wonderful. If it wasn’t for the deer heads, I could imagine I was back in Provence in the garrigue.
Santa Fe is a nice little town, founded by the Spaniards around 1610. It’s laid out in a grid around a central plaza, and the best thing about it is the absence of high-rise buildings. By order of the city fathers, all constructions must be in adobe or Spanish colonial. The air is hot and dry, and cool at night. After the torrid humid East Coast, it’s a relief. All my little aches and pains dissolve like magic in the dry desert air.
One side of Santa Fe’s main plaza is occupied by the Palace of the Governors, which is closed for renovation, but we visit the adjacent history museum which recounts the history of New Mexico from the Indians to the Spaniards to the Mexicans (in the days when Mexico was twice the size of the United States) to the Cowboys to the Nuclear Scientists. Los Alamos is just down the road. The museum describes the subterfuges used to conceal the site and its employees from the population at large. The office that handled the nuclear influx was located on East Palace Avenue, and Robert Redford is apparently working on a project called 109 East Palace, about Oppenheimer and his acolytes. Might be fun.
Back in the plaza, some little girls give a demonstration of Indian hoop dancing. A few tourists look on, and an elderly man sings a very monotonous song. Just off the square stands the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis, built in 1869 by a French bishop from the Auvergne. It’s a modest Romanesque church with a seventeenth-century statue of the Madonna and a reredos dating from 1986.
An obliging churchwarden explains that the Madonna was carried into battle by the conquistadores fighting the Indians, and that the gold background to the saints’ portraits on the reredos implies that there are better things to come in the afterlife.
The cathedral, he tells us, is French Gothic. I hesitate to query this since he’s such a nice man, but of course I can’t keep my mouth shut, so I mumble something about Romanesque on the way out. He just smiles sweetly and says that’s what they tell him to say, and it will be our little secret. Okay.
Time to shop. Santa Fe is tourist paradise. All the streets in the centre (and I do mean all) are lined with stores selling Indian silver jewelry, Indian woven rugs, Indian knick-knacks and so on. Sadly the silver earrings are far too expensive, but our attention is caught by a Zeitgeist T-shirt featuring a picture of Indians with rifles and the legend: Homeland Security: Fighting Terrorism Since 1492.
The afternoon ends with a terrifying turquoise margarita in a terrifying turquoise bar called the Coyote, reached from the street by an industrial-style elevator. The drinks are so strong that we both give up halfway through. Kathy has to drive us back to the Pueblo del Cielo, and I’ve got mild altitude sickness. Santa Fe is at 9000 feet – a fact that my guidebook did not see fit to mention.
As the sun goes down, the air grows cooler. We barbecue succulent strip steaks purchased from a high-end market in Santa Fe, and chat to our neighbours, Lloyd and Roxy, who moved here from Texas just two months ago. They are among the very few permanent residents of Heaven’s Village. Most of the houses are second homes or Airbnbs, or both. Lloyd and Roxy are having friends in from Dallas for a party on Sunday night, and we’re invited to drop by. New Mexico bills itself as the Land of Enchantment. Eating dinner on the patio, watching the light fade over the mountains, we’re not going to disagree.
Georgia O’Keeffe first came to New Mexico in 1929. She had been married for five years to Alfred Stieglitz, a famous photographer, who had organized her first exhibition in New York in 1917. Stieglitz is credited with introducing photography as an art form to the United States. Thanks to his influence and that of his artistic friends, O’Keeffe was already a well-known painter, but she was growing more and more restive with the labels his circle of male critics insisted on sticking on her art. It was “erotic,” they said, it was “feminine.”
“When people read erotic symbols into my paintings, they’re really talking about their own affairs,” commented Georgia acidly. She needed to move on in order to preserve her identity as an artist, as opposed to a ‘woman artist,’ and to allow her art to develop. New Mexico became her spiritual home. When Stieglitz died in 1946, she spent three years winding up his estate (she was apparently a shrewd businesswoman), and then moved out West for good.
Her first home in New Mexico was at a dude ranch called Ghost Ranch. Despite her distaste for the wealthy tourists who came out to “experience” the Wild West, she found the landscapes around the ranch so compelling that she bought an adobe house there in 1940. Sadly the house is not open to visitors, but we take a tour of the property with a guide who conducts us to the landscapes that inspired O’Keeffe and holds up the paintings so we can compare.
The landscapes are fantastic, tortured shapes in red sandstone – chimneys and plateaux, thrust up from the bowels of the earth – and the paintings are in different colours depending on the season and the time of day.
One mountain in particular caught Georgia’s fancy, the Pedernal, a distinctive flat-topped mesa that she painted a lot. “It’s my private mountain. It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.”
New Mexico has often been used as a setting for westerns, and also served for Thelma and Louise. The landscapes from the scene where the ladies are driving in the desert at night look eerily familiar. To help the atmosphere along, we play The Ballad of Lucy Jordan on the car sound system. Thankfully no traffic cops appear, because we don’t have a gun.
When Ghost Ranch was sold to Presbyterians (“churchy people,” said Georgia disdainfully), she started to look around for a place of her own and came across some disused adobe buildings in the village of Abiquiu. Climbing over a wall to look at them more closely, she was struck by a door in the wall. She knew at once that she had to have that door. After protracted negotiations, she bought the building and brought in a friend to renovate it.
More than Ghost Ranch, the house at Abiquiu brings you closer to the woman she was. Georgia knew what she wanted. The adobe house is simple but comfortable. Adobe moderates temperatures both hot and cold, but openings are usually kept as small as possible. Georgia put huge plate glass windows into the north-facing walls of her studio. Counter-intuitive, perhaps, but the view is spectacular. Her bedroom faces the same way. How wonderful to wake up every morning to those mountains, that valley, those clouds!
In front of her sitting room a gnarled tree turns in on itself, framed by another plate glass window. In the evening she used to sit on plain white couches and listen to music on a state-of-the-art stereo system. The couches are still there. The kitchen is still equipped with high-end appliances (for the time). The pantry is still stocked as she left it. The vegetable garden is still laid out the way she planned it – though now it has a live feed to the Georgia O’Keeffe museum in Santa Fe, so that visitors to the museum can see what’s happening in the garden, which I’m sure they’re all dying to do.
The Santa Fe museum hosts the largest collection of works by Georgia O’Keeffe in the world, but the space is not large, and the works on display are a little disappointing. I suspect I’ve been spoiled by the exhibition at the Tate. In the lobby I fall into conversation with a couple of tourists from New York, who suggest I take their President with me when I go back to Paris. Thanks, but no thanks.
On the Sunday before Labor Day, we drive up to Taos. In the early part of the twentieth century, Taos was home to a thriving artistic community which attracted, among others, D.H. Lawrence. The town is built round a central plaza on the same model as Santa Fe, and boasts nearly as many souvenir shops. I buy a fleece hat for cold days in Paris and a T-shirt that says Wild Thing for Nora, my new grand-daughter, age 6 months.
More intriguing is Taos Pueblo, a few miles further on, which was built in adobe around 1450 and is thought to be the earliest inhabited settlement on the American continent. Adobe is a composite material made of earth mixed with water and straw or dung – in other words, whatever came to hand. The buildings of Taos Pueblo are remarkably similar to constructions such as the Great Mosque of Djenné in Mali – also built of adobe on the edge of a desert, with projecting wooden struts to support the building.
There’s a low turquoise door in the main building which looks like something Ms. O’Keeffe would have liked. An Indian guide gives us a tour, and a sign by the parking lot informs us of the current level of fire risk.
Driving out into the desert among the clouds we cross the bridge that spans the Rio Grande and reach another kind of habitation. The Earthship is a twenty-first century new-age construction made out of recycled materials such as discarded car tires and tin cans. Hurricane-proof apparently. Water is used four times. People grow their own food. Solar energy is the norm (unlike in the Pueblo where we were told it’s against their religion).
Buildings are scattered here and there across the plain. Some of them function as Airbnbs. It looks like we’ve landed on Mars. A sign warns us that drones are prohibited.
Back in Heaven’s Village it’s party night, but it’s been a tiring day and we’re not up to making small talk to the Texans. Instead we head for the Tesuque Village Market in the hope of a margarita and some local colour.
Sadly the place is full. We spend the evening skulking unsociably on the small patio leading off the main bedroom with a bottle of wine, drunk on clouds and space and sky, watching the sun go down over the Land of Enchantment.
Compassion is a novel about the Russian intelligentsia during the Stalin Terror. Nearly all the characters were inspired by real people. Some, like Mayakovsky and Voloshin, appear as themselves in walk-on parts, but others, like Boris Pasternak and Nikolai Punin, have been disguised with new names. Fact and fiction are blurred, the better to bring out essential truths.
Visiting Moscow in May 2010, to see where my characters had lived and worked in the Thirties, I take along a friend who has never been to Russia before, does not speak Russian, and needs to see the sights. For the convenience of all, we stay at the centrally-located Hotel Budapest. From there I can wander round town on my literary pilgrimages, and Vivien can get to the major sites without taking the metro. The Moscow metro is fast and reliable and famously aesthetic, with statues and friezes and chandeliers and mosaics, but it’s totally non-navigable if you don’t read Cyrillic.
The Budapest doesn’t seem to have changed much since the Soviet era: musty carpeting, airless corridors, suspicious staff. Still, the plumbing has been upgraded since Soviet days, and the breakfast buffet is sufficiently copious to provide us with picnic lunches.
I haven’t been to Moscow since 1990, when the Soviet Union was starting to fall apart. Twenty years later, things have changed. Everywhere you look, there’s a glittering new church with a gold dome and pristine paint: yellow, green, pink, ochre, red. The old grey, gloomy city is being transformed. Some of the churches were used for other functions in the Soviet period and have simply been renovated, but others, razed by Stalin, have been rebuilt, the most notable being the flashy white Christ the Saviour Cathedral which now dominates the skyline.
Alongside the Orthodox time machine, we’re enthralled to discover a new, hygienic westernized Russia of modern conveniences. For every bright new church, there is a Kofe Khauz selling kapuchino and chizkeik, or a Starbucks, or a Kofe Mania. Teenagers pore over pages of plastic menus, young professionals opt for a biznes lanch, tourists revive over coffee and clean toilets. A cleaner in the metro sports a bright yellow overall that says Klining in Cyrillic characters. Waitresses wear red T-shirts, delivery guys wear yellow DHL shirts, security guys wear dark suits and earpieces.
Moscow makes an effort to be well turned out, even if it’s not always clear what look is being attempted. After seventy years of missed fashions, it’s a grab bag. The skinny girls who stalk past the Armani and Prada stores in central Moscow wear short skirts with clingy tops and lace boots with torn jeans – Western clothes that for some reason do not produce a Western effect. Is it the way they put it together? Is it the way they walk? Some people are stuck in the broad shoulders and droopy skirts of the 1980s. Others go for Soviet holdovers: contrasting panels and sleeves, or skirts with unfortunate knee frills. On Red Square, there’s a Gay Pride parade: pink T-shirts, yellow balloons, and a lot of police cars. Despite dire warnings in The Moscow Times, it all goes off calmly.
Pasternak’s dacha is in a village called Peredelkino. (Pasternak is called “Yuri Kastalnik” in my book.) I scheduled our visit on Sunday May 30th simply because it fitted in with museum opening days — but by an incredible stroke of luck it turns out to be the fiftieth anniversary of Pasternak’s death. On the suburban train from the Kiev station, we have the good fortune to fall in with Elena, who takes us in hand. Elena lives in New Jersey, and knows Yevgeny, Pasternak’s son. She says there is to be a ceremony at the cemetery, and another at the house. She’s worried about being late for the cemetery, so she steers us into a taxi when we get off the train. The driver is young and seems never to have heard of Pasternak, but it’s not very far to the cemetery and we get there with only one illegal U-turn. Unfortunately the cemetery sprawls in all directions, and Elena can’t remember where the grave is. We slip and slither through the mud (it rained last night) and finally find the grave. There are a dozen people there. One is Yevgeny, who at 87 looks exactly like his father.
The group takes it in turns to recite from Pasternak’s poems. They speak well, they are entirely unselfconscious, and they mostly recite from memory. When someone stumbles over a line, the rest chip in to supply the missing words. The atmosphere is fervent. It’s very moving. More and more people arrive. Flowers are laid on the grave. In due course, everyone adjourns to the dacha, further down the road. Elena leaves in a car with the family, and we set out on foot, but after a few hundred yards a car stops beside us and one of the ladies who was at the graveside drives us the rest of the way.
Pasternak’s dacha is an odd oval shape in dark-red wood, surrounded by trees. It’s vaguely evocative of a ship at sea. In Compassion it serves as the setting where my two main characters, Andrei and Nina, are reunited after twenty years apart. Elena has disappeared, so we join an impromptu guided tour. A helpful young man who has lived in England and the States provides a competent English translation. We are the only foreigners there. We see the table where Pasternak wrote Dr. Zhivago, the bed where he took his nap, the dining table where he celebrated the news of his Nobel Prize, the room where he died, the trees he never saw because they were only planted at the end of his life.
And then the priest arrives. We’re bundled into the dining room with everyone else and issued with candles. The priest recites a prayer for the soul of the departed. Chants are provided by a small group of singers. Everyone bows and crosses themselves in the appropriate places. We don’t understand much of what is being said, but it’s all so intense and fervent that it doesn’t matter. After the prayer, we all move outside for a concert. Benches have been placed under the trees for the spectators, who are still appearing in a constant stream. A trio plays Tchaikovsky, a choir of young girls sing, someone reminisces about Boris Leonidovich.
While Vivien attacks the Kremlin next day, I pursue my investigations into literary Moscow. Results are mixed. On Nastasinsky Lane, where the Poet’s Café used to be in the 1920s, there is now a chain restaurant called Dzhon Dhzoly, a Jaguar dealership, and a Subway. Patriarch’s Ponds has been yuppified since Bulgakov’s time: the tram has gone, and there is no sign of the devil. I walk past Beria’s old mansion, which is now the Tunisian Embassy. Skeletons left over from the secret police chief’s orgies were dug up in the garden in 1993. The Writers’ Union, where Mandelshtam and his wife used to go to beg for help, still sprawls luxuriously around a horseshoe-shaped courtyard.
But in the house where the poet Marina Tsvetaeva used to live on Borisoglebsky, the atmosphere is as fond and familiar as at Pasternak’s dacha the previous day. I am the only visitor, and the guide is happy to show me round and answer questions, referring affectionately to Marina and Sergei (Sergei Efron was Tsvetaeva’s husband, and his family provided documents for the museum) as if they were dear friends who had just stepped out. It’s a different world from the commercial glitz, and it clearly has stronger values and deeper roots. It’s a world whose inhabitants know who they are and where they’ve come from. Tsvetaeva doesn’t appear in Compassion, but I borrowed her house for “Kastalnik.”
Osip Mandelshtam, who is the model for “Ilya” in my book, has no house-museum. Unlike the other poets, there isn’t even a plaque on the places where he lived. Admittedly, there were a lot of them. Mandelshtam defied Stalin openly, and refused all compromises with the regime. Too well-known to be killed outright, he was hounded from pillar to post before being shipped off to the camps. He was an outcast during his life, and remains uncommemorated after his death – presumably because there is no family, no money, and no one bringing pressure to bear. On our last day we stop in Zamoskvoreche, across the river from the Kremlin, where he lived for a while. It’s a peaceful little neighbourhood that must have suited him well.
Back in Red Square, we take a look at GUM, the former State Universal Store, merchandise now supplied by Dior and MaxMara, and then splash out on an apéritif in the landmark Hotel Metropol. The bar is a haven of magnificent gloom where multingual businessmen huddle round their laptops in fake leather chairs. Outside, the air is full of puff balls from some mysterious plant.
Click here to learn more about the book, and to buy Compassion in print or e-book form.
Leningrad, 1938. The night is still. The linden trees in the courtyard have fallen silent. In the apartment, nothing moves. The only light comes from the desk lamp at her elbow. She hunches over the paper, pen in hand. The matches are where she always puts them, next to the saucer. If the knock comes, the page can be burned within seconds. All the time she is working, she is listening, straining her ears. It is midnight, but no one is sleeping. The whole of Leningrad is awake, cowering behind closed doors. If she sits very still, she can hear the city breathing.
Cover it with darkness.
She stares at the poem, reciting it in her head, gauging the sound, the rhythm, the choice of words, moving, adding, deleting-
The sound of a car engine slashes the silence. At once she tenses. Her hand creeps across the table towards the matches. She sits immobile in the darkness. The car drives on, the engine fades away. No, they haven’t come for her, not tonight, not yet. She lets out her breath.
Closing her eyes, she begins to recite the poem to herself, over and over, until she is sure she knows every word. Her work is finished. She has one thing left to do. Crumpling the paper into the saucer, she strikes a match. The flame shoots up, bright in the darkness. She puts the match to the paper. Within seconds, it shrinks to ashes in the saucer. The flame dies. The blackness closes in again.
Take away the lanterns.