Books: Falling Towards England — Fiorenza, Fiorenza |
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Falling Towards England — Fiorenza, Fiorenza


Everything went fine until Milan, because the pilot was making all the hard decisions. After that I was on my own. Immediately people started behaving very strangely. I had already attracted a few sideways glances from some of the Italians on the plane, but here in the actual Italy the Italians stared openly. They formed groups so as to co-ordinate their unblinking scrutiny. At first I thought it was the shoes, but the immigration official couldn’t see them from inside his glass booth, and he stared too. Did I bear a startling resemblance to the lost king Vittorio Emanuele IV? Not too fanciful a notion, because it rapidly became apparent that the focus of interest was the beard. I had the only beard in Italy. (No kidding: the first modern native Italian beards were grown after the Florence floods, still some time in the future.) As I herringboned along in my winklepickers with my beard collecting dust, I must have struck the locals as a failed cross-country skier making fun of Garibaldi.

Another drawback was that nobody spoke English. As I was later to learn, you need only ten words of their language and the Italians will gladly help you with the rest, but at that stage I had only three words and a punctuation mark: ‘Autostrada del Sole?’ I was looking for the Highway of the Sun. When I said this phrase with an interrogative inflection while doing my gestural imitation of a six-lane highway, people crossed themselves. Some of them crossed the street. But a few brave souls pointed the way, so that after about two hours of doing my frog-man walk through the killing midday heat I had reached the highway at a spot where it looked like I might get a lift, if one of the hurtling cars would only stop. After another two hours one did. It had an English driver: a Unilever accountant who said he could take me as far as Piacenza. While I drank two bottles of orangeade out of a six-pack and the entire contents of a flask of mineral water, he explained that it wasn’t just the beard which kept me rooted to the hard shoulder, it was also that hitchhiking was forbidden. Dimly I remembered Françoise having told me that in her last letter. Receiving advice, ignoring it, and then later finding out the hard way how good it was, has been the story of my life. One of these days the Good Samaritan might fail to materialise, or might not have any orangeade with him when he does.

Just outside the Piacenza exit my saviour set me off at a point where I might conceivably pick up another lift south, but he warned me not to bank on it. After an hour and a half of watching Fiats, Lancias and Alfas go by both ways like an exchange of bullets, I got the point and started walking towards town. It was a long way and I was grateful when a three-ton truck heading in that direction slowed down and stopped just ahead. The old hooked thumb had worked at last. When the driver leaned out, he doubled my relief by speaking English.

‘You want a lift?’

‘Yes, actually.’

‘Yes, actually. You from England?’


‘Australia. I hear your accent now. I was in Australia, at the Snowy River Project. I do not like Australians. Here in Italy we do not like the beard. I drive into town, get some of my friends, we come back and fix you good.’

On the other side of the roadside ditch there were cabbages growing among which I hid, but after about another hour it started looking probable that he would not come back, so I began walking again, this time without the extended thumb. The land smelled like piss but that could have been the way I felt. Having to turn my feet sideways even to limp successfully, I had a terrific pain in the ankle, so by the time I got to Piacenza railway station I had barely enough strength left to get my wallet out. Spending all my remaining money on a ticket to Florence was rendered needlessly complicated by the fact that none of the ticket-sellers had ever heard of the place. At last their supervisor showed up and set them straight by informing them that the city they had always referred to as ‘Firenze’ was in reality called Florence. It took a long time to sort out and I missed a train while it was happening, but the next train had a name —accelerato — that sounded fast enough to make up the difference.

It transpired that accelerato was the Italian word for Stopping at every station and going very slowly in between so as not to overshoot’. I arrived at Florence long after dark and reached Françoise’s pensione near the Medici Palace long after that, having frequently lost my way through being obliged to turn around and disperse the crowd following my beard. The landlady took one look at me and immediately appointed herself Françoise’s guardian. I was allowed into Françoise’s cool, terracotta-tile-floored room long enough to wash the dust from my face, but the landlady stood in the doorway with her powerful arms folded and large chin raised high, thereby abetting an already remarkable physical resemblance to Mussolini. I ended up sleeping on the floor of a partitioned-off section of a decrepit palace down behind the Piazza della Signoria. The owner of the flat, a spotty but sweet girl called Barbara, was an old school friend of Françoise’s from Australia. I don’t owe Barbara any money — Françoise paid the rent — but I owe her a lot for her time and concern, and it worries me now that I didn’t realise that then. When I met her again in London the following year, I was short with her, instead of taking the trouble to hark fondly back as she expected. Eventually too many such incidents rankled enough to make me change my ways — to the extent, anyway, of never taking any favours that I would not have time to be grateful for. It sounds like a cold man’s rule and I’m afraid it is, but I was even worse before I thought of it.

My ill-judged arrival had put Françoise in a false position. Nowadays you have to go pretty far south in Italy before you encounter the widespread belief that any foreign girl is a whore unless her father and two brothers drive her around in an armoured car. In those days the whole of Italy was like that. Françoise, clearly a well brought-up girl, had been highly thought of in the pensione and therefore subject only to the usual relentless innuendo from the male guests, actual attempts at molestation and rape being confined to the street, down which, since she did not look notably foreign, she walked at the same hazard as any other presentable woman — i.e., young male pests, known locally as pappagalli, followed her in cat-calling groups, while older male pests appeared suddenly out of doorways or lunged from cars in order to run a lightly touching hand over her bottom and whisper obscenities in her ear. Though all this was standard stuff to which she was well accustomed, I would shout with anger when I saw it happen. I should have been angry with myself, because it was my advent which had ensured that the pensione was no longer her refuge. Françoise was now known to keep open company with a young man not her husband. Moreover, he had a beard, unacceptable shoes and shouted a great deal. The landlady, by dint of a long speech delivered in front of the assembled guests during which she profiled in true il Duce style with her chin as high as her forehead while they burst into spontaneous applause, made it clear to Françoise that I was to be met outside if at all.

To shave off the beard would have reduced the city-wide brouhaha to more manageable proportions, but my dander was up. We radical socialists could always be relied upon to take a stand when there was no hope of budging the status quo and every chance of embarrassing our friends. Françoise would have been well justified in washing her hands of me but she was a born educator. Angry, unbalanced and flailing as I was, I still found the great city opening up before me. She knew just where to take me. In the Uffizi I was stood in front of the Giotto madonna, the Portinari altarpiece by van der Goes, the Leonardo Annunciation and the two wide-screen Botticellis. In the Bargello I met Michelangelo’s Brutus face to face. (He was on the first floor in those days: they put him downstairs after the flood.) To the Accademia for Michelangelo’s slaves and to the Medici chapel for his times of day. Across the river to the Brancacci chapel, where I pretended to see, and perhaps already saw, the difference when Masaccio took over the job of painting the walls. It was Orientation Week all over again: the edited highlights, at which I still might have gagged unless wisely led. But Françoise was a real teacher and for once I was a serious student. It was a serious city. The surf of forgotten faces in the Gozzoli and Ghirlandaio frescoes I might conceivably have laughed off. Michelangelo’s terribilità, when it transfixed me through the stone eyes of Brutus, shook the soul. It was so like being looked at by Françoise’s landlady.

My self-esteem took a battering. Part of being overwhelmed by a big new subject is the shame of realising that you knew nothing about it before. Helping me to feel worse were the twin facts that I ended up alone on Barbara’s floor every night, and that whenever Françoise took me to meet her friends it rapidly turned out that everybody wanted to speak Italian except me. Or, rather, including me, except that I didn’t know how. Up until that time I had been pleased, not to say proud, to remain monolingual. Now came the climb-down. I can even remember the moment. It was at an early-evening drinks party on a grassy little hill behind a big house on the other side of the Arno. The men had their sleeves rolled up in the heat and the women were bare-shouldered in cool silk dresses and high-heeled sandals. Françoise and her friend Gabriella were arguing with Franco, an economics lecturer at Florence University and notable contributor to the kind of film magazine, just then becoming prominent, edited by Bellocchio’s cousin or Bertolucci’s brother. Franco had reacted against Wölflinn’s line on the cinquecento to the extent of proclaiming Andrea del Sarto no good at all, whereas the women thought that the cartoons in the Chiostro della Scala were rather marvellous. I had my own, perhaps half-baked, opinions on this matter, but by the time I had persuaded Françoise to translate them, the conversation had moved on to the merits of Fellini, with specific reference to Otto e mezzo. Franco thought the film a fraud. Gabriella disagreed. Franchise strongly disagreed, as well she might, because we had seen the film together the previous evening, she for the second time and I for the third, although it had been my first time without the aid of subtitles. I disagreed so strongly that I took Françoise aside, not really hurting her arm that much, and urgently briefed her on my position. When we turned back to the conversation, Franco and Gabriella were yelling at each other simultaneously, but I forced Françoise to interrupt them and advance my argument. They greeted it with raised eyebrows and embarrassed shiftings from foot to foot. It was because of the irrelevance of Fellini’s transcendental imagination to the question of who might succeed Palmiro Togliatti as leader of the Communist Party.

Experiencing inarticulacy for the first time since the cradle, I was so frustrated that I dug the toes of my winklepickers into the hill and stood there bouncing with unexploded energy, like a woodchopper on his plank waiting for a signal that never came. That same night, Françoise sat down beside me with a volume of Dante and construed a few lines of the Inferno to begin showing me how the language worked. Per me si va tra la perduta gente. Through me you go among the lost people. A line that crushed the heart, but in the middle of it you could say tra la. It was music.

Thus it was, when I reached Milan on the return journey and was unable to pay the airport tax because of having bought too many cigarettes at the railway station, that I was able, out of my ten-word vocabulary, to come up with the one word required: Disastro! I said it repeatedly with much wringing of hands, until an Indian passenger booked on my flight gave me 1,000 lire and waved aside all talk of repayment. I have liked Indians ever since. The alternative would have been to cast myself on the mercy of the Italian airport police, who all looked as if they were closely related to a certain truck-driver in Piacenza.

Back in London, my problems had not gone away. Indeed while I had been away they had joined forces. Robin was cheesed off with me for some reason; Willis Cruft was accusing me of having cut him off from the petty cash; the builders had not only given up but taken to using the back garden as a storehouse for spare equipment; and Maurice’s mother was on the premises to inform me that I must leave for Glyndebourne immediately. Rapidly adapting Maurice’s dinner jacket to my differently arranged proportions, the grey-haired but energetic Lady Dillwick had her mouth full of pins half the time, but she spent the other half telling me that since Maurice had arranged to take a party to see Capriccio and then decided that he would rather go off to the Côte d’Azur instead, it was up to his substitute to fill in. Lady Dillwick’s decisiveness was aided by her technique of not letting anyone else finish a sentence. This habit was later to be made familiar by Britain’s first woman Prime Minister, but at the time it was a new one on me. As I stood there in my underpants while Lady Dillwick took up her son’s satin-piped black trousers by about six inches, I did my best to disqualify myself for the task. ‘I’m not even sure where Gly...’ ‘Maurice ought to realise that I’ve better things to do with my time than get him out of these messes.’ ‘How will I know wh ...’ ‘Those pointed shoes won’t be suitable at all.’

Maurice’s patent leather pumps were three sizes too big for me so Lady Dillwick padded them with Kleenex. Trepidatiously setting off, I reached the taxi before the heels of the shoes left the house. Lady Dillwick waved me away with an air of ‘There, that’s that taken care of.’ I had begun to get an inkling of why Maurice was the way he was. At Victoria I met my companions for the venture. They were a bald, decrepit avant-garde publisher, his beautiful but plastered interior decorator wife, and his large, ageing, Central American senior editor, a woman who eked out an Elizabeth Bergner voice by wearing wooden jewellery and an ankle-length fur coat — rarely a wise idea in summer, even if the summer is English. On top of daring to import such marginal American writers as Alexander Lobrau (The Beatified Deserters) and Brad Krocus (Absorbent Gauze Swabs and Violators Turned Away), the publisher was currently notorious for staging the first of those Happenings by which London was now establishing its pioneering position of being only just behind New York. I had read about how he had invited fashionable society to a dark room off Shaftesbury Avenue full of actors pretending to be tramps and drunks, through which noisomely struggling mass the perfumed invitees had to find their way while the air filled with finely sprayed water and taped traffic noise. The assembled notables all agreed that this experience was somehow radically and liberatingly different from everyday life in the street outside. Unfortunately the publisher, who like so many promoters of the youth craze was in a state of advanced middle age compounded by bibulous excess, had got the idea that in an ideal world all the Happenings would join together with no intervening periods of the quotidian. He now had the brainwave, for example, of getting down to Glyndebourne without any of us purchasing a train ticket. If you did, you were a spoilsport. I’m sorry to say that I was craven enough to go along with this, instead of doing what I should have done, namely spoiling the sport. When we got off the train it turned out that we had to cheat on the bus too, with each of us pretending that someone else was paying. I was still blushing with shame and fear half-way through the first act of the opera. Then I started paying attention to one of the most hypnotic sounds I had heard in my life. It was the sound of the Central American senior editor, massive in the seat beside me, telling her string of wooden beads like a rosary.

During the picnic dinner at interval my companions all had the chance to have a good laugh about how the emergency stitching in my trousers had started to come adrift. I did my best to divert their attention by explaining that this whole den of privilege and ridiculously attenuated pastiche would be enough reason in itself to start a socialist revolution forthwith. My fervour masked awkwardness. What with the difficulty I was experiencing in keeping my shoes on and my trousers from unfurling like the inadequately reefed sails of a pirate ship with a drunken crew, I had begun to feel a bit self-conscious. But most of the other men present were reassuringly scruffy. Here was my first lesson on the resolutely maintained untidiness and ill-health of the English upper orders. In baggy evening dress and old before their time, they displayed gapped and tangled teeth in loosely open mouths. Gently shedding dandruff, they lurched across the lawn. When they stood at the bar they looked like Lee Trevino putting. Here also would have been my first lesson in opera, but I found the piece too tenuous to grasp except for the Countess’s long soliloquy, during which even the senior editor was charmed into interrupting her death-rattle. Doubtless the way Elisabeth Söderström looked was a help to me in focusing on how she sounded, but I would probably have been captured even had she been less graceful. For a few minutes I got a glimpse into an unsuspected realm of lyrical subtlety. Then the brusque rattling of the wooden beads began again.

Back to Victoria we scaled, one of my trouser legs now forming a black concertina above its canoe-like shoe. That was the night I should have packed it in: random pin money and inappropriate pay-offs did not add up to a salary, and keeping paint-spots off stacked books was the work of a scarecrow. Instead I stuck around. Robin, whose frown of welcome had soon melted into resignation, was there most evenings to cook a meal and help me move the heavier items of builders’ equipment. It was a place to live; it was the sort of sinecure, I told myself, that artists had always taken with a clear conscience; and it was certain that Maurice, when he got back, would be better or at least no worse. So I let another three weeks of lightly disguised idleness go by. Luckily for appearances, if not for my conscience, I was actually hard at work transferring an unsaleable almost complete edition of John Galsworthy out of the way of the plasterers when Maurice’s Jensen announced its arrival outside by ramming the builders’ skip with its left headlight. Tanned the colour of butterscotch and still wearing his Côte d’Azur walking-out dress of rope-soled canvas shoes, lightweight seersucker slacks and a pale-blue T-shirt with a little white anchor, Maurice came bounding up the steps to announce that the positioning of the skip was evidence incontrovertibly establishing the conspiracy between the Piranesi Brothers and the team of Russian spies which MI5 had asked him to keep tabs on in Cannes.

Apparently that was why he had been gone so long. From his unobtrusive vantage point at a table beside the swimming pool in front of the Majestic, he had been surreptitiously photographing the Russian film delegates as they took their constitutional along the Croisette each morning, make sense? Then it had emerged, in response to discreet enquiries, that a beautiful woman called Valentina Pirenucci was booked into the same hotel as the Russians. As Maurice excitedly began telling me about the love affair that he had almost had with her — he was being set up, he could see that now — he pushed a cigarette through the screen of foam joining his lips and lit it more than half-way down, almost at the filter. He looked accusingly at the flaming ruins of the cigarette. Then he looked accusingly at me. He wanted to know what I had accomplished. Apart from getting to Glyndebourne and back alive while dressed as Groucho Marx, I had accomplished nothing, so there was not a lot I could say. He looked at me as if I was part of the conspiracy. He was right. I was. Anyone who did any kind of business at all with Maurice was only helping him further into confusion. The decent thing to do was to get out straight away, and I had not done it. Now, too late, I tried to make up for my opportunism. But I had still not finished packing my bag that night when I heard, drifting along the corridor from Maurice’s locked bedroom, the sound, horribly distorted, of the adagio of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, conducted by Toscanini. Maurice had discovered the final piece of evidence. It all made sense.