I am re-reading D.H. Lawrence’s Sea and Sardinia. The opening line runs: ‘Comes over one an absolute necessity to move…’ He expands on the dilemma (I paraphrase): you are afflicted by wanderlust, you want to move, you don’t have any money, you’ve only recently moved but for some reason you want to move again. It is, for example, England in deep midwinter and it has been raining solidly for six weeks. Deracination is an occupational advantage of being a writer, which is otherwise a pretty absurd profession. Writers can live anywhere, or everywhere, or, at times, nowhere…
For a while I lived in an airless flat in Alphabet City, New York, when it was still a seedy neighbourhood, and the only people with mobile phones were drug dealers and pimps. When the roof fell down I ended up in a charming dive opposite the Brooklyn Museum, where broken English gurgled through the walls. I spent a year in Sentier, the old garment district of Paris. Each morning the workers dragged trolleys full of gaudy cloth along the cobbled streets, so the age-warped windows rattled, so the entire arrondissement rattled, so your teeth rattled in your head, so you retired for the night bone-jangled and weary, as if you’d run for miles. In St Petersburg I lived with an aphoristic babushka, who gave me a piece of advice I have tried to ignore: ‘Women are nothing. Absolutely nothing. You may as well give up now.’ Tallinn was smothered in Baltic fog, everything indistinct and monochrome. In wintry Oslo the nights were long and the days pallid, but from my flat it was a short tram-ride to the Nordmarka wilderness — vast tracts of silence. In Treptow Park, Berlin, I overdosed on W.G. Sebald, the flat was correspondingly drenched in ghostly miasma; I didn’t stay long. In South Africa I tried to finish a much-postponed novel, disturbed only by the evening madrigals of frogs. Meanwhile, clouds plumed across the mountains, stained vermilion by the setting sun.
I currently live in Oxfordshire, in a cottage near the village of Rousham. This is a fine place to pause for a while as the gardens of Rousham House, designed by William Kent, are so beautiful and strange. You walk along an avenue of gnarled apple trees, past a display of topiary and on to a great lawn, with the blank-windowed house behind you. Then you go downhill towards a bend in the River Cherwell, into a sunken, wooded vale, where statues of Bacchus and Pan stand around a weed-green pond. The atmosphere of the upper garden is ceremonial; in the lower garden everything is ‘gather ye rosebuds while ye may’. At present the vale is partly under water, as the Cherwell has flooded again. Yet it is not long now until the banks of the river will be scattered with snowdrops, then primroses and celandines.
My German editor sends festive tidings. German publishers, I now know, write delightful Christmas cards filled with warm wishes. American publishers ignore all your pathetic, needy attempts at communication — they treat you like sorghum, or some other agricultural product traded on a Chicago exchange — unless, I’m told, you make them a fortune or win the Nobel Prize, when they send a brief, congratulatory note, fact-checked and then signed by their secretary. English publishers are, these days, mostly apocalyptic, head in hands, guilty Kindle habit concealed beneath a pile of unread manuscripts. Aware that these are wild generalisations based on nothing more empirical than personal experience, I wrote to ask my American editor for her thoughts. Do emails go more slowly during the Christmas season? I’m sure I’ll hear from her soon…
I have been pondering how to dress myself as a blue-tongued mango vole from the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills. This is not in order to atone for publisher-bashing and peripatesis. Nor have I been forced at gunpoint to read and enact scenes from Pippa Middleton’s Celebrate. A friend of mine has organised a New Year’s Eve party aboard the MS Stubnitz. The dress code is ‘beastly attire’. The MS Stubnitz is an ex-East German fishing vessel, built 1964, which has, since 1992, been a ‘moving platform for cultural research and exchange’. It was invited to London as part of the development of the Thames-side Pleasure Gardens, but that collapsed into ruination, so the Stubnitz was stranded. It is moored at Connaught Bridge, Docklands. All donations gratefully accepted, no doubt, or if someone wants to kit it out as a moving refuge for impecunious writers then I am sure that would be a very good thing too.
If the storm rages any harder and the prospect of schlepping all the way to Canary Wharf becomes less enticing then I will wander the sunken dells of Rousham. The blue-tongued mango vole costume will surely come in handy for another day, another beastly party. Old Time is still a-flying. Happy 2013.
Joanna Kavenna’s books include The Ice Museum and Come to the Edge.
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