Next time, I’m swimming to Calais

Friends in Calais invited me to their baby’s birthday party. He’s a year old. They suggested an overnight stay and I planned to reach France by about mid-afternoon and have a stroll, visit the sights, buy a bit of tat for the nipper and a litre of plonk for the proud parents. Clouds of sweet diesel vapour enveloped me. My pulse quickened. In the 1970s, it all smelt like this The morning express sped me south and I was entertained on board by the Bing-Bong Pixie who referred to the train as ‘this 10.02 service from London Victoria to Dover Priory’. She recited the name of every stop on the line

My (surprisingly) decent proposal

‘Like being chained to a lunatic.’ That’s how a man feels in relation to his libido. And the lunatic latches on to anything, irrationally, and without warning. In Cambridge recently I dropped into a lecture given by a beautiful historian, Lea Ypi, from Albania, whose discourse included this observation about revolutionaries: ‘Once they attain power they lose all interest in revolution.’ Good point. Her blonde hair spilling over her shoulders absorbed far more of my attention than her political reflections and I was desperate to speak to her afterwards, but I had no way to orchestrate a meeting. She raised one eyebrow at me suggestively. This was the cue for

The end of days: It Lasts Forever And Then It’s Over, by Anne de Marcken, reviewed

How do you picture the end of days? ‘When I was alive, I imagined something redemptive about the end of the world,’ muses the unnamed narrator in It Lasts Forever And Then It’s Over. ‘I thought it would be a kind of purification. Or at least a simplification. Rectification through reduction.’ But no: ‘The end of the world looks exactly the way you remember. Don’t try to picture the apocalypse. Everything is the same,’ she continues from her vantage point in an afterlife, brought into vivid existence by Anne de Marcken. It’s telling that the author’s biography states that she ‘lives in the United States on unceded land of the

Scattering my father’s ashes in Santiago de Compostela

We are in the holy city of Santiago de Compostela to scatter our father’s ashes. He and my youngest sister had planned to walk the Camino, which finishes here at the resting place of Saint James, to mark the start of her adulthood and the beginning of his retirement. Instead, my two sisters have been walking the ancient pilgrims’ route for the past few weeks. I’ve flown into the city to meet them at the end. Most of Dad’s ashes went into a smart Regency tea caddy. The funeral directors had offered us a standard-issue urn but we decided he’d prefer something jolly and Georgian. The lacquered box didn’t quite

Why I had to let go of my late sister’s house

On the window ledge of my sister Carmel’s bedroom there’s a tray of cards inscribed with the months of the year, days of the week and numbers from 1 to 31. If you can be bothered to adjust the display every morning, you’ll have what’s called a ‘perpetual calendar’. I need to remember that I already have drawers full of Thompson memorabilia Sunday 3 October 2021 was the day Carmel’s calendar stopped being perpetual. That morning she woke up with a fever so alarming that her next-door neighbour called an ambulance. Before it arrived, Carmel changed the calendar; then she kissed goodbye to Otto, her Norfolk terrier, walked downstairs and

That sinking feeling: The Swimmers, by Julie Otsuka, reviewed

Julie Otsuka has good rhythm, sentences that move to a satisfying beat. Even as her tone shifts — from tender to funny to cynical to sinister — the beat goes on uninterrupted. In this, her third novel, the narrative has a steady flow. The Swimmers traces the cracks that develop in an underground pool, and in a woman’s mind, and the slow and unavoidable deterioration of both. It opens with an introduction to the pool that reads like a guided tour from the swimmers themselves. We learn about their rituals: ‘Some of us have to swim 100 laps every day, others… until the bad thoughts go away (Sister Catherine, lane

Bird-brained: Brood, by Jackie Polzin, reviewed

This is not a novel about four chickens of various character — Gloria, Miss Hennepin County, Gam Gam and Darkness — that belong to the nameless narrator of Brood. That is incidental. It is a novel about a miscarriage — ‘our baby had been a girl’ — and, because it is a novel about the loss of a child pretending to be a novel about chickens, it is a brilliant novel about chickens. They have a biographer now, but they can’t be grateful, and that is why she loves them. ‘By the time a snowflake has landed, snowflakes are all a chicken has ever known.’ Or: ‘Gloria is wedded to

Mourning sickness: our conspiracy of silence over grief

No one can say that, over the course of the past year, we have not had the opportunity as a country to practise the grim arts of grief and mourning. We all know the figures — 127,000 Covid deaths and counting — but I wonder if, in the face of this onslaught, we have lost sight of the vital fact that behind each loss there will be a group of family members and close friends of the deceased setting out on the long, slow trudge down the boggy path of grief. How are we dealing with this suffering? When my father died extremely suddenly six years ago, there was one

The importance of a good funeral

In ITV’s otherwise terrible drama Finding Alice, one line struck me with particular force. A funeral director is addressing our heroine, who finds herself unexpectedly having to organise last rites for her partner. Wicker coffins are particularly popular now with relatives, says the undertaker, and I found myself nodding in strong agreement. A light woven coffin, made of pleasingly biodegradable material and topped with a simple but stylish cross of early spring flowers, was exactly what we selected for my father, to be buried in one of the last remaining — and therefore highly sought-after — spots in the churchyard. ‘This might sound a very odd thing to say,’ said

The art of mourning well

Malindi, Kenya I’ve learned that mourning must be tackled ever so gently. As a younger man, when friends were killed in Africa’s wars I’d become angry and drink. When Dad died I cut adrift in Yemen for a time. Following Mum’s death a month ago, I decided to stay quietly at her home on the beach. The Kaskazi monsoon whirls through the house and white horses roar on the reef. Soon after dusk the memories appear more vivid than in daylight and these parade through my fitful sleeps until dawn, when I can at last get up and trek along the foreshore among ghost crabs and sandpipers. Each morning I

‘People confuse sadness with darkness’: the complicated world of Mary Gaitskill

In the early 1990s, the American novelist Mary Gaitskill suffered an abrupt awakening. ‘I lived in New York, I didn’t have a television, I didn’t listen to the radio. I didn’t even read magazines or newspapers very often. I was really too preoccupied with my own existence, which was hand to mouth a lot of the time,’ she says. ‘But when I was a little better off, I began to pay attention. I did get a TV. I did listen to the news a lot. And I was just like, holy shit. What a weird fucking world.’ What particularly astonished her, she says, is how central the fashion industry had

Today’s undergraduates are customers – and the customer is always right

If you’re looking for a sign of the academic times, you could do worse than consider the image, published in newspapers recently, of Mr Chan King Wai at a solemn ceremony in China last year. There is Mr Chan, grinning stiffly but with real pride, dressed in a scholar’s cap with a gold tassel, and a red and shiny purple gown. Around his neck, a little incongruously, is a stripy Brideshead-type scarf. He looks like he has presented himself for Oxbridge theme week on RuPaul’s Drag Race. He is showing a certificate to the camera. Holding the other end of the certificate, and mustering more of a grimace than a

She was just a damn cat – and I loved her

I’ve never dug a grave before. But that was how I spent my Sunday afternoon. Three feet is awfully deep to dig, and three feet is how deep you have to go if you don’t want foxes to turn a little tragedy into a horror-comedy. I laboured till the head of the spade went out of sight. My children were eating burgers from the barbecue a few feet away, and I worried that they might guess what I was up to. Thank God for the heroic incuriosity of children. I told the youngest something about planting a tree and it seemed to satisfy him. The truth would have been ‘planting