10 November 2012

People constantly ask travel writers: where are you going next? They hope to hear about a camel-party in Mongolia. But last week I had to answer blandly: Italy. I travelled with my wife to a friend’s wedding on Lake Orta among the Italian lakes, where the bride arrived by boat at the garlanded jetty of the town hall. There she and her fiancé vowed, according to the quaint-sounding Italian law, to establish their family residence (this sent a shimmer of laughter through the guests — the couple had been cohabiting for years) and educate their offspring. Afterwards I hoped to show my wife the Italian gardens I had loved 40 years ago, but to drive through Lombardy and the Veneto now is to traverse an industrial wilderness. The gardens were hurricane-hit around Como, disintegrating beyond Garda, resplendent at last around Petrarch’s home in the Euganean Hills.

Then there was La Bohème at La Scala: a warhorse of a Zeffirelli production, still magnificent, with Angela Gheorghiu as an ageing Mimi (in a frightful wig). The auditorium, with its scarp of gilded boxes, remains majestic, but the audience was no longer the elegant Milanese haute monde that I remembered from years before. Then, when singers excelled, you could hear the gallery purring like a stroked cat during the arias. Now there was respectful silence. Most striking was the tenor: the hyperactive Vittorio Grigolo — an Italian idol — who bounded onstage for his curtain call, tore open his shirt, plucked out his imaginary heart and tossed it to the audience. His is a sunny, beautifully flexible voice, but I am always, unconsciously, awaiting the next Placido Domingo. Years ago I remember asking the great tenor (I barely met him) whether he had ever sung an evening’s opera to his satisfaction. Never, he replied. What about an aria, I asked, a perfect aria? Again, no. Not an aria, he said, but perhaps one phrase of an aria: a perfect, fleeting phrase.

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Our handkerchief-sized London garden, I like to think, is a glimpse of Italy, with its two putti flanking a wrought-iron gate. I planted it with evergreens against the winter, but we now yearn for intrusive colour, and are bedding in some late clematis. Who, we wonder, will survive the erratic sunlight and the coming frost? My money is on Marie Boisselot (‘pure white flowers with cream anthers in late spring’). My wife favours Blue Angel (‘a constellation of lavender-blue flowers’). Whichever survives, there is always something miraculous about these fragile-seeming stems which struggle invisibly up through our jungle to shock us in the spring.

I address the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association in the crypt of St Martins-in-the-Fields. The association is dedicated to preserving in Rome the house at the foot of the Spanish Steps, where Keats died. This is a flattering but unsettling invitation: I have nothing new to say about the English Romantics. So I regale the audience with my favourite Asian ones — Li Po, Omar Khayyám — to perhaps bewildered applause. In these poets’ homelands, there is little but their graves to honour them. Omar Khayyám, whom Iranians esteem less as a poet than as a mathematician, was always abhorred as an agnostic, and his grave is now unvisited. Soon after his death a disciple found it deep in peach and pear blossom, but now it is covered by a disintegrating and unsightly monument raised in the Shah’s time. There, in the dusk, I was a solitary pilgrim, for today’s puritan state cannot endure him.

I am the (rather surprising) President of the Royal Society of Literature, and I attend one of our events featuring a conversation between Michael Morpurgo and his sensitively probing biographer Maggie Fergusson. He terminates the talk with a robustly delivered folk song, which brings the house down. I resolve to end my next lecture with a Mongolian ballad.

With a party of friends led by his biographer, Artemis Cooper, I walk around Patrick Leigh Fermor’s London haunts. These include the garret-like flat in Shepherd Market from which the great travel writer set out on his 1933–4 journey by foot across Europe. Then I go home to mull over the typescript of the third and final volume of this epic walk. As his literary executors, Artemis Cooper and I are editing this for publication next year. It is an impossible task. It was written as early as 1963 in the torrential flood of words which always preceded his tortuous and repeated revisions (and reimaginings). We cannot produce the book as he would have wished — and nor, during 30 frozen years of silence and rewriting, could he. He died last year, still editing his work. But it will appear at last — as good as we can all get it — next August.

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