Sea and Sardinia – a final excerpt

Before I leave this book I would like to share this piece – it’s so good! It’s a short book and the writing is brilliant. You’d have to read every paragraph twice. It’s a delight for any reader.

And they fell on their soup. And never, from among the steam, have I heard a more joyful trio of soup-swilkering. They sucked it in from their spoons with long, gusto-rich sucks. The maialino was the treble – he trilled his soup into his mouth with a swift, sucking vibration, interrupted by bits of cabbage, which made the lamp start to dither again. Black-cap was the baritone; good, rolling spoon-sucks. And the one in spectacles was the bass: he gave sudden deep gulps. All was led by the long trilling of the maialino. Then suddenly, to vary matters, he cocked up his spoon in one hand, chewed a huge mouthful of bread, and swallowed it down with a smack-smack-smack! of his tongue against his palate. As children we used to call this “clapping”.

“Mother, she’s clapping!” I would yell with anger, against my sister. The German word is schmatzen.

So the maialino clapped like a pair of cymbals, while baritone and bass rolled on. Then in chimed the swift bright treble.

At this rate however, the soup did not last long. Arrived the beefsteaks of pork. And now the trio was a trio of castanet smacks and cymbal claps. Triumphantly the maialino looked around. He out-smacked all.

Sea and Sardinia by D. H. Lawrence – an excerpt

This is an account of the travels of D H Lawrence in Sardinia, with his wife, often referred to as the q-b (the queen bee). I’m not a great fan of Lawrence’s novels but this book is terrific, the writing mesmerising. Here is a short passage to give you a flavour:

And so we steam out. And almost at once the ship begins to take a long, slow, dizzy dip, and a fainting swoon upwards, and a long, slow, dizzy dip, slipping away from beneath one. The q-b turns pale. Up comes the deck in that fainting swoon backwards – then down it fades in that indescribable slither forwards. It is all quite gentle – quite, quite gentle. But oh, so long, and so slow, and so dizzy.

“Rather pleasant,” say I to the q-b.

“Yes. Rather lovely, really,” she answers wistfully.

To tell the truth there is something in the long, slow lift of the ship, and her long, slow slide forwards which makes my heart beat with joy. It is the motion of freedom. To feel her come up – then slide slowly forward, with a sound of the smashing of waters, is like the magic gallop of the sky, the magic gallop of elemental space. That long, slow, waveringly rhythmic rise and fall of the ship, with waters snorting as it were from her nostrils, oh God what a joy it is to the wild innermost soul. One is free at last – and lilting in a slow flight of the elements, wringing outwards. Oh God, to be free of all the hemmed-in life – the horror of human tension, the absolute insanity of machine persistence. The agony which a train is to me, really. And the long-drawn-out agony of a life among tense, resistant people on land. And then to feel the long, slow lift and drop of this almost empty ship, as she took the waters. Ah God, liberty, liberty, elemental liberty. I wished in my soul the voyage might last for ever, that the sea had no end, that one might float in this wavering, tremulous, yet long and surging pulsation while ever time lasted; space never exhausted, and no turning back, no looking back, even.”

This makes me wonder why I try to write at all! Sea and Sardinia is a short book but it is filled with magic writing like the above.

Comings and Goings – twenty years ago!

Being, like Woody Allen, too hostile to drive, I left my son to the airport bus. He was twenty, the first child to cross the sea in any direction, and he was going to America for a year to work in a holiday camp for children. To the Catskill mountains he was going, near New York. I stood on the road until I couldn’t see the bus any more and then I went into town as though it was any old Saturday. At three o’clock, when I knew he’d be taking off, I sat down; I had discovered a new pain in a new place.

Later, I went into his room and looked at the empty bed. I changed the sheets and tidied and cleaned. And then I washed all his clothes and hung them out and took them in and aired and ironed them, and folded them, oh so neat.

Long days later he phoned. He wanted tea-bags, nothing else, just tea-bags, and would I send them? He was having a great time, he said, meeting people from all over the world and he loved the heat and the craic was great but he wanted tea-bags. He said the night he arrived he stood at a balcony window and looked out at New York and he couldn’t stop smiling to himself because he was really there. And the picture of his there, leaning out with hands on the railings and him smiling is still in my head like a lost photograph.

So I got the tea-bags and packed them up and sent them and waited to hear they had arrived. His siblings said it was great; they never had to answer the phone when he was away because I’d have broken bones trying to get there first.

The parcel arrived. He’d be happy now, I thought, and I pictured him in the camp, up in the Catskill mountains with a crowd of children all different colours like in a holy picture, and them all sitting round in a circle drinking tea.

One day in town I looked at a mannequin in a window, and whatever way the head of it was turned or the way I looked at it I got such a sharp, terrible pain. My feet didn’t know where they were and I put a hand to the wall to steady myself.

The months passed and the day came for his return. oh, such cleanings and washings – I had everybody working, and at last, at last, the car arrived and out he got – a stranger, older, tanned, dressed in shorts and sandals – in a place where even on the hottest of hot days the boys sweltered in jeans and runners. He looked like a visitor and for a short while seemed like one.

That was years ago and they have all left and returned many times. You’d think I’d be used to it by now, but I’m not.

Broadcast on Radio Ulster 2006.