The son of a close friend of mine is reading anything he can get his hands on, hungry for books that will open his mind. Keen to add to his education, last summer I bought him three to add to his collection: Laurie Lee’s As I walked out one midsummer morning, Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines and Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana. The latter because he was on his way to Cuba.
My friend told me he texted to say that he had been visiting all the sites in Our Man in Havana, all places Greene had visited himself during the 1950’s when he spent time in Cuba. The book coming alive for him in a very real way, just as I hoped it would. A few weeks later his mother called to say it was my fault he had decided to head down to the south of Spain with his guitar over his shoulder, walking some of the way, hoping for a taste of the life he’d read about in As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. He had a destination in mind, a music festival near Barcelona, he’s an extremely accomplished classical guitarist, I felt he would thrive in his intentions (he did) but of course she was worried (I would be). But I’m secretly delighted these books have had this effect on him and besides, Spain is a very different country to the one Laurie Lee found back in the 1930’s and my friend’s son knows Spain, has family there, it’s easier to navigate and survive in. He has a mobile phone and travel is easy, he can get back home in an instant if he wants to. I’ve yet to hear how he found the Chatwin, I wonder if he’ll find his way to Australia…
Jeanette Winterson talks about the salvation that can be achieved through reading. ‘Inside books there is the perfect space,’ she writes in Art Objects, ‘and it is that space which allows the reader to escape from the problems of gravity’. Reading allows us to exceed our limitations, to escape and retreat into other worlds. ‘Walled inside the little space marked out for me by family and class, it was the limitless world of the imagination that made it possible for me to scale the sheer face of other people’s assumptions’ (Winterson, 1995).
After giving the book to my friend’s son, I dug my old copy of As I Walked out One Midsummer Morning and decided to re-read it. I haven’t read I since I was a teenager myself and back then it was one of those early books that opened the world of reading to me – along with Catcher in the Rye (doesn’t stand up to re-reading), Jane Eyre and The Mayor of Casterbridge (both bear much revisiting). My copy of As I Walked out One Midsummer Morning is still in surprisingly good condition with a price of 30p on the back, that’s how long I’ve had it! Every page turned reminded me of how much I liked to travel when I was younger, full of hope and curiously in these times of great fear, only excitement. On the back of reading Lee’s book the same friend and I caught a flight to Malaga with no idea of where we were going to stay, carrying one small rucksack each on our backs. Our flight was delayed, we met an amazing woman at the airport who said we could rent one of her holiday apartments for a pittance. It was old-fashioned but clean and was part of a complex with a swimming pool. We rented a tinny red Fiat, found empty beaches, ate fish fresh from the sea and lived off beer and olives in our little apartment with Julio Iglesias singing on a rubbishy old tape player we found in the kitchen. In her concern for her son my friend has forgotten that now, it’s easy to forget. Those were very different times. Books remind you.
I would revisit Spain many times after that, the most recent in 2008 when I stayed with two young children in a small hotel, El Horcajo, converted from a farm near Grazalema in Andalucia. In my journal written while I was there I find notes on gardens left wild running with limes, zucchini, hens and lizards. ‘Whole days here are spent watching’ I wrote that summer, as I sat beside a cold pool where swallows darted across the surface of the water, ‘the blue belly of the bird reflected on the surface of the water like a small slick of oil’. The journal is important because memory alone cannot be relied on – it must be true because I wrote it down. Must it? I try to filter truth from imagining as I read the words, but it seems to be there is truth both in the facts and the interpretation of them.
What I do remember most about that holiday was the town of Ronda, the deep gorge and the bridge above it from where men, women, children would be thrown to their deaths for disagreeing with the state, sometimes for a crime as slight as the theft of a loaf of bread. During the Spanish Civil War it could barely contain the bodies that were hurled down there and in my notebook I find the beginnings of a story I never finished about someone who remembers being told the story of an ancestor who lived in ‘the wrong place wrong time’ and who was thrown down into this gorge imagining for herself what it must have been like and not be able to find the words to describe it. Sometimes things are beyond words. I never wrote that story.
In my notes I find things I’d forgotten, an account of the old town of Ronda with its ‘cobbled streets with white houses and black wrought iron where at one point we found a student from the Music Academy playing guitar in a tiny square draped in bougainvillea’. I’d forgotten that but I remember it now and see the student sitting there on a low wall, the sound sweet and thin in the heat of the square. I think of my friend’s son making his way to Barcelona with his guitar. I learned classical guitar myself when I was younger and reading about it now in my journal, remembering the sound of it in that place taps in even now to a deep sense of longing, of things forgotten and things waiting to be rediscovered. If I close my eyes now I can hear it again. But if I hadn’t made notes about it I wonder if I would remember it at all?
Or is memory something else? I’m thinking of my friend’s son and his journey to Cuba and to Spain and of the way we remember places we’ve forgotten when we hear about them through someone else’s memories and how they come alive again, as we discover them anew. And I’m thinking about the healing power of art, of music, of writing. It’s different for each one of us. This healing power ‘cuts through noise and hurt, opens the wound to clean it, and then gradually teaches it to heal itself. Wounds need to be taught to heal themselves’ (Winterson, 1995).
Winterson, J. (1995) Art Objects. Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, London: Vintage