First Impressions

In which I take the plunge and read the first few pages of The Way By Swann’s, Book 1 of In Search of Lost Time.  

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Right. It’s time to begin. My friend Patrick’s words about all my background reading being a displacement strategy are starting to burn a hole in the back of my head. It’s time to put down the de Botton and the White and start this properly.

I read the first seven or eight pages of The Way By Swann’s in the armchair in the bay window of my room, looking out onto St Ives Harbour at sunrise, the Godrevy Lighthouse a vivid tower of white in the far distance.

“For a long time, I went to bed early. Sometimes, my candle scarcely out, my eyes would close so quickly that I did not have time to say to myself: ‘I’m falling asleep.’ And, half an hour later, the thought that it was time to try and sleep would wake me; I wanted to put down the book I thought I still had in my hands and blow out my light; I had not ceased while sleeping to form reflections on what I had just read, but these reflections have taken a rather peculiar turn; it seems to me that I myself was what the book was talking about….”

I immediately exhale, and prompt myself to slow down. These are long, luxuriant sentences, describing what poet Michael Roberts once called “the long unhurried diligence of childhood”, and there’s no need for me to rush, especially here.

I always pay particular attention to the opening pages of novels. As every new book is an uncharted country, the first few pages are critical to help us orient ourselves to our new surroundings. We search like detectives for clues: Where are we? What is happening? Who is speaking? And where am I, the reader, placed within all of this?

Walter Ong, the American academic, wrote a wonderful essay in the mid-1970s, The Writer’s Audience Is Always a Fiction, about the way in which writers “fictionalise” their readers, assigning them (that is, us) a place in the order of things. “A reader has to play the role in which the author has cast him”, Ong writes, explaining that readers of fiction “have had to learn this game of literacy, how to conform themselves to the projections of the writers they read, or at least how to operate in terms of those projections.” The rules of the game are seldom explicit – fiction writers seldom address their readers directly – and so the reader’s work takes place instantly, often sub-consciously, by picking up “implicit signals” in the text.

Ong recalls the opening sentences of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms. Hemingway, who Ong calls “a specialist in unpublished directives for readers”, uses the definite article (“the”) to cast the reader in the role he wants them to play:

“The late summer of that year,” the reader begins. What year? The reader gathers that there is no need to say. “Across the river.” What river? The reader apparently is supposed to know. “And the plain.” What plain? “The plain” – remember? “To the mountains.” What mountains? Do I have to tell you? Of course not. The mountains – those mountains we know. We have somehow been there together. Who? You, my reader, and I? The reader – every reader – is being cast in the role of a close companion of the writer…. He [the reader] is a companion-in-arms, somewhat later become a confidant. It is a flattering role. Hemingway readers are encouraged to cultivate high self-esteem.

Proust adopts the same air of cosy familiarity, as he describes the frustration and disorientation of being unable to sleep. Ong writes of Hemingway that “[h]e can tell you what was going on inside him and count on sympathy, for you were there. You know.” The same is true, I think, of Proust. We’re immediately his intimate companions, to whom he’s relating his experiences. Perhaps he’s slouching louchely in the empty armchair next to the one I sit in now, whispering  his story in my ear.

I’m immediately struck by the vividness and colour of the Narrator’s sense-world: waking in the night, he is “amazed to find a darkness around me soft and restful for my eyes, but perhaps even more so for my mind, to which it appeared a thing without cause, incomprehensible, a thing truly dark.” In three lines, he’s managed to summon the senses of touch (“soft”) as well as sight. He’s also alluded to his agitated emotional state on waking, and being comforted by the “soft and restful darkness”, to which he ascribes a mysterious kind of persona – both “a thing” and yet something greater than that, beyond his limited understanding. We’re not yet aware of who the Narrator is, but already we’ve learned something about his extraordinary sensitivity to the physical world.

In his next breath, the Narrator hears “the whistling of the trains” (What trains? The trains. The narrator lives near a train station?) which send him into a random strand of his imagination:

“…remote or near by, [they]… described to me the extent of the deserted countryside where the traveller hastens towards the nearest station; and the little road he is following will be engraved on his memory by the excitement he owes to new places, to unaccustomed activities, to the recent conversation and the farewells under the unfamiliar lamp that follow him still through the silence of the night, to the imminent sweetness of his return.”

This is an extraordinary beautiful piece of writing, and feels weightless, but  in fact achieves a number of things in a single, subtle moment. We infer that the Narrator has been a traveller, and has experienced the “excitement” of “new places and unaccustomed activities”. Given that we know he is in bed and unable to sleep, the image gives us a clue into his current state of mind. Perhaps he wants to be a traveller again, out of his bed and in the world. Perhaps he sees sleep as a journey which he wishes to enter again with the confidence of this imaginary traveller. Perhaps he doesn’t identify with the traveller at all, and is distracted by the reminder of journeys and noise and the world outside, a state of energy at odds with the desire to sleep. His final reference to “the imminent sweetness of his return” peals like a bell – for this traveller, or for the Narrator, perhaps the pleasure of travel comes chiefly from the return to the familiar, just as falling asleep returns us to a pleasurable state that we are always trying to get to.

We read on, noting the Narrator’s use of the past tense – “I would go back to sleep”, reporting an experience that is long past but seems to have happened frequently enough to be noteworthy. The Narrator appears to have an extraordinarily vivid recall of his dreams. While sleeping, he is “effortlessly returned to a for ever vanished period of my early life”. Later, he has a quasi-erotic dream of a woman who “was born during my sleep from a cramped position of my thigh” and to whom he wishes to devote himself to finding again.

He seems to understand instinctively the way in which sleep and dreams destabilise us, playing as they do on the outskirts of our consciousness:

“… when I woke in the middle of the night, since I did not even know where I was, I did not even understand in the first moment who I was; all I had, in its original simplicity, was the sense of existence as it may quiver in the depths of an animal; I was more bereft than a caveman…”

It’s a strangely revealing insight into a person (we assume, a man) who we as yet know nothing about. We don’t know who he is, and he reports that, when waking from sleep, his identity and orientation are equally as befuddled as we are. If all new books are like waking from a dream, perhaps this is the Narrator’s (and Proust’s) way of reassuring us: we are all like infants waking in the dark, he says – just trust me and I will show you through the darkness with the depth and power of my perceptions.

The Narrator teases us, gently, by recalling past beds in which he has been unable to sleep, listing his bed in his grandparents’ house in a place called Combray (presumably when he was a child?) and another room “at Mme de Saint-Loup’s, in the country“, where he goes out only at night. We’re unaware of what these details portend, though at this stage it’s unimportant – what is important is that we understand the Narrator’s tiredness, his confusing, and his mind’s tracking back into memories of his past.

He is a man who appears to be exquisitely sensitive to the subtleties of the smell and feel of bed linen, the warmth or coolness of the air in his room, and the sense of warmth, physical and emotional, when we lie warm in bed on a cold night, “separated from the outdoors (like the swallow which makes its nest deep in an underground passage in the warmth of the earth)….” So sensitive is this loquacious insomniac that even bedroom furniture can conspire to ruin his composure: “from the first second I had been mentally poisoned by the unfamiliar odour of the vetiver, convinced by the hostility of the violet curtains and the insolent indifference of the clock chattering loudly as though I were not there”. It’s a wonderful characterisation of an oppressively over-decorated bedroom, presumably from an earlier era.

The word “veviter” is, my Kindle tells me, a 19th century French word describing a fragrance from essential oils used in perfumery. I recall a book from my childhood – Anne of Green Gables, I think – where a withering matriarch boils bedsheets in orris root to sterilise them and make them smell sweeter. It’s another faint clue to establish which period of time the Narrator is referring to, or may be in in the present moment.

Over time, the Narrator relaxes, until “habit” makes the hideous bedroom appear benign. Habit, he says, is a “skilful but very slow housekeeper” whom we are “very happy to find, for without habit and reduced to no more than its own resources, our mind would be powerless to make a lodging habitable.” 

Slowly and just as skilfully, the Narrator has solved the problem of his own insomnia, and also revealed his intentions to us. Far from being a random musing on not being able to sleep, he is letting us into his secret treasure-trove of knowledge about the way our senses perceive, and how our mind works both to retain our sense-memories and forget them, so that we might live and not go mad. As stimulating as the Narrator’s keen eye and quick brain are, he seems almost grateful that his mind has a limit, though sad at losing an opportunity to notice the beauty and mystery in everything.

* * *

I close my book. This feels like more than enough for now. It’s time to head out, roll down the hill to the harbour side, and to my favourite cafe, Beachcombers, for a cream tea.

There’s an ongoing debate here as to whether jam is applied first to the scone, followed by the clotted cream; or whether the cream goes on first, like butter, with the jam on top. The proprietor, a friendly man with the ruddy complexion of a sea-dweller, tells me that jam-first-then-cream is “the way they do it in Devon”. He looks around suspiciously and sniffs, as if checking for eavesdroppers. The Only Way Is Cornwall, apparently, where jam is applied first and is then smothered with a thick layer of the clotted cream, which is so stiff that it acts as a kind of cement, soldering the jam in so that it can’t escape. I note that with the Cornish way, you can get a lot more cream on the scone. “That’s why we loi-ke it loi-ke that,” he says to me with a wink.

Cream teas are indeed a great English tradition. I agree with Henry James, another transplanted foreigner who became a naturalised Brit, who writes in the opening lines of The Portrait of A Lady: “Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”

* * *

Dinner is at The Seafood Cafe, a friendly family-owned restaurant where the fish is displayed in a huge counter at the front – you point to whatever fish you want, and then a charming waitress whisks it away to the kitchens for you. I go for the Dover sole, which comes perfectly grilled and served with silky hollandaise sauce, a sculpted mound of crushed new potatoes and a rocket salad. It’s divine.

I raise my empty wine glass, which the waitress has left at my table though I’m just drinking mineral water, to Proust, who ordered grilled sole on his death bed but was in too much discomfort to be able to eat it once it arrived. I have no such problems, but attack it with the gusto of a dying man.

Grilled sole is, I realise, a very Proustian dish to eat. You must take your time to work the fish bones slowly away from the flesh, and eat slowly, chewing your food so as to beware of stray bones. It’s so delicious I’m torn between the desire to hoover it up immediately, and take my time and savour it so that the yumminess lasts longer. I’ve never been very good with delayed vs immediate gratification, so this new “slow eating” thing may take some time to get used to.

* * *

After a stroll along the harbour front in the rain, I’m back to my room, like Proust’s Narrator, similarly delighted to be inside in the warm and separated from the driving rain that’s just come down.

Before bed, I unwind by watching the 1974 movie of The Murder On the Orient Express. It’s aged reasonably well – as it’s set in the 1930s, it seem quite as anachronistic as films from the 1970s with people wearing Afros and flares. The recent past always seems like science fiction to us, in a way that the more antiquated past of Proust’s era or the Jazz Age seem much more appealing. The film itself is camp old nonsense, filled with some very classy stars (Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave) hamming it up with some very bad acting. The very young and very beautiful Michael York and Jacqueline Bisset also pop up, their close-ups heavily airbrushed. How odd to think that they were such huge stars in the 1970s, and practically unheard of now – though I did enjoy Bisset’s car crash acceptance speech at this year’s Golden Globes.

Anthony Perkins gives a bizarre but not unamusing performance as a flouncy, scarf-wearing ” bachelor”, and there’s a severe German maid with bleach blond hair who looks as though she did time in Prisoner. I always enjoy these flashes of pink and lavender in Agatha Christie’s fiction. Though her gay characters seem stereotyped today, she was, in her own quietly subversive way, an expert revealer of the nasty little secrets lurking within polite English society.

As a final point, I’m amazed by how much Albert Finney’s Poirot looks like photos of Proust, though his moustaches are impeccably waxed and much tidier than Proust’s would have been. The English diplomat Harold Nicholson reports him looking like a scarecrow when he met him in Paris in the 1920s.

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The Sea, The Sea

In which I go to St Ives for the weekend, eat a lot of clotted cream and start my Proust reading marathon.

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My first non-working Friday coincides beautifully with a trip I’ve had booked to St Ives in Cornwall. It’s a long journey – six hours all up – but an easy trip: a single train from London all the way to St Erth, just before Penzance, and then a cute little toy train that winds around the peninsula to St Ives, giving spectacular views of the sea. I’m up early to get the 7.30am train from Paddington. It’s another glorious morning, hot and sunny. I hope the good weather will follow me, though the forecasts look more apocalyptic. Once on board, I settle in to finish the Edmund White, which is as light and tasty as a freshly baked macaron.

I don’t usually read biographies, as I find they tell you more about the biographer than the subject. This one I’ve liked enormously. Write’s writing is so poised, but with a very American earnestness and diligence. He’s so keen to be understood, so eager that you see The Point. His writing is filled with explanatory notes in parentheses, in the manner of a hairdresser talking hurriedly for whom it’s absolutely essential that you don’t miss anything. He has a bad habit of laying out a joke, and then panicking and explaining it, again just in case the reader Doesn’t Get It. Some readers might find this exhausting, but I find it rather endearing – perhaps because my own writing has the same meandering and slightly defensive quality. White is an author who likes to tell-tell-tell, which makes him a natural fit for Proust.

In his conclusion, White gives not one but three verdicts as to Proust’s significance and why we continue to read In Search of Lost Time. Though he sounds a bit like a snack oil salesman trying to convince a reluctant customer to buy the elixir of youth, he presents a stimulating array of ideas.

He describes Proust as “a literary cyclops” – a lovely image, though he ruins it by then explaining the pun: “he was a creature with a single great ‘I’ at the centre of his consciousness”. White says that in this modern age of memoirs, Proust reigns supreme:

“[T]he intensely intimate (if not always personal) quality of Proust’s novel makes him more and more popular…. Every page of Proust is the transcript of a mind thinking… the fully orchestrated, ceaseless, and disciplined ruminations of one mind, one voice: the sovereign intellect.”

White becomes romantic and whimsical, as he is wont to do, imagining Proust as “our Scheherazade”, though presumably without the imminent fear of death by beheading if we’re not amused.

“Proust may be more available to readers today than in the past because as his life recedes in time and the history of his period goes out of focus, he is read more as a fabulist than a chronicler… We no longer measure his accounts against a reality we know. Instead we read his fables of caste and lust, of family virtue and social vice, of the depradations of jealousy and the consolations of art not as reports but as fairy tales.”

There is a certain camp appeal to Proust’s recalling of Belle Epoque-era aristocracy, but this doesn’t quite get at why he’s so revered. After scrabbling around, White comes up with this, which I think is rather fine:

“Modern readers are responsive to Proust’s tireless and brilliant analyses of love because we, too, no longer take love for granted…. Proust is the first contemporary writer of the twentieth century, for he was the first to describe the permanent instability of our times.”

White succeeds where de Botton fails, by trying to describe the Proust-ness of Proust, and illuminating the man and his work in a way that makes you want to read Proust. It’s a highly satisfying read.

* * *

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It’s raining heavily when I arrive in St Ives, but it’s still lovely to be here. I first came here seven years to see the lighthouse Virginia Woolf describes in To The Lighthouse. I fell in love with the white sandy beaches, the rugged surf of the Atlantic, the magnificent sunsets, and the artistic community here, and since then I’ve been back every year.

Being here, you can understand the case to be made for Cornish Independence. St Ives is unlike any other part of the UK I’ve been to, and at times doesn’t even feel like  part of the modern world. The town has a Boots and a Subway, but little else in the way of chain stores. It milks the “quaint seaside town” aesthetic for all it’s worth – doors are painted blue, and there’s chintz and clotted cream served with everything – but there’s something else here too: a wildness in the landscape, a pleasure in the slow pace of things, a respect for beauty.

St Ives is strongly identified with the visual arts, and artists from Turner to Whistler have been lured here by its dramatic landscapes and ever-changing light. The post WWII St Ives School of abstract impressionists, led by painter Ben Nicholson and sculptor Barbara Hepworth, ushered in modernism, even drawing skeptics like Francis Bacon into their fold. (There’s a great anecdote about Bacon moving here to paint in the early 1960s, but leaving early after having an ugly fist fight with his white trash boyfriend in the main street, losing a tooth in the process). The potter Bernard Leach and his family created an austere, rough-hewn form of ceramics, inspired by Japanese pottery, that broke with the Northern English tradition of glazed and heavily decorated pottery.

The arts movement is still strong here, though trades mostly in nostalgia these days. You can visit the Leach pottery studio, and Hepworth’s studio and sculpture garden is now owned by the Tate, who also have an extraordinary lighthouse shaped gallery on Porthmoer Beach. There are loads of other galleries in the town, though most of them selling the kind of twee watercolours of seagulls and sunsets that you can buy at Camden Market.

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I’m staying at Little Leaf Guest House. I first stayed here many years ago when it was owned by two middle-aged lesbians, who were very nice, though things were somewhat Spartan. The current owners, Danny and Lee, two emigres from London, took over a few years ago and refurbished the house extensively, putting in power showers and making things feel more luxurious. I have what I think is their best room, with a bay window looking out over the harbour. It’s big and comfortable enough to be able to sit here all weekend if the weather is bad, which it looks to be.

I inhale some scones and then go for a windswept walk on Porthmeor Beach, while the sea spray splashes my specs. The upside is that there’s almost no one on the beach – just a few hardcore surfers being supervised by some cute sunburnt lifeguards. Then it’s back to the B&B to dry off and do some reading and writing.

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Dinner is at my favourite fish restaurant, The Seafood Cafe. I have Cornish sole with hollandaise sauce, new potatoes and a rocket and parmesan salad. It’s insanely good to eat fresh fish again, which tastes completely different from the shrink wrapped Icelandic cod they sell in M&S: it’s fleshy, salty, briny and soft in texture. de Botton writes that Proust ordered a dinner of grilled sole on his deathbed, though he was too unwell to eat it when it arrived. (I wonder if Celeste demolished it herself in a quiet moment). It’s a dish that requires a Proustian approach: you need to eat slowly and deliberately, savouring each mouthful while you check for stray bones, and working carefully to pry away the fish skeleton to get to the flesh on the underside. It’s divine.

Like a madman I refuse dessert and take a stroll along the harbour side in the night rain. I’ve managed to come to St Ives without a decent raincoat, waterproof shoes or an umbrella, but I did bring along my Japanese teapot and four books about Proust. No one can say I don’t have my priorities straight.

Between courses, I read the first seven pages of The Way By Swann’s, also making sure to take my time. There’s much more to say, but I’m enchanted immediately: what gorgeous writing, what penetrating insights into the moment-by-moment state of consciousness of the insomniac mind, what poetic yet grippingly evocative use of metaphor, and what a stately assurance and ease it flows along with. I’m hooked. It has begun!

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A trip to the Provinces

In which I go to Birmingham, read some more Edmund White and am reminded of the pleasures of living in the big dirty city.

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Though Proust’s self-discipline as a writer was formidable, his experiences in paid employment weren’t as successful. Proust spent three years studying the law, but after two weeks’ work experience in a solicitor’s office, he exclaimed “In my most desperate hours, I have never conceived of anything more horrible than a law office”.

I have this antipathy in mind when I have to get up at 5am to get an early train to  a law office in Birmingham. On the upside, I get to see the early morning sunrise, which is glorious. It’s 5.45am and nearly 20°C. Today London is supposed to reach temperatures of 27°C, making it hotter than parts of the Mediterranean. The English always get excited by stories like this, which speaks to the contrarian and paradoxical relationship they have with the weather: it’s both a constant source of complaint or something to be defended patriotically from the criticisms of Eurotrash and Antipodean parvenus like me.

The Tube is spookily empty, like a post-apocalypse movie. It’s extraordinary to think that in an hour it will be packed with commuters, sweating discreetly as they hustle for a place in a crowded carriage. Whenever I travel at this time of day, I’m always amazed at how many people are actually moving around: cleaners and service industry workers, bankers who need to be in the office for the opening of international markets, early morning gym bunnies. London is truly a 24 hour city, even if the public transport and restrictive laws about Sunday trading don’t reflect this. How fascinating it will be to see the city come alive when London Underground open all night on weekends from 2015 onwards.

The Virgin train service to Birmingham is fairly prompt – just an hour and a half. I sneak in another quick chapter of White before settling down to breakfast and some prep.

* * *

One of the pleasures of White’s book is his reverence and respect for Proust, coupled with a playful tugging on Proust’s coat sleeves. Like a dutiful biographer, White notes Proust’s dislike of autobiographical literary criticism, and then blithely proceeds to assess Proust’s writing in relation to his life. It’s done with a lightness of touch, though unlike earlier biographers, White isn’t afraid of rapping on Proust’s closet door and bidding him to come out. White takes Proust’s homosexuality as a given – no more or less extraordinary than his Jewish ethnicity or his chronic asthma attacks, and he gives In Search of Lost Time the queering that it deserves.

White identifies Albertine as a composite of a number of Proust’s love-interests over the years – mostly straight working class men who Proust was besotted with and bribed with money, gifts and employment to keep them around. It seems extraordinary now that past biographers still made the case for Proust’s heterosexuality. George Painter, Proust’s first English biographer, writes in Marcel Proust: A Biography (1959-64) that when Proust “migrated to the Cities of the Plain” – that is, when he became a homo –  “he took with him a prisoner crushed between the weight of Time and Habit, a buried heterosexual boy who continued to cry unappeased for a little girl lost.” White politely salutes Painter’s work, and then shoots him down in flames: “I would suggest that Proust’s exclusively homosexual sexual experience might suggest that the only little girl he was crying over was inside him.”

I’m pleased that Proust finally got a biographer who understands the workings of Proust’s homosexuality, and who can parse the powerplays and doublespeak that goes on in the closet. To his credit, White doesn’t overplay the Freud-by-numbers analysis (as he does with himself in his autobiographical writing) and he recognises that In Search of Lost Time is art, not just therapy.

That being said, White does reveal some bizarre stories about Proust’s conflicted sexuality. Case in point: the Romanian Prince Antoine di Bibesco met Proust at a salon and described him as having eyes of ‘Japanese lacquer’ and a hand that was ‘dangling and soft’. He later instructed Proust on how to shake hands “with a virile grip”. Proust replied, ‘If I followed your example, people would take me for an invert.’ White reads this as”

“an indication of how devious the thinking of a homosexual of the period could become – a homosexual affects a limp handshake so that heterosexuals will not think he is a homosexual disguising himself as a hearty hetero – whereas in fact he is exactly what he appears to be: a homosexual with a limp handshake.”

Despite the many layers of disguise and gender-recasting, White makes a case for Proust as a great truth-teller. Proust himself said Proust says: “I very much wish to finish the work I’ve begun and to put in it those truths that I know will be nourished by it and that otherwise will be destroyed by me.” White gives him the benefit of the doubt, arguing:

“Proust’s strategies of disguise and transposition must still begin and end with a highly specific recollection of his own feelings and sensations. In that sense, involuntary memories represent the truth in Proust’s process of composition, the bare face that he must later paint with invention.”

White concludes that it is Proust’s “fidelity to truth” that has secured his reputation as one of the twentieth century’s greatest novelists:

“This truth telling – joined to his long sentences, his many comparisons, his resolution to mine every last ounce of gold from a subject – is what made his writing seem old fashioned to his contemporaries and renders it eternally fresh to us.”

* * *

Birmingham isn’t my favourite city. My trip is mercifully short, as I’m only here to speak at a seminar, and then straight back on the train. How wonderful it is to emerge from the Tube and Old Street and be back in Shoreditch on a sunny summer’s day. The hipsters out in full glory – waxed moustaches, skateboards, tattoos, no socks – but somehow it seems marvellous rather than pretentious and mildly irritating. There’s nothing like a trip to the provinces to remind yourself that many Londoners, like I did, left their small towns and moved to the Big Smoke in search of adventure, and more crucially, the right to be the lead characters in their life stories that they couldn’t be in their hometowns. And so I decide to salute the hipsters – just this once – for being there.

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I then inhale a quiche and salad lunch box from the wonderful cafe Salvation Jane, followed by a coffee from Ozone just around the corner. My favourite barista, a young, softly-spoken blonde girl, is on today, and she makes me a single-shot latte of such smooth, velvety caramel perfection, that I want to burst into song. On a day like this, there’s really nowhere else I’d rather be than London.

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* * *

It’s a beautiful evening, so I walk to Shoreditch High Street station and get the Overground home, via a walk through the Common. It’s a stunning evening, warm and luxuriant with a playful breeze that takes the deadweight out of the air. I’m a bit overdressed in my suit and my new brogues that pinch a bit aren’t ideal for walking through grass, but it matters not one whit. 

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Gay Pride and Gefiltefish

An unconventional Gay Pride weekend in London, involving fried fish balls in Hampstead. 

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It’s Gay Pride weekend in London, a date that appears to have passed me by until now. The parade through the streets of Soho starts at 1pm, but I’m going to miss it. In the continuing black comedy that is my life, I’m spending the afternoon in Hampstead learning how to make gefilte fish (fried fish cakes) with two little old Jewish ladies and a pair of notorious homosexuals. It should be an interesting cross-cultural collision.

I’m now feeling like a bit of a Bad Gay for not joining in with Pride. In times past, it’s been a bigger weekend – attending the parade with friends, languorous picnics in Hampstead Heath followed by a perusal of the flesh at the Men’s Bathing Pond, dancing until 3am at Duckie’s Gay Shame parties in Brixton, and the occasional random snogging of strangers in the rain at Hyde Park.

Over the years, it’s become less and less essential a fixture in the diary. I suppose I’ve fallen victim to the same middle-aged middle-class complacency that I used to complain of in my elders. Or it could be that needing to celebrate Pride feels less pressing than it once did. One of the great privileges of living in London is that every day can feel like a gay pride parade – at least in Old Compton Street. More happily, as gay culture shifts more and more into the mainstream, the number of ways we can celebrate Pride are as many and varied as gay men themselves. So this year, I’m being proud with saturated fat and kosher cuisine.

When I come out of the gym, it’s pissing with rain, and it’s gotten worse by the time I emerge at Hampstead tube. What a different tribe live up here – it’s all linen suits and floral scarves, little dogs under one arm and copies of the Guardian under the other. Everyone has the calm, cow-like expression of the perpetually well-off, and there’s nary a person of colour around, except those serving behind shop counters. My part of South London is fairly salubrious, but it’s a younger, sportier populace, with huge Bugaboo pushchairs vying for space on the pavements with the pert-buttocked joggers. Up ‘ere, the locals could all be extras in a Merchant-Ivory film, give or take a Volvo or two.

The fish ball making session is huge fun. Today’s shenanigans were organised by Sandra, my fabulous Streisand lookalike friend who invited me to my first Seder dinner earlier this year. Our host, Angela, is a head teacher at a school in North London, and is famous, Sandra tells us, for her fish balls. Angela’s house is a spectacularly well-preserved 60s modernist split-level apartment, all gleaming hard wood and period furniture, with floor-to ceiling windows looking out onto a perfectly-tended garden. One almost expects David Bailey and Catherine Deneuve to come wafting down the staircase in matching kaftans. Angela herself reminds me of my many aunties on my mother’s side of the family: wonderful homemakers, accomplished cooks, generous hostesses and filled with anecdotes about family history.

I’d had mixed reviews about gefilte fish before coming. My friend Laura claims that gefilte fish smells and tastes like rotting flesh, an opinion I’ve never been brave enough to verify personally. As the New York Times recently explained, the “hate” side of the love-hate relationship with gefilte fish may have something to do with people eating tinned rather than fresh fish, which does sound revolting. Angela promises us that these bad boys will be much tastier.

Angela prepares the fish balls in her kitchen: they’re made with a blend of minced fish (a mixture of cod, plaice, haddock and carp, which she buys prepared from her local butcher), matzo meal and minced onions, which she mixes by hand. Stephen’s face turns white as he watches Angela pour half a bottle of sunflower oil into a saucepan and heat it to boiling point. “I’m pleased I went to the gym this morning”, he murmurs, as Angela cranks up the oven extractor fan onto full. Angela explains that she usually cooks fish balls with a plastic bag on her head to stop the smell getting into her hair – though as she’s just had her hair done and there’s a photo shoot later, there’s no plastic bag today.

One by one, the Gentiles are lined up to have a go rolling the balls and sliding them into the boiling oil. As we work, we ask Angela when she first started making fish balls. Angela explains that while her mother was a great cook, in the great tradition of overbearing Jewish mothers, she seldom let anyone into her kitchen and didn’t think to pass on the wisdom to her children. This sounds very much like my own mother. Angela makes us laugh explaining her first attempt at cooking while on her honeymoon in Malta. Her kitchen is now filled with recipe books – the ubiquitous Jerusalem by Ottolenghi sits next to a well-thumbed looking volume called The Jewish Princess’s Cookbook.

Apart from the initial terror of working with boiling oil, it all works a charm. Angela points out, kindly rather than critically, that Stephen’s fish balls are so beautifully hand-worked that they’re too smooth to brown quickly. “You killed them with perfectionism,” I say to Stephen. “Story of his life,” Kurt adds. Learning my lesson from Stephen, I rough mine up a bit, adding a few fingerprints for an uneven surface. Sure enough, they brown up beautifully.

Angela encourages us to try a few as we work. They are delicious – the fish flavour is subtler than I thought, with a sweet creamy texture more like potato croquettes. Angela explains that gefilte fish was traditionally made on the day before Passover or other holidays, and then eaten cold on the day, in keeping with Orthodox laws that forbid cooking or operating mechanical equipment on the Sabbath.

After about an hour, the kitchen smells like a fish and chip shop, but we have a platter of beautifully cooked fish balls. Simultaneously with the fry-up, Angela has boiled a dozen or so fish balls – the slightly less calorific alternative – which are served with a slice of boiled carrot on top.

We sit down to lunch with the two platters of fish balls, a crispy green salad, a potato salad to die for, and a fresh plaited white loaf. The fried fish balls are served with chrein, the Jewish condiment made with horseradish and beetroot. The Ashkenazi Jewish diet, from which most Jewish ceremonial food recipes seem to derive, is fairly bland and largely spice-free, so the chrein adds a vivid splash of cerise to our plates, and a nice sharpness to the palate. 

It’s a lovely afternoon, and we’re touched by Angela’s generosity and her interest in sharing her love of food, which provides such an immediate and appealing insight into Jewish history and culture. Fried fish, which now seems such a quintessentially English dish, is in fact a Jewish invention. Food writer Claudia Roden writes that fried fish was introduced to England by Portuguese Jewish refugees in the 16th century. In 1860 a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe called Joseph Malin opened the first business in London’s East End had the bright idea of selling fried fish alongside chipped potatoes, which until then had only been found only in the Irish potato shops. It was a match made in culinary heaven – though perhaps not that great for the nation’s arteries.

The rain has finally stopped by the time we bid our farewells and roll merrily along to the Tube station. “I don’t think I’ve eaten so much deep-fried food since that house was built in the late 60s,” Stephen said. He invites me back into Soho that evening to celebrate Pride, but I’m too full of grease to move, let along struggle into a tight t-shirt. I decide to toast Pride more sedately, propped up in my armchair at home, watching Lisa Cholodenko’s lesbian mom comedy The Kids Are All Right while drinking T2’s fantastic Just Rose tea from my new cast iron teapot. I’m in bed by 11.30pm. It’s hard, being this rock n roll.

As I fall into sleep, I wonder whether Proust ever tried gefilte fish. His mother was Jewish, but he was baptised and raised as a Catholic, and appears to have been irritated whenever anyone mentioned his Jewish ancestry. There are no reports of his visiting England, and it sounds as though his constitution was too delicate for fried fish – though he was supposed to have ordered a grilled sole for dinner on his death bed. It’s also interesting to speculate on how he might have dealt with the Bacchic excesses of Gay Pride weekend – perhaps, as I have, by bolting the windows shut and going to bed early.

A tea tray of Madeleines

In which I discover a wonderful French bakery selling Proustian madeleines, and rediscover the importance of cakes as a way to release the creative subconscious. 

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A glorious Sunday morning, blue-skied and cloudless. I’m reminded of my week in rural France, and ponder again how climate seems to be destiny. How different would my writing be, I wonder, if I lived in a climate that was reliably warm and sunny for eight months of the year? Would it be easier or more difficult to write about dark and depressing themes when the sun was continually shining?

Brunch with Louise, who has laryngitis, which makes for a fun if one-sided conversation. Part of me secretly wishes all my brunch partners had laryngitis – it makes it so much easier to speak without interruption. The cafe, which has become a regular for our Sunday brunches, has great huevos rancheros, a comfortable, 1950s lounge-type feel, and a tiny but formidable manageress in death-defyingly tight skinny jeans. The last time we were here, one of the chefs moved back the table where we are sitting today, pried open a metal key in the floorboards and opened two trap doors, revealing a staircase leading down to the cellar. It felt wonderfully clandestine, like something out of The Count of Monte Cristo, with smuggler’s gold or heretical priests hidden beneath the floor boards. Today’s service is somewhat erratic, but delivered with such sincerity and goodwill by a series of sweet-faced young men that we forgive them everything and leave them a generous tip.

Then it’s off to the gym, which is filled with weightlifters, despite the sunny day. Our friendly neighbourhood porn star is there, solemnly working out on the chest press machine with his boyfriend. He’s a giant of a man – 6 foot 6 and with massive, steroid-inflated muscles – and towers over the gym floor like a sentry. His Japanese yakuza tattoos appear to be growing from when I last saw him. The koi carp and chrysanthemum patterns, which cover the full length of his veiny arms, are now spreading down his legs like an extremely photogenic virus. His physique is impressive, in a strongman at the circus way, but apart from the immediate appeal of size, it all seems too much. As Ruby Wax once said of Pamela Anderson’s breast implants, “It’s like Thanksgiving every day of the week.” I smile at him as I pass him in the changing rooms. He nods gravely in response. He has watery grey-blue eyes that seem devoid of any expression.

I’m dining with Patrick in suburbia tonight, and have offered to bring dessert. Patrick diplomatically suggests that I buy something rather than make it myself – an inspired call, as I’m running out of time this afternoon. I walk to the French cafe at the top of the park, where a beautiful French waiter with curlicued forearm tattoos (today’s theme, it seems) sells me two beautiful little cakes with a raspberry and pistachio topping.

There’s a tea tray of madeleines on the counter, still warm from the oven. Apart from the scalloping around the edges, they are, as custom dictates, undecorated – the French equivalent of a gingernut biscuit to be dunked into a cup of milky tea. They are shockingly plain and austere, especially when sat next to the Rococo magnificence of my little cakes. It seems extraordinary that such an unremarkable teardrop of sponge cake could have inspired one of the most famous childhood memories in world literature – an act of degustory rapture that “made the vicissitudes of life unimportant to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory, acting in the same way that love acts, by filling me with a precious essence… I had ceased to feel I was mediocre, contingent, mortal.”

I peer at them more closely. Proust describes his famous madeleine as “fatly sensual within its severe and pious pleating“. There’s certainly something appealing about the shell-like curve of their shape, folding from the pinched edges to the fullness of their middles. I can’t find much more in the way of sensuality – unless perhaps I put at least three in my mouth at once. Proust’s hyper-sensitivity to this kind of stimulation seems charmingly old-world, harking from a more well-behaved age where piano legs were covered up to prevent men from fantasising about the curve of a woman’s ankle.

To the suburbs I head, with my little cakes and one of an endless collection of bottles of Sainsbury’s Prosecco left over from my birthday party. We have dinner in the garden, which is lovely, while Patrick’s neighbours discreetly trim the shrubbery in their back yards. The little cakes are a huge success. Patrick is so excited by the combination of pistachio and raspberry that he licks the remnants off the circular strip of plastic that held his cake in place. “I’m rather pleased you didn’t take my photo while I did that,” he says. I push my plastic strip towards him and excuse myself and go to the bathroom, leaving him to make yummy noises on his own.

After dinner, I read Patrick extracts from the comic short story I worked on last week in France. He laughs away good-naturedly, and describes it as “most promising”. As ever, it’s a galling experience reading one’s own work aloud. All I can hear are my over-long sentences, that trundle along awkwardly when read aloud, like backed-up freight train cars. It needs more work than I thought. Still, it’s nice to circle the wagons and share my work, after what’s been a solitary period of writing.

Patrick expresses interest in coming to the Book Club – especially if I promise to bring along madeleines. Cake really does make the world go round.

Le Writing Life

In which I go to rural France for a week-long writer’s retreat, and join a Proustian book club in London.

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I’m almost at the end of a week-long writing retreat at Circle of Missé, a writers’ colony and cooking school run by my friends Wayne and Aaron from their farmhouse in Missé, a sleepy little village in the Loire Valley, an hour or so south of Tours. It’s my fourth time here, and to me it’s become a second home (though Échalote, their moody, over-indulged spaniel, might disagree) and a creative powerhouse where I happily churn out work.

The farmhouse is late 19th century, in the grounds of a ruined abbey, and redecorated by Aaron and Wayne in what I like to call French Country Ghetto-Fabulous. (There’s a feather boa hanging rakishly from the curtain rail in the living room that looks like an old Shirley Bassey cast-off). My room, decorated in shades of soft green, faces north and looks out over wheat fields. It’s a perfect writer’s room – I wake up to sunrise every morning, and then it’s cool and quiet during the hot afternoons. The lawn and vegetable gardens were looking lush and overgrown, and we had most of our meals outside under the arbor in the front garden.

The house is set up to be as sociable or as reclusive as you need to be – breakfast pastries and coffee are laid out in the morning, and lunch is served in an adorable wooden lidded box, so you can eat in your room if you wish. In the evenings, we come together for dinner, and we talk about the day’s work, what books we’re reading, and reference the outside world, even though it feels a long way away.

The food, prepared by Aaron and the wonderful Alison and their disciples from the cookery course, is delicious and in constant supply. Most of the ingredients are grown in the garden and locally sourced, and as we’re in the middle of the Loire, the wine flows freely. The combination of glorious food, great company and stimulating conversation puts me in mind of Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, describing a wonderful meal she attended at Cambridge: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” Perhaps she should have added, “one cannot write well if one has not dined well”.

For me, it’s the perfect atmosphere in which to write. As much as I love writing, I find it lonely work, and I get a contact high from seeing and talking to people and getting feedback on my work. A writing retreat (which, in Missé terms, is French for “a week’s holiday in a small luxury hotel”) is the perfect combination of separate togetherness – peace and quiet during the day, and company when you need it.

For a country boy, it’s lovely to be out in the fields again. The summer weather was mostly hot and sunny, with occasional storms and humidity (with some bitchin’ thunder and lightning displays) that felt very Gone With the Wind. I took a walk each morning and evening through the wheat fields, and found what became my “Sense and Sensibility” view. I loved the cleanness of the lines between earth and sky, and the striking simplicity of the colour palette: the yellow of the wheat fields, the cornflower blue of the sky and the deep browns of the earth.

This week, I worked on short stories for what I hope will be a collection I can tout to agents and publishers. I finished good first drafts of two new stories, and did substantial rewrites of two existing stories that I started last winter. It was great to stretch my imagination and work on two new projects, writing in a mostly uninterrupted stream of thought, and with sufficient time to do some more careful editing later in the week. As I’ve found on past retreats, an extended period of time in which to write helps build confidence. By the end of the week, I was taking risks – cutting flabby sections of text, experimenting with different endings – that you can only do after a sustained period of work.

I love it so much here that it begs begs the question as to why I don’t live in rural France with a boyfriend and a spaniel. Until that happy day comes, I’ve decided to work on building a network of writers and readers in London, to try and sustain the momentum of all my good work here this week.

By happy coincidence, my Facebook feed throws up an advert for a book club in London dedicated to reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. I make contact with the organiser, Michael, who seems smart and funny. He’s also a writer, and a gay boy, and claims to have read In Search of Lost Time before – which seems appropriate if he’s going to be facilitating. The timing feels delicious – a project I’ve been wanting to start for years finally becomes more doable due to my reducing my hours, and then a group of like-minded hipsters manifests to discuss it with me. Things are looking up.

A Night in Paris

In which I head to the spiritual home of all Proustians, and discover sunshine, big moustaches, grumpy waiters and spectacularly good roast lamb.

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I have a day and a night in Paris, on my way to a writer’s retreat in the Loire Valley. I’m delighted to be catching up with old friends from New Zealand, Rachel and Chris, who are, by wonderful coincidence, also in town en route to a wedding in Oslo. We are dining and staying the night with a mutual friend, Becky, who’s currently living and working here. The timing couldn’t be more perfect.

Of course, one never really needs an excuse to visit Paris. It’s a place I dreamed of visiting from the age of 10, when my brother sent me a postcard of the Pompidou Centre, with its crazy futuristic coloured pipes on the exterior of the building. It was love at first sight before I’d even got there, fuelled by a steady diet of French films, a heavy dose of French post-structuralist critical theory, and and the memory of all the bright young things who partied and died here: Marie Antoinette, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Serge Gainsbourg, Oscar Wilde – and, briefly, Carrie from Sex and the City. Paris is the birthplace of the four cornerstones of civilised modern existence: cinema, the metric system, the macaron and oral sex (the last one according to Foucault, anyway).

Paris is a place that delights tourists in much the same way that New York does, by presenting enough of the well-hewn cliches about “Paris life” to correlate with a first-time visitor’s fantasies. The wild boulevards are tree-lined, the cafes langorously paced and filled with chic-looking people drinking coffee and smoking in a guilt-free haze. Waiters with black aprons and Village People moustaches grimace at tourists and open bottles of Evian with their yellowing teeth. Immaculately dressed women in high heels walk little dogs on leashes through the Luxembourg Gardens. Debonair men with five o’clock stubble wear perfectly draped little scarves with leather jackets. The Art Nouveau-era Metro signs and shopping arcades effortlessly recall the era of Proust and the Belle Epoque. The views of the Seine are breathtakingly beautiful. Even the instantly recognisable Eiffel Tower manages to astound with its clean lines and startlingly modernist construction – and it’s chocolate brown (who knew?). Somewhere, there’s always a piano-accordion player cranking out the soundtrack from Amelie on a street corner.

There’s another side to Paris, of course, that first-time visitors may not see or choose to see. The streets are covered with discarded cigarette butts, Metro tickets and chewing gum, and the train stations are grim and filthy by comparison with other European cities. Parisians hailing from the former Empire states – Algeria, Tunisia, Senegal – don’t appear to be having as an exalted a time as their European compatriots, and there are beggars everywhere. Life in central Paris looks charming and well-appointed, but provides a smokescreen from the ugliness and unrest of the banlieues encircling the city. Unlike London or Berlin, which tends to wear its ugliness and disrepair alongside its beauty, Paris is an ageing courtesan, expertly applying layers of powder and a beauty spot to distract onlookers from the ravages beneath.

For today, anyway, I’m happy to revel in the simple pleasures that Paris offers in abundance to we of the bourgeoisie: good food, an easy pace, and a relaxed urbane energy that one can slip into like a favourite pair of silk pyjamas. Becky’s apartment is in a 300-year old building with a private courtyard. You push open a heavy iron fortress door, and suddenly you’re in the 18th century. I climb up four flights of winding stairs, panting slightly as I realise I’m not as fit I should be, and relieved that I only brought a small suitcase.

I shower and change, and then take a stroll down the road to the Luxembourg Gardens. It’s a hot sunny day and the gardens are full of Parisians taking the sun and eating delicious little ice creams. In keeping with the stately grounds of the palace (now housing the Senat, the upper house of the French parliament) and gardens, everyone seems very well behaved. There’s no drunkenness, no yobs with their shirts off, and definitely no one peeing against an ornamental palm tree. The large assault rifles carried by the gendarmerie standing guard outside the Senat might have something to do with the subdued atmosphere, but it’s all very pleasant.

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In the Orangerie – a building that I’m always disappointed when I visit to discover that it doesn’t contain orange trees – there’s an amazing exhibition of photographs of Paris during WWI. There’s a formal composition to most of the photos, but most of them are of ordinary people and situations, that seem to pulsate with life. It’s amusing to see how little the Gallic profile seems to have changed in 100 years: the locals still have broad faces and deep set eyes and big noses and robust jawlines, though teeth have appeared to improve since then. Most of the men sport spectacular moustaches, and everyone, male and female, are wearing hats. It’s heartbreakingly poignant seeing the excitement and optimism in the peoples’ faces as war is declared, and to see those looks disappear as the war drags on, replaced by expressions of grim determination. The photos hint at the social upheaval created by the war: women are photographed working as postal clerks and engine drivers, and there are some striking portraits of immigrants from the French colonies – Vietnam, Chad, Senegal – working in munitions factories for the war effort.

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I’m reminded of the chapter in Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life where he talks about Proust looking at paintings in the Louvre and trying to match them with people he knew in his own life. de Botton says that this exemplified Proust’s assertion that “aesthetically, the number of human types is so restricted that we must constantly, wherever we may be, have the pleasure of seeing people we know.” de Botton asserts that this is one of the grand purposes of art, and of Proust in particular – to feel at home everywhere. “[W]orlds that had seemed threateningly alien reveal themselves to be essentially much like our own, expanding the range of places in which we feel at home.” It’s a lovely thought, and seems to explain the enduring appeal of photography, which helps us feel a connection with the long dead from the past, and see ourselves in them. I make a mental note to re-read How Proust Can Change Your Life. It was certainly a fun read the first time around.

Then I’m off to meet my delicious French friend David and his even more delicious boyfriend Cedric. David and I have had a long debate about Cedric over the years. I didn’t meet him until last year, when I was convinced that he didn’t exist. Now that I have met him, I keep telling David that Cedric would, clearly, be much happier with me as his boyfriend. David politely disagrees, and so we must all go on living this pretence of happiness. It is difficult, but like Celine Dion, my heart will go on.

Our date starts off somewhat eccentrically, at a short concert of medieval English choral music at the Church of St-Germain-des-Pres, directed by a friend of David’s. Cedric tells me that St-Germain is one of the oldest churches in Paris, and it looks it: like most Gothic monsters, it’s very dark inside and has tiny windows (glass being rather expensive in those days). I tell Cedric that I think this would be a perfect place for our wedding. Not quite getting the joke (or politely pretending not to), he earnestly explains about the separation of church and state in France, and how marriage is primarily a civil ceremony. I really don’t mind where we get married, as long as Cedric says “I do.”

After the concert, which is lovely – polyphonic music of that era needs to be thrown up to the vaulted roof spaces drink. David has to do rather a lot of work, as my French and Cedric’s English isn’t quite good enough for us to tell each other what we mean to each other, but somehow we muddle through.

Then it’s off for dinner with Rachel and Chris and Becky, who have been shopping up a storm in the Marais all afternoon. Everyone is dressed up and looks wonderfully chic, if somewhat fatigued from carrying Rachel’s shopping bags home. It’s a glorious evening, full of wine and amazing food and conversations that feel like they’ve just been picked up from yesterday.

The Americans at the next table look on in horror as we order the cote d’agneau and the cote de boeuf. I want to assure them that it’s all ok – Chris is an oncologist specialising in bowel cancer, and he says red meat is fine as long as we eat up our green veggies.

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The lamb is particularly good, cooked to melt-in-the-mouth perfection, and there’s a bed of potatoes and onions cooked in the juices of the lamb that we hoover up. Rachel and I each order a mille fieulle, which is, we both agree, the closest thing we’ve each come to an orgasm with all our clothes on in at least a week.


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Afterwards, we walk home. Chris and Rachel are slightly drunk, but who can blame them, since they’re in Europe on holiday without their children. Their next stop is London, where they’ll be staying in my flat while I’m in France for the week. There’s a long complicated conversation about what to do with my keys when they leave, which I realise is perhaps best had in the morning. We end the evening in the cool airy living room of Becky’s apartment, drinking T2 tea and nibbling on chocolates, and watching the evening slowly fade to black.

Becky kindly invites me to come and stay for a long weekend over the summer. I’ll definitely be back, especially once I’ve got some more of In Search of Lost Time under my belt. Though my visit a few years ago to the Carnavalet Museum to see Proust’s cork-lined walls and small, uncomfortable looking iron-framed bed was a bit of a disappointment, there are many more Proust haunts I want to visit yet.