Bon Anniversaire, Little Marcel

In which I celebrate Proust’s birthday by returning to the source of Proust and his many anxieties: his mother. 

On this day in 1871, Proust was born. It seems appropriate, then, to trace a biographical sketch of Proust, and reflect on the woman who gave birth to him and who was the source, directly or indirectly, of his many neuroses: Madame Proust.

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Here is Proust as a nipper. His full name at his baptism was Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust – though thankfully for world literature he was known as Marcel.

Alain de Botton writes in How Proust Can Change Your Life that Proust’s mother was fond of calling him mon petit jaunet (“my little yellow one”), mon petit serin (“my little canary”), mon petit benet (“my little clod”), mon petit nigaud (“my little oaf”) or also mon pauvre loup (“my poor wolf”).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it appears that these infantalising nicknames and the large theatrical bows on his clothes contributed to Proust’s sense of himself as a perpetual invalid, helpless without his mother’s assistance. Proust worshipped his mother, writing to her constantly, and created something of a shrine to her after her death.

It seems strange that Proust never read Freud, just as Freud returned the non-favour by claiming never to read Proust, as they seem to be the opposite sides of the same coin. Proust’s writing, with its detailed interest in dreams, the workings of involuntary memory and the intense bonds of family correlate closely to Freud’s theories, just as the facts of Proust’s life could be lifted from one of Freud’s case studies of sexual neurosis. With his suffocating mother, his distant unforgiving father, his half-admitted homosexuality and his strings of unhappy romantic attachments, Proust could be the definitive Freudian poster boy – or  at least a prime contender for a turn on Freud’s consulting couch.

Perhaps someone will write a fictional encounter of the two of them meeting. For now, we have the first part of The Way By Swann’s as a grand testament to the power of Mummy Love.

* * *

Jeanne Proust and her sons Marcel and Robert. 1896? FONDS LE MASLE Num豯 411

Here is Madame Proust in a photo with mon pauvre loup Marcel and his much healthier, heartier brother Robert, who was known as mon autre loup (“my other wolf”) – which, as de Botton says, gives us an insight into who got more attention in the Proust household.

All the biographers report that, despite the unequal split in their mother’s affections between them, Marcel and Robert had a long and happy friendship. Edmund White writes that at the end of Marcel’s life, Robert secured for him the Legion of Honour, and was with him when he died. Robert also oversaw the publication of the final two volumes of In Search of Lost Time, which remained unpublished at Marcel’s death.

* * *

This photo shows Proust being photographed with two fellow flaming queens. On the left is Robert de Fler, the future Marquis de Flers and a writer for the theatre and opera. On the right, Lucien Daudet, who became Proust’s lover, and later a live-in gigolo for the widow of Napoleon III.

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Though it’s not immediately obvious from the photograph, all three are wearing make up. Lucien, once described by an observer as “curled, well-dressed, pomaded, painted and powdered”, rests his right hand provocatively on Marcel’s shoulder, and looks down at him adoringly, the other hand (to quote Edmund White) “suspended in the air as though he had plucked an invisible harp string”.

Apparently, Madame Proust hit the roof when she saw the photograph, and had a fierce argument with Marcel, in which she implored him not to circulate it. Marcel objected initially, writing to his mother:

“I don’t think there’s any harm in being photographed with Robert de Flers and if Lucien Daudet is wearing a tie a little too right or a complexion a little too pale [due to his powdered face], that’s a problem that disappears in the photograph which doesn’t render colours.”

The lady doth protest too much, methinks. However, like all well-behaved Mummy’s boys, Marcel capitulated, writing this note at midnight and slipping it under his mother’s door:

The best would be if I’m the one to take all the proofs, I’ll give one to each of them and I’ll hand the rest over to you: in that way they won’t be in circulation (since you find in all this something I fail to understand).

Proust’s final parenthetical sentence is a mini-masterclass in passive aggression and emotional denial. It appears that Madame Proust was aware enough of her son’s sexual orientation to be horrified by it and attempt to censor it, at least publicly. Marcel responded with the blanket panic of the secretly terrified closet gay, denying all knowledge of the “guilt” of his proclivities, and assuming a disingenuous innocence. I remember feigning a similar lack of awareness when I had both my ears pierced when I turned 18 – to the horror of my mother and father, who wanted to know if I was trying to “tell them something.””No, no”, I said, unconvincingly, forestalling a more difficult conversation for another year or two.

Though thankfully gay culture has moved away from some of these Freudian-inspired stereotypes – not all gay men are fussy cravat-wearing dilettantes with overbearing mothers – it’s somehow comforting to know that Marcel showed us all how it should (or shouldn’t) be done, over a hundred years ago.

* * *

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Here is a photo of Proust on his death bed, taken by celebrated photographer Man Ray. It’s a striking photo, beautiful and disturbing in the same breath. The custom of photographing the dead was apparently quite common in Proust’s day, especially for a celebrity whose reputation was felt grand enough to be monumentalised in death, and goes back to much older medieval and Renaissance customs of fashioning death masks from the recently dead. It seems that it’s only in recent times that dead bodies have become too taboo to be photographed and recorded – at least here in the death-phobic Western developed world.

So bon anniversaire, mon pauvre loup. You packed a lot into a (fairly brief, by modern standards) 51 years.

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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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An evening stroll

In which I start Edmund White’s delightful book on Proust and go for a late evening wander on a hot humid night.

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A long busy day at work. I’m in Birmingham to speak at a conference tomorrow and then away for a long weekend, so the week’s work gets crammed into three working day. A sign of things to come, no doubt, as I must learn to work within a four day week.

I start Edmund White’s Proust at lunchtime. It’s a wonderful read: well-researched and observant, but written with a refreshing buoyancy and lightness of touch. There’s something perverse about White writing a very short book (Proust runs to 149 pages including a bibliography) about a man who wrote a very long novel.

White’s appreciation of his subject is evident, but he’s not afraid of getting his hands dirty: he forms opinions, takes sides and shakes up a few sacred cows. By the end of the first chapter, he’s already weighed in on Proust’s sheepishness over his Jewish heritage and the elements of anti-Semitism in his writing, made more complicated by his public support of Dreyfus, the Jewish army officer whose wrongful conviction for espionage became a national scandal in France. An enthusiastic Freudian, White has some fun with Proust’s obsessive and co-dependent Mummy-love, which became the template for his adult relationships: “[F]or Proust, Passion was a nagging need that become only more demanding the more it was denied. Indeed, Proust would drive away all his lovers (in his fiction as in his life) through his unreasonable demands.” It all sounds scarily familiar.

A gentleman caller is supposed to be paying a visit, but he cancels at the last minute. It’s still light out, and too warm to go to bed, so I take go for a walk across the Common. The sky is grey-blue but the sunset is trapped behind dense cloud cover so it’s quite humid. Most of the northern part of Common is covered with a makeshift arena constructed for the Stevie Wonder concert on the weekend. It’s still being dismantled, and I walk through the skeletonised remains of the fences.  It’s completely deserted, and looks like a war zone. The grass has been completely worn away by thousands of revellers’ feet, and presumably won’t be replanted this summer. Much as I love Stevie Wonder (As is one of my all time favourite dance tracks), this feels like an unnecessary ravaging of a public space, all for a one-night gig.

As I walk down the south side of the Common, I pass a woman standing on the side of the road, screaming into her mobile phone at who I assume is her husband or boyfriend. As I carry on, I can still hear her voice carrying – with pipes like hers, she should audition for the Royal Opera House. There’s something transgressive about the noise she’s making. Londoners are usually so inhibited in public space, unless they’re drunk, which provides them with the Dutch courage required to lose their inhibitions. The woman’s argument feels performative. She wants to be seen, and wants her pain to be witnessed.

When I get home, I have a chat with Patrick, who has been consumed with Big Gay Chorus concerts. He admires the Proust blog but comments that all my advance reading is “displacement activity” for the real job of reading Proust. He has a point. My take on it is that I’m clearing a blockage – setting out my prior assumptions and prejudices about the great man so that I can come to the text relatively fresh. At least that’s what I’m telling myself. The first meeting of the book group is in a fortnight, and there’s a lot of reading to do.

I like that Patrick doesn’t hold back when it comes to criticism – extraordinary given how politely English he is in many other ways. According to de Botton and White, Proust was so fond of giving excessive compliments to friends that his friends coined a new verb “Proustify” to describe excessive and suspiciously insincere sounding praise. As charming as it would be to have those kinds of friends, I’m not sure how long it would last before I started to watch my back for an Ides of March-style knife in the back.

Londres sous la pluie

The start of a working week, and the summer rain brings thoughts of final resting places and sticky ends. 

Monday morning starts hot and sunny. The Tube is like an oven. It may be a plan to leave my suit and shirts at work and travel in wearing a tshirt and shorts. My colleagues in the offices opposite mine will, I’m sure, appreciate the striptease.

A long busy-ish day. My focus is heightened in the knowledge I’m in Birmingham on Thursday (though fortunately only for an hour or two) and then off work on Friday. It’s the start of my new four-day working regime, which I’ll be coincidentally spending in Cornwall for the weekend. There’s lots to do before then.

I take my late lunch break in the park in Bunhill Fields Burial Grounds, next to the grave of William Blake. His tombstone reads “Near by lie the remains of the poet-painter William Blake (1757 – 1827) and of his wife Catherine Sophia (1762 – 1831)”. It’s a politely English way of saying that he was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave, and no one quite knows where he is.

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Poor Mozart met the same fate. There’s a striking scene at the end of Milos Forman’s film Amadeus showing Mozart being dumped unceremoniously in a communal pit in a pauper’s graveyard: a grim ending that was worlds away from the lush romanticism of his music. Meanwhile, Proust was buried in the relative splendour of Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, in a chic sarcophagus of black marble. Moral of the story? Drink less, and save for your interment, lest you become cheap compost in East London.

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The rain turns the City into a Renoir painting, as the bankers’  enormous golfing umbrellas are opened and jostle for space on the sidewalk. Rain washes away some of the sludge of the weekend and makes London smell slightly less like sewage. On the downside, pedestrians become slow and stupid as cattle.

The Tube at rush hour has the multiple discomforts of heat, overcrowding, insufficient ventilation and the pungent smell of wet wool. It’s moments like this I almost envy my friend Chris, who cycles to work every day – but I have neither his fearlessness nor his concentration to survive on London’s treacherous roads. Plus I like my hour of reading and note taking as I commute each day.

The papers are full of the news of Rolf Harris’ conviction for indecent assault with teenaged girls. He was a much-loved part of my childhood, though clearly a much less loved part of the complainants’. The wave of dirty old man celebrity sex abuse trials feels larger than just the details of the cases themselves. We appear to be in the middle of a moral panic – as we were in the mid 1980s when everyone was obsessed with child sexual abuse in creches and daycare centres. Helen Garner’s analysis from The First Stone also springs to mind. Are these cases a tipping point in the battle against sexism, or a lumbering attempt to redress the unpunished crimes of Jimmy Saville and all those abusers who did get away with it?

On happier ground, I have a very enjoyable first date with R, a guy I’ve been chatting to on Grindr for about a week. He’s cute, smart and works in vaguely the same industry as me, and we chat away merrily for a couple of hours, even braving the Monday night pub food menu to try and prolong the evening. He’s cute and funny and laughs at my jokes, so top marks so far.

R is a fan of Evelyn Waugh, and we talk about the gorgeousness of the writing in Brideshead Revisited and the pleasure of immersing oneself in Waugh’s langorous, nostalgic tone. We agree that the recent Julian Jarrold film of Brideshead was a travesty, and how the opening up of the erotic attraction between Charles and Sebastian made their relationship much less interesting. I’ve spent most of my life wanting writers and artists to be more open in their presentation of homosexuality, and pushing myself to be frank in my own writing about sex. That being said, there’s a delicious kind of magic to the closeted writings of Waugh and Forster and James and Wilde, that loses its lustre when you tamper with it and inject modern sexual politics into the mix. Perhaps those closeted pretty boys in immaculately tailored Savile Row suits should be left in peace to throw their wandering glances at each over after the afternoon tea table – as R and I have been doing these evening.

When I get home, I run a bath and start on Edmund White’s 1999 biographical study of Proust, which looks to be marvellously well-written. How wonderful White was in his hey-day: The Beautiful Room Is Empty and The Farewell Symphony are two of my favourite novels. His best seems now well behind him – I still remember the savaging my old book group gave his My Lives – so it’s nice to be able to discover one of his earlier, more buoyant pieces.

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.

Once on a Thursday

In which I see Once: the Musical – sweet and quietly heartbreaking – and weep like a child for the past. 

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A long piggish day at work. Thursdays are usually beset with demands from clients who want things done by Friday so it’s off their desks in time for the weekend – requiring the subtle art of what’s euphemistically referred to as “managing client expectations”.

At lunchtime I go over to Shoreditch – a mere 20 minute walk from the City, but a magical alternative land of skinny jeans, brilliantined moustaches, free range tattoos and sockless ankles. I see Hans for my monthly haircut. At nine years’ standing, he’s my longest term relationship, a factoid I find rather depressing. He’s just back from a friend’s wedding in Australia and filled with the joy and magic of rural Queensland. (I wonder if Prue & Trude from Kath & Kim were at the reception). Afterwards, I nip into T2’s new store in Shoreditch and hoover up as much tea as I can fit in my bag. I buy a Japanese style fat-bottomed cast iron teapot. It’s very beautiful and quite expensive, but only marginally more so than Hans’ haircut. Aaaaah, Shoreditch. I remember you when you were still mildly disreputable and ungentrified. Our babies grow up too soon.

Tonight I’ve got a night off the gym and reading, as I’m going to Once, the musical version of the independent Irish film from a few years ago. It’s been on my to-go-to list for over a year, but hasn’t felt pressing or urgent enough to make time for, especially as it looks to keep playing to full houses for a while yet. The ticket is a birthday present from MJ, who surprises me once a year with something fabulous. Last year it was Matilda, a musical I’m still utterly in love with.

Once is playing at the Phoenix Theatre on Charing Cross Road – a theatre I’ve never been to before, as the 20 year-long residency of the musical Blood Brothers has only recently vacated. It’s a lovely little theatre with a small curved stage, perfect for this kind of intimate mood piece. The stage is dressed as an Irish pub, with wood veneer panelling and smoking mirrors lining the walls. Audience members are invited up on stage to buy a drink and listen to the cast, who are already onstage jamming merrily away.

Once is a gorgeous piece of work, decidedly unstarry for a West End musical, and disarming in its simplicity. An Irish boy meets a Czech girl in Dublin, make music together and fall in love over the course of a week. It’s underplayed throughout – perhaps a bit too underplayed, especially the lead female, who wasn’t quite starry enough – with all the emotion seeping into the music.

And what music it is! I tend to hover on a knife-edge with Irish folk. If you’re not on your guard, it can tip into winsome or shampoo commercial at a moment’s notice. The score of Once (much of it written by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, the stars of the film) was pitched just perfectly, carrying emotional sincerity and grace without becoming overly sentimental. There are a few weak moments – the story is fairly slight, and dependent on a host of zany stock characters with “amusing” Czech accents to bring in the laughs. To its credit, it’s played good-naturedly and without a hint of cynicism, which becomes impossible to resist.

The charms of the show are helped enormously by the talented cast, who double as musicians, playing guitars, piano, mandolins and piano-accordions as well as singing throughout. It looks effortless, but it’s the equivalent of a marathon in energy and concentration for each of them. The chief sound engineer, who’s a friend of MJ, tells us in the interval that there was a half hour delay in the matinée show due to a power cut, leaving the poor cast with less than two hours to recover before going back on stage for the evening show. Not that you could tell it from their performances, which were energetic, full-bodied and filled with the enthusiasm of wide-eyed kids spontaneously putting on a show.

I’d known from reading earlier reviews that Once doesn’t end happily – not unusual for an independent Irish film but most unusual for a West End musical. The emotional impact of the love story creeps up on you slowly, while you’re only half-looking. By the end, your heart has been softly and exquisitely trampled.

As I listen to the lovers singing a refrain of Falling Slowly, the show’s signature song, my mind goes on a Proustian flight of fancy back to 1999, and my eight day love affair with D. He was a lovely man, who I met just as I was about to leave my university town and go to the Big Smoke for my first proper job. It was the first time I’d been in love where I both knew and felt that it was reciprocated, and the thrill of our happiness was coloured – and possibly sustained – by the knowledge that it would end. We tried to keep things going for a year or so after I left. Like most long-distance relationships, it was frustrating and unsatisfactory, creating too much expectation on the few times we were together, and too much unhappiness in the long months when we weren’t. Eventually it fractured apart. There were a few horrible arguments, and a long period of hurt silence for a year or so before we found a way to speak to each other again.

As if by magic, the song in Once transports me back in time, past all the unhappiness and squabbling and regrets, and into those first few days – heady, joyful, sleepless, giggling and suffused with the cool plangent colours of early autumn. I remembered waking in D’s bed in the early morning at his flat in the hilly outer suburbs. I left him sleeping as I crept through the house, then sat on the front doorstep and looked at the sunrise. I shivered slightly with the cold, thinking about what would come next – the uncertainty of the future and the certainty of the unhappiness we were both about to feel. I still remember it now, as I did then, not as the moment when I felt most happy, but when I felt the most fully alive.

Once isn’t the most sophisticated take on human relationships, but it speaks to anyone who’s struggled unsuccessfully to hold onto new love in all its fragility, or who’s wondered afterwards about the one who got away. I was happy to see that the audience felt the same as I did, rising to give the cast a well-deserved standing ovation, before we scraped ourselves off the floor and headed out into the rainy summer night to drown our sorrows.

How extraordinary music is, with its ability to transport us immediately back in time. I’m reminded of DH Lawrence’s beautiful poem Piano, which has been recently set to music by singer Nick Mulvey in his song Cucurucu:

Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me; 
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see 
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings 
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.

In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song 
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong 
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside 
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour 
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour 
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast 
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

Can Proust Change Your Life?

In which I re-read Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life, and fail to become one of the Enlightened.

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When preparing for a year-long excursion through Proust, you could do worse to read Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life. I read it seven years ago when I first had the idea for the Proust blog. I found it charming and witty, and was deeply irritated to learn that de Botton was only 28 when he wrote it.

It’s a combination of literary analysis and self-help book, with a vaguely insouciant hint of satire. Written in a jaunty shade of purple prose, de Botton sets out to convince us why reading Proust can make you happier, more self-aware and better able to deal with the vicissitudes of life. “Far from a memoir tracing the passage of a more lyrical age,” he says, In Search of Lost Time is “a practical, universally applicable story about how to stop wasting, and begin appreciating one’s life.”

Since first reading How Proust Can Change Your Life, I’ve encountered much more of de Botton and his growing cultural empire. He’s the founder and director of the slightly cult-like The School of Life, an independent cultural institute that markets courses in self-improvement for middle-class Guardian readers, and sells very expensive “Utopia”-theme candles on its cooler-than-thou website.

Despite his irritating postmodern tendency to wink knowingly at his audience, de Botton’s mission seems to be clear. All art has some therapeutic purpose, he says, and engaging with masterworks can help us answer the big philosophical questions about our existence that were once answered easily, if not always convincingly, by religion.

Most recently, de Botton attempted to sell this theory to the Dutch, re-hanging paintings in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum by emotional content rather than chronology, and placing giant Post-It notes on the walls to explain the therapeutic qualities of significant artworks. The critical reaction ranged from mild disinterest to outright contempt. Adrian Searle’s review in the Guardian – the newspaper of the urban hipsters who de Botton and the School of Life market to – described de Botton as “a doorstopping self-help evangelist” whose “insights and descriptions [are] shallow and obvious.” Ouch.

Re-reading How Proust Can Change Your Life, I find myself more and more inclined to agree with Searle. Despite de Botton’s love of Proust and some intelligent insights into In Search of Lost Time, there’s an awkward shoehorning of Proust’s complexity into his self-help theory, and a continual sense of preening at his own cleverness. The mock-serious tone of the book, while entertaining, also feels destabilising: I’m not really serious, he seems to be saying – so let’s all have a good laugh about how clever we’re being. There’s something rather smug and self-congratulatory about de Botton, in this and his other works, that Searle and other detractors are quick to pick up on.

Some of de Botton’s conceits work wonderfully well. In Chapter Three, How to Take Your Time, he describes how Proust paid close attention to newspaper reports and train timetables, finding in them nuances and possibilities not noticed by a casual, hurried skim-read. De Botton notes that the greatness of works of art like In Search of Lost Time “has nothing to do with the apparent quality of their subject matter, and everything to do with the subsequent treatment of that matter.” He encourages us to read slowly and carefully, as Proust did: “An advantage of not going by too fast is that the world has a chance of becoming more interesting in the process.” 

Other chapters waver a bit more, and lack the same coherence. In How to Suffer Successfully, de Botton encourages us to embrace Proust’s maxim of suffering as an opportunity for self-knowledge. “Infirmity alone makes us notice and learn”, Proust says, and “it is grief which develops the strengths of the mind.” This is all very fine and rather Zen – but even de Botton has to concede, as Proust did, that most people suffer “badly” and become mean, selfish and self-pitying rather than enlightened.

The missing link in de Botton’s theory is his assumption that reading In Search of Lost Time will “sensitise” us to our surroundings, and that we will become as perceptive and wise as Proust was. Botton is a dab hand at flattering his readers’ intelligence, assuring us that engaging with great literature will “stimulate our dormant antennae by evidence of [the writer’s] own developed sensitivity.” As charming as this is, it overlooks the rather blunter reality, spelled out in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, that high achievement is a combination of innate talent, favourable personal circumstances and good timing. Few writers of Proust’s or any other era have demonstrated the talent, the spare time and the independent income necessary to write an enormous book like In Search of Lost Time. While we can enjoy reading Proust, will it really make us more like him? It’s just as possible that reading a work as monumental as Proust’s may discourage rather than sensitise. In his final chapter, How to Put Books Down, de Botton notes the devastating effect that reading Proust had on Virginia Woolf’s self-confidence about her own work, leaving her wondering whether there was anything useful about life left for her to say.

Elsewhere, de Botton’s self-help tips feel misinformed and downright patronising. In How to Open Your Eyes, he recounts how Proust wrote an essay encouraging his impoverished readers to study the still lives of the painter Chardon, and by doing so learn to “open our eyes” and appreciate the beauty in “ordinary” things. Such a viewpoint allows us, de Botton says, to enjoy “many of the charms… previously associated only with palaces and the princely life.” No longer will we feel “painfully excluded from an aesthetic realm” or envious of “smart bankers” with beautiful things. We can learn that “metal and earthenware could also be enchanting, and common crockery as beautiful as precious stones.”

This all sounds very nice, but it feels rather hard to take from Proust, who, as de Botton points out, favoured a life of ostentatious luxury – practically living at the Ritz, tipping waiters 400% and once offering to buy a boyfriend an airplane as a gift. It’s also rather a hard lesson to take from de Botton, a man of great learning and cosmopolitan interests, whose work takes him all over the world and allows him to do exciting things like interview Arianna Huffington and re-hang galleries in the Rijksmuseum.

It seems to me that taking pleasure in small things is a virtue enjoyed more easily those who have experienced life outside of the ordinary and so have the privilege of choosing where they place their attentions. Not everyone is so fortunate. I think of Jane Eyre going up onto the roof and looking out over the fields, longing “for a power of vision… which might reach the busy world, towns, regions full of life I had heard of but never seen.” In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf notes how Charlotte Bronte knew “how enormously her genius would have profited had it not spent itself in solitary visions over distant fields; if experience and intercourse and travel had been granted her.” I also think of my own parents, who after living quietly in rural New Zealand for most of their lives, discovered great joy in being able to travel to Europe in their 70s – and subsequently became depressed at returning to their “ordinary” life, which they said felt drab by comparison afterwards.

In defence of his “Simple Life” theory, de Botton notes that Proust became disenchanted with the glamorous world of Parisian society that he once courted so assiduously. This may well be true, but I’m sure that Proust never regretted having those experiences – if nothing else, they provided him with a rich vein of material for his novel. It’s much easier to say “Meh” to an invitation to a society ball and stay at home with a book when one has been invited to the ball in the first place. De Botton just doesn’t get this, which makes his theory sound rather patronising, like a 19th century moralist who prescribes an austerity he doesn’t live up to himself. While it’s fine to open our eyes and admire beauty in unexpected places, it’s a wan substitute for all the experiences that a life of travel and glamour can offer.

I finished my re-reading of de Botton sensing, as I often do when I read biographies of writers, that I’ve learned more about the biographer than the subject of their work. I also felt irritated at de Botton’s strenuous display of virtuosity, in the manner of a friend’s precocious child who insists on performing at the dinner table. In this regard, I’m reminded of the New York Times review of Wes Anderson’s movie The Royal Tenenbaums – another piece of entertainment that overstays its welcome: “Yes, yes, you’re charming, you’re brilliant. Now say good night and go to bed.”

It remains to be seen whether I will thrill to Proust in the way that How Proust Can Change Your Life predicts.  I can’t wait to find out. And if I am transfigured, I plan to attribute it all to Proust rather than the tiresome Mr de Botton.

 

 

 

 

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.

Summer Solstice

Midsummer’s day in the Northern Hemisphere brings perfect summer weather, but a disappointing war play from an Irishman.

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It’s the longest day of the year – the Summer Solstice, in pagan terms, when druids gather to wave burnt sage around the rocks at Stonehenge, and we lesser mortals start to count the slow contraction of the evenings as we move towards midsummer and the autumn.

No druidical frolicking for me tonight – I’m off to see a revival of Sean O’Casey’s WWI play The Silver Tassie at the National. It’s a gorgeous night on the South Bank – warm and sunny with golden evening light that feels more like Spain or Italy than cloudy-with-a-chance-of-rain England. The Queen’s Walk is swarming with people – “They’re coming in droves!”, my mother once said, agape at all the people in one place.

As I wait for Tim, a young couple dance together to Nina Simone’s My Baby Just Cares For Me, which comes out of a tiny dilapidated 1980s tape deck one of them has placed nearby. They’re lean and whippet thin with veiny muscled arms – dance students, probably, or buskers, though there’s no upturned bowler hat anywhere around for coins. It’s been ages since I’ve been dancing.

The Silver Tassie is a strange experience – an experimental and not entirely successful play, given the full National Theatre treatment with elaborate set design, studious performances and some big-assed explosions. It was O’Casey’s first work after his trilogy of highly successful plays (The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars) for which he’s still known. William Butler Yeats, the then-director of the Abbey Theatre, rejected it for performance, claiming that O’Casey was making light of the war and didn’t properly understand human suffering like veterans did. O’Casey was incensed and went to the newspapers, claiming that he’d been betrayed by the same theatre that his plays had bankrolled. The play was eventually performed in England, where it was a mixed success.

On the strength of the National production, I’d say Yeats had a point. O’Casey was keen to move away from spit-and-potatoes naturalism and embrace a more expressionist style. The result is a violent lurch from naturalism into surrealism and back again that doesn’t quite work.

The first act is standard O’Casey – a melodrama set in a tenement flat, featuring wisecracking drunk men, hard-working beleaguered women, and enough blarney to choke a leprechaun. The third and fourth acts show the devastation on the community after the war: strapping young men come back crippled and former alpha males get struck down with gas blindness, women betray their allegiances and mothers weep. It’s nicely played but fairly unremarkable fare.

The play is split in half – or elevated, depending on your point of view – by a bizarre second half, set in makeshift army quarters in rural France, just before the regiment are about to go into the trenches. Most of the dialogue is sung in the manner of a sea ditty, and the characters move as if in a trance. O’Casey presumably wanted to capture the madness and surrealism of life in a war zone. It doesn’t quite work, largely because we haven’t established enough of a relationship with the characters (only two of whom featured in the first act) to care enough. The National’s staging feels both bombastic and strangely defensive – as if they felt the need to sandpaper over the faults in the play with a big boys’  display of fireworks. Shells explode and cannons are wheeled on and walls crumble most impressively, but there’s no narrative seam to draw together the complex emotional terrain covered.

In the interval, largely to take our minds of our disappointment, Tim talks about reading Proust for the first time (he’s read it twice now, apparently). Though he’s more of an Anthony Powell man, he recommends Proust (which he persists, charmingly, in pronouncing Prow-st), and encourages me to persevere with the reading project.

After the disappointments of the theatre, we walk from the South Bank to the trains at Vauxhall. It’s a lovely evening: crowds and buskers and food stalls are still buzzing on the embankment around the London Eye, and Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament look especially gorgeous lit up against the blue-black night sky.

As we near Vauxhall, we see hordes of young people, dressed in 80s-era skinny jeans, stone-washed tank tops and big Dynasty hair that Tim and I are old enough to remember from the first time around. Clubland is just opening for the evening, though it’s the end of mine. It’s off to bed with a cup of apple tea for this little brown hen.

Coffee and Harvey Milk

In which I meet the organiser of the Proust Book Group, and discuss New York, collaboration, posh tea and meditating with Marina Abramović.

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It’s a slow afternoon at work – my boss is on holiday and my clients are clearly too anaethetised by the warm weather to call or email. I take a late and extended lunch break and text Michael, the organiser of the Proust Book Group, to see if he wants to meet up. He claims to be in South Kensington shaking hands with Marina Abramović, which sounds terribly chic. I suggest a more sobering experience to bring him back to the corporeal plain – a coffee at one of my favourite New Zealand-owned coffee bars in Clerkenwell.

It’s a baking hot day. The heat is dry and intense, with scarcely any humidity, and I’m relieved that it’s dress down Friday and that I’m not in a business suit. I walk past the second-hand jewellery stores, and see the occasional withered patriarch heaving along in an ill-fitting black suit, yarmulke pinned on in readiness for tonight’s Sabbath. How hot and uncomfortable they must be on such a hot day.

Michael is sitting on a bench outside the cafe in the sun with his eyes closed, serene and cat-like. He’s beautiful in a Puckish way: slim, curly-haired and with a tan the colour of honey – a product of his recent holiday to Croatia, he tells me.

He explains that he hasn’t been sleeping well lately. Too much Proust, I ask? It seems a most appropriate malady for a man who’s going to lead a discussion group on the world’s most famous insomniac.

We chat away over our caffè lattes about our lives as journalists – mine past, his present – and our shared interest in creative writing. I talk about my French writing retreats, and the appeal of the “shared togetherness” they offer. Michael also sings the praises of working collaboratively, saying he wished he’d learned earlier in life how to “release” control of his ideas by bringing them to and working with other people. I realise that’s the appeal of joining a book group to read Proust – finding solace and encouragement from others rather than slugging away on my own.

I ask Michael what drew him to Proust and what he liked about it. I’m relieved to hear him say that he undertook the project, like most of us, to see whether he could finish, and for the pleasurable feeling of smugness at being able to say he’d finished. Maybe reading Proust is to the literati what running marathons are for athletes – an Olympian challenge to sort the pros from the wannabes.

I ask him if he feels that reading Proust has “sensitised” him, as the tiresome Mr de Botton claims in How Proust Can Change Your Life. He describes being inspired by Proust’s ability to describe the consciousness of the moment, and his illumination of the loveliness in ordinary things. Michael talks with a smile about the joy of being alive to Proust’s focus on cloud formations in the sky or the way that the sea changes from day to day. It sounds lovely, and as meditative a state as he’s just been in with Marina at the Serpentine.

We talk about a mutual sense of action and inaction, which feels as if it becomes more prescient as we hurtle towards 40. (He is a few months younger than I am). I talk about the experience of being mugged as an unwanted but nonetheless galvanising experience to wake up and make changes in his life. He describes living in New York through 9/11 and returning to London soon after. “I’m an honorary New Yorker,” he says, in a tone that feels proud and melancholy at once.

It’s time for me to go back to work, so we walk to the corner. He’s celebrating his boyfriend’s birthday this weekend, he says, with a New Orleans-style funeral procession. It sounds intriguing. Later as I walk back to the office, I see him whizz past on his bike – no helmet, no hands on the handles, and lighting his little hookah pipe. He looks relaxed, free and impossibly cool – more will-o’-the-wisp than man.

After a fun date with K, a hairy bear in Marylebone, I get home to a postcard from my friend and Gemini twin Jodhi in New York City, featuring three of the official Harvey Milk stamps released by the US Post Office. I remember my now-forgotten request to my New York posse asking them to send me some. Only Jodhi has remembered. “I got the last three stamps in Chelsea,” she reports, in her elegant cursive script. I imagine her schlepping down 8th Avenue in her pinstriped suit and Thomas Pink tailored shirts, flighty gay boys scattering in her wake, as she searches the 7/11s of Chelsea for stamps.

It’s a gorgeous card, and goes straight on my fridge door. I must write to Jodhi soon. Hell, I need to go back to New York – between the chat with Michael and the postcard, I’m reminded of how much I miss it.