Dear Readers, my dispatches will always be free and open to everyone. I am unable to use my hands and I’m writing, via dictation, with the help of my family. If you could become a paid subscriber and support me, it’d mean so much. Earlier this week, my school friend David flew from Canada to visit me in hospital for four days. Staying in central Rome, he took the bus out to the hospital, and sat with me through the lunch that Isabella brings me every day. David pushed me around the small garden while we discussed anything that came into our minds, from our childhood, to our parents, to our children, and to ageing and my situation here in the hospital.
Oh thank god I can comment - as usual you brought back a rush of memories - and there is a book there / could cry just re living it. The hippy me the bare feet the doing everything that went with that thinking everyone else was but it was mainly me hitching lifts getting lectures about that (from the men giving me a lift) floating around - it was my girlfriends - they had beautiful eyes or mouths or hair / they were relationships never to be repeated - they went beyond all the barriers and didn’t need sexual exploration infact for me that would have devalued it. Those rich funny drunken stoned tripped out times. The crushes were on fifth formers but no idols not really. It’s good you have rescued a relationship from that time and what a man to go that way to visit you - these are the very best things to the worst thing - what happened to you. By the way again thanks to you managed to write something - it can’t be entered into your competition (the non fiction one) because I’m not a paid person but will copy it onto one of these comments for you anyway as it might cheer you on - I recently got what a health professional called a muscle spasm pain and all I can say is Hanif they can keep that one. Yes siree. You are still lonely and longing for home. Hope you decide what to do and also get your hands back. Thanks to your son for scribing for you and take care - Maddi ⭐️
Thank you Hanif for sharing this story and continuing to inspire me to write and think about my life from different and precise angles.
I grew up in the eighties in Bensonhurst Brooklyn, i. e. the setting of one of the body dumps in Goodfellas and also of the famous 86th street runway walk of Tony Manero. I grew up one of the only Jews around and needless to say I was impressed and obsessed by the Mafia. The tough guys, the who’s who, the subculture, the power, the secrecy, the clothing, the cars, the social clubs, the women. Everything about that world said “ you can’t come in” and thus I HAD to get in by all means. And what an intense struggle filled road it was.
Has this adoration faded? A bit. Do I still glorify it , even though I now feel like I see it for all it is? I feel a bit like Jean Genet years after he wrote his prison novels. I paraphrase “ All these toothless cretins, could these rejects ever have been the subject of my sublime adoration? “
1975 David Bowie. Diamond Dogs show at the Long Beach Arena in Southern California. Me with my high school best pal, both of us with glitter eye makeup, satin and sequin tops, tight bell-bottoms, sparkly platform shoes. David mesmerizing, hypotonic, a lightning bolt from the future promising liberation and freedom. Everyone stoned and singing, roaring together at the conclusion of each song and the beginning of the next. Bowie was my rebel god, and remained so long after the platform shoes landed in a vintage bin and the bellbottoms were replaced with black leather minis and combat boots. (I write this now in my small New England town outfit - faded jeans and a sweatshirt. But the girl who yearned to be Bowie lives on.)
A buxom rebel from a well-off family with a head of curly brown hair and an endless supply of enthusiasm tempered with zero sense! It took adulthood and being callously used by her that snapped me out of it. We lost touch not long after, but I still think of her 40 years later. I am almost 100% positive she is dead.
Still love her with all my childish heart. I shall take her with me to my grave.
There's a trio of lovely poems by Stuart McKenzie I published in Ambit 246. Here's one:
Menhir (IM Colin Fielding)
You smoked dope, and kept
trips in the pockets of your overcoat,
had to stoop to make it through doorways.
You were a beacon with your crop
dyed giner to blonde then black;
wore an oversized sleeper in your left ear,
that nestled against your velvet
upturned top collar. You droppped
out of secondary education
but scaled the school gates after dark
to sit in the playground
and talk about white noise.
On the first day of secondary school I met my best friend. I thought she was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen - blond timotei girl hair - vivacious - everyone wanted to be her friend. She was also definitely the coolest person I knew and I was never really sure why she wanted to be friends with me as I was the opposite of her in many ways- nerdy, bookish, skinny, dark frizzy hair. I now reflect that there may have been something more in just friendship in how I felt, although that simply didn’t occur to me at the time (I had a number of such intense female friendships in my teens and twenties which maybe now I’d code as something else). I moved away half way through secondary school and so that was kind of the end of that - although we kept in touch. Haven’t actually seen or spoken to her in years. But I still remember how perfect I thought she was - maybe I wasn’t as uncool and as uninteresting as I thought I was, as after all, she did want to be my friend.
I get it. In high school my best friend was also named Michael, like me. Everyone called us Mike Squared. We were hardcore punk-rockers who drank Old English forties but also loved literature and existentialism. He was tall, lean, blond-haired and blue-eyed. I was short, darker with hazel eyes. We did everything together. He got all the girls. He was the epitome of cool. Later, when I got sober I wrote my first novel about our friendship. Memories.
‘Sincere American Writing’
My adolescent crushes were Jean-Paul Belmondo and Rudolf Nureyev... photos of them plastered on the bedroom wall of our little post-war stucco in Culver City, CA, when my brother went off to college and i finally got my own bedroom. It didn't matter that Rudi was gay (not that I knew then) and seeing photos of Belmondo in Breathless still gives me the shivers. Love your story and remember that party scene vividly from Buddha of Suburbia. must look up where it's streaming so i can watch it again. also so glad your friend could come hang out for 4 days with you in Roma and take you outside and talk! love, your faithful reader... Louise
First the bad news...
My neighbourhood bookshop, Saeed Book Company, in Islamabad’s F-11 sector will shortly close down. This is after nearly 9 years of existence, which is about the same I have spent in this area.
The mullah shop-owner moaned about kids no longer reading books, largely due to their absorption by the social media. An equally insidious reason is the falling value of the Rupee, which makes it nearly impossible for Pakistanis to read international literature on paper.
Now the better, happier half of my note...
To clear out stock, all books are half their original marked price, which was based on the old exchange rate. Thanks to this I luckily picked up your book, ‘My Ear at his Heart - Reading my Father’, published by Scribner in 2004. Its marked price is USD 15, which at today’s exchange rate (PRS 285 = USD 1) would be Rs 4275.
The bookshop had Rs 1045 on the sticker. I therefore bought it at a bargain price of Rs 520!
I look forward to reading about your dad and you.
Wishing you a good recovery.
Isa Daudpota (or Davidson, given that your visitor was David)
First it was Jack Wild in Oliver then Mike TV in Willy Wonker, from these fictional transgressive characters, I then idolised David Cassidy and finally fell deeply in love with David Essex as I hit puberty. Oh god how I still get a giddy rush of adoration whenever I see any pictures of Cassidy and Essex in their prime all these decades later ha!
Ruth Gordon (Harold and Maude). Still to this day I loved her way of being in that film. My heart throbbed sensing into the care free way of being.
Never have stopped doing it. I can think back as if it were yesterday about the time I found myself in a state of intoxicating adoration for a friend. He was a beautiful man, and his temperament was gnarly. For many years he occupied my dream life and waking life as a muse. I could neither stop thinking of him, nor imagine being with him sexually. How odd that imagination would not permit that transgression. I also loved his family. And my own. Some things just are. But why not be able to fly with the mind wherever it goes, as you did? My limitation, or perhaps a safeguard I needed. If I had been able to imagine, then would action been far behind?
An age ago, I would take summer holidays with my extended family in a village called Kingswear. I feel a strange ache in my soul when I think about it now, because I know that I can never go back there. Even if I did it wouldn't be the same. The family has fragmented, we are all a lot older, and the world has changed beyond recognition.
Kingswear is located at the end of a heritage steam railway line, in the county of Devon, in the south-west of England. We used to occupy a large, well-appointed house with steeply terraced gardens that overlooked the river. Some outdoor filming had been done there for the 1981 adaptation of The French Lieutenant's Woman. The property was owned by an eye surgeon who lived in Canada. The couple who looked after the place – Darren and Louise - lived in a partitioned part of the house. They kept several cats, all of whom adored Louise and who would follow her around the garden, leaping from tree to tree like a troupe of monkeys. To our mutual despair the owner of the property eventually sold it to a greetings card magnate. A few years later, it burned down and was rebuilt.
Across the river, and accessible by ferry, lies the town of Dartmouth. The railway never made it there, though a station house was built in anticipation of its arrival. One very hot day in June, I walked west out of the town, following the coastline as best I could. Eventually I arrived at Stoke Fleming. As I entered the village, I passed a boy in his late teens. He was perched sideways on a front-garden wall, working out some chords on an acoustic guitar. He had very long, dark, wavy hair. He reminded me of a young Richard Ashcroft, the lead singer of The Verve – a man who had become a rock star through force of personality. His outlandish claim that he could fly, made to one of the music weeklies, had resulted in him being dubbed 'Mad Richard'.
I was at an age where I was just beginning to gain a sense of perspective on life. I looked at this boy and I thought: I wonder if you have any awareness of how cool you are in this moment, and I wonder if you have any idea how fleeting this moment is?'
The answer to the first question was: 'Maybe some'. The answer to the second was: 'Of course not.' That kind of effortless self-possession is rooted in savoir faire – the instinctive and unconscious knowledge that informs you how to present yourself in the here and now. Years later, I heard a song by Elbow called 'Colour Fields' – a lament for a bright young girl who outshines the dying town she inhabits. The singer, Guy Garvey, watching from a distance, yearns for her to escape to a world where she can flourish and realise her full potential. The unspoken fear is that, if she does not leave, then she will eventually be ground down by her environment and her light will go out. When I first heard that song I thought of that boy who had outgrown his tiny village. I hope that he had the opportunity to put paint on a bigger canvas.
We never had anyone like that at my secondary school, which was a violent, prosaic comprehensive. There was nobody who visibly stood out, and it was a bad idea to do so. The names that you heard around the playground were the names of people who were to be feared. They were elevated almost to the status of monsters from Greek myth. In reality they were young adults, with knives in their school bags, filtering their anger at their undesirable family situations through a warping prism of teenage hormones.
There were popular kids who were well-liked, but they were down to earth. I was never really friends with them. I knew that I could never be like them, nor did I want to. I was moving in a different direction, but there was no-one for me to aim at.
The only time I can recall idolising a peer was way back in infant school. I was barely five years old. I was befriended by a boy called Jonathan who was around six or seven, and on the brink of moving to the adjacent junior school. A year later my family moved several miles away across town so our friendship was a short one.
I looked up to Jonathan and liked him enough to invite him to my birthday party. A few days before, he showed me a Darth Vader action figure. I had never seen a toy quite like it. I didn't know what Star Wars was and so had no frame of reference. It was like some beautiful alien artefact beyond my comprehension – the monolith from the film, 2001. He asked me if I wanted one for my birthday and I said yes. He bought me an R2D2 figure which became the cornerstone of an obsession that lasted into my early teens.
I can't picture Jonathan's face. All I can recall is standing in the bottom third of the playground, nearest to the door to the schoolhouse, where the new kids intuitively congregated. He showed me the Darth Vader figure in its vinyl cape. He demonstrated moving the arms and legs, and extending and then retracting the lightsaber. The low Autumn sun was shining behind his head, splintering into tarnished needles of light. That's how I remember him - as a blinding light pouring out of a brown anorak; the kind of celestial being who you might see painted on the ceiling of an Italian chapel.
In my late teens I gravitated towards Jack Kerouac's friend, Neil Cassady – who drove like a demon, all over the map, but who died walking along Mexican rail tracks at the age of 41. He represented freedom and the possibility of escape.
I owned a Peugeot 205. In my lunch hour I would take it to some nearby lanes where the limit was 60mph and throw it around the kinks and bends. I drove at high speed, in the style of Cassady, hunched over the wheel. One day I rounded a corner to discover that a lorry had shed its load of bricks, which had formed themselves into an improvised wall, screening off the left-hand lane. I slammed my feet down hard on the clutch and the brake. Time slowed down as the car shed 80mph in seconds, while I battled to keep it between the drainage ditches on either side, and away from the pile of bricks. A police car, travelling in the opposite direction, appeared around the bend ahead. I came to a stop literally a couple of feet from its front bumper.
That wasn't the only near miss I had in that car, which was eventually stolen. Using Cassady as a benchmark I sketched an outline of the person who I wanted to be in skid-marks on tarmac.
A boy who looked like he was forty years old when he was seventeen. He looked both magical and like he’d had decades of hard living.
He wrote me a poem at the end of the school year. I never saw him again.
"Who did you admire and idolise as a teenager?"
Dear Hanif, sitting on a train about to pull out of St. Pancras (a grotty, pre-time St. Pancras with a sandwich shop in the corner, next to the toilets, and dim bronze lighting) -- at the last moment, I leaped off. Had a Shakespeare final in Loughborough the next day. Who cares. Was lugging the freshly laundered swag bag of clothes I'd taken home to get washed, and now found myself standing on the platform, guilty and elated. Because I knew I had to get to your reading. So longed to write but could not figure out how to do it, unicorn deluxe, and pierce through into the culture of art and writing. Made it to -- Foyles? -- on time. You were sitting on the table your books (The Buddha of Suburbia) were stacked on, in a pair of dungarees. Red wine and glasses were set out for the reception. Your poster tacked to the side of a bookshelf. There were about thirty people there, on that particular night, as it was pitching down. After the reading, I and two other audience members, strangers, calmly drank the red wine and then, lightly or completely drunk, they caused a distraction as I unstuck the poster from the bookshelf, rolled it up, and ran off to catch the last train north. This was the poster I took with me when I left for New York, pinning it to the cork board above my desk in the dorm room of "Stage XIV." I was always grateful that the last thing that ever happened in England, and sometimes the only thing, I think, was that I made it to your reading, obeying the imperative to leap off the train. THANK YOU. Your "almost" carried me (all of us) a long way. It was enough. It was an imprint. It changed our brains.