Life as a journey

I’ve finally been out of school for as long as I was in it.

School takes ages, doesn’t it? It used to feel almost like a waiting room to me. You get ushered into a room and told to sit quietly for hours at a time and the reading material they’ve laid out maybe isn’t what you would choose for yourself. After what seems like forever, your name is called and you’re finally ushered through the door and on the other side you find… Another waiting room. It’s like a recurring nightmare. I always imagined that once I got to the thirteenth waiting room, I would go through a door that said 18 on it in a red circle. On the other side of the door would be a place called Real Life where I would finally be treated like an adult. I would immediately get into a car, drive it to a casino, order an alcoholic drink and seduce a lady. I was always waiting for Real Life to start.

You often hear people say that life is a journey. They say that you need to have a sense of direction. That you could go far. I actually think those are good metaphors for what life is like. The problem is, when you talk about journeys and directions in 2018 it makes it sound like you know exactly where you’re going and how to get there because you looked it up on Google Maps. Unfortunately, that’s not how life works. When people came up with the idea that life was like a journey, it was more like trying to find your way in the age of Christopher Columbus. Back then, not only did they not have GPS but they hadn’t even figured out how to navigate using the stars.

They used a simple system called dead reckoning. Every day, you wake up on your ship and you look at your compass to see roughly what direction you’re travelling in, and then you throw a random item overboard to see how fast you’re going, and you put a pin in the map where you think you have got to. The next day, you wake up and do the same thing, but this time your starting point is the guess you made yesterday. Eventually your position is a guess based on a guess based on a guess. You know roughly where you are heading but the truth is, you don’t really know whether you’re right until months later when the map says there should be an island on the horizon and you pick up your telescope and hope to God there isn’t just a wide, flat, empty sea.

When I first heard about dead reckoning I thought people must have been lost at sea all the time. It sounds like it would be a miracle if anyone ever ended up where they wanted to go. But the strange thing is that it worked pretty well. You don’t need to know everything about the whole journey. You only need to know three things: which way you’re facing, how fast you’re going, and what you did yesterday. I really like that idea. But there is one big, glaring problem with thinking of life as a journey. It’s the same problem with thinking of school as a waiting room. In fact, almost every time people talk about life, they make it sound as if the entire point of it all is to arrive at your destination and put your feet up. Now I don’t have all the answers but I’m pretty sure the best bit of my life is not going to be the ending.

One of my favourite authors, Fyodor Dostoevsky, put it this way: ‘Columbus was happy not when he had discovered America, but when he was discovering it. Take my word for it, the moment when he was happiest was just three days before the discovery of the New World, when the mutinous crew were on the point of returning to Europe in despair. It wasn’t the New World that mattered. Columbus died almost without seeing it, and not really knowing what he had discovered. It’s life that matters, nothing but life – the process of discovering, the everlasting and perpetual process, not the discovery itself at all.’

You have done amazing things with your life. You have amazing things ahead of you. This isn’t a waiting room; this is already real life. There is no master plan. On the best days, you manage to find one of those tiny islands in the middle of a huge ocean. Enjoy that moment. It’s incredible to think that you have got exactly where you wanted to go just by heading in roughly the right direction day after day and trying not to be blown off course. Better still, the next day you wake up and it is one of those rare days when you know exactly where you are and you can choose where you go next. You have not reached America yet, but this is the exciting part, out here on the water. Some days you might feel a bit lost, or even lose heart – that happens to everyone. But never doubt what you are capable of. On those days when everything ahead of you looks like an empty sea, all you need to do is look back and you’ll see how far you’ve come.

I gave a version of this talk at Bournemouth School’s 2018 prize giving day. 

Five Strange Paris Histories

While researching my new novel, Let Us Be True, I became fascinated by the history of Paris. Wherever I looked, there were incredible stories to be found, of pioneering gardeners, hidden wine cellars, put-upon architects and bloody clashes in the streets. A few of these stories I couldn’t let go, and they made it into the novel: here are my five favourites.

1 – The Tour d’Argent

Overhead, the clouds bruised and cracked. There was a brief flash of lightning, the thunder inaudible behind the glass. He was in the world’s oldest restaurant, eating duck with a stranger who had just punched him in the head.

This Michelin-starred restaurant lays claim to being the oldest restaurant in the world, purportedly founded in 1582. Their speciality is the pressed duck, which was traditionally eight weeks old, fattened for fifteen days and then strangled, to retain the blood. The wine list is also 400 pages long. It has a great literary heritage, having been referenced not only by Marcel Proust and Ernest Hemingway, but also the 2007 Pixar animated adventure Ratatouille.

2 – Nanterre

Ralf followed the road, hoping to ask someone for directions. Next to the cleared land of the building site was an improvised town, laid out in rows to give the impression of planning, of order – a place where great pride and care presided over mud and scrap metal.

Nanterre is a fascinating place, though a little off the tourist beat. Once an improvised slum (a bidonville or ‘jerrycan town’) housing poor Algerian immigrants, who sometimes found it difficult to rent in the city either because of the cost or because of the prejudices of landlords, the University of Paris bought a site there and built a huge brutalist campus, a little like the Barbican, but uglier and easier to navigate. The Nanterre campus would be one of the epicentres of the May 1968 student protests, which spread and developed over the course of the spring into full blown riots and a general strike, bringing the whole country to a halt.

3 – The Tuileries

‘You know what they do to silk moths?’ said Elsa. ‘They boil them alive and unravel the whole cocoon using tiny looms.’
‘I didn’t know that.’
‘No. All sorts of things have happened here. I think it’s untoward for a garden to have so much history.’

The Tuileries in the centre of the city might look like an oasis of calm, but they are probably the most eventful gardens in the world. Named after the roof tilers that used to work there before Catherine de Medici bought the land, the garden was the site of the one of the first hot air balloon flights. At one point, they were vast royal gardens, and the head gardener decided to grow mulberry trees to foster a domestic silk industry there. Robespierre had a weird secular festival there, burning mannequins that represented an idiosyncratic group of sins (one of them was ‘False Simplicity’). It was a Russian garrison after the fall of Napoleon, and was also, at one point, used to store artwork looted by the Nazis – a Monet was seriously damaged in a shootout during the liberation.

4 – Pont Saint-Michel

A police van pulled up at the far end of the bridge, and another on their side, at the entrance to Saint-Michel Métro.

An innocuous bridge metres from some of Paris’s tourist hotspots, the Pont Saint-Michel was the site of a terrible (and shockingly recent) massacre of peaceful protesters by the police. On 17 October 1961, men, women and children were peacefully protesting against a curfew that had been set for all Muslim citizens. The Algerian War had been going on for years, with atrocious violence on both sides, and trust between communities was at a nadir. Unfortunately, a sub-section of the police were right-wing nationalists – in fact, the head of police at the time was Maurice Papon, who had collaborated with the Nazis during the war to deport Jews. The police violently suppressed the protest, beating people with long white batons and throwing them off the bridge into the Seine. There is no official death toll, but estimates are in the dozens.

5 – Tour Eiffel

He looked out at the city. The sun backlit the dark clouds in chiaroscuro and for a moment broke through, catching each drop of rain so that the sunlight fell not just on surfaces but everywhere at once, manifested endlessly through the air.

The Eiffel Tower had to turn up at some point, didn’t it? You can’t visit the city without the tower peeking through the gaps between buildings, especially now that it’s equipped with that bizarre light which seems to have been inspired by the Eye of Sauron. Paris is unimaginable without it, but when it was built, poor Gustave Eiffel was the most hated architect in France. In 1887, a group of writers and artists clubbed together to petition against it, competing to see who could hurl the best insult (my personal favourites are ‘tragic street lamp’ and ‘barbarous mass overwhelming and humiliating all our monuments and belittling our works of architecture’). How times change.

 

First published on neverimitate.

Tumbleweeding

One day in early November, 2014, I arrived at a little book shop facing Notre-Dame in Paris and sheepishly explained to a staff member that a friend of a friend had said that I could perhaps sleep here, in the book shop, while I researched my new novel, Let Us Be True. I half expected them to start laughing at me, but instead, they led me to the back, up the stairs, through a little library with beaten up leather armchairs, unlocked a door to a stairway landing, unlocked another door, and led me into a little staff room. There were lockers and a bunk bed filled with backpacks; books, everywhere; a photo of Walt Whitman stuck to a mirror; the ‘tumbleweed cookbook’, a work in progress decorated with coloured-in graph paper; a cactus with sunglasses named Karl; bottles of cheap wine from Nicolas; on the window was a painted cartoon of Virginia Woolf. In this room, I was initiated into the secret world of the Tumbleweeds.

It’s actually the second shop to have the name Shakespeare & Co. The first was run by a woman called Sylvia Beach who also operated it a private lending library and was a general shoulder to cry on for pretty much the entire Lost Generation of the twenties and thirties, even undertaking to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses when it proved too hot to handle in Britain and America. Her shop was closed down during the Occupation and never re-opened, but George Whitman, who owned another Left Bank book shop, got her permission to rename his own shop Shakespeare & Co after the war. Since then, first George and then his daughter (named Silvia in tribute to the first owner) have taken in vagrant writers, with only a few conditions.

First, you should read a book a day. You’re not there to smoke Gauloises, you are there to sponge from the library. You will sleep on camping mattresses among the shelves (one in the library, two next to the piano, one hidden behind a little curtain above the children’s books). In the morning, you get up, figure out the day’s shelf-stacking rota, empty the dehumidifier in the basement (no one likes rotting stock), and unshutter the shop. Boards are unboarded; shelves are wheeled out front. You may subsidise your income with money dropped in the wishing well, where a little sign says ‘feed the starving writers’. There is only limited access to the kitchen, so you’d better like cheese, meat and bread. When I was there, we were also trying to come up with puns for the café they were thinking of opening (‘Tender is the Bite’, ‘Mushroom with a View’, ‘Finnegan’s Cake’).

It was the perfect place to conduct my research: across the road was the Caveau de la Huchette, where my main character, Ralf, went to watch live jazz; down towards the Sorbonne were the roads where the fighting was most intense during the 1968 student riots; just across the bridge, on the Île de la Cité, was the square du Vert-Galant, where Ralf sat watching the Seine, shoulder to shoulder with the woman he was falling in love with. I spent the days wandering around these places, feeling as if I had climbed inside my own novel. And then in the evenings, I would chat with the other tumbleweeds that were sleeping in the book shop – we would read each other poetry, we’d talk about what made great literature, our eyes shining, inspired by the possibilities (and possibly also by the red wine). Those nights felt perfect and endless, which made it feel all the more unfair when I realised my time was already up, and I had to catch my train the next day.

The last thing you have to do before you leave is write a one-page autobiography, which everyone staying at the shop has had to do, apocryphally, for the benefit of the government, who rightly considered the shop a hotbed of radicalism. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to read some of the thousands of autobiographies in the archive there, including famous guests like James Baldwin. By the time I came to write mine, I was in love with the place. ‘Some things change inevitably and others we have a duty to preserve,’ I hammered out at the battered typewriter on my last morning, in a sentimental daze, glancing up occasionally at Notre-Dame through the window. ‘It is why I came to this place and why people queue to get in, why the library is filling with pilgrims, even as I type, desperate to confirm the rumour that there is still generosity and shelter here, and that the library which exists in the heart of every book lover is real.’

 

First published on Love Books