Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A moment of Marvell?

Ten years ago I fell in love.

It was a very sweet infatuation, with all the naivete and wonder of puppy love, or perhaps the wilful delusion of an Indian summer. For a few brief days I swooned over the object of my attentions, my passion all the sweeter because I knew our time together would be short. Then we parted, but for years afterwards I was firmly committed to her. None other could match her charms, no other name evoked the same wistful smile. This, despite considerable temptation; strange as it may seem, there were others who sought to seduce my stolid middle-aged affections. Some were subtle, some brazen, some endearing in their simplicity.

But none compared to Paris.

When I think back on it, my inexperience was a major reason for my being so utterly besotted. It was my first visit to Europe. My first encounter with the charm of history not just preserved, but kept alive. The first time I strolled down cobbled streets at dawn, or savoured wine and a cigar in a sidewalk cafe as the lights came on in the scented streets. My first experience of a city lit up for beauty alone, or carefully tended flowerbeds lining busy roads. Of a real van Gogh, a real poster by Toulose-Lautrec.  It was as if a country bumpkin entered the big city, and the first woman he met was Madame du Barry. No wonder I was lost.

The passion lasted some years. There was a yearning to return. It faded. And I broke the faith.

I rejected the advances of Hong Kong, but I was led astray by the brassy charm of Istanbul, lost in the strange intimacy of Prague, grabbed bodily by the direct approach of Manhattan. Time passed, new booklets were added to my passport. Memories blurred, ran into each other. The lights of Aleppo morphed into the glimmer of Rio from the Pao de Acucar. But nothing could erase the memory of a patch of green by the Champs Elysee, with spring’s first lilacs in bloom.

Last week I visited her again. And the magic was gone.

Perhaps it was because the first time I had visited had been in February, with the streets comparatively deserted, whereas this May I had to share her with a million other admirers. Perhaps it was because I was coming off three months of hard grind, mentally drained and physically exhausted. Perhaps it was age. Or perhaps it was just experience. 

In the ten intervening years, I have seen too many cities, savoured too many meals, shared stories with too many friendly strangers. Paris is no longer a realm of wonder. This is not bragging; it is a lament. I have lost the capacity for wonder. I have lost the innocence of the first-time traveller. After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

For two days I walked the streets of Paris, trying in vain to recapture that first fine rapture. But the Ile de la Citie seemed smaller and duller, the alleys on the Left Bank no longer beckoned. The sidewalk cafes were full of tourists, teenagers and cigarette butts. The Centre Pompidou seemed incongruous rather than witty. Even le quarter Marais seemed a little grumpy, as if sulking at the weather on a weekday afternoon. 
Then I retreated to my room with a paper sack full of bread and sundry viands, opened a bottle of port and gazed morosely out of the window. The sky darkened into the late late night of northern summer. Lights came on in the house across the street. A snatch of accordion music drifted up from the corner. 

I knew the young chap in the apartment opposite would go to sleep early because he left for work at 6 in the morning. That the accordion player was not rubicund and beret-clad, but a fresh-faced single mother who played gigs on the weekends. I knew that later in the evening the boys would congregate at the side door of the “Irish” pub, ten paces round the corner, for a smoke and a bit of a chat. That a little before 7 in the morning the garbage truck would edge cautiously down the street, taking special care not to make a noise around No. 26 or else Monsieur Everet would shout at them from his first-floor window. I realised I knew the pulse of the neighbourhood. Even it was for a very few days, I fitted in. I may no longer have the wonder of the Trocadero under the evening sun, but I could down a pint with an oddity, a Frenchman who preferred Guinness to Bordeaux.  And with the epiphany, “peace came dropping slow”.

No, I could no longer feel the keen thrill of novelty. But I had in its place the comfort of familiarity, the pleasures of the everyday. The cement that binds any lasting relationship.

Saturday, May 04, 2013


I was a dinosaur.

Not, alas, a snarling male-fantasy T-Rex, or even a velociraptor.
I was a brontosaurus. Or perhaps a mastodon. Slow, ponderous, quite content to wallow in turbid swamps as long as there was enough forage available. Not succulent greens, but paper. More enticing, more delicious than the freshest ambrosia. To wit, books.

Growing up, the keenest pleasure I experienced came on every alternate Saturday. My grandfather would take us to the British Council Library on Theatre Road, where there was a whole section devoted to children’s books. (It no longer exists; Attila the Hen cut down the funding for British missions worldwide, and the children’s section was one of the first casualties.) My cousin and I would fight tooth and nail over the library cards, gleefully raid the shelves and then, on the ride home, finger the books lustfully, barely able to contain the excitement, the anticipation, the sheer joy of having so many books to read.
Paper and glue and printing ink, the texture of the old leather on the spine, the crispness of the pages against the fingers, the unique smell – whether the brash presence of a new book like the perfume of a parvenu, or the more muted, musty, faintly apologetic miasma of old books – all adding up to the sheerest magic. The FEEL of books as much as their content. The purest pleasure I have known.

And yet ... This morning I realised that it has been WEEKS since I read a book from cover to cover. The long shelf facing the bathroom gathers dust. My last three visits to bookstores were for book launches – where I did not pause to browse the shelves. I have been seduced by e-books.
In the first week of January this year, the Wall Street Journal published a bout of the sheerest havering, citing irrelevant statistics and using contradictory arguments to argue that e-books are no threat to paper-and-ink publishing. A year ago, this dinosaur would have thrown his weight behind this argument, but not now. Not since I was bought over.

First, I moved from a laptop to a tablet. Then I discovered the seductive convenience of reading a book that I can adjust to my own requirements. After years of badly-bound paperbacks with barely legible fonts, I can now change the size of the font and often the font itself to my convenience. I no longer have to prise apart the book to read the ends of sentences that run into the spine. I don’t even need a bookmark, since the e-book will automatically open to the point where I left off reading the last time.
After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

There’s more. A generous friend has shared with me his entire library of e-books. All. Forty. Thousand. Of. Them! All of them put together take up a little part of a hard drive which is itself no bigger than ONE old Bantam paperback. 40,000 books! To put this in perspective, my father and I have been at our combined wits’ end to accommodate our collection of some 7000 books (not including his treasured edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which always has its own place next to his armchair!) No bookshelves, no cartons, no trunks too heavy to be lifted. Just a hard drive and a tablet.
And the clinching argument – when I’m reading an e-book through the night, the page is back-lit. Ergo, no need to keep the light on, and no squeals of complaint from the Better Half!

Now I know why the dinosaurs vanished.