Views, reviews, thoughts and delights.

Take Notes

Soho’s been buzzing for hours, Trafalgar Square’s already tourist-thronged and Charing Cross Road hums with traffic as I freewheel lazily down St Martin’s Lane, lock my battered yellow bike to a post and saunter across the street to Notes, a pleasantly airy café next door to the Coliseum. Three stubbly sexagenarians in open-necked shirts sit on the bench outside, bottles of beer in hand (though it’s probably just artisanal lemonade), a sight straight from a village square in the mezzogiorno. Before I can figure it out, Daniel Hahn swings round the corner from my right and Lawrence Schimel strides down the street to greet us.

We enter together.

Notes is the ideal place for a mid-morning meeting, as this eastern spur of the West End slowly stirs from slumber, yawns widely, stretches, and contemplates the possibility of rising before noon. They’re as deadly serious about their coffee as they are about the bulging demi-baguettes and basement music/movie store. I can’t vouch for the latter, but my mozzarella and basil stuffed croissant was pleasant enough, despite the whole concept being slightly bizarre – if you’re going to stick anything inside a croissant, then really it should just be more butter.

My cortado (a short milky coffee best described as a cross between macchiato and café au lait) was quite drinkable, though a tad too foamy. Still, my friend Darren will be pleased to hear that there’s at least one place in this unfair city that makes a decent attempt at a cortado and calls it as such. Darren spent a year and a half in Barcelona and returned quite unwilling to drink his coffee any other way. It’s been a year now, and the best all-round solution he’s managed to find is to order an espresso with hot unfrothed milk on the side. He also developed a sinful taste for cured porcine products, but that’s another story, and anyway I’m partly to blame for bringing him over to the dark side (where we “bad Jews” hang) by once convincing him (and myself) that lomo de cinta was anything other than pork tenderloin, despite my wielding a Catalan/French dictionary that very clearly gave the definition as échine de porc. In our defence, we were famished, having braved a death-defying descent of Pedraforca mountain in the Sierra del Cadi range of the Catalonian Pre-Pyrenees (the ascent itself was merely exhausting).
But I digress.

Daniel and Lawrence know pretty much everyone worth knowing in the discreet yet complex milieu of literary translation. So it’s like a meeting between the heads of two mafia families, the capi di tutti capi!
Looking at their youthful faces and casual attire, you wouldn’t guess that Daniel is a former Chair of the Translators’ Association and laureate of the 2007 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for his translation from the Portuguese of José Eduardo Agualusa’s novel The Book of Chameleons, and it seems almost incongruous when Madrid-based Lawrence casually lets slip that he’s authored or edited over 100 books (and counting), only switching focus to translation a few years ago.
Daniel “lives” in Brighton, but seems to be perpetually on the road, and blessed with an energy and apparent scorn for sleep that makes me wonder if he might actually be from the future. His optimism is so infectious it should carry a health warning.
Lawrence’s obsession with the acquiring and reading of books (let alone their writing and publishing) seems almost pathological, yet he’s far from the owlish introvert of stereotype. He doesn’t present as bookish, is open and engaging, with a strangely relaxed intensity.
I think he may also be from the future.
They both laugh a lot.
I like that.

Time to head back to the bar for another cortado.

Poised against the counter stands a lithe figure dressed entirely in black, her clothes a concatenation of cuts and textures, from baggy to quilted to slashed, festooned with chains and ornaments, like a mash-up of Dietrich and a Gothic Harlequino, her face that of a picture perfect painted Dresden Doll, but you know they broke her mould back at the factory of coin-operated boys and girls.

It’s Wendy Bevan, artful Polaroid-manipulating fashion photographer, bewitching singer and figurehead of the band Temper Temper.

I first met Wendy when my old friend Harry, literary editor, writer, IT whiz, gardener, craftsman, banjo strummer and intellectual pain-in-the-arse called me up out of the blue about a ukulele he’d bought over the internet from a girl he described as arrière-garde, and would I mind nipping down to Soho to complete the transaction? The ukulele was a beaut, and Wendy fitted Harry’s label perfectly.
She lives just across the way, but I can’t work out if she’s going home after the night before, or heading out for new adventures. It’s clearly the latter, as she politely apologises for her inability to converse with me until she’s had her coffee. Turning away, she takes a big gulp from her cup, then sets it down on the window counter, leaving a big bold lipstick imprint on the side, comic-book style.

I feel ever so slightly like I’ve slipped into a different world.

Paris, mon amour

Paris greets me like a long-time lover, her embrace stretching through the dog-day haze. I feel my body slide into a fluid shift, minutely adjusting to her energy, her rhythms. Often it’s barely imperceptible this change, seemingly unconnected to length of absence or motive for return. But I like to acknowledge it as I walk down the platform, through the station, out onto the street.

Ours is a story so long I can barely remember when it truly began. And we have passed through many stages, she and I.
We’ve been nodding acquaintances, rough companions, bosom buddies, secret lovers, public paramours.
We’ve bickered, scorned, betrayed, shunned and denied, but always loved.
We defy the dimensions.
We spurn time’s grasp.

When I first met Paris she was merely a city, her true self occluded by tropes and history. The possibility of our future intimacy didn’t even exist as a concept.
I walked her streets, a naïve youth playing the bohemian, scribbling down monument inscriptions, snapping photographs with casual care.
Somewhere in my archives a discarded Gitanes packet swims forever in a murky gutter of grainy black and white.

A little later, when I was a man, she was an intriguing dalliance, a rite of passage, a notch on the existential bedpost.
Other places beckoned, and my senses prickled at every possibility of fresh infatuation.
The world was wide, and I was eager.
We shared the best part of a tumultuous year together, an unfathomable adventure, but I left under a cloud, unsure who had rejected whom.

She called me out of the blue one day, eight months later.
I dropped my latest fling, with hardly a thought, and was back within a week, drawn by a sense of needing to complete something left unfinished.
This time it was serious.
We lasted eight years like that.

Ever complicated, our relationship has accrued over time through accretions of experience and action, as I found new ways to love her.
Previously abandoned battlegrounds were revisited with fresh endeavour and turned into gardens.
Other, once promising fields of passion were left quietly fallow to mulch slowly into possible futures.
Now, the existential layers hang like archaeological strata, filling me with a sense of multiple pasts as I round a particular corner, or stroll through certain neighbourhoods, a flâneur finally worthy of the name.

Today we pursue separate lives.
It’s like an open relationship, but one so open that I can’t say for sure if we’re really together.
Perhaps we’re not.
Perhaps it doesn’t really matter.

What’s certain is that we share something unreplicable; something that belongs to neither one of us.
It is us.
We crafted it in drama, forged it in the turmoil of desire, burnished it with the gift of maturity.

She is mine just as much as I am hers.

Or so I like to think.

Whys and wherefores

This blog was conceived on the first day of spring, or so it felt, on or around May 1st 2012. The air had that special feeling, temperature up a few degrees, sunlight, pollen in the air, a lazy breeze just chilly enough to warrant a waistcoat and light jacket.

I took a stroll round my neighbourhood, the one I’d grown up in and the one I’d returned to following a decade living in Paris (and before that Aberystwyth and Caen). After passing the plethora of media and creative agencies on and around Great Titchfield Street, the profusion of art galleries that now line Eastcastle Street, several intensely serious interior design shops, the edgy coffee cult that is Kaffeine, and the suave smörgåsbord of Scandinavian Kitchen, I had this sudden realisation:
‘Wow! I live in a really trendy up-and-coming area! I should write a blog about it, drop into various galleries, take photographs, interview them, become, like, really hip myself ‘cos I’d know everyone, be a nexus, a maven, a cool-hunter, like that Facehunter!’
My blog would be named “Fitzrover”, because this is Fitzrovia and I’m a rover, geddit?!

Oh, it was fine material for procrastination, as I registered the domain name, set up Twitter and email accounts, and put off my afternoon’s translation work for a few hours.

Then promptly forgot all about it.

When the idea resurfaced, several weeks later, I smirked disparagingly, particularly at the “hip/maven/cool-hunter” part, not to mention the seemingly pretentious “Fitzrover” moniker. As my father used to say (quoting Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon): ‘Le style est l’homme même’ (Style is the man himself).

But I did want to start writing again, with some kind of regularity, and I wanted to publish in some form. A blog seemed like a thoroughly good idea. And as for “Fitzrover”, well why not? The area has, after all, borne this name for over 70 years. Countless artists of all media and persuasions have been passing through its streets, lodgings, and drinking dens since well before the tables in the Danish furniture shop were even saplings. Rimbaud and Verlaine spent time in digs on Langham Street (down which the BBC now sprawls), Wilkie Collins once lived in a house on the site of my building, and my father recounts in his memoirs an enigmatic encounter with the poet Louis MacNeice at The Stag’s Head pub one night, as the poet ‘swayed out of the saloon bar’ murmuring ‘Where’s the bearing? Where’s the bearing?’ before slipping into the gloom of a 50s night.1
Fitzrovia’s my point of origin.
And I have been nothing if not a rover.

‘That Facehunter’ may have become a globe-trotting phenomenon, but originally this was a guy who simply liked to snap pretty girls in the street wearing outfits he liked (‘a man out and about in London and beyond: eye candy for the style hungry’ – as his blog’s tagline so pithily puts it). I dig that ethos.

So I will write about whatever or whoever takes my fancy.
There may be photographs. There may even be pretty girls.

1 Glasser, Ralph; Gorbals Voices, Siren Songs; Chatto & Windus; London; 1990; p. 27

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