2 October 2022

The Milky Way (2)

 Memories' Lanes

Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.... (Matthew 10:34)


From Innsbruck it is all downhill.  I have Lucio Dalla on my headphones and Anna Karenina to read.  We pass Brennero at midday, bidding farewell to the Tyrol with its steep gorges, cantilevered autoroutes, rocky peaks and high pastures.  Hello (again) Italia.  Around half one we cruise past fruit farms, and vineyards, some olives and the occasional palm.  Bolzano still in the mountains, with pinnacle castles, then down to the flat and into Verona.  From here to Bologna we cross the vast plains of the Po Valley, with rice and maize and vegetable fields all flat under an azure sky.


Bologna reminds me, as I referred to in Part 1, of Easter 2015, and Amanda.  I find it hard to grasp that it was so long ago, but the memories are still sharp.  But I also have memories of visiting the city with my brother and parents the day that Elvis died, August 16th 1977, when the heavens wept.  Are memories good to hold on to?  If Amanda was with me, would she recognise the place?  Would she have feelings, stirred in any way by familiarity?  Would she remember climbing the 498 steps of the Asinelli tower?  As I retrace paths we walked in the past, I begin to wonder whether it is healthy to hold on to all these recollections?  Just as I have begun to question the value of looking at works of art, I now question whether memories are worth the pain they may contain.


Non-stop train to Rome.  The first half hour or so tunnelling through the Apennines, then out into the freshness of Tuscany and then spearing through Lazio, glimpsing the green waters of the Tiber, and rolling to a halt amidst the graffiti and the crowds of eternal Rome.  I am almost overwhelmed by the crowds, a teeming mass of people from all across the world, hurrying there, hustling here.


It is hot.  I wander lanes of memories: there I used to eat: here was my (ill-fated) pub, now a Pizzeria whose sign claims existence since 1984 (i.e. the year we were closed down by police....).  The narrow path above Trajan’s Forum, from which Antonio and I played Hoopla with bicycle tyres over the stumps of antique columns by moonlight.  

I have a snack lunch at the Tre Scalini in Via Panisperna, where once we shoved the tables aside after dinner and danced to the tunes of a harmonica....


From the rooftop I gaze across the emotionless façade of Santa Maria Maggiore, raising a martini to the stone folds of the Madonna’s cloak, then I descend to dine with friends.


Over the next few days I encounter many old friends – ageing now, like me.  Illness almost goes without saying, from burst gall bladders to cystic fibrosis, depression to breast cancer (male and female).  Things fall into perspective – everyone is somehow worse off than everyone else – or are we all better off than somebody else?  It’s life – get over it!


In the morning I take another wander down my memory’s lanes.  Via Gregoriana, the Spanish Steps, an espresso in the Antico Caffè Greco (not that I was a frequent customer) in Via Condotti, 

a glass of Greco di Tufo in l’Antica Enoteca in Via Della Croce (once a simple Vini e Oli where you could fill your bottles with wine from the Colli Albani).  I pay my respects to the hooded statue of Giordano Bruno where he was burnt in the Campo de’ Fiori; I cross the Ponte Sisto where I passed twice a day for the bus to and from work in the 70s.  In Trastevere I chance upon an open door to the back of the old Cinema Pasquino, where we watched English language films under the stars when they slid the roof open.  

It looks like a bomb site now, but I am informed that it is to reopen this Autumn – which is glad news!  I have a drink in the Caffè di Marzio, on Piazza S. Maria in Trastevere, where my flatmate was knifed one night.  

I peer into the closed interior of the Pizzeria Ai Marmi (which for some reason I knew as Moroni’s) and lick my lips at the thought of their Supplì al Telefono (so called because the strands of mozzarella in the rice croquettes stretch like old fashioned telephone wires).  

I stroll to the river, enjoying a Grattachecca (hand shaved ice, flavoured with fruit syrup) from an old kiosk on the Lungotevere, then cross the Isola Tiberina and wind through the Ghetto and back up to my hotel.

Before leaving Rome, I visit Nero’s Domus Aurea.  Some forty years ago I managed to get into part of this dingy ruin, but at the time there was little to see and nothing to explain.  It is now visitable in guided groups and various panels and pictures bring it to life, around 2,000 years since it was obliterated by Trajan when he bulldozed the foundations of his baths over the tyrant’s palace.  The centrepiece of the modern visit is a Virtual Reality display which takes my breath away.  

This show strips away the grime and infill of the millennia and eventually brings you out into the flowering gardens where grasses shimmer and trees rustle in the breeze as you look out across the valley to the Palatine Hill.  Nothing I have ever seen, nor read, has made the ancient city come alive quite like this. 


I meet my daughter, Hannah, at the airport and we stay for a short while in Trevignano Romano, on the shore of Lake Bracciano, where she began her life.  

It is breezily pleasant here and we catch up with several more old friends, though sadly there are gaps in the line-up these days.


Then it is time to move on again and we motor up to Tuscany, stopping for a fishy lunch on stilts over Lake Bolsena.  On Monte Amiata we enjoy the quiet and rustic isolation of our friends’ old house, and have a wonderful feast under the fig tree as the sun sets.  Fegatelli and wine from Col d’Orcia; a glass of grappa by the fire.  Wonderful.


I have coffee in the morning with 94-year-old Corrado, when we manage to find the off/on switch to his coffee machine!  His days are lonely since Concetta passed, but he maintains an interest in the ways of the world, and asks kindly about Amanda. 


Time passes all too quickly here, and Hannah and I have to return the car to Pisa, where we meet up with my cousin Sarah for supper, then, subsequently, in the rain, we climb the slippery steps of the Leaning Tower – a strange first; strange as I am beginning to wonder if I will pass this way again. 


And then, wistfully parting from Hannah who will fly home, I take the train to Nice, where, again in the rain, I treat myself to a platter of seafood at Le Café de Turin in Place Garibaldi.  Memories here are from years ago.  I used to meet my parents at a campsite in Vence, and we traced Matisse and D H Lawrence together.  Then, later, friends lived in the old town and Amanda and I helped carry bottles and bottles of Vin Rosé to their fourth floor flat.  But now – all is changed.  The Flower Market teems with tourists (again, I know I am one too!) who seem to be happy with Irish Pubs, chain restaurants, smoking shops, trinket sellers.  Gone are the oyster shuckers and chilled wines of yesteryear!  Perhaps it is time to ditch my memories! 


It is a coincidence that while I write these words, I am listening to Radio 3 on Sunday, and Michael Berkeley’s guest on Private Passions is Dr Jules Montague, whose book, Lost and Found: Why Losing Our Memories Doesn’t Mean Losing Ourselves, could hardly be more appropriate.

Another coincidence, perhaps, is that in yesterday’s Guardian there was a long piece by Ian Black, and his wife, Helen Harris.  The article was entitled, As my brain is shrinking, so is my world, which might appear to contradict Dr Montague’s thesis.  As someone from the Alzheimer’s Society told me, some years ago, however: When you have met one person with dementia – you have met one person with dementia.....  There is, at least as far as we can tell, no absolute certainty about the way a person will behave or feel or live once the brain begins to deteriorate.


In fact, one of the things I learned from Ian Black is that a side issue he may be suffering from is Corticobasal syndrome (CBS)a type of frontotemporal dementia that is characterised by damage to the cortical and basal areas of the brain, which control movement, thinking, language and behaviour. It is sometimes known as atypical Parkinsonism.  While [this] shares symptoms with Parkinson’s disease, including slow, stiff movements and tremors, it also causes problems with movement, memory, problem solving and speech. There may be changes to personality and loss of inhibitions. One of the most common symptoms is gradually losing the use of one limb, known as limb apraxia.


I find this most interesting, as Amanda has at times shown signs of tremors, and has progressively become slower on her right side, her right leg being less responsive than her left, her right arm weaker than the left.  As Ian Black writes, A key element is a growing inability to use one side of the body.  The underlying diagnosis can only be confirmed, however, in a post-mortem examination of the brain....


It is the end of the season. I turn my back on the south, on the sparkling Mediterranean which I have enjoyed so much in my life, and am borne at speeds of up to 300 kph, non-stop from Marseilles to Paris.  Here I make my way to 7, Rue de Faubourg Montmartre, where I have supper chez Bouillon Chartier, where I have lunched and dined almost every time I have been to Paris for fifty years now.  

I love the place, and I guess I would not love it if I had no memories of the meals I have had there.  Meals with friends, such as the late Lindsay; with family such as brothers and parents; and with Amanda.  Notably we went there for lunch on a Eurostar day trip from Harpenden on our wedding anniversary some years ago....  I don’t want to lose that memory.


So now, again, I am home, recovering, and preparing for the next phase of our lives.  I have had enough of travel, for now, and am glad to be home.  As the future slips into the past, I will continue to treasure memories, holding them for Amanda if for nothing else.  She may have lost her memories, but she is still herself.  


On my travels I have been reading Anna Karenina.  I crawl to bed at home and read the last chapters.  On page 809, Levin (the character closest to Tolstoy’s own ideas) mentions the soul, inadvertently connecting the conversation with the thoughts that occupied him so much.  This prompts Levin’s half-brother Sergei Ivanovich to quote: ‘I have brought not peace but a sword,’ which is the very passage of the Gospel that had always disturbed Levin most of all.


I am startled, as these are almost the very last words (spoken by Christ) in Luis Buñuel’s film La Voie Lactée (The Milky Way), his surrealist film about two pilgrims on their way from Paris to Santiago de Compostela.  The exact words in the St James Bible are: Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.... (Matthew 10:34). And as I drift to sleep, I wonder if the coincidence of this passage appearing in two works of art currently on my mind has a particular significance.  [No, it isn’t an excuse for Trussonomics.]  An orthodox interpretation is that Christ is telling his disciples that there needs to be change and that change will not necessarily be entirely peaceful (it is not new to proclaim Christ a Revolutionary). 


But perhaps there is a more homely interpretation, for me at least.  


I need to be cruel, to be kind.....

30 September 2022

– The Milky Way (1)

 Trains of Thought...


After three weeks and three thousand miles, mainly on trains, I am home.  The cats mew welcomes and I drop my bag, exhausted.  I think this may have been the longest separation from Amanda in forty years and I am looking forward to collecting her from Respite in the morning, but first I must burn some heating (the house is cold! - but can we afford it?)  I am cold.  And tired, and need to lie down.....


Three-thirty in the morning and I cough myself awake, unable to sleep again, not feeling good.  Seven-thirty and two thin red lines stare back at me from their plastic frame.  After three years and three vaccinations, and despite wearing a mask for three thousand miles, finally the bug has got me.  Plans change.  I cannot pick Amanda up.  


Time for reflection.  The point of this break was in part for me to recharge my batteries, to allow me to prolong my care for Amanda at home.  In part, however, it was to see how she got on in the local care home, conveniently nearby.  I had planned to bring her home for a few days to see how she was with me, then to take her back for the weekend while I collected my thoughts and then to make a final decision on the Monday following my return.


For anyone caring for someone, there are many things to consider, the first of which is to allow the cared for to remain safe in his or her decline.  A secondary consideration, however, concerns the carer.  For example, if I, or one of the dedicated carers who have been helping Amanda at home, were to become ill or incapacitated, then the situation would rapidly become problematic.  Whereas if she takes up residence in a care home, there is 24-hour assistance, and, while no one can pretend it will be as “nice” for her as being in her own home, if we are nearby and can visit, take her out or bring her home regularly, then maybe everyone benefits.


For readers unfamiliar with this story, Amanda was diagnosed with dementia about eleven years ago (to be honest, it’s a blur now and I cannot remember quite how long ago it was, it may have been longer). Initially we were told that it was early onset Alzheimer’s disease, but I contested this and after brain scans and extensive testing it was agreed that the correct diagnosis was Frontotemporal Dementia (Semantic Variant) a relatively rare (and long-lived) condition.  In practical terms this doesn’t make a huge difference – no dementia can currently be cured, and all converge eventually in some kind of death – but in Amanda’s case it has meant that while she hasn’t had some of the symptoms that can be so distressing in dementia – such as extreme behaviours, anxiety, disconcertingly repetitive actions – she has now lost almost every shred of language, both in her understanding and in her ability to communicate.  


She continued working, and driving, for some time, and apart from struggling to find the right word at times you might not have known she was affected.  It is a slow, silent, stealthy insurrection however, and day by day plaques, abnormal clusters of protein fragments, build up between nerve cells, then dead and dying nerve cells contain tangles, which are made up of twisted strands of protein.  Nutrients and other essential supplies can no longer move through the cells, which eventually die; the brain shrinks dramatically and the effects become more noticeable.  


We continued to travel, though our trip to Bologna and Ravenna in 2015 was a milestone as I had an epiphany at the Easter Vigil in the Metropolitan cathedral as the Paschal Candle was lit to the singing of the Exultet:


Accept this Easter candle,
a flame divided but undimmed,
a pillar of fire that glows to the honour of God.
(For it is fed by the holy melting wax, which the mother bee brought forth
to make this precious candle.)
Let it mingle with the lights of heaven
and continue bravely burning
to dispel the darkness of this night!
May the Morning Star which never sets
find this flame still burning:
Christ, that Morning Star,
who came back from the dead,
and shed his peaceful light on all humanity,
your Son, who lives and reigns for ever and ever.



Unlike Amanda, unfortunately I have no faith.  But in the dimness of that crowded place I realised that we had come to a point of no return, and that our relationship could not maintain the equilibrium we had enjoyed for over thirty years.


After Amanda had to retire, we visited our daughters in China and Australia in 2016, but then settled down to quiet routines of swimming, walking, and watching Escape to the Country, rowing back against the advancing deterioration.


Our last overseas trip was to see the Christmas markets in Krakow in 2019, after which the pandemic raised its ugly head and we were locked down, just the two of us, sneaking out for two walks a day (no swimming) and awkwardly waving and clapping on Thursday evenings on the doorstep to keep in with the neighbours....


During that time, while I caught up on some heavy reading (Boswell’s Life of Johnson – an ironic choice given the lifelessness of the then Prime Minister – and John dos Passos’s USA) Amanda spent her time cutting and pasting, creating Christmas and Birthday cards for her friends and relations all the way up to 2029....)


And then we moved, to Norfolk, in an attempt to find a home where our daughters could stay comfortably should they be able to help with care, and where we could potentially have residential carers should we reach that stage.  It was a good move, though, with retrospect, too late for Amanda to appreciate.  The upheaval disturbed her, and her condition worsened.  So that now, despite all the help and goodwill from family, friends and carers, we are faced with the trauma of dislocation once more.  


And so, over eighteen months since we moved, and exactly a year since I last went anywhere at all, with all this in mind, I take a series of trains to Harwich, a place of diminished charm:

to ship to the continent, with a meticulously planned itinerary to visit old friends and haunts, and to revitalise my tired thoughts.  Amanda is safely installed in a local care home for a period of respite, and I am temporarily free.  

In Amsterdam I pass a wonderfully convivial evening with a family of dear friends who we knew from Rome, though as this was almost my first social evening in someone else’s home for some years I was perhaps over-excited? 



With two other friends, by chance on a similar trajectory, we revisit the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh, but I am already troubled.  What is it that is gained through this incessant interaction between visitors and works of art?  I don’t tire of Rembrandt or Vermeer, and Van Gogh’s frenetic output never ceases to impress.  But as I gaze at the Lowry like scene in the foyer:

or at the serious attention paid to walls covered in oils, 

I have a welling sense of futility.


On September 8th at around 16.10 local time, a double rainbow rises from the North Sea.  The following morning the papers are awash with the royal story. And so they are in Germany, Austria and Italy for days to come.  I’m not the only one with problems.


Stranded by a Dutch train strike (yes, it isn’t only Great British Railways, though I must say this was handled differently....) I spend a night where Chet Baker died, and wander Amsterdam in the rain, seeking solace behind locked church doors, 

and views from on high....


Then I am away, and coursing through Germany, streaking away from my responsibilities, I spend a night in Bamberg, entranced by both the half-timbered Altes Rathaus, 

perched above the Regnitz, and jars of Rauchbier (smoked beer) in the dark and warm interior of the Hofbräu.....


Then on to Munich, where other beer halls attract, 

as does the rather moth-eaten Alte Pinakothek, 

once (1836) the largest art gallery in the world, though with almost every picture glazed with reflecting glass I again find it difficult to know what I am looking at, or for....


I reach the high spot of this part of my journey in Innsbruck, where funicular and the Nordketter Cable Car transports me to Hafelekar at 2,269 metres above sea level.  Here spectacular views across the Tyrol are crystal clear in the mountain air.  Alpine Choughs:

hop about round my feet, and for a moment I feel almost weightless, though from here the only way is down.....


This journey is a pilgrimage, like the wanderings of the peregrine, or like a journey down the Milky Way to Santiago de Compostela, a journey that in Luis Buñuel's film La Voie Lactée plays with time, and entertains questions of orthodoxy and heresy. I don’t mean to exaggerate, but if we are thinking beings, we should be examining the purpose of existence and trying to make some sense of our place in the universe. On my various trains my thoughts turn frequently to Amanda and the life we have shared, the places we have visited. At the top of the Karwendel Nature Park above Innsbruck, I am reminded of a trip Amanda and I made to Salzburg, before the children were born. From there we had a day trip up into the Tyrol, in shiny blue weather, like today, and we surveyed the rocky and snowy world from on high.


And we believed, then, in a bright future.


Now I am home, alone.  I really do not feel that well.  It’s time for bed.....

[All photos, except that of the two of us in the Tyrol, taken either on my iPhone SE or my Canon EOS R5]

22 August 2022

Who cares?

 The Zombies

Well, let me tell you 'bout the way she looked
The way she acted, the colour of her hair
Her voice was soft and cool
Her eyes were clear and bright
But she's not there

She’s Not There

Rod Argent

The Zombies, 1964

Not so long ago I thought I was fortunate - it could be worse.

I am not so sure now.  We all have our crosses to bear.  I said this once when someone said they had a friend in the Conservative party......  Now I feel different (though not about the Conservative party, y'unnerstan?)

I look around me.  I see happy families.  Dog walkers.  Horse riders.  People who smile. 

And I think,"Good for you!"

Let me talk you through a day - last Saturday, in fact.....  And I only offer this as some kind of reference to people like me who care for someone they love.  I don't seek your sympathy.  I don't claim to be an exception.  But I do think it won't harm anyone to grow their realisation of a fact of life.  When I was younger (let's just say for the first fifty or so years of my life) I had very little concept of the effects of dementia. And I don't just mean on those who could be assigned the label (take, for example, King Lear, or George III).  I mean on those who pick up the traces, who carry the trains, who live in the shadow of this scourge.....

So, it started like this.  I made the tea.  I took Amanda to the bathroom, etc.  Changed the sheets, put a wash on, etc.  We drank, and spilled, a little tea.  I helped her get dressed, we stumbled downstairs.  We ate some fruit.  We went to the loo.

Then we put on our shoes, and sunglasses and hats, and I drove us to Holkham Gap, where the air is good and the sky is clean and the sea is far far away at low tide, and kites and buzzards squabble above the pines (thank you Jake Fiennes....) and the shadow of Gwyneth Paltrow still clings to the idea of Shakespeare.....

Despite the uncanny likeness, this is not our Gwyn.....

Anyway, we walked, gently along towards Wells, then cut through the pines and over the dunes.  Amanda fell, once, and struggled on the upslopes, the sands running out under her feet, but we carried on, the vast expanse of the exposed beach stretching far away to shores such as Lincolnshire and maybe even Heligoland....

And what is the point of this? What did she understand by this? It was a beautiful morning, with a breeze to lift the caps, and an air to pluck the strings. The décolletage a reminder of other times; the deep dark eyes a come-on to the few corpuscles still active in my system.....

But look closer, please (if you can bear it).  There is now an emptiness that mutely offers oblivion.  Look closer, please....

But it's too late to say you're sorry
How would I know? Why should I care?
Please don't bother trying to find her
She's not there!

Yes, in the huge expanse of blue and yellow there is a wonderful emptiness.  A void.

Whichever way you look.

However you look at it.

Whatever your perspective.....

And she will laugh, and have all the appearances of a life still to be lived.....

Though as we progressed in our return, she weakened, and flagged, and failed, and over the last mile or so I was practically carrying her as best I could.....

Later that day I took her to stay overnight in a local care home, partly for her to become accustomed, so that it isn't a shock when she eventually does take up residence in such a place, but also partly for me to get used to the idea (and to have a less disturbed night....  Excuse the self-indulgence?) 

I went home.  I cooked myself a drink, and poured myself a supper, and lapped up some Bonnie Rait.....

I wandered round our garden, sniffing the fading roses,

Admiring the water lily that has graced our new pond.....

And realised, as the cat turned its back on me, just how empty everything is......

As John Prine said (with Meadow in mind, I am sure):

You come home late and you come home early
You come on big when you're feeling small
You come home straight and you come home curly
Sometimes you don't come home at all

So, I retired to the lounge and revisited my obsession with:

A family saga that both takes my mind off the present and also somehow has many echoes of our life:

(A bit like the Archers.... but with pictures)

Then, all spent, I look in on Amanda's room to check she's not there:

And the rest is silence

So what in the world's come over you?
And what in heaven's name have you done?
You've broken the speed of the sound of loneliness
You're out there running just to be on the run

You're out there running just to be on the run
You're out there running just to be on the run

John Prine

Speed of the Sound of Loneliness