I’m late with the Third Quarter. It was winter and it rained a lot in Adelaide, though apparently not as much as usual. I had frequent recourse to my miracle umbrella, still with me after all these years. In my story collection Bapo I wrote:
If you remember to carry an umbrella, you usually find you don’t need one. When you find yourself without an umbrella, on the other hand, it is bound to rain, slanting, soaking rain that wets you through to the skin, until you take shelter.
(‘Angled Wheels of Fortune’)
‘Umbrella’ was an earlier ‘umbrella’ title for that piece, which consists of fractured views and stories cut short. Umbrellas are easily lost, left behind or abandoned when wrecked by extreme weather. This one, though, I have somehow hung onto. I bought it in Frankfurt in 2004 with my dear friend Regine Mondon, who led me to the shop and told me what to buy. It’s a reliable folding umbrella in black and grey, a Knirps (see photo).
It’s a classic, still made and selling today for 50 euro. I’ve treasured it out of love for Regine, I suppose, who died in 2017, well into her 80s. She was like a mother to me when I was billeted with her family on a student exchange to Germany in 1968. She loved literature. Regine had worked on font design in Fankfurt after the war, training with Hermann Zapf. Zapf created Palatino, Optima and Zapfino, among other great fonts. He’s remembered in Zapf Dingbats. His student Regine knew a well-designed umbrella.
What We Call Human
Tim, on holiday in Mauritius, spotted my letter in the LRB online and sent me a screenshot. It’s my Calvino story, abbreviated in print. I was in England in 1979 when the London Review of Books started, filling a gap left temporarily by the suspension of the Times Literary Supplement during a year-long management lock-out at the Times. My erstwhile Oxford housemate Michael Neve was living in Mary-Kay Wilmers’s house in Gloucester Crescent at the time, helping out. Alan Bennett lived across the road, with the lady in the van. My friends had a flat around the corner in Inverness St, Camden Town. Now 85, Wilmers was founder and later editor of the new magazine. My dear friend Neve (born Tokyo 1949, died London 2019) was a historian of medicine, teacher, man about town, conversationalist and general consumer of life. He introduced me to the LRB which I wrote for at one stage—on contemporary Chinese art and Australian literature and history. I subscribed from the beginning. It reached me when I was in hospital in Shanghai in 1987, on a drip, and I read it from cover to cover. I benefited from Jeremy Harding’s editing of my work. The old guard have largely faded now and the new writers have their own style. It has great poetry reviewers. I’ve only ever written one short letter to the LRB, published on 15 June 2023.
In August I saw Stephanie Radok’s ‘Tree Stories’ at Urrbrae House. The works in this compact exhibition let you feel the force of her mark-making and hear its song. I contributed ‘Reflections on an Arboretum’ to the catalogue.
There was great reading this month too, and great talking about reading with friends: People Who Lunch by Sally Olds in which my one-time student Vince makes an appearance; the very funny I’d Rather Not by Robert Skinner; and in our Dante circle we moved on to Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, which Shakespeare wrote while the London theatres were closed because of the plague, and now Wordsworth’s The Prelude (1805 version). China in Tiger’s Jaws: Voices from the Ming-Qing Catastrophe (1998), edited and translated by Lynn A. Struve, was time travel for me. After which I raced through Simon Schama’s new Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines and the Health of Nations, which travels to the same fraught part of the world: Southern China, its islands, its waters.
My new novel was on the horizon too, which brought some talking about myself in the media—hence the tone of reminiscence in the above. The Idealist was published on 1 September 2023. Read more about it here.