Sunday, January 17, 2010

Jan Morris's Trieste

A photograph that I took hangs on my study/bedroom wall. It’s a back canal in Venice on a still day, the reflection of a church on the calm water between the moored barges. Just after I took the picture a sea-mist rolled in semi-obscuring the scene and the quiet was disturbed by the arrival of an ambulance launch. A pregnant woman, obviously in labour, was helped down some steps to board the craft and it chugged away leaving us to find our way along the deserted late autumn footpaths to the church with more work from the famous painter Tintoretto. They were as superb as the guide-book says they were.

Venice is a magical city. Bill has lent me Peter Ackroyd’s book, ‘Venice: Pure City’. I’ve begun reading it with pleasure. I remember walking out of the railway station and there in front of us was the glittering Grand Canal, a sight to lift the soul as many cultural strands coalesced. It is indeed a pure city, no rural hinterland.

I shall write about it in a later blog. Today I seek other prey. I had previously enjoyed Jan Morris’s book about ‘Venice’, his appreciative evocation of its past glory and present splendour. I’ve always enjoyed this author’s books, ‘Conundrum’, the story of the sex change from man to woman, ‘Fisher’s Face’, the British Empire trilogy, ‘Hong Kong’, and many more but above all ‘Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere’.
Trieste had been the port of the great Austro-Hungarian Empire. But its grandiose history has been replaced by a sense of a backwater living on run-down glory. Now on the border between Italy and neighbouring breakaway states of Croatia and Slovenia it was the place where Kiwi soldiers ended up at the conclusion of the European phase of the Second World War. For a time it looked like further hostilities as Yugoslav partisans claimed the city and the Allies refused to accept that request. Cool heads reached settlement, Trieste remained Italian.

My stepfather, Dick, described the partisans as ‘a scruffy lot, but brave’. Further conflict avoided our men swam and sunbathed. Muldoon told Gerald Hensley that while the men enjoyed the break at the back of their minds lurked the belief that this was an interlude before they would be posted to the Pacific to fight the Japanese. That was not to be. Dick described how Adriatic Sea was very buoyant. When someone lost his false teeth while diving off the wharf they could see them through the clear water but no one could get down to them.

In the book Morris defined nationalism as ‘patriotism gone feral’. There is an overall melancholic introspective tone which in a strange way is charmingly captivating, a self-examination set in a decayed imperial city whose cosmopolitan nature enables him to sum up his life. This paragraph which I copied into my diary when I read the book illustrates the meaning of the city for the author:
‘There are people everywhere who form a Fourth World, or a diaspora of their own. They are the lordly ones. They come in all colours. They can be Christians or Hindus or Muslims or Jews or pagans or atheists. They can be young or old, men or women, soldiers or pacifists, rich or poor. They share with each other, across al the nations, common values of humour and understanding. When you are among them, you know you will not be mocked or resented because they will not care about your race, your faith, your sex or your nationality, and they suffer fools, if not gladly, at least sympathetically. They laugh easily. They are easily grateful. They are never mean. They are not inhibited by fashion, public opinion or political correctness. They are exiles in their own communities, because they are always in a minority, but they form a mighty nation, if they only knew it. It is the nation of nowhere, and I have come to think that its natural capital is Trieste’.

And this paragraph which is the germ from which this particular blog developed. It’ll be my final word for a while on the youth/age dialogue. I’ll let Morris have the final say:
‘The past is a foreign country, but so is old age, and as you enter it you feel you are travelling into unknown territory, leaving your own land behind. You have never bee here before. The clothes people wear, the idioms they use, their pronunciation, their assumptions, tastes, humours, loyalties all become the more alien the older you become. …This kind of exile can mean a new freedom, too, because most things don’t matter as they used to. They way I look doesn’t matter. The opinions I cherish are my business. … Kindness is what matters, all along at any age – kindness, the ruling principle of nowhere’.

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