Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Sometimes I wish I had never visited the Covent Garden flower market...

...because once you have seen what's possible flower-wise, almost any florist-made bunch just won't do, says Susie Boyt in the Financial Times:

Because I needed to say, "Sorry," and, "Thank you," and, "Chin up!" to three different people this week I have been speaking to several florists in London and New York. Florists' hearts sink when they hear my voice. My first question, always, is, "What do you have in today that's especially lovely?"

"We have everything," they almost always crisply say. This is hardly ever true.

"Do you have Dolce Vita roses? Do you have Hollywood? Do you have Avalanche? Do you have those white anemones with colour bleeding through at the edge of the petals?" I ask.

They do not.

Sometimes I wish I had never visited Covent Garden flower market because once you have seen what's possible flower-wise, almost any florist-made bunch just won't do. The excitement involved in a dawn raid on Covent Garden is almost more than I can take. You stuff your pockets with cash, you set your alarm to a punishing hour (there's no point arriving much after half past six) and in the dark and the cold you zoom through traffic-free streets, pay your fee at the gate, park, shoulder your way through heavy double doors into an enormous, unpromising-looking warehouse that is always freezing cold, and then, suddenly - you're in Oz!

The colour and scent that greet you never fail to dazzle. Although you ought to be asleep you feel more alive than is possibly wise, and your conscious and unconscious marvel at this dream-like space. I like to linger at Austen's next to the banks of long-stemmed roses. Just situating myself among 2,000 or 3,000 of them makes me feel like a ballerina, relaxing back-stage after the 17th curtain call or emerging from some sylvan Tchaikovsky setting on stage. Choosing is hard. There's always a dim sense of crisis involved, for you want to see everything before you decide, but the longer you leave it the less choice there is. You always spend more than you intend because, well, you have come all that way.

Afterwards, in the cafés, reviving fare awaits. There's the refined coffeehouse upstairs with pink tablecloths and saucers, or the slightly prefabricated diner outside the main building where the clientele varies wildly: there are florists, some huffy and imperious; lorry drivers who happen to be passing through Vauxhall and need sustenance; and hard-core revellers from the neighbouring gay clubs who pop in to refuel, still jerking to the music that hasn't stopped drumming in their ears. All these different tastes are reflected in the menu, which serves everything from dainty fruit salads and patisserie to black pudding. The smells are extraordinary: the aroma of grease and coffee somehow underwritten by the odour of hyacinths, the Turkish delight sweetness of pink roses.

These scents, these visions, stay with me so that ordering flowers to send always fills me with disappointment. Before I have even begun I feel I have failed. "You should have got up early and gone to the market yourself!" I scold harshly. Never mind the baby, who can de-head a posy faster than a power mower.

"What is the point of sending quite nice flowers when there are breathtakingly beautiful ones you're passing over?" the stern voice continues. "Standards are slipping wildly, round here. It'll be garage forecourt blooms next, and packet cake-mix if you're not careful. Velour lounge wear. Flatties!"

I defend myself robustly, remembering the pride I felt when a friend of mine happened upon me glancing at Easy Living magazine and was genuinely startled. "What are you reading that for?" she exclaimed. "You like difficult living."

I was delighted then this morning to receive a telephone call from one of the florists I had employed.

"Just wanted to check something," the efficient voice announced.

"Oh yes?"

"When you said you wanted to have written on your message, 'Tons of love, Susie,' did you want metric ones or imperial?" I give a little squeak of pleasure. This sort of attention to detail makes me really glad to be alive.

"Which is larger, do you know?"

"Funny you should say that. I have actually asked around and, can you believe, no one seems to know! Mad, isn't it? But anyway, I wrote out your card both ways just to see how it looked in black and white for you and 'tonnes' does look fussy. So my feeling is we should go with 'tons' but I thought I ought to check with you first. I know how much these things can matter."

"Thank you," I say. "THANK YOU."

Update: Thank you everyone for lavishing such generous praise on this piece. But I am not its writer. As the first paragraph above mentions, it is Susie Boyt of the FT. Kindly direct your appreciation to her.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

He must go on

(Mr. F is a closeted gay man in 1960s' London and works as a cutter on Number 4, Skin Lane. Beauty is his male apprentice.)

I just finished Skin Lane, and indeed, it doesn't matter if Mr F existed or not. For me, and for anyone who understands what fiction stands for, he exists. He exists in that space that transcends dream and reality, that space that really matters, and which is our only abiding companion in a life where memory and faith play tricks. And for a book that pays such fabulous tributes to the subconscious mind, it is only natural to tip the hat to such an existence. Even if he did not really exist, his pain, his searing grief exist for what they do to a reader many decades apart.

Bartlett really should have finished the novel with the final scene between him and Beauty at Number Four. At least that — this thing called "ever after" — would have been an open question, ready to be filled with the reader's hopes for Mr F. By taking the story forward, and in spite of taking away the dread from his life, Bartlett made Mr. F return to a very real — too imaginable —space, a space that took away some of the charm of my hopes for him. Why won't Bartlett let me think Mr. F found eternal happiness? Could he not have let him be a hero? Why did he make us witness his death—doubtless, a peaceful demise—but just that? How am I to approach the objects Mr. F left behind (a photograph, a child's ticket to a circus, a battered copy of an old book of fairy tales...)? The ashes of a blessed existence? I don't think so. I am not satisfied. Did Mr. F return, in another birth perhaps? He must go on.

I know there are countless other people walking the world right now, who go through what Mr. F went through, and yet, are condemned to return to their erstwhile lives. But you don't do that on paper; you don't do that in a book that promises to survive it all.

(Bartlett's two other novels, Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall and Mr. Clive and Mr. Page, arrived in the mail the other day. But I am a little wary of approaching them just now. You see, Mr. F lingers. His voice, his presence, his very being are gifts to be handled with care. I cannot let another nuanced tale fight with his memory. Therefore, a little time will help.)

Sunday, March 02, 2008

You've gotta love these fictional letters

Before the advent of email, the love letter was arguably the most tantalizing creation on paper. In this day and age, however, the love letter has all but disappeared from our collective conscious, so we should be grateful that a collection like this, which imagines this seductive delight in the words of 40 well-known writers, has come along.

This four-letter word: it does make us do strange things, like send words of passion to an email id we think belongs to an acquaintance from the past, when it does not—like in Lionel Shriver's letter. Or, dispatch a paramour pictures of a trip made together to a lovely European city. To be glad of "everything we have done together, and sorry that we will not be here together in forty years…as we stand fabulously old, in a city that understands what spirit it takes to be old, to be beautiful, to be much looked at…to have a past, to be content, to have seen much, to have remained, to have continued…" Jeanette Winterson sure has a way with words.

But love is not just between lovers. Gautam Malkani's letter, from Michael to his mum, is the most poignant piece of writing you would come across in some time, because it tells you that death is not the end. Or Hisham Matar's, in which a precocious Nori regales Mona with details of his wet dreams of her. Mona is his step-mother.

In a collection almost certain to make you feel a little more cynical about this blasted emotion than you already do, there is hope. Chris Bachelder pens a recommendation from Paula Gates, Director of Love Education at Perlis High School for Charlie Valentine, "a prodigy and a genius in the discipline of love." Charlie is, in fact, so good at the subject he understands that sleeping with his teacher will lessen his desirability.

There is variety here, for sure. Margaret Atwood, who dexterously conjoins fantasy with literary merit in her novels, writes about a gender-bending scribe who crisscrosses millennia to enthuse us with changing patterns of love. And who said love letters are meant to be addressed by humans, to humans? Read the pieces by Sam Lipsyte and James Robertson for evidence.

This anthology is a curious mix of serious and playful writing. I am not sure, though, if, timed to come out just before February 14, it will make an ideal Valentine's Day gift. Thing is, it's not about love—well, it is about love, but not just about love found or cherished. It's more about love lost, love tried to be regained and love never truly finding home.