Travelling without footprint

This summer I’ve managed to travel to a far-flung island in Greece, spend a month in Siena and do a whistlestop tour of Rome, Florence, Naples and Bologna and all without producing my Covid clearance cert. How did I manage it? I travelled by armchair, returning to a genre I haven’t read since my late teens. Back then I developed a passion for travel writing, probably as a response to an adolescent restlessness and a sense of restriction – a desire to be off, to be anywhere but here. Much like now.

I marvel that only two years ago foreign travel was often a casual and spontaneous decision. I wonder if we will ever return to that spirit again. And perhaps it would be better if we didn’t, given the climate change catastrophe that’s looming.

On the plus side, the armchair traveller leaves virtually no carbon footprint.

Paul Theroux (father of the now more famous Louis) got me started with the travel bug. His marvellous train journeys were gathered under one roof in The Great Railway Bazaar which charted his sometimes bad-tempered travels by train across Europe and further afield. (Some years after reading this book, I experienced travelling on the Trans Siberian Express for myself and recognised much of its rough charm from Theroux’s accounts.)

There were other travel books I read hungrily. Thor Heyerdahl’s The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas, Wilfrid Thesiger’s travels in the Empty Quarter in Arabian Sands, Robert Byron’s Road to Oxiana, Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons , or Tracks by Robyn Davison who travelled by foot across Australia with a caravan of camels. Then there was Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines , also about Australia, and In Patagonia, about the region at the southernmost tip of South America. Not forgetting our own intrepid Dervla Murphy’s Full Tilt, who took the world on by bike.

The attraction of these books was their narrators’ single-minded pursuit of exploration for its own sake. Shamelessly, I used that as justification for insisting on my honeymoon in 1981, that we follow the route Laurie Lee took in his seminal As I Walked Out One Mid-Summer’s Morning , a classic of the lone traveller genre. Lee was only 19 when he decided to walk through Spain in 1934. We went as far as Algeciras with him; then we parted company. He described it as a quaint fishing village with men mending their nets on the beach. But by then it was an industrial port, with chimneys belching out pollution into the clear blue sky.

As a travel writer, Lee was incomparable, but I realised I couldn’t use his book as a dependable contemporary guide. Too much had changed given the 40 odd years that had elapsed since he had taken his journey.

Lockdown has brought me back to the genre after a long absence. Lockdown number three ,in particular, with its desolate open-endedness and the prospect of stepping off the island retreating to a vanishing point. Exactly like being a bored and frustrated teenager with no means of escape.

Mermaid Singing by Charmian Clift is an object lesson for the restless soul. Clift was an Australian journalist married to George Johnston, a fellow journalist and novelist ( famous in Australia for his autobiographical novel My Brother Jack, originally published with a cover painted by Sidney Nolan ). They were slaving away as hacks in 1950s London with two small children, and writing novels together in their spare time. (What spare time?) Then one wet rainy Monday they decided they couldn’t bear the post-war austerity any longer and decamped to the Greek island of Kalymnos (one of the Dodecanese between Kos and Leros) where they lived the simple, sun-soaked life they’d always dreamed of.

I was drawn to Clift initially because she was name-checked in Nick Broomfield’s 2019 documentary Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love, about Leonard Cohen and his Swedish lover who inspired the song, “So Long Marianne”. Clift became a godmother figure to the ex-pat crowd of assorted hippies and Bohemians, writers and artists (including Cohen and the aforementioned Sidney Nolan) who camped out on the island of Hydra in the 1960s.

Mermaid Singing predates Clift and Johnston’s time in Hydra and is a flinty-eyed but lyrical account of settling on the island where she and George and their two children, Martin and Shane ( a daughter) are the only outsiders. Kalymnos was a centre for sponge diving and every spring the boats would leave the island for six months at a time heading for the African coast and taking most of the men with them. Sponge diving is a dangerous occupation and many of the island men died or were permanently maimed as a result of dives that had gone wrong. Clift wrote about the sponge divers and it inspired a novel that she and Johnson co-authored (The Sea and the Stone, 1955).

The cliche of the past as another country has never been truer – even if one were free to travel, the Kalymnos that Clift describes has disappeared along with Laurie Lee’s Spain.

But in Mermaid Singing, the reader gets full immersion into more personal and fleeting moments of Clift’s island life. “The boat with the tan sail has come in close. Ropes are trailing from the side, and the children are dragging it in. They seem so small and bright and shining and far away, small singing scraps of flesh and colour in the great grave cadences of sunlight.”

Clift and Johnson followed their year on Kalymnos with a decade on Hydra, where they lived, worked and caroused and their children ran wild. (The postscript to their Greek idyll was tragic, however. On their return to Australia, Clift committed suicide in 1969 and Johnson died of tuberculosis a year later. Their children fared no better. Shane Johnston committed suicide in 1974. Martin Johnston, an acclaimed poet, died of alcoholism at 42 in 1990.)

Running wild has its downside.

“Only inside a book or in front of a painting can one truly be let into another’s perspective.” so claims British-Libyan writer Hisham Matar in his latest book, A Month in Siena, which does exactly what it says on the tin. In a quieter vein than Clift’s, it’s an account of his sojourn alone in the city. He’s drawn there by the paintings of Duccio, Martini and the Lorenzetti brothers, Pietro and Ambrogio, who created the Sienese school of paintings in the 13th and 14th centuries, with its echoes of Byzantine and gothic art.

Matar is great on the paintings – and the book has small but sumptuous colour plates. But he’s brilliant on the particular loneliness of travelling solo and the spontaneous and often intense relationships that can form when you step out of your comfort zone. This is contemplative autofiction, the self as city. It’s not about extravagant adventure, but philosophical reflection. Much like W G Sebald, Matar makes you feel less inadequate for having been melancholy in the midst of foreign splendours.

I’ve been accompanying my vicarious travel reading with American actor Stanley Tucci’s TV series Searching for Italy (CNN) which has satisfied my culinary wanderlust for the moment. Tucci, Italian on both sides, eats his way around the regions of Italy tasting the local produce and wangling a few recipes form the chefs he meets along the way. The food is good but the photography is even better. Made for an American audience – and built around numerous ad breaks – the programme tends towards the soundbite. Excuse the pun. But it excels in dunking you right into the heart of several Italian cities, wandering cobbled streets, sitting at outside tables with the ever present clink of conviviality.

Sometimes, though, you want even the lovely Stanley to step out of shot so that you can savour being in the fish market in Catania, or a bayside restaurant on the Amalfi coast during a lightning storm, without the chattering commentary.

Maybe I’ve been reading too much Hisham Matar?

A beach on the island of Kalymnos – Photograph: Reddit

Caravaggio at the Capitol

Even though it’s nearly two months  since a mob of Trump protesters stormed the US Capitol in Washington DC, the images of those events still have the capacity to chill.  I was particularly struck by this image by Mostafa Bassim taken right at the heart of,  and in the heat of, that monumental clash between the forces of law and the ranks of  disorder. 

With due process now taking place and a new, saner administration in power, I found myself returning to  this image, not as a record of public history, but to admire its painterly qualities.  It kept reminding me of something else, and  then I realised what it was.  The composition, the colour palette, the intensity of the emotions, those faces picked out in the crowd, seemed to chime eerily with Caravaggio’s The Taking of  Christ,  his landmark biblical painting which depicts the moment when Judas Iscariot betrays Christ with a kiss.

Caravaggio painted The Taking of Christ ( National Gallery of Ireland) in 1602.  Its immediacy and impact is achieved by his unusual  technique of placing his figures close to the picture plane.  His trademark use of theatrical chiaroscuro  ( light and shade) also gives the scene a vivid sense of drama.  Some of  these artistic tropes  are evident in Bassim’s  photograph.  

The composition of both images is  strikingly similar.  The eye is drawn to the open mouthed, bare-headed protester,  centre left in Bassim’s photo, who’s also the focus of the police’s attention.  He’s  in exactly the same position as Caravaggio’s figure of Jesus. Look at those  black-helmeted riot police who are dead-ringers for the Roman centurions in their gleaming armour in Caravaggio’s work. 

 Caravaggio employs a minimal caste in his painting, suggesting a larger crowd outside the frame.  Bassim includes the crowd in his.  The low point of view Bassim employs, allows him to capture the claustrophobic crush of hand-to-hand combat at ground level while acknowledging  the flooding light from the dome of  the rotunda  creating a loftiness of effect; the “actual” struggling with the “ideal”. 

Caravaggio often painted himself into crowd scenes and in this one, he’s tagging along at the edge, the bearded young man in the top right of the canvas, peering over the heads of the others  to get a good look.  In Bassim’s  image, the “Caravaggio” figure is the fair-headed young man who exhibits a similarly intense curiosity in the bottom left of the frame – though it’s probably fair to assume that  if he’s in the Capitol building, he’s probably more than a disinterested witness. 

A red motif runs through both images.  Caravaggio adds heat and drama with the unfurling red cloak  that forms a canopy over the heads of Christ and Judas,  and continues the trope in  the red uniforms  of the soldiers and Jesus ‘s red tunic.  The equivalent in Bassim’s  photo is  the spot colour of those red  MAGA  caps dotted throughout the crowd in the Capitol. 

The  artistic associations are further enhanced  by the location of this pitched battle – the Capitol rotunda.  The rotunda  was completed in 1824 and was intended to recall the Pantheon, the ancient Roman temple with its curved sandstone walls, its  fluted Doric pilasters and  olive branch wreaths carved into the upper friezes, all visible in this photograph.  This is a ceremonial space used for important events of state,  such as  the lying-in-state of eminent citizens, and was intended to celebrate high public culture.  In the background, we can see four paintings which were commissioned by Congress from the artist John Trumbull, which depict significant episodes of US history – The Declaration of Independence,  The Surrender of General Burgoyne, The  Surrender of Lord Cornwallis and General George Washington Resigning his Commission. 

A case of history looking down on history? 

The big difference between Caravaggio’s painting and Mostafa Bassim’s  photograph is, of course,  the circumstances in which they were produced.  Caravaggio crafted his work  carefully.  He used models and posed them for tableaux and in The Taking of Christ there are numerous instances of pentimenti  (over-painting )  which indicate he changed his mind frequently about the composition and the placement of figures.  Bassim, on the other hand, had only a split-second to capture his image, while being in the midst of the fray, and probably in mortal danger himself.  As a news photographer, it’s unlikely he was considering  composition or colour as he snapped; he was  probably concentrating on catching the moment and wondering how he was going to escape the melee and  get the images  back to his editors.

This is primarily a photograph of record – as the Trump rioters now being rounded up  realise.  Many of them were identified by photos such as this. (Those, that is,  who didn’t incriminate themselves by posing for selfies and then posting on social media.) But  in my book, it’s much more than that.  In his subtle framing of the event, his sense of theatre and context,  his understanding of emotion and politics, his lightening speed of apprehension, Bassim has created a work of art in the blink of an eye.