Bossing the Nightshift

Cover versions get a bad press. They’re rarely as good as the originals, or the originals as you remember them. They often try too hard to be tricksyly different. But one exception to the rule for me has been Bruce Springsteen’s version of “Nightshift” from his latest album. Only the Strong Survive is Springsteen’s 21st studio album and is made up of fifteen “soul music greats’. It came out late last year and, though I’m not a die hard fan, I’ve been revisiting this track for old times’ sake.

The Boss’s take on “Nightshift”, which was the last gasp of funk/soul from 70/80s band The Commodores, doesn’t mess with a good thing, although his chastened 73-year-old voice gives what was a smooth R & B inspired track, a more brawny melancholy.

Or is that just me?

The lyrics of “Nightshift” (released in 1985) celebrate soul greats Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson, who had both died the previous year. The song imagines them reunited, gigging together on a celestial nightshift. 

Gonna be a long night
It’s gonna be alright, on the nightshift
You found another home
I know you’re not alone, on the nightshift

Back in the 80s, when The Commodores were charting with the track (straight after Lionel Ritchie had left them for a solo career), I was literally on the night shift, working as a sub-editor in Dublin newspapers. There was nothing even vaguely celestial about the 8pm–4am shift. 

Politically and historically, these were dark years. As journalists, we maintained ghoulish vigils for hunger-strikers, warned of hurricanes and snowfalls that came in the wee small hours, charted the late-night casualties of sectarianism, war, air travel, cars and drink. Our job was to sit in deserted newsrooms waiting for the bad news to come.

On our nightshift, you were alone.

There was plenty of time to consider your debt, your broken heart, your unfulfilled ambitions, as you sat awake in the graveyard hours keeping watch while the normal world slept. And to wonder what the hell you were doing with your life. A time designed for existential angst.

Coincidentally, in the past week, two former colleagues of mine from The Irish Times and this era – Noel McFarlane and Liam McAuley – who’d have done their fair share of these shifts in their time, have passed on to the great subs desk in the sky. It gives added poignancy to the Springsteen track, and the memories it evokes. At our age, nostalgia has a treacherous undertow – the loss of companions who shared those times with you.

Despite the fact that it’s an elegy, “Nightshift” is paradoxically, a bouncy number. It has a danceable rhythm and a breezy, feel-good, optimistic mood – essentially a kind of “we’ll meet again” vibe.  So, I’m hoping. . . the promise of an afterlife is one of the last vestiges of religious belief to die.

Over 35 years on, I’m living with the legacy of those long ago night shifts. I still keep ridiculous hours. Late to bed, late to rise.  

But as Elaine Stretch memorably sang in the gnarly Stephen Sondheim classic – ” I’m still here!” And in the words of another classic from the now forgotten 1960s musical, The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd – “And I’m feeling good.” (Covered by Nina Simone, Michale Bublé, George Michael and a raft of others.)

Janis Ian and the Rose of Tralee

It was the summer 1977. I had just moved into my first flat – a tiny bed-sit, which took up the back reception room of a small terraced house in Tralee. Two elderly sisters lived there (when I say elderly, that’s the perception of my 20-year-old self – they were probably the age I am now!) Their hair was set in iron perms and they wore blue nylon housecoats to spare their clothes. We shared an entrance hallway and a bathroom; they shared an overweening interest in my social life. Under the house rules, gentleman visitors were expressly forbidden. And if you managed to smuggle one in, there wasn’t much hope of anything happening given the monastic single bed, the scanty availability of contraceptives, and, I was sure, the presence of one of the sisters with an ear trumpet to the wall.

I don’t know if the sisters ever got to grips with my erratic schedule – I was a cub reporter with the local newspaper so I kept uneven hours – but since they were creatures of habit, I soon learned their patterns and knew the evenings when the coast was clear. I made the most of it.

Not that the most was very much – it mainly consisted of playing records at young men. My sound bible of that year was Janis Ian’s “Between the Lines”. Everything about this album spoke to me, the complicated, clever lyrics, its poignant mood, Ian’s soulful, melancholy voice and, it has to be said, its air of romantically grandiose self-pity. That was absolutely fine by me; that was where I was at.

I remember playing the signature track from that album, the Grammy-winning “At Seventeen” to one suitor I was particularly keen on, who blithely dismissed it as juvenile and glib. I was quietly outraged. Little did he know – this was a test and he had failed gloriously. If you didn’t like Janis Ian, I didn’t like you.

What made his verdict more shocking was that very few people of my acquaintance (particularly of the female variety) actively disliked “At Seventeen”. If anything, it attracted too much identification.

It’s a song that voices the feelings of teenage wallflowers, ugly ducklings with acne who are oppressed by popularity politics at school, whose names are “never called when choosing sides at basketball”, who have to invent lovers on the phone to make up for the lack of action in the romance department. Trouble was even tall, thin, blonde, sporty girls who had oodles of boyfriends and no shortage of invitations thought of “At Seventeen” as their song and they would sing mournfully along when it came on the radio.

It was a case of “At Seventeen” – c’est moi .

They seemed to miss the irony that girls like them – the “rich-relationed home town queens who marry into what they need” – were Janis Ian’s target, not her audience.

Over the years, I’ve been a devoted follower of Ian’s – though, I must admit, that for the suitable suitor test, I moved on to “Rumours” by Fleetwood Mac and “Blue” by Joni Mitchell.

Throughout the 70s and into the 80s, however, I bought and savoured and sang along with all of Ian’s oeuvre – “Stars”, “Aftertones”, “Night Rains”, “Restless Eyes” and my own favourite, the concept album “Miracle Row”. Concept album – doesn’t that date both Janis and me! I saw her live twice – once in Vicar Street, Dublin, in the 90s and again in the early Noughties in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where I happened to find myself teaching.

The daughter of radicals – her parents were on a FBI watchlist – Janis Ian was a precocious talent. She wrote her first song at 12 and signed her first recording contract at 13. As a teenager, she partied with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin – and survived! Both of them, heavily addicted, warned her off drugs and steered her away from dealers. She was friends with Nina Simone and James Baldwin, she did backing vocals for Leonard Cohen and James Brown.

Most people don’t class Ian as a protest singer, but her first album in 1965 (recorded when she was 14) featured “Society’s Child” about an inter-racial teen romance, which was considered so controversial that 22 record companies rejected it, and radio stations in the south of the US banned it from the airwaves. One radio station in Atlanta which included it on its playlist was burned to the ground and Ian was spat at on the street and heckled during performances. But it was championed by composer Leonard Bernstein and became a hit. Ella Fitzgerald dubbed her the “best young singer songwriter in America”.

She’s had two long breaks from recording, one after the breakdown of a violent first marriage, and again in the mid-90s, when she was defrauded by a business manager which meant there was no money for studio time and the proceeds of her live work were going to the IRS. But as she sings in the title track of her latest album, she’s still here.

It’s her first CD in 15 years, and she says it will be her last. Aged 71, she’s on a major tour of the US, after which she’ll devote herself to writing, but there will no more studio albums. For old times’ sake, I bought “The Light at the End of the Line” and although I’d lost track of her after “Breaking the Silence”, her “coming out” album, of 1992, I was delighted to find that although this is is a sparer, harsher sound than those lush, lyrical early albums, she still speaks to me.

This is a voice that has earned its melancholy, its bitter-sweetness and its anger. She hasn’t lost her edge. One of the tracks on the farewell album, “Resist”, a no-holds barred anthemic howl against misogyny, has been roundly boycotted by radio stations across the US for being too “sexual” and she’s been trolled and harangued on social media about it. Plus ca change.

Meanwhile, back in late summer of 1977, while I was quoting lines of hers at the suitors – “love was meant for beauty queens and high school girls with clear-skinned smiles who marry young and then retire,” my permed landladies were hosting a real-live beauty queen. It was the annual Rose of Tralee festival and one of the Rose contestants was staying in the house, chaperoned by one of the sisters. Chaperoning was a hands-on job, requiring strict supervision of the contestant and management of her social and moral diary, assisted by upright young men from good homes who acted as their escorts. (The language of “chaperones” and “escorts” makes it seem more like a Jane Austen novel than a 20th century beauty pageant.)

But the Rose of Tralee organisers were insistent the contest was not just a flesh parade, but a more wholesome enterprise. Inspired by a 19th century parlour song, contestants were required to embody the purity and innocence of the original Rose.

She was lovely and fair as the rose of the summer
Yet, ’twas not her beauty alone that won me
Oh no! ‘Twas the the truth in her eye ever beaming
That made me love Mary, the Rose of Tralee.

Imagine my surprise then when one night coming back to my bed-sit in the early hours, I came upon “our” Rose in the darkened hallway, in full ball gown regalia, creeping up the stairs, stilettos in one hand, leading her escort with the other. I was pretty sure she wasn’t going to be playing records for him.

The landladies were fast asleep; content that their chaperoning duties could be put to bed. I couldn’t believe my luck. Here was a juicy news story right on my doorstep; both the escort and the Rose would be drummed out of the competition for such licentious behaviour. But I suspected, given the importance of the festival to the local economy, that this was a story that might get buried. And I’d certainly get evicted if I spilled the beans about the transgression. So I opted for judicious silence.

There were tactical advantages to keeping it to myself. The secret could be used as ammunition in the future, I thought, if I was ever to be challenged on one of my gentleman callers.

Top: Janis Ian performing at the RDS , Dublin, in 1983 – Photograph: Kevin McMahon/Irish Times.
Above: Janis Ian today – Photograph: Peter Cunningham..

Weighty matters

Female friendship gone sour is rarely centre stage in political dramas on TV. Particularly when the drama concerned features President Bill Clinton. “Impeachment: American Crime Story” breaks that mould. It’s the third outing for this FX series which creates drama from recent political history and true crime cases – OJ Simpson and the killing of Gianni Versace featured in the first and second seasons.

“Impeachment” concentrates on the affair between President Bill Clinton and a 22-year-old unpaid White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. This relationship – along with a sexual harassment claim made by secretary Paula Jones against Clinton when he was the state governor of Arkansas – ignited the impeachment process against him in 1998/99.

What’s interesting about this series, however, is that it views much of the action from the perspective of Lewinsky and her “friend” and colleague, Linda Tripp (46). It’s this relationship – rather than the one between Lewinsky and Clinton, or even the Clinton marriage – that makes the show so compelling.

The early episodes are like the Slimfast Chronicles. There is a steady diet of conversation between the two about weight, how many pounds each has lost, how long Monica has laboured at the gym. Linda Tripp’s meals are often product-placement Weight Watchers fare or Slimfast drinks, followed by surreptitious fast food at her desk or micro-waved dinners on a tray in front of the TV at home. Food and its consequences weigh heavily on both women. This seemed to me utterly and depressingly true to life; the lives of Western women are constantly circumscribed by their relationship to the scales. And in this case, it’s also the scales of justice.

In “Impeachment” Lewinsky is played as both steely and wide-eyed by Beanie Feldstein. She is annoyingly self-absorbed, touchingly romantic as well as sexually frank. Linda Tripp (an almost unrecognisable prosthetically enhanced Sarah Paulson) is sourly strident, combative and self-aggrandising.

The pair met in the Pentagon having both worked in the White House. Tripp was a career civil servant who’d worked in the Bush administration before the Clintons took over. According to author Jeffrey Toobin whose non-fiction book, A Vast Conspiracy , inspired the “Impeachment” script, Tripp “represented one of the archetypes that the right wing most despised. She was a civil service lifer whose mastery of the arcana of job rights, seniority, pay levels and retirement bred in her a sense of entitlement that scarcely existed anyone in the private sector”.

A Republican by instinct, Tripp was appalled by the laxness of the Clinton administration and believed she could write a book exposing its shortcomings. But, in reality, she was fixated on Clinton’s sexual misadventures which she felt were damaging the reputation of the Oval Office. “She believed that history would remember her as a truth-teller and a whistleblower,” Roxanne Roberts wrote in The Washington Post.

Linda Tripp does not fit into our rather vaunted notion of a whistleblower. She was not a likeable personality, though Paulson in the series, manages to arouse sympathy for her because of her social awkwardness and her belligerent righteousness. Though driven by ideology, Tripp was not an altruistic actor. She had already engaged a literary agent and planned to write a tell-all book about her experiences as a White House aide, before she befriended Lewinsky. After Lewinsky confided that she was having an ongoing sexual relationship with the president, Tripp turned into an opportunist . (This book was never completed or sold.)

To that end she began secretly taping Lewinsky’s private phone calls to have documentary evidence of her claims that the president was engaged in an affair. “Tripp posed in these conversations as a sort of wise aunt – commiserating, consoling, concentrating, as she often said on ‘what’s best for you’,” Toobin wrote in A Vast Conspiracy. But she was also genuinely offended by the way Lewinsky was being treated – she had a daughter a few years younger than Monica – and saw how the White House, engaging in damage limitation about the affair, was treating Lewinsky as if she was a deranged stalker. While busily entrapping her vulnerable friend, Tripp also managed to impart some sage advice – it was she who persuaded Lewinsky to keep the famous blue dress for evidentiary purposes. However, in the end, to save her own skin, Tripp shopped Lewinsky to Kenneth Starr, the independent prosecutor steering the impeachment process.

Of course, the #MeToo movement has had an influence on how “Impeachment” has been framed. What is highlighted with hindsight is the imbalance of power in a relationship between the president of the US and a much younger subordinate. When she was brought in for questioning Lewinsky was intimidated and bullied by FBI officials. The prurience of the questioning into Lewinsky’s sexual history and the unseemly interest of lawyers and politicians (predominantly men) in the mechanics of the sex between her and Clinton was nothing short of salacious .

(The whiff – literally – of sex is hard to escape in this story. Jeffrey Toobin, author of A Vast Conspiracy, who was originally an adviser on the show – and was replaced, ironically, by Monica Lewinsky – was forced to step down when he became involved in his own sex scandal in October 2020. He engaged in masturbation in the middle of a Zoom session for The New Yorker.)

But where Lewinsky’s position departs from the #MeToo script is that she has always insisted that her relationship with Clinton was consensual. The late writer and essayist Joan Didion commentating on the impeachment noted that Lewinsky was “far from passive”.

Columnist Anne Harris writing recently in The Irish Times applauds Lewinsky’s stance: “Despite years of slut-shaming and fat-shaming, she chose what Didion once called, ‘that most uncomfortable of beds – the one she made herself’. She was an active participant in the affair and she took responsibility.”

If their weight obsessed both Lewinsky and Tripp during the impeachment crisis, the body image wars continued to affect them afterwards. Linda Tripp’s appearance was a constant target of media comment. After the publicity died down, Tripp confessed that she realised from her TV appearances how ugly she was . She finally lost that weight she’d always struggled with and had cosmetic facial surgery. Paula Jones, whose original harassment case, had kicked off the whole judicial process against Clinton, had her teeth fixed, her hair straightened and had a nose job – sponsored by right-wing supporters of her case – to make her more presentable on TV. Lewinsky, who was virtually unemployable, became the commercial face of a dieting company for a short period. Plus ca change.

Lewinsky worked as a co-producer on the “Impeachment” series. Reviewers have commented that the show predominantly reflects her point-of-view, but others more intimately associated with the action, disagree. Tripp’s daughter, Alison, in an interview with Vanity Fair, said it showed her mother in a more sympathetic light than the media of the late 1990s had.

Over 20 years on, Lewinsky has created a hard-won place for herself in the contemporary discourse speaking out about bullying and pubic shaming, a role for which she’s uniquely qualified. Tripp left her government job and retired to a life out of the spotlight She died in April 2020, before “Impeachment” went to air. The two of them hadn’t spoken since 1998.

Above: Sarah Paulson, left, as Linda Tripp and Beanie Feldstein playing Monica Lewinsky in ‘Impeachment: American Crime Story’  Photograph: Tina Thorpe/ FX

Miss Carr’s, Mary Lou and me

The Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald is not someone I have a lot in common with. I certainly don’t share her politics. But when I was approached recently by her biographer, Shane Ross, I realised I had shared a number of formative experiences with her. We both grew up in Rathgar – cue “leafy suburb” tag – we both went to secondary school at Notre Dame des Missions in Churchtown – append “fee-paying” to that – both details that have been used as a stick to beat her with. What I didn’t know was that we also attended the same kindergarten school, Miss Carr’s on Highfield Road, Rathgar.

Despite these proximities, we never crossed paths (which meant I wasn’t much help to Shane Ross). Being a good decade older than Mary Lou, I didn’t overlap with her at either of these institutions, now both shut down. But all the same, I felt the chiming of connection with someone with an identical educational trajectory, at least as far as Leaving Cert. She went on to Trinity; I went to Rathmines Tech.

The Miss Carr’s connection was particularly powerful, maybe because the school was such an important foundation in my own learning life. Not least because of its guiding light, Miss Carr herself.

The school, called after its schoolm’am, now sounds quaintly Victorian. As was its location – a rambling Victorian red-brick house, two storeys over a basement. (Earlier this year, the house, long in private ownership, was sold for over E2 million. ) Despite her “Miss”, Miss Carr was a married woman and lived in the upper portions of the house. Her husband played no active part in the running of the school, and was a distant figure, always referred to – even by Miss Carr – as Mr Lee. Perhaps the school pre-dated Mr Lee, or Miss Carr was a proto-feminist, but she was indubitably the mistress of all she surveyed at 22 Highfield Road.

She was a warm, slope-shouldered woman with a soft face and a firm, carrying voice that suggested safety but command. She taught the upper classes (the school catered for children aged 4 to 7) while the two infant classes were taken by Miss Murphy. The diminutive Miss Doherty took third class. She did not wear the regulation blue nylon, chalk-dusted housecoat, but specialised in pert suits, cherry lipstick, heart-shaped spectacles and exquisite red shoes with high heels bringing a little touch of glamour to proceedings.

Even though the rooms were large, each classroom seemed filled to the gills. The two infant classes (Low and High Babies) and third class were in the basement and fourth and fifth classes shared the two light-swollen reception rooms on the ground floor with the folding doors between them. There was a lot of wear and tear on the fabric of the house. There was a certain battered quality to below stairs – chafed floorboards, scuffed footleafs on the doors. When the bell sounded and school was out, the drumming sound of the exodus reverberated throughout the house. Poor Mr Lee upstairs!

The joy of Miss Carr’s was its proximity. (For us just a few minutes’ walk from home.) It never acquired the institutional oppression of “school”; it was an extension of our domestic world. The hierarchy at Miss Carr’s was very fluid; once you were judged ready you moved on to the next class. But that didn’t mean she didn’t run a tight ship. Spellings were recited daily, tables chanted.

Reading was of paramount importance at Miss Carr’s and we were taught phonetically, now almost standard, but in the early 1960s very much ahead of its time. She kept a careful eye on slow learners. She spotted dyslexia before it became recognised officially. She gave extra tuition to anyone with reading difficulties. She knew the name of every child in her care, and knew about them. Whereas we knew very little about Miss Carr, not even her first name.

Thousands of children passed through her hands and she schooled two and three generations of some families. She maintained a keen interest in her past pupils – children who had left her at the ripe old age of six or seven!

Neither was her interest casual or disinterested.

The query about Mary Lou McDonald resurrected a childhood memory I’d almost completely forgotten that establishes Miss Carr in my personal pantheon not just as a committed educator, but as the ultimate Good Samaritan.

In the spring of 1970, nearly seven years after I left Miss Carr’s, my father died. Miss Carr appeared at the funeral, of course. Same bubble perm and kind eyes, and with the same pragmatic empathy she’d always shown in school.

Exactly a week afterwards my bicycle – a much prized hand-me-down from a cousin – was stolen from outside the same church in Rathgar. (Enough to put a child off religion for life!) Miss Carr, always with her finger on the pulse, heard about the theft. She approached my mother and said she’d like to buy me a replacement bike. She’d had a windfall, she said – probably a white lie – and wanted to share her good fortune. There was only one condition – I was never to know who was behind the gift.

A few days later a brand new Triumph 20 was delivered in all its glory. Powder blue with 20″ wheels and 3- speed Sturmey Archer gears, this was the coolest bike for girls on the market. I couldn’t believe my luck. For many years, my mother maintained the fiction of the mystery benefactor. I’m hoping that Miss Carr saw me flying around Rathgar on the new wheels and realised the delight I took in it. That bike saw me through into my 20s until, in the spirit of Miss Carr’s original gesture, I paid it forward and gave it away to someone who needed it more.

It wasn’t until Miss Carr herself died that my mother revealed the secret. I wasn’t surprised, but I was sorry I’d never got the chance to thank her – not just for the bike but for the security and homeliness of that early education.

Despite our political differences, I’m hoping Mary Lou McDonald has similarly fond memories of it.

Photographs: Irish Times

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