Thanks to Ali Smith and her beautiful, intelligent, ground-breaking, startlingly simple complex How to be Both, I am in Ferrara. Somewhere I had never heard of before I read this book. When I saw Ali Smith at the Cheltenham Literary Festival she encouraged everyone to go to Ferrara and see the Palazzo Schifanoia frescos before they disappeared. That was the same night that she talked about how she had made herself ill by not writing, and that made me cry, and I went to get my copy of How to be Both signed by her, and I cried again in front of everyone explaining how she had spoken what was hidden deep in the reddest bits of my heart under yellow layers of visceral fat, and she came round from behind the desk and hugged me.
I wrote to her some months later thanking her for her kindness, and got a lovely note back. This evening I wrote her a postcard tellng her she had brought me to Ferrara, to the frescoes, to the richest most beautiful art I have ever seen, and how I sat in a restaurant and started writing a book – and then stopped and started planning it. Something I haven’t really done before.
Travelling alone is exciting. Unnerving. Exhilarating. Freeing. Above all, it is a recipe for getting lost if you have my complete inability to read maps. It must be some sort of dyslexia with directions; I find them impossible to take in. I listen politely and my eyebrows raise in grateful comprehension but my eyes glaze over. Then the person goes on their way, pleased to have helped me, and I stay still, as lost as I ever was, but now raging at myself because of this failing. The “15 minute” walk to my hotel took an hour. Someone kindly asked me if I was lost and I blithely replied I was fine, smacking myself across the face with the hopeless map once he had gone on his way. I hauled my suitcase up and down cobbled streets, loathing everyone who was ambling or trotting or jogging or cycling because they all knew exactly where they were going.
The following day I set off to view the frescoes and I dressed carefully, as if I were going to an assignation with a lover (I imagine, having never had one. OK so I’ve had a couple of dates so I felt like I was going on a date: putting lipstick on, choosing a fitted shirt rather than the casual top I had originally flung on). It took me half an hour to walk there, and that delicious pre-date anticipation was with me as I climbed the stairs – stairs which led to a surprisingly small room, a room designed to ‘alleviate boredom’ (a translation of Schifanoia). Two walls of frescoes have been destroyed, and the beauty of those which remain emphasises this loss. They are simply extraordinary. The rich velvet blue of the background; the minute detail of a crowd of ducks; the vivid imagination which went into the designs; the utterly human faces. I greeted the full-lipped, androgynous beauty of Ali Smith’s Francesco/Francesca del Cossa like an old friend; a haughty looking youth whose snooty expression made me laugh out loud; I regarded the genial Bose with one eyebrow raised remembering Francesca’s view of him. I felt the heat of the furious Gemini twins as they wrestled with each other; I envied a benevolent woman her clear-eyed beauty. I could drink from these pictures all day, like Joni Mitchell’s “a case of you”.
But Ferrara has more to offer me. Reluctantly I drag myself away to explore further. The mellow-stoned city is so full of art, history, architecture, all to be enjoyed, that I feel as if I will burst from the desire to see it all. I proceed from one place to another, not noticing how much my feet hurt, how much my poor knee has seized up, until I finally sit down in a cafe. Then I find it hard to stand up again. It’s cold; I am dressed for the sun which teased me for the first half hour of my walk and then hid itself for the rest of the day. I dive into a lingerie shop, ignoring the delicate lace bras and thongs made for women half my size, and pounce on a functional, utterly unsexy vest. Putting it on is delicious. I buy a cardigan too. Wearing both is of some comfort to my icy frame but my feet, in open-toe sandals, showing off my ‘hot chilli’ pedicure, cannot be comforted this way. As I get more and more lost, the whale-grey sky swells with rain, and bursts just when I am trying to decide whether to go left or right down a medieval cobbled street. I swear profusely and go straight on out of sheer pique. Ironically that turns out to be the right way. I see the sign for my hotel and, trembling and soaked, burst through the door, gasping for a cup of tea in the life-or-death manner only the English can. The kettle provided is the slowest kettle IN THE WORLD and I am so cold I find it hard to hold the mug. I have a long, hot shower, feeling the strength return to my fingers and joints, but not my feet. I fill the bidet with warm water, balance precariously on the edge of the loo and soak my feet until they have thawed out. It’s the first time I have used a bidet. It’s probably the first time the bidet has been used as a foot spa, so a new experience for us both.
I take a bicycle into town to find somewhere to eat. I’ve found I am thinking too much – mainly about all the bad things I have ever done – and I have made a concerted effort to think about anything *but* myself. Characters have sprung into my head. A story has knocked on my door and is shyly peering around the frame, waiting for me to invite it in. I sit at a restaurant and write the opening pages – then stop, turn to the back of my nnotebook and start planning the story. I have never done this before and to give my story structure builds a little faith in it. I’ve tended to leave the story to my characters to tell, but that rarely works – the two books I wrote during my GCSEs were luck and also due to the fact that I wrote so much it was second nature to me. I didn’t have to work at it, then. I’m out of practice now.
Riding a bike through Ferrara at first was frightening. I was scared of falling off (and of course I did, though fortunately not where anyone could see me). I was scared of being told off for going somewhere I shouldn’t. I was scared of colliding with someone who would insult me in rippling, florid words I couldn’t comprehend (probably just as well). But none of these things happened. Today I cycled nonstop and enjoyed it. I had forgotten how good it fels to have fresh air whorling into your ears. How quickly you can get somewhere. How if you go the wrong way you simply turn around and pedal quickly to find the right direction. I feel comfortable cycling now, although I haven’t done it in over 20 years. Writing is the same. I haven’t properly done it in so long. I’m rusty at it. In an article on writing I read, “You don’t do other things because you ae good at them. Swimming, running, drawing – you do these things because you enjoy them, not thinking whether you are good at them or not. Writing should be the same.” With that in mind, I have stopped writing thinking – does this work? Would people read this? Would someone publish it? – and have stopped thinking writing. I am merely doing. Like cycling, it takes practice. It’s nervewracking starting again, acknowledging the spiteful monkey whispering in your ear: you know that thing you did with no trouble at all when you were little? Well, you can’t do it anymore. You’ve lost the knack. You’re too old. It’s too late. But only by acknowledging that fear and attempting what you’re scared/longing to do will you find out if you are actually much, much better than you ever dreamed you could be.
Feel the fear and do it anyway. Hmm; not a bad title for a book.