Wednesday, August 05, 2015


The right notebook to take on holiday remains a major headache to precious dilettantes such as ourselves (right?). Until now. 

I learned my lesson from last year's trip to Greece - i.e. you do NOT want to be lugging a thick volume around in your bag (which will already be heavy with a 50cl bottle of water & other gubbins) in 30 degree plus temperatures. In addition it looks: 

a) pretentious
b) antisocial
c) suspicious
d) predictable
e) ________ (you supply another alternative)

to produce the black Moleskine & start entering one's Golden Thoughts midway through a meal or pause for coffee. 

& so ... this year I made a series of deliberately scruffy little covers out of old Amazon packages (environmentally friendly too!) into which I inserted several folios of blank paper. The Amazon card gives just enough support when writing; the format sits nicely in the palm of the hand (easy access, unobtrusive, you might be simply totalling up the day's expenses); the limited number of pages offers a satisfying feeling of filling the space with the opportunity to insert a refill when you get back to the room plus ... you don't feel inhibited by the paper quality or an expensive binding. 


Talking of notebooks ... on the ferry back from Paros to Athens a woman sat adjacent to me across the aisle. It was hard to say her age - 40s or older, certainly out of her 30s. Nationality? Hard, too. She might have been Greek give her colouring & way of dressing (a light summer frock that fell well on her slim frame, strap sandals, thin red anklet & a careless manner of clipping up her dark chestnut straggling hair). Something about her movements precluded her from being British, so an American, Italian? Maybe. Then there was a disconcertingly girlish quality despite an overall impression of spinsterish (is this word still permissible?) severity & sensible spectacles. Her movements carried that spontaneity of a child's - sitting with her knees up to her chin or throwing herself back in her seat. Certainly a lack of concern for appearances - somewhere on the map between hippyish & bohemian. 

She had a guitar with her - nestled between her legs - which disappeared mysteriously some way into the crossing. Having taken her seat she produced a notebook - why I was immediately fascinated - in which she began writing giving the impression that the words had weighed heavily upon her mind & needed, urgently, to be set down. From where I was sitting there were many pages already full - written in a strong consistent hand. Even more intriguing she wrote from the very top to the bottom of each page & left no margins and - the clincher - used a fountain pen

This pen was small & what - I imagine - is marketed as a lady's 'purse' choice. I would find it awkward but in her small hands & nimble fingers the barrel sat well. The writing came easily, the ink too - which was surprising given the incline she was writing upon (the notebook resting on her hunched knees). 

& so the pressing question: what was she writing? The guitar suggested song lyrics but the continuous lines argued otherwise. A diary/travel journal? Yet from time to time she would pull out a scruffy reporter-style notebook & transcribe some pages. Then a journalist of sorts? Yet her whole manner was that of someone on holiday & the intensity of the scribbling seemed too personally committed for professional purposes. Then ... a novelist? 

Abruptly she got up & walked down the aisle, returning ten minutes later with a small bottle of white wine and plastic cups. Once more in her seat she turned to the couple on her right & then the people in the seats behind & offered them a drink. Polite refusals. She shrugged, sighed, poured herself a glass & resealed the remainder. Inbred generosity? Or the shame of the solitary drinker? (& might she not have leant across to me ...).

& so the second question: why did I not take the initiative & satisfy my curiosity by asking who she was & what she was writing? What held me back? Respect for another's privacy? Inbred English decorum (for which read inhibition) coupled with fear that such a query might be misinterpreted? Or out of self-protection that knowing might shatter my hopes & fantasies realising that these were nothing but pages of the most ghastly drivel & banality? 

Yet how much I admired her for her notebooks, that little fountain pen, the self-absorption, the utter indifference to the world around her - our fellow passengers sunk into that customary inertia of the modern traveller (dozing, smartphone fiddling, glazed gaze at the drop down screen entertainment). She was truly a foreigner in her own or another's country - reminding me of Mary Ruefle's claims to feel of another world entirely. Walking off the ferry into the solid wall of city heat I felt deeply cheered by what I had seen. 

So I raise my glass to you - ? -  writing on the boat between Paros & Athens on a Thursday in late July. 

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