Wednesday, August 05, 2015


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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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