FAM: Up Close and Personal

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Unplanned Sabbatical, Coming to an End

By FAM, 27 May 2008

It’s been some time, the phrase that one dreads as a middle-aged human being, because if there was one thing about turning fifty (as I did last year in the context of a great gathering of friends, not for a party but a benefit concert, which was a total blast, needless to say, and garnered a fair amount of cash for educational projects) that is more than a bit scary, it is the knowledge that more than half of your innings are over. But it has been, in terms of writing, some time, which is reflected in the dormancy not only of this site, but also in the relatively (OK, make that horribly) low output of work.

Part of this is because life in 2007 was very busy from a musical point of view. Having started with the Ed-Aid Concert and all the interest that produced it’s perhaps no great surprise that there was just not enough time to go out for opportunities of readings, despite the year having started with what to date was the reading with the biggest audience at the ETAS AGM in Solothurn, an extremely pleasant as well as scary experience that went gratifyingly well.

In hindsight, it was a period of some difficulty, mainly because the environment in which I work has been undergoing changes that are truly momentous, if not to say traumatic. Within the period of a year, all of my friends as well as colleagues have either retired or decided that to move on to the proverbial pastures new seemed a preferable option. It was a period that was also characterised by changes in my friend and wife Caroline’s life, which led to a fair number of sleepless nights. Now, whatever they say about happiness writing white, I found in these past months that for me absence of happiness simply didn’t write.

As a result, everything has remained dormant, a kind of unplanned sabbatical, during which we both tried to regain the equilibrium and, cheesy as it may sound, harmony that we felt was needed to do what we wanted to do with ourselves. Now it seems, with summer finally on us, we are both increasingly convinced that the light at the end of the tunnel is not the headlamps of an on-coming train. We both have had to leave our comfort zones and confront the fact that things change, and that they only change for the worse if you’re not prepared to work with rather than against the changes.

Still, I’d like to thank those friends of mine who were so material in providing a work environment that didn’t feel like work most of the time and left enough time for the kind of gazing into the distance or at your navel, which is needed for writing creatively,
Fritz Gysin, emeritus professor of American Literature
Dewi Williams, writing instructor, singer and great-guy
Werner Senn, emeritus professor of Modern English Literature
Matt Kimmich, colleague, composer, critic (in the very best sense of the word)
Simon Hicks, co-teacher, friend, mentor and director of plays and pantos
Danièle Klapproth, academic and political conscience, embodiment of integrity and bullshit detector extraordinaire
Miriam Locher, future professor of linguistics in Basel and it couldn’t happen to a better person, and
Dick Watts, musical guru, endlessly patient supervisor of all my theses, forger of so much of my happiness.
It’s hard not to get sentimental at this stage but I hope that your future may contain as much good stuff as your past has given me. We’re still on the same planet and that’s great to know.

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Books to Read, Part II

By FAM, 5 September 2006

A very different and perhaps in many ways less immediately accessible read is Robyn Bolam’s excellent and very thorough anthology of women poets from 1600 to 1900 Eliza’s Babes. Robyn is a respected poet, regarding whose work my only criticism would be that there should be more of it available in print, and a professor at St. Mary’s College, Twickenham. She straddles the divide between literary production and literary criticism by teaching creative writing alongside writing poetry, but she is also a very productive literary scholar. Because she is also a good friend, unkind souls might suggest that nothing would find its way into this discussion of her work which would be less than glowing. However, anyone who loves poetry and has an interest in the less well-trodden paths of verse in the English language will agree that this is not only a very comprehensive study of the subject, it also contains two elements so often lacking in many anthologies, a roundly successful selection of material as well as a carefully researched and sensitively presented set of notes, both on the writers’ biographies and on the references in the poems that a modern audience would not have ready access to.

Let’s begin with a look at the first point, the selection of the material. Clearly, the names you (Aphra Ben, the Brontës etc.) would expect are represented. But there are also writers, whose work are much more difficult to get hold of, and it is thanks to Robyn’s work that these are represented here too, allowing interesting insights into the life and times, as well as the subjects and the angles from which they could be approached, of women writers who even in their day can’t have more than a fairly select readership. This is less to do with the quality of their writing than with their biographies. This, clearly is the second strength of this anthology; Robyn’s brief but highly informative biographical notes allow intriguing glimpses into the lives of women poets, writing in a Man’s World, their struggle for recognition and, in many cases, the added day-to-day responsibility of providing for a family. It is in these sketches that one feels the material for a whole range of historical novels lies waiting for an eager pen.

All in all, thanks must go to Bloodaxe for publishing and having the good sense to get Robyn Bolam to compile this fascinating anthology, which is a sheer delight to (seren-)dip into.

Eliza’s Babes, ed. Robyn Bolam, Bloodaxe (ISBN 1852245212 PBK £10.95)

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Books to Read, Part I

By FAM, 1 March 2006

There are no plans to use this site for book reviews, but recently, two books have come across my desk, both of which, for different reasons I find noteworthy and would like to introduce here. So as not to create a wasteland of text, however, this will happen in two parts.

The first is Roger McGough’s autobiography Said and Done (Century, 2005). Roger needs no introductions in these pages, but I may be forgiven for remarking that if it hadn’t been for his work and for his 1995 reading in Berne, I don’t think I would have ever embarked, late in life as always, on putting pen to paper and on trying to infect teachers and students with the writing bug as he has infected me.

Perhaps I should also mention that for my money autobiography often makes for tedious reading, partly because some people’s lives are relentlessly dull contrary to what they themselves seem to think, partly because some autobiographies are little more than an extended bout of names dropping with references to “my very old friend” and similar indications of bosom-pallyness with the good and great, and partly because not everybody whose life story may be worth telling can actually write.

Obviously Said and Done isn’t prey to any of these pitfalls and, unsurprisingly, is anything but a tedious a read. Anyone who was around Merseyside in the early and later sixties would have had a yarn or two to spin about what Ginsberg at the time (paraphrased quite freely) described as the centre of the creative universe. Roger, of course, wasn’t simply around Merseyside at the time, he was in as well as part of the creative thick of it. This was a time when Britain was very receptive for all things zany, fun and irreverent, a time when the borders between pop and poetry was blurred to non-existent. An illustration of this is the sibling connection between a now knighted musical giant and a member of the pop group Roger belonged to (The Scaffold of chart-topping “Lilly the Pink” and “Thank U Very Much” fame). But in all this mayhem we need to remember that a career was launched, by all accounts the launch was not always a smooth one, that profoundly changed attitudes towards poetry and is at the root of the current interest in poetry in Britain, both in the media and in schools. What the Liverpool Poets, Brian Patten, Roger McGough and Adrian Henri, and their contemporaries achieved, was to wrench poetry from the dusty sections in untrodden parts of libraries and book shops and the not much livelier pages of academic discourse and to bring it back to pubs, clubs, theatres, as well as radio and television audiences.

Clearly, in a story about these heady days the potential second bane of autobiography, gratuitous names-dropping, could loom large. Well-known names do crop up, and often, but there’s nothing gratuitous about this. The folks mentioned are always relevant to the unfolding story, illustrating Roger’s collaboration with pop and rock heroes of the day as well as his contributions, unfortunately uncredited, to the animated film “Yellow Submarine”. The stories in particular the tale of the abortive Broadway show “Wind in the Willows” are told with the humour of a man who doesn’t take himself dead seriously.

And to lay the third potential ghost about tedious autobiography to rest: it goes without saying that someone who has been in the business of writing poetry to delight children and adults alike, knows how to turn a phrase. However, for the serious reader of the heavy autobiography a brief caveat. This is not a tightly structured and strictly chronological account of the life and times of one Roger McGough. The story – or stories – emerge in the course of the book, but in all the writing it becomes clear that here a master of the, for want of a better word, small form is at work, a poet, rather than an epic narrator. Chapters are usually short, almost essayistic, there is ample space for typical McGoughian wordplay and idiom-twisting, digressions are as inevitable as they are invariably diverting, and many passages can be read with almost equal enjoyment by serendipping during or after reading the book from cover to cover. The writing is lively and easy-going; much of the time, it feels as if one is listening to the introduction of a poem during a reading: the cadences, the humour and very much the quick-witted breathlessness or the breathless quick wit of a McGough performance are in evidence throughout. Reading the book with a tempered Scouse accent, were such a thing possible, is as if one was listening to the man himself in easy conversation over a glass of something.

To put it much more briefly than I have, Said and Done is a thoroughly enjoyable read. It may also change some people’s preconceived notions about autobiography…

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Tracks, Lines and Videoclips

By FAM, 20 February 2006

There was a mention of two weeks in the previous entry and “Sleeping Beauty” only accounts for one. So here, somewhat more briefly, is the account of the second week, spent at St. Mary’s College in Strawberry Hill, near Twickenham, and in Barnes, South London. Just before my sabbatical in June 2004 and again in November I was given an opportunity to read at the college, in the glorious if slightly faded Waldegrave Room, both readings set up by my dear friend, Robyn Bolam (Thanks very much once more, Robyn!).

To digress briefly into art history: much of St. Mary’s College is connected to Walpole House, the place Horace Walpole, author of the seminal Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto built for himself, never really intending it to last much longer than he would, which means that much of the Gothic stone lattice work and the wall decorations were made of material like papier machée and wood, presenting any preservation officer with headaches and nightmares. All in all it is an impressive set of buildings with splendid rooms situated in a park bordering onto the Thames.

After the second of these readings, which unbefittingly (I don’t write anything that could even loosely be described as Gothic) took place during a price giving for the best short story among the students on the college’s undergraduate creative writing programme, the director of the school Peter Dewar, a fellow linguist and TEFL specialist, introduced me to Barry Ingle, a lecturer in media and creative arts and a photographer, who’d been taking pictures all evening. It was during this reception, the wine being particularly suitable for the occasion, a Chilean Cabarnet Sauvignon called “Casillero del Diablo”, that we started discussing collaboration on a multimedia poetry project, making use of Barry’s knowledge and talents and the College’s resources for video and audio recordings.

It took a bit of time for this project to get under way for a variety of reasons, but finally, last September we got together and started looking at ways in which this idea was to proceed. What Barry had been planning and started story-boarding was ambitious and exciting in equal measures, but with term about to start, inevitably there were holdups in the filming that made it necessary to go back and shoot some more video footage at the beginning of February the day after Sleeping Beauty finished its run. This time there were few students around (term break) and we managed to get make good progress in the TV studio with Peter Buller rigging up cameras, mikes and blue screen backdrops and never losing his patience at fluffed lines and wobbles during those priceless moments when Barry made me balance on boxes and scaffolding for particular shots.

Evenings were spent with Hilary and Roger McGough a few train stops away so it is not surprising that my feet, figuratively and in some cases literally didn’t touch the ground. The work on basic footage is now almost finished and will hopefully be completed in early summer with some external shots in and around Walpole House. Given Barry’s full schedule it would be naïve to assume that the work will be finished more or less immediately after this, but with a bit of luck, and if our plans come to fruition perhaps before the year is out there should be a combined DVD (with video clips) and Audio CD with some of my poems. But until the next jaunt to St. Mary’s there will be some time and many opportunities to return to the planet Earth and resume normal life or whatever goes for normality in this part of the world.

In the meantime, my thanks go to Robyn Bolam, Peter Dewar, Barry Ingle, Peter Buller, to Allyson Otis and Lee (for audio recordings and computer work) and, of course, to Hilary, Izzy and Roger, for providing a bed, drinks, food and endlessly enjoyable company.

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Now that the Show is Over …

By FAM, 13 February 2006

They’ve been most exhilarating, the past two weeks. For the moment, however, I want to focus on “Sleeping Beauty”, which came to an end on Sunday 5 February.

It had been a headache almost to the last minute. The tech rehearsal on Monday night, 29 January, apparently was delayed because the venue was being used by a male choir, which the management hadn’t told us about, so the whole thing started two hours late. Then on Tuesday we had a first complete run-through on stage complete with orchestra with yours truly conducting. It was a fun experience apart from the fact that my inability to read music and an orchestra of highly competent, classically trained musicians made it a bit like the blind leading the extremely keenly sighted. Still, it could have been worse. Anyway, two old friends of mine, who’d both been involved in both previous pantos I wrote were part of the informal audience, and they only sniggered a few times, which did precious little to put my mind at rest about the script (for which I am responsible) and the show (for which I wasn’t entirely, but would be associated with). Props weren’t ready or wrong, neither was the set and there was a major struggle getting light and sound effects to work, neither of which did to an uncomfortable degree. So there wasn’t much to put my mind at rest. Hence the rather agonised previous entry. The mood that evening was rather subdued on everybody’s part, but whatever happened during the night it lead to a much better final dress rehearsal. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that everybody had their costumes, made and/or organised by our trusty Anna Lehmann, who looked as though she had only a vague recollection of what a bed looked like these last few days. To cut a long story a bit shorter, the last dress rehearsal with all the bits and bobs in place ran smoothly enough for us to think that we had a decent show.

And then came the First Night and I still wonder what it was that the cast and the tech crew had in their breakfast cereals. It was magic to see how the enthusiasm of the cast and the energy of the orchestra combined to fire up and audience, which frankly were all rearing to get into the panto spirit, shouting contradictions and laughing, giggling and chortling their amusement through the performance. This in turn kicked the cast into overdrive in the second half, which had always been a bit slow, and even the gremlins that used to make the technical aspects dodgy took it so easy that only a few very minor details went wrong, unnoticed by anyone except Simon Hicks, the director and tireless spiritus rector, and me. The evening ended on a note of elation and everybody was both happy and exhausted but not exhausted enough not to go out and party, in hindsight, perhaps a bit too enthusiastically.

Unsurprisingly the following show was a classic second night after a successful premiere: a slightly subdued cast, some still a bit green around the gills, who were coasting on First Night success while trying to overcome morning-after fatigue found that a more Swiss typically audience, especially in comparison with the rowdy bunch of Brits that filled the theatre the night before, were a bit more work than the somewhat too complacent cast had expected. For the orchestra, who could see the faces of the audience, it was clear that the folks were enjoying themselves — it was more a matter of smiles than guffaws— but naturally the cast didn’t see this across the footlights. What they realised was that the audience was much less audibly amused. As a result, the first scenes were, shall we say, more than a bit non-descript. Simon gave folk a pep talk behind the scenes and the second half went much better. And then, in a crucial scene just before the end of the show, I saw Rose (Sleeping Beauty) turn and go off, as I found out later, to faint in the wings. There was frantic ad-libbing not really helped by the fact that only about half the cast had seen what was going on and the other half thought they were being set up. The practical upshot was that one faction tried to save the scene by steering back towards the script while the other half were making unscripted remarks that effectively torpedoed all attempts to get the show back on track. Fortunately the first faction won out after what must have been some of the longest two minutes in my life and the show went on with Rose, heroically coming back on to deliver the final lines before going off again and collapsing once more. The final curtain, we never have individual curtain calls because all our productions are seen as team efforts, took place without Rose and it was only then that most of the audience realised that something was amiss. It is a great credit to Kathrin aka Rose that she was so professional to get back on stage to give the odious Prince Hank a dressing down before going backstage to succumb to exhaustion a second time. What professionalism on the part of everybody!

I must have aged visibly that night, but fortunately by next evening Rose, after a good night’s sleep and the TLC of her father in the show and her fairy tale prince in real life (her words not mine) was fine again and the cast delivered a total knockout of a performance, better even than the first night, which I had thought, would be hard if not impossible to better. Everything worked better than it had done and the consensus in the audience was that here was a bunch of well-cast young people with great talent who’d made the show their own, who were having a whale of a time romping their way through the show. So impressive was this evening that a few days later we got an enquiry if we were prepared to allow the show to be performed by another theatre group later this year. If it happens I shall be very keen to see how a different troupe take on a show I’ve come to associate with such lovely young people (that’s enough sentimentality. ed.).

Again there was a night of partying but this time, even though some members of the cast were out dancing salsa until about four in the morning, there was less heavy-duty imbibing. As a result the last show, with a slightly more Swiss audience (again, smiling rather than guffawing) was a beautifully relaxed affair that worked well and even got the smaller children in the audience — it was a matiné — drawn in. The show ended with an extended and rousing finale that had everybody singing along and clapping their hands. Unsurprisingly, the after-performance party was a very happy but also a rather sad affair, the realisation dawning on everybody that this was it, the exhilaration a memory.

So, was it worth it? If you count the endless hours that went into these four two-hour performances, clearly not. If you looked at the faces of cast, and what a superb cast they were, and at the huge grins on the faces of the audience, it would seem like a ridiculously superfluous question.

The call to start thinking of the next panto is out there, but in all honesty, this being the third and the one I found hardest to write I’m not sure I could pull it off again. It seems best to end on a high, and even if I say so myself, this one was a dizzying high, the perfect high to end on…


What the punters said:

“We had a fantastic evening and are still marvelling at all the work behind the performance and the tremendous enthusiasm and talent shown by the students during the performance. They seemed to be enjoying the whole thing as much as the audience! It’s hard to pick out the best participants - at the end we had got to know and love them all - … all in all, it was a great success and I hope you won’t wait another 4 years before you do another one.”

“Congratulations to you both and everyone else involved with Sleeping Beauty! It was a hugely enjoyable evening and I hope all the other performances were as much of a success with the audiences as the first night was … It was wonderful how the cast threw themselves into it all with such verve and enjoyment, they were brilliant and the casting was too. How amazing their English is,… And the music was perfect, with the chamber group an inspired touch – you looked great Franz … and I particularly enjoyed watching the delight on your face as you watched the performance (obviously they were doing your text proud).”

“It was great, and I enjoyed it! All actors, musicians, people backstage - everyone did an excellent job, …”

“A quick word to say that the panto was delightful … It was a wonderful evening …”

“Thank you for the marvelous panto! Puns and idioms and good jokes … . It was a real treat, and I hear no one shouting, ‘No it wasn’t!’ …”

“I just wanted to tell you that I have enjoyed the show very much. You people have put so much effort in it and it shows. “

“I attended the panto last night and it was ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT! Although this, of course, is reason enough to write an email, I first and foremost wanted to briefly express my gratefulness: I have had a (terrible…) toothache for some time, but yesterday, as I was so completely taken with the ingenious word plays and the actors’ and actresses’ skilful performances, I even forgot those nasty “teethies” of mine … So, thanks to ALL who contributed in any way to the pleasant play.”

“Of course, the most impressive aspect is how much fun everyone clearly had. I don’t know if the actors really had as much fun as the audience, but it always looked as if that was the case! … thank you for making the pantos of my youth come alive again”

“We would like to congratulate you on a great piece of work! The music and the script were just brilliant and we still find ourselves laughing at some of the jokes a few days later! … Sitting just behind the orchestra we were able to follow everything very closely and were much impressed by the musicians - and they were even laughing at the jokes, too, even though they must have heard them a few times. I hope you can now all enjoy a well-deserved rest and maybe start thinking about the next panto…”

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How does “Sleeping Beauty” sleep: pre-first-night nerves

By FAM, 30 January 2006

There is nothing quite like the last days in the run-up to a major project to ruin a good night’s sleep, not to mention put a serious strain on domestic relationships.

Of course one could rest in the cosy knowledge that a scriptwriter has little to no control over the approach the director has chosen, what set and costume designers have gone for or how the actors deliver their lines. All this is out of my hands. But it doesn’t work like that, because it is now that all the things I wasn’t too sure about, if they actually had heads, ugly to boot, would raise them. All the moments of insecurity when I was cobbling together the text come rushing back now. The devices I used to ensure that the characters and their motivation are as credible as the story allows, the tricks I resorted to, cheap to the last one, to make the logic in the action at least rudimentarily convincing, the puns and punchlines I hoped would add spice and sparkle, the plot twists inserted to accomodate the elements that had to be in there, they all come rushing back in those endless minutes and hours between midnight and the far too early start in the morning and wreak havoc with any hope that before the alarm goes off there will be a few moments of relaxation; I wouldn’t even ask for sleep.

Of course, I also realise at such times how foolish it was to push the boat out , as we did, in musical terms, not to mention giving in to that silly temptation of standing in front of a twelve-piece orchestra of extremely good, in fact mostly professional, musicians and waving a baton about in a way even a looney-fringe conductor would feel slightly self-conscious about. Perhaps it would be one source of worry less, if reading music wasn’t an ability I sadly lack; it would work wonders in the credibility stakes. And to round things off, the songs, by all accounts, are catchy, “horribly catchy” if some reactions are anything to go by (Truth be told, recording the actors’ demo-tracks accounted for a fair bit of the strain on our otherwise happy marital relationship mentioned above). So the ditties have an unfortunate tendency to reverberate endlessly inside my head playing tag with ebbing confidence, hopfrog with items on things-to-do-before-the-first-night lists and merry hell with any calm thoughts I try to muster as I wonder just how long it will be before another dark and cold January morning waits to be braved.

It is at moments like these, when self-doubts are at their strongest, resistance to pretty much any mental or psychological exertion seriously weakened and the desire at an all time low to prove to the world what a genius it has so often ignored, that I swear, for the sake of an unruffled existence, I won’t do this again. Never ever, never again, not even once!

And I ask myself how I could have forgotten…

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To my friend Milena

By FAM, 24 January 2006

A bit more than a year ago, before Christmas, I wrote to my dear friend Milena Diviani, whose writings you may be familiar with if you’ve visited her page in the Showcase section. I’d been down to Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, in my capacity as an outside examiner for Maturitá exams for English in June 04 as I had done for the last ten years and Milena made a point of coming in to see me briefly.

She’d been a teacher at the school, the Liceo di Bellinzona, and we’d done Maturitá together on many an occasion, all of which were, despite the predictablity of the students’ choice of books and of their answers to the exam question, always a pleasant time. Once in particular I remember going back to Milena’s Bellinzona flat for lunch. She had always had back problems, never complained, though, but going for a lie-down over lunch was vital if she wanted to make it through the afternoon. While she relaxed and took the weight off her back, I made an insalata caprese for us with a lovely piece of buffalo mozzarella, fresh basil and the sort of ripe tomatoes you only get in Mediterranean climate, the red white and green on the plates liberally doused with a good aceto balsamico, stuff we’d got on the way to her place. Sitting on the balcony, overlooking the plain that stretches all the way to the Lago Maggiore with the mountains rising steeply on either side of the valley, a gentle breeze rustling in the trees on what was otherwise a typically stifling Ticinese June day was one of the moments that happens outside time and space. We even indulged, she a bit more guiltily than I, in couple of glasses of Barbera.

This time she came in and she looked good, so much better than I had expected. She’d sent me an email earlier in the year in which she told me with the unsentimental simplicity that she reserved for herself — when she talked about others she was always much more emotional and compassionate — that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. It came as a horrendous shock because she always seemed indestructible, even when her back was giving her hell, and she was so much at ease in her environment of the mountain slopes of Carí in the Upper Leventina, where she always spent her weekends in her house overlooking the Strada Alta; Caroline and I had been to see her and spend the night on our walk across Switzerland and we all went for a meal at her local. It was always a pleasure to hear her speak the local Ticinesi dialect, almost impenetrable even to those speak very good Italian and, on this occasion, to see her with the people she had grown up with, to see how affection flew her way wherever she went. So there she stood in the soulless corridor of the liceo and between two students, we hugged and I told her how great she looked; she smiled in that lovely way she had and said “It’s the wig, you know.” Time was short, and I had to get back to the next candidate and what he or she’d remembered from York Notes on The Catcher in the Rye, Animal Farm , The Old Man and the Sea, or whatever hackneyed classic was about to be rehashed

That December she sent a message saying she wasn’t “quite out of the woods yet” and would have to go in for further treatment. She didn’t reply to my return email urging her to get better soon (something I feel very silly about in hindsight). Mine was an unsually emotional message, one in which, perhaps for the first time, I told her how much her friendship meant to me. For the next few months, whenever I deleted messages to keep my inboxes manageable, I stumbled over that email of hers and for some odd reason I never deleted it. But, to be honest, I didn’t have the courage to phone her or any of our mutual friends to ask how she was, because I was afraid I’d hate the answer.

It wasn’t until June, when, down for another spate of Maturitá exams, I found out that, after informing her friends with that message, which had sounded so relaxed and optimistic, she’d gone into hospital and, within less than three weeks, she was dead. To think, we had parted so casually and hurriedly the previous summer and the last thing I remember her saying was so utterly Milena, gentle, funny and unsentimental…

She’s still in my thoughts a lot, I still sometimes catch myself wanting to write to her, thinking how lovely it would be to get one of her well-crafted messages that felt as if she was talking to you, wishing we could sit on that balcony of hers and enjoy a glass of wine while the world was turning without us.

Milena, it’s a bit more than a year after you stole out of my life, and I really miss you. Thanks for your writing but most of all, thanks for being the person that one (myself very much included) couldn’t help loving.

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