Jean Meyer
paintings and drawings 
 
Dear Little England
(Yes, you, with your “Ooh, we don’t want that, it’s foreign”, and your uninformed nostalgia for Empire) I know you well, I grew up with you and you made me what I am, until Italy completed the parts that you could not reach. You are my mother(land), and like all children I’ve loved you but now I am ashamed of you. With your lack of vision beyond your own tidy little garden you have spoiled the future for your children and grandchildren, for the population of Great Britain and for millions of Europeans who have loved you too (in spite of yourself).
In my twenties I voted into the EU, while in 2016 I was deprived of my right to vote because of the 15 years rule. Where did that arbitrary number come from? What other country denies voting rights to its citizens dispersed around the world? At this point I have no option, after 40 years of EU citizenship, but to request Italian citizenship, like thousands of other Brits in Italy. I’m sad and angry and deeply disappointed in you, Little England.
 
 
TRAINS
Victoria to Gatwick
We are all sitting quietly and comfortably, not too crowded, not too early in the day nor too late, just out of Victoria. Along the aisle comes a thin, clearly drunken man in a dark grey, very crumpled suit. He reels past me, his beery breath preceding him, and flops down into a seat nearby. Hard on his heels comes the ticket inspector, a little man with a mobile-featured face. It seems that the drunken man must leave the train, which will make an unscheduled stop at Clapham Junction for this purpose; he must leave the train because he has insulted the ticket inspector. The offended party had asked him – politely and correctly, yet firmly, as is his way – to leave the First Class seat he had been occupying unlawfully and the passenger had responded by intimating that if the ticket inspector did not leave him alone he would “knock him from one end of the train to the other”.
Faced with this dreadful squalid tale we, the hapless passengers, the captive audience, sit quietly and say nothing. Some of us hide behind books or newspapers but we are all listening intently, casting furtive glances now and then at the principal characters in
this melodrama that we are so fortunate not to be a part of.
The train makes its stop at Clapham and the drunken man refuses to move. A Higher Authority is summoned. In his neat suit the HA makes his speech – each word distinct and complete, no abbreviations and the stress on normally unstressed words, as is the Briton’s
way when he is standing on his dignity.
“I am afraid, sir, you will have to leave the train.”
The drunken man protests feebly that he has to catch a plane, like the rest of us, an idea with little credibility as his only piece of luggage appears to be a golf club. After ten minutes of stalemate posturing (some of us are now nervously consulting our
watches) he consents to leave the train, assuring us all that he will write to the EHA (Even Higher Authority) about the whole unjust affair. We leave him on the empty platform at Clapham, in bewildered, crumpled solitude. With a clearing of throats and a that’s-that shake-out of newspapers, the passengers settle down again and the train resumes its journey and even arrives on time.
Taranto to Torino

We arrive half an hour before the train is due to leave, to be sure of finding a seat – it is a public holiday. In fact, it is not so difficult, because the train starts from here, the edge of Italy, and it is empty and dark when it rolls in alongside the platform. However, most of the front carriages appear to be First Class or Sleepers, with the result that the handful of Second Class carriages are taken by storm, swamped by a pressing crowd of people and baggage. The noise is a few notes short of panic. Disbelieving in this nonsensical arrangement of carriages, we peer into a First Class compartment and oh! there is a little white sticker on the window proclaiming – or better to say whispering, it is so small and almost invisible in the dark – ‘2nd Class’. Still disbelieving, it is essential to check by asking at least two people to verify this change of class. Satisfied, we begin to fill the six-seater compartments, stowing away our cases and placing little bags of food handy for the long night ahead. About one hour later we roll into Bari station, the platform wet with rain that has been threatening all day. The train sits for quite a while, people come and go continually along the corridor, heaving luggage alongside them and gradually it becomes clear, from the increasing volume of noise coming from the next compartment, that some kind of argument is brewing. The voices continue for a while, getting faster and louder, and other passengers begin to emerge from their compartments into the corridor to see what is happening (if something interesting is going on it will help to pass the long boring night; one can talk about it for ages afterwards.) Something has happened: a confused situation involving the declassed carriages, a pregnant woman, seats booked and occupied by others, and now the station police are coming onto the  platform in their navy-blue uniforms.
By now, the corridor is crammed full of passengers who have left their seats to watch and listen; they are hanging out of the windows because some of the row is taking place on the platform and some of it on the train, and by now everyone has chosen which side they are on, the State Railways or the pirate passengers who are steadfastly refusing to budge from their seats. The whole situation is escalating, the spectators (ah, no! there are no spectators here, everyone is part of the drama) are now forming little groups to argue what has become ‘their’ case and to shout one another down with accounts of previous misdoings involving the State Railways.
The issue threatens to become political.
Something, at last, after almost an hour, is decided upon in such a way that everyone is partly satisfied. Somewhere in the dark station a whistle blows, long and loud, more so than usual as if to say ooooh, we’ve managed the impossible once agaaaain, and we start rolling northwards again. Gradually everybody filters back into their seats, the night settles in, food bags rustle: the curtain has come down.
Jean Meyer


  
 
 Below : extract from THROUGH THE GATE - a childhood home revisited by Jean Meyer (2015)


 

 

When I rang the bell, the nurse who opened it looked surprised. Do so few people come here? I gave my father’s name and she opened the door a bit wider to let me in, standing aside in her pale blue overall. Then off up the corridor she went, walking briskly into a big room, and I followed through the ranks of slippers and stained cardigans and toothless jaws. Into the big light room we went and I looked hard to find him because they all seemed to be similar, like variations on a theme: dementia senex. The tall windows, without curtains, threw light in abundance into the middle of the floor but the men were all arranged in chairs against the walls. The chairs in such places always look uncomfortable, with their wooden arms and thin backs, without cushions as if people who are losing control of their minds do not need soft comfort. The walls behind them were green to just above their heads and then an indefinite shade of beige up to the ceiling, which was very high. There were two or three tables, one with a folded newspaper on it, the others bare, but no cupboards or shelves. One solitary bad landscape painting was hung on one wall. Some of the men were asleep, leaning to one side in their chairs; some were conversing with their demons; others were staring ahead of them. It seemed like a station waiting room in a bad dream.
When I did spot him it seemed absurd to me that I could possibly have confused him with anyone else, despite his shrunken frame.
“You’ve got a visitor, Alfred”.
I was momentarily shocked by the use of his first name, as if the nurse had known him all her life. He belonged here now, he belonged to these people.
He sat with his arms laid along the arms of the chair and his feet together, gazing across the room. He had the regulation tartan slippers they all had, a baggy pair of grey trousers and a beige cardigan a bit stained down the front. His tie was still knotted carefully at his throat. There was a second when he looked at me and I was nothing to him, and I thought I would die if it went on, but then his filing cabinet of memory, which had been ransacked by an intruder and everything thrown up into the air to settle again anyoldhow, still managed to come up with the right reference, and he smiled; his tongue leaping about like an oyster in its toothless cavern, he smiled at me and his watery eyes wrinkled up, his glasses gone now. As a child I had always been alarmed when he took off his glasses – those bushy brows! They were grey now but still had the same power to alarm when they shot up: at the nurse who witholds the biscuit; at the brisk young fool of a doctor; at the idiot in the next chair. He held my hand and laughed a lot. I had never seen him laugh so much, this new world seemed a great joke. He pointed to a button on his cardigan.
“Look at that,” murmured the mathematician, running his finger round the edge of it. “It’s perfect.”
Together we bent our heads and contemplated the satisfaction of a perfect circle.
Oh, I remember you: the one who cut his food into precise pieces before eating, who had to have the tablecloth square on; who went to bed like a letter going into an envelope; who paid the bills the day after they came, keeping careful accounts of so little; a man walking on a tightrope, fearful lest he should drop it all into the abyss and go hurtling after. “Ask your father, he’ll know, he’ll decide.” But there was a wild untended place in the garden, and I woke in the night and Dear God he was sobbing, help me.
At first, mother had come a few times, refusing to recognize that this was no ordinary spell in hospital, bringing receipts of bills for him to see, holding them under his nose.
“There, I’ve paid that then Alfred, see...”
He would not look at them but gazed into the distance, infuriating her because it was so unlike him. He had forgotten how to read, in any case, words had become once again just black marks on paper, as they were in the very beginning. He was unlearning all his skills: reading forgotten, and the use of a fork getting more difficult day by day; soon he would unlearn how to walk; shedding all the accumulated skins of being grown-up, he was retreating down a long dark tunnel, smaller and simpler he was becoming, laughing and waving, free at last.
A nurse in a green overall was urging somebody across the room, her voice bright and brisk:
“Just follow your stick, George!”
George passed us by, a powerful smell of urine about him. He was wearing faded pyjamas, those old-fashioned blue and white striped pyjamas that my father had worn, with the drawstring waist. In his haste to get to the bathroom they were coming undone, his withered old sex trembling in the shadow. I wondered if George had anything to ask forgiveness for, if he had ever been heard weeping in the night.
The only journey I had ever made with my father, as an adult, was the one that took me away from home for the first time, the one that began with leaving mother crying into her apron on the doorstep. In the echoing main-line station I stood with my luggage - the least I have had in my life – while father queued up to buy tickets. There was a long queue and I spent the time looking around at the people coming and going, thinking that I was about to become one of them, and when I glanced back at the queue to find out how much progress he had made, I could not find my father. For a moment I felt a slight panic, thinking he had changed queue and not told me, but then I recognised him. I had not seen him immediately because I had been looking for a tall man and my father was the shortest man in the queue.
Look. My father is a small man.
It was a four-hour journey down to London and I cannot remember any kind of conversation between us. He left me at my lodging, walking away to the bus stop with straight shoulders and high head as if it didn’t matter, but I knew, I knew. He had kept all my school reports. That last summer, before I left home, he did nothing but take photographs of me. Once I found him furtively copying out the address of a boyfriend I had. Once I had even wished him dead.
I looked down at my hand holding my father’s hand. They were both cold, they might have been a marble sculpture. He does not know. Nobody can tell him, and perhaps he would not even understand it now if they did.
I looked at an old man who was sitting opposite us, nodding and chuckling, his open mouth showing a few brown stubs of teeth. He seemed like an evil dwarf laughing at us.
George’s head was bent between thin cardiganed shoulders. His elbows were stuck out to steady him and his free hand shook the air in front of him as if testing for invisible obstacles. His baggy pyjama trousers wrinkled up over the slippers, too big, that splayed out to left and right as he made his lonely, inch-by-inch journey across the floor to the toilets. No crossing of continents or oceans was ever such an achievement.
I looked around me. It was the only time I had ever been in a room where there were so many men present but so little sense of power in the air. So – this was Man, made in the image of God, shuffling in a stained cardigan and flapping slippers along the corridor, spittle brimming on a slack lip.

(Through the Gate is available from Mereo Books, paperback, and also online)

 
The Artist appeals to that part of our being which is not dependent on wisdom; to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition - and, therefore, more permanently enduring. (S)he speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives: to our sense of pity and beauty and pain.
 Joseph Conrad (with a tiny addition from this artist)
 
 
 
 
 

Ma lei accetta le rughe come si accettano le piogge ed il sole, l'inverno e l'estate, la vita e la morte: con la serenità di chi capisce che la stagione delle avventure è finita e bisogna pur prepararsi a vestirsi di grigio per tornare un giorno al villaggio.

 

But she accepts the wrinkles as one accepts the rain and the sun, winter and summer, life and death: with the calm of understanding that the season of adventures is over and one must surely get ready to dress in grey to return one day to the village.


Oriana Fallaci, interview with Ingrid Bergman, 1962





SNOWMAN SNOWMAN  by Janet Frame is the loveliest short story I know and the first paragraph is pure poetry:

"People live on earth, and animals and birds; and fish live in the sea, but we do not defeat the sea, for we are driven back to the sky, or we stay, and become what we have tried to conquer, remembering mothing except our new flowing in and out, in and out,  sighing for one place, drawn to another, wild with promises to white birds and bright red fish and beaches abandoned then longed for."
 
Later on, the Snowman of Janet Frame thinks that the trees are dying of some terrible disease when he notices the swellings on their limbs, mistaking the signs of life for the signs of death.
 
What a splendid piece of writing.