Christmas is, as anyone who has been on the internet recently must know, all about lists. In particular, it is about top 10 lists, and “this is the best mediocre stuff from a mediocre year” type mediocre lists. I love lists, of course. I even composed one that had nothing to do with the end of the year back in October. It’s here. It’s called “Stolen Exhibits From the Museum of the History of Hurt” (which is also teh title of a forthcoming short story) and it’s my top 10 influences from the cultural dark side. It’s a place where you’ll find Hieronymous Bosch and Nine Inch Nails rubbing shoulders with Iain Banks.
(The Company of Fellows has a lot of artistic references, but the three central artistic motifs running through it are Tokaji wine, Bulgarian icons, and over and above anything else the abstract expressionist Willem De Kooning)
You’ll also find Hannibal Lecter.
Thomas Harris’ Hannibal has more standout moments to savour than pretty much any book I’ve ever read, with the possible exception of Milan Kundera’s Immortality. From the lecture to the Studiolo to the swooping literary dolly-shot through the hallways of the Palazzo Capponi to the frieze of Lecter behind the exhibits at the Exhibition of Atrocious Torture Instruments, watching the salivating masses lapping up the horror. But the moments that have stayed with me longest come in the last chapter. Lecter and Clarice dancing on a terrace in Recoleta is a scene that’s fired my imagination more times than I can remember, but the thing that comes back to me most of all is Barney’s mission to see “every Velasquez in the world.” Not that I’m a huge fan of Velasquez. If you want to give me Spanish art I’ll have Goya or Miro or Picasso over Velasquez any day. But it has always struck me as a perfect kind of bucket list mission. Achievable; but adventurous. And most of all one rooted in art. It’s also a wonderful focus. In Barney’s case it gives him a very specific goal – he sells his Lecter memorabilia to go into his Velasquez fund, and when he is left as the only loose end after Margot Verger murders her brother Mason, the truly black hole-dark heart of the novel, his very specific financial needs are part of what saves his life – he convinces Margot that his need for money isn’t endless – he wants money, yes, but only enough to let him have his very specific dream (as if specificity wasn’t enough of a theme in my blog posts!).
Which brings me back to lists. Specifically, to my own “every Velasquez in the world.” I am very lucky. Several of the things on my list I have already ticked off – the Guggenheim in Bilbao, the Duomo in Florence, the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, the Djemma al Fna in Marrakech, and the Alhambra Palace in Granada. That doesn’t preclude some from appearing again – each turned out to be more magical in reality than in the anticipation.
The problem with such lists, of course, lists of memories made in advance as it were, is that life’s most precious moments are always those happy accidents. Even cultural memories work like this – dashing to get out of the snow in Kuopio in Finland only to find ourselves in the most wonderful art gallery entranced by a living sculpture featuring a pendulum tracing patterns in sand; an evening stroll through Gdansk’s Ulica Mariacka when the fog rolling off the river was especially thick, lending the golden glimmer form the amber galleries a praeternatural quality; pulling over on the snowline of the Sierra Nevada only to discover a tiny eatery with the most unctuous bean soup; vast bowls of caviar and ice cold rakir in an old Soviet Brutalist hotel by the Black Sea and a plate bursting with oysters and fresh coffee had for pennies from a cabane in Goujon-Mestres; stumbling into Honfleur’s Satie House, the most magical museum on earth, on an unpromising autumn afternoon.
But whilst memories cast in the moment are the gentle breeze blowing on our backs as we stride towards the horizon it’s dreams, specific dreams, that are the vanishing point pulling us inexorably forward into life’s setting sun.
This isn’t a bucket list – I like the gimmick of that, but I don’t like its finality – such lists should not be finite, they should be ever expanding, whole universes pushing outwards at dizzying speed. Nor is it a wish list. That’s too hazy, too “I’ll start work on it tomorrow.” It’s more a Barney list, a delimiter of my ambition, a manifesto of exploratory intent – fast cars, large yachts, mansions, stocks and shares are not for me; the ability to help those I love, to care for animals and alleviate suffering in a way I can realistically achieve are givens. Where there is space is in the middle ground, those things we feel driven to see, to experience should circumstance permit – those are our vanishing points. Perhaps the best way to describe this would be not my Barney list but my Margot list – sufficient to do these things would be, if not enough to buy my happiness then enough to buy my silence. As it bought Barney’s.
Rothko has been a formative influence in my creative life, going back to the experience of sitting in a room full of red and black paintings in the Tate. The Rothko Chapel in Houston is a space walled with giant Rothko’s in shades of black.
9 From the Black Sea to Bachkovo
(image from http://www.bulgariatravel.org)
Bulgaria is the most beautiful country I have visited by far. more so even than my beloved Spain, even Andalucia. Its apotheosis lies in the monasteries and churches that pepper the landscape from Nessabar to Rila to the gigantic glory of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia but the most magical of all of these orthodox pockets of paradise brought down from the skies to nestle amongst the mortals is to be found at Bachkovo. By no means as intricate or grand as Rila, what makes Bachkovo so special (aside from the gloriously garishly labelled Mavrud wine that bears its name) is its setting, in the foothills of the dramatic Rhodopi Mountains at the southern tip of the Thracian Plain, near the wine-growing centre of Asenovgrad. The tour, which would end with at least a fortnight at the Bachkovo Hotel, drinking Mavrud and exploring the hills, would also take in the Valley of the Roses, which according to Wikipedia produces 85% of the world’s rose oil and which was one of the few places we missed on our last visit to Bulgaria.
8 the Company of Fellows banquets
With apologies to my vegetarian and vegan friends. Food porn is fairly central to The Company of Fellows, and the menus I created for some of its set pieces reflect fantasies that fall into the truly once in a lifetime category – carpaccio of wagyu beef fillet, for example, from cattle fed on stout and massaged by hand for hours every day so that the marbling of fat runs through every fibre of the tenderest muscle. Or caviar eaten from tiny serving spoons made from the very finest frozen vodka, or peaches that open to reveal, instead of a stone, a tiny egg of gold-leafed frozen eiswein.
7 Satie and Poetry in Montmartre
Musical choices are hard, because music is so ephemeral. It is no longer possible to see Nirvana live, nor a host of other bands. And I have no desire for the backside-numbing prospect of Bayreuth. So my musical choice combines several passions. Aside from the simple purity of his music, Satie is such an eccentric, quixotic figure it is hard not to be cpativated. And what more perfect setting for his music than a sleazy absinthe bar in Montmartre, whilst I’m performing poetry.
6 Salamanca to the Alhambra
From Spain’s oldest university to the Alhambra Palace, layers of history press down on you in this part of the world with the relentless force of the July sun. With days spent driving through the sun-scorched plain and nights of fino, Rioja, and flamenco.
5 Every Delaunay in the World
(image from Wikipedia, where the case is made for its allowable fair use)
There has to be one “every” in this list, simply for cohesion’s sake, and I had a very hard time deciding who should fill that slot. De Kooning was a natural contender (see above). As was Frida Kahlo, or Basquiat. But in the end the nod goes to Sonia Delaunay. The image above shows both her glorious interdisciplinarity, and the thing that makes her work so special, its sense of movement, reflected in the titles of works such as Rythme-Couleur. I have seen several of her works in the Pompidou Centre in Paris and in the flesh they are dancing, jumping, captivating capsules of pure jouissance that epitomise what it means to be completely in the moment. In one of my unfinished sequels to The Company of Fellows, Harlequin is Dead, the killer arranges their victim’s entrails in the fluid shapes of a series of Delaunay paintings.
4 The Bodleian Library’s underground tunnels
As a copyright library, Oxford’s Bodleian Library holds pretty much every book published in the UK. Which makes it a fascinating place. But most intriguing of all are the miles of underground tunnels that have been built to house them. Part of an arcane world open only to a select handful of librarians, this is the kind of hidden space that conjures up every kind of delicious possibility imaginable for everything from murder settings to secret candlelit extreme dining clubs to (in one forthcoming manuscript) a clandestine group of underground street poets.
3 A lifetime’s supply of Moleskines
I know they’re used by everyone these days, but it’s still impossible to beat the Moleskine for the ability to get the pages to lie flat and the way the paper will take any ink without snagging or blotting. And they have become synonymous with some wonderfully imaginative forms of creativity.
The above picture is from a collaboration between the Sketchbook Project and Brooklyn Library to create an archive of art and literature presented in Moleskines.
1 1811 Tokaji Essencia
(picture appeared on the superb site lostpastremembered – do go and look at this wonderful post and the whole of the blog)
1811 was known as the “year of the comet.” It is also known as the greatest vintage year for wine in recorded history. Essencia is the almost zero alcohol wine made from the juice that flows through the base of the puttunyos, the baskets in which the nobly rotten grapes are harvested, without any pressure being applied, just the weight of grapes bursting their fragile skins. Almost pure sugar, yet with an acidity that makes it not the slightest sickly. Only the tiniest amounts of essencia are produced before the grapes are pressed, making it hugely expensive (I have had it once, a 1990 Oremus). The ludicrously high sugar content means that it lasts almost forever, which means that a bottle from 1811 would still be improving. It would also be tens if not hundreds of thousands of pounds, making this the unlikeliest entry on the list.
And, of course, if it’s a little Christmas present you’re looking for more than a list, don’t forget to treat yourself to “Self-publishing with Integrity”