It is the day to day realities of everyday life that make this so fascinating. Venice has no cars, so delivering a washing machine involves a boat ride followed by a sack-barrow and a lot of trouble if there is a stepped bridge and if you live on the fourth floor because almost everyone in Venice lives in flats. Italian schools have a presumption that the teacher is always right so a teacher admitting that there is indiscipline in their class is challenging the parents to do something about it; the headteacher and his deputy utter bare-faced lies to maintain their position of power even though the solution proposed by the parents makes more sense than the status quo. When there is acqua alta (high tide) everyone goes about their daily business in wellies, even browsing in half-flooded bookshops. And everywhere there are the tourists.
The population of Venice has shrunk to 60,000; many Venetians are forced out by the high rents charged by landlords who can make more money from tourists. The tourists (16.5 million per year) outnumber the residents. In high season tourists clog the narrow streets and fill the waterbuses. So the residents hate the tourists and by extension almost all foreigners; xenophobic comments are made at Polly's children and she gets charged double the price for a coffee in a bar where she is not known. It seems unsustainable.
But what makes this really fascinating memoir a work of art is the lyrical quality of her prose. Open the book at random and you will encounter a brilliant sentence:
- "Here on this dank November afternoon I am witness to a crumpling up of time"
- "One aged crone shuffles, shoeless ... right-angled over her stick ... It is her saggy-stockinged feet that most strike me."
- "A flurry of heat and effort and luggage."
- "The diamond kites slide down from the skies, like charmed snakes."
Beautiful and brilliant. April 2015; 206 pages
Other memoirs reviewed in this blog include (in order of how much I enjoyed them, favourites first):
Memoir of the Bobotes: by Joyce Cary: a brilliantly written memoir of the author's time as a medical officer during the Balkan Wars (pre World War I): the writer became a novelist and his craft shows; full of humour and keen observation
My Family and Other Animals (and the sequels) by Gerald Durrell: Beautiful descriptions and hilarious accounts of an eccentric family living on the Greek Island of Corfu between WWI and WWII
A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble: a well-written, frequently humourous account of Pacific paradise
Bus Stop Symi by William Travis: the account of three years spent on the remote and at the time unspoilt Greek island of Symi: well-written, charming and amusing
Surprised by Joy by C S Lewis: an account of the famous author's life, mostly from the perspective of his Christianity: beautifully written
A Death in the Family by Karl-Ove Knausgard: the first volume of a series in which the author, in the guise of writing novels, portrays real people with real names: the writing is brilliant
Beautiful People by Simon Doonan: The story of a young gay man: well-written with moments of marvellous humour
Teacher Man by Frank McCourt: the third volume in the series that started with Angela's Ashes
The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice by Polly Coles: a reasonably well-written account of a year spent living in Venice
A Detail on the Burma Front by Winifred Beaumont: a nurse's story from one of the theatres of World War II: more compassion and humour: reasonably well-written
Whatever Happened to Margo: Margaret Durrell's account of running a boarding house in Bournemouth: sometimes muddled but often funny
Rabbit Stew and a Penny or Two by Maggie Smith-Bendell: an interesting and reasonably well-written account of a Romani Gypsy childhood
Not for the faint-hearted by John Stevens: the autobiography of a senior police officer; probably best for those most interested in this sort of story
Forty Years Catching Smugglers by Malcolm Nelson: the memoirs of a senior customs officer; probably best for those most interested in this sort of story