In 1958, I drifted north from Kentucky and became a nonstudent at Columbia. My home was a $12-a-week room in an off-campus building full of jazz musicians, shoplifters, mainliners, screaming poets and sex addicts of every description. It was a good life.
from ‘The Nonstudent Left’ by Hunter S. Thompson, The Nation, 1965
Like Truman Capote, I am always drawn back to places I have lived; although in my case it is more in the sense of memory, of imaginary travel to places real (or at least, once real), rather than literally standing again in front of a New York brownstone and reimagining Holly Golightly, red velvet upholstery and tobacco-spit walls. For example, one time, lying in bed with a tropical fever in Sumatra, my heightened senses driven acid-bright by a soundtrack of dangdut and Bollywood from the transistor radio of the workmen clearing the cobras out of next-door’s garage, I passed the hours of semi-sleep and dream-like wakefulness by trying to remember every place I’d ever lived or even stayed and therefore, by extension, every place I’d ever written, filling the clashing kaleidoscope of nights and days with desperate attempts to remember the exact shape of that hotel room in Prague, the exact view from the window of that flophouse in New Orleans…
My first place of my own was a bedsit on the third floor of No. 31 Manchester Street in London’s West 1 when I was nineteen years old. I arranged my few books on the mantlepiece (although frequent subsequent trips to Charing Cross Road meant that the walls either side of the gas-fireplace soon displayed wobbly twin-towers of second-hand volumes) and set my typewriter, a 1955 Olivetti Lettera 22, on the plain square wooden table underneath the window and alongside a washed-out olive jar of needle-sharp pencils, a stack of clean white foolscap paper, a glass ashtray and a bottle of Dolin dry vermouth – in other words, everything in place to become, like Capote before me, the writer I wanted to be. Directly across the street an artist had his studio and, as he painted with his back to the uncurtained window as well as painting on canvases at least as tall as himself, I could clearly see each picture being made – a succession of brightly-coloured abstracts that bore little or no relation to his girlfriend / model who would sometimes lean out of the window half-dressed and smoke a cigarette.
My first home in Key West I have referred to previously in a Write Life essay – it was half the ground floor of a house on Varela Street with my desk made of two orange crates and a plank of wood. The following year I pitched in with my best friends Ron, a commercial fisherman, and his girlfriend Judy, a waitress at Jerome’s South Street Café, and between us we could afford a whole house with a small front garden, a decent-size back yard and what the locals call a Florida room (the best English equivalent would be a conservatory, although that still doesn’t quite match it), which had a tiled floor that washed over when it rained, a glass-topped garden table and an old-style ceiling fan, and was where I drank countless bottles of Miller Genuine Draft, smoked countless unfiltered Pall Mall cigarettes, and wrote my rigorously word-counted articles for the weekly paper Island Life.
I subsequently travelled around India, staying in a whole variety of places, including a university campus in Bihar, a famous poet’s spare room in New Delhi, and an ashram in Calcutta, but the most spectacular was the house I rented for the month of December in a village called Mashobra in the foothills of the Himalayas. It had once, back in the days of the Raj, belonged to the governor of Simla and was now the last word in spartan luxury. It had a ballroom, sure, but there was no heating, no hot water and the window of the bathroom I used had a pane missing. As much as possible I sat outside, sometimes reading, sometimes writing descriptions of everything I saw and did in Indian school exercise books. The place came with a cook and a gardener, and one day the latter took me a little way up into the mountains to visit a friend of his, a lady who was herself a gardener at the prime minister of India’s summer retreat. The retreat itself was mostly closed up for the winter, but the views were spectacular and I was fully aware of the privilege that had been granted me. The following day, wearing dark glasses to shield my eyes from the sunlight reflecting off the snow on the lawn, I wrote a semi-fictionalised account and called it The Greenhouse at the Top of the World. I subsequently gave it to the editor of the Punjab’s main newspaper, The Tribune, to whom I had been introduced in Chandigarh before heading north. Whether he ever published it, I don’t know. But it’s a nice thought that he might’ve.
There were other places, many places, including a house in Java where dazzling-bright hummingbirds hovered around my next-door neighbour’s flower borders and a four-foot monitor lizard bullied pedestrians on the access gang; and an apartment in Thailand above a wedding boutique, with a balcony overlooking a street that became a river during the rains. If you are lucky enough to have not just travelled but to have lived in many places you will have many things to remember when you are bedridden with fever, but the best joy is the memory of the tiniest details, the memories you force yourself to remember, those memories themselves commensurate with the detail of the woodwork scroll on the bedside table or the patterns the sunlight makes through a glass of water on the parquet floor or the sound of dangdut filtering through the jalousies in your bedroom wall. And then there is a further dimension, an almost inevitable extension, which is when memory combines with imagination to create variations on the past, to anticipate possible futures based on (for example) –
Of all the places I’ve lived, I return again and again to the house I once rented for just a few weeks in the hills above Agios Nikolaos on the island of Crete. It was my thirty-sixth birthday, the age Byron was when he died, and I wanted to feel young in a place that was very, very old. The interior was whitewashed stone, the bed was a shepherd’s pallet and the rear balcony overlooked a gorgeous blue swimming pool strictly reserved for the wealthy patrons of a neighbouring resort apartment block. But, what the hell? I had a small refrigerator and a small hob and a typewriter and half a dozen books and a view (albeit a fairly distant view) of the sea – of the glorious, unimaginably turquoise Aegean Sea; of Homer’s sea; where boats could be hired to go fishing for sardines at a price I could afford and the sardines could be fried on my little hob and washed down with retsina from my little fridge. And I’ll tell you something very strange: I now own a library of several thousand books, but it doesn’t have the same impact as six rather tatty paperback editions lined up on the windowsill of an otherwise undecorated whitewashed room, with a typewriter below them and beyond them a view of the sea. And when, in the lucid moments between the pageants of German expressionism that define a fever, I remembered, I remember, that house, those few perfect weeks in Crete, I take the liberty of rearranging it, redesigning it for future re-occupancy, choosing better, more deserving books, and extending my choice to at least a dozen, if not two –
Drawn back, not just to places I have lived, but to a better arrangement of the past…