The conference, thank goodness, was over. I declined the offer to join a group of delegates for drinks and dinner. I’d had more than enough talking, and looked forward to eating alone in a small trattoria only a few streets from the cathedral and the Leaning Tower. The conference itself was not something that I’d anyway looked forward to. It was, however, an opportunity to visit – with flights and all expenses paid – an area of Italy of which I was very fond.
The invitation to give a ‘keynote address’ came as a surprise. I had written reviews of two books on Giacomo Leopardi, the 19th-century poet who was the subject of the conference. But I was no expert and had no interest in recent Leopardi scholarship, fashionably focused on allegations of his racism and misogyny. Still, I managed to concoct a talk, relating Leopardi to something that, as a historian, I did know something about – post-war Italian cinema. Rather painstakingly, I wrote out the talk in Italian, only to find that my hosts wanted the whole conference to be in English.
Anyway, now it was over, and I could concentrate on the next three days, before I had to fly back to London. Until a couple of months earlier, I had been tossing up between Florence and Lucca, both within easy reach of Pisa. But that changed when I was sent the letter that is safely folded in the inside pocket of the blazer I am now wearing.
It is a letter, of which I was the author, written over fifty years earlier. It was sent to me by a woman who had, a few days before, emailed me. She explained that she had found a letter among the effects of her recently deceased mother, recognised the name at the bottom it, and wondered if I was the person who had written it. She knew my name, she said, through reading a book of mine when she was a history student at university. Since my surname is an unusual one, and since I would be the right sort of age to have written the letter, she’d decided to contact me.
The letter, she explained in the email, was posted from Milan, in the summer of 1958, to a hotel in which her mother was staying while on holiday with her parents in Rapallo. It was addressed to ‘Doris, Lilian and Margaret: The three English girls.’ Doris was her mother’s name, and Lilian was her aunt’s: she assumed that Margaret was a friend staying in the same hotel.
I confirmed that I was indeed the writer of the letter. It was one that I’d sometimes recalled over the years, alongside another letter, written only hours before but which, fortunately, Doris’s daughter seemed not to have discovered. Despite this, it gave me a shock when, a few days later, the letter arrived, together with a covering note from the daughter saying that she would be interested to know the context of the letter, but would perfectly understand if this was not something I wanted to discuss. Holding the two fragile sheets of paper, with their faded blue ink, I was transported back to a small hotel room in Milan, with rain lashing against the window, where, with tears in my eyes, I wrote this letter.
So, it was to Rapallo – not Florence or Lucca – that I knew I must go after leaving Pisa. But it’s not easy to explain precisely why. To recapture experiences of which the letter had reignited memories? Certainly there were ones I’d be happy, were it possible, to re-live. But it’s not just that. The better answer, at the risk of sounding pretentious, is that I wanted to be put in touch with – to identify with – my earlier sixteen year old self.
Philosophers and psychologists often ask if there is any substantial sense in which a man or woman is the same person as he or she was ten, twenty or fifty years earlier. Buddhists, for one, will tell you that there isn’t: each of us is a process of change, a succession of selves rather than a single one. True, we remember earlier experiences: but that’s not enough to establish our identity with a past self. I may idly recall feeling annoyed last year when my train was late: but this doesn’t give me a sense of deep affinity or identity with the person who was anxiously pacing up and down the platform.
There is, though, a special kind of experience whose recollection, however many years later, brings with it the pain and intensity of the original. The experience of shame. When a man vividly recalls doing something shameful, it is indelibly a memory of what he did – the very person who, right here and now, is remembering, and not some earlier creature whose connection with him is remote and loose. You can’t experience real shame at the thought of what some remote predecessor of yours did.
So, now I am in Rapallo, just an hour and a half after taking the train from Pisa. I walked down from the station to the sea front, where I checked into the rather grand old hotel where I’d reserved a room. It was the very same hotel, more than fifty years earlier, in which I’d stayed for a week with my parents. Now, as then, my room afforded views over the harbour, the curving beach with its technicolour parasols, the Tigullian Gulf, and promontories jutting out to sea along the coast.
I wandered down to the beach after a light lunch on the terrace of the hotel and found a deckchair underneath a parasol. It was, I began to feel, going to be easier than I’d imagined to conjure up the experiences of many years earlier. For the town – the old part, at least, and the lungomare – were remarkably unchanged. The castle built out to sea, other castles, the basilica – these looked the same, as did some of the older hotels and the little shops in the grid-like narrow streets. Plenty of new apartment buildings had, of course, been built, but these were mainly on the hillside behind the town and invisible from where I sat.
As I looked out to sea, I tried, not entirely successfully, to dismiss from my mind images of Dirk Bogarde, in A Death in Venice, sitting on a deckchair on the Lido to the soundtrack of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. I at least hoped that, unlike his character, I wasn’t about to die.
Certainly the piece of music I suddenly heard coming from an ice-cream seller’s van was very different from Mahler, but equally evocative. Indeed, what could better evoke and transport me back than a song that, in 1958, was being played in every Italian bar – Volare, or as the Italians called it Nel blu dipinto di blu?
A perceptive historian wrote that it was with Volare that the Second World War finally came to an end. Certainly the song’s image of a man flying higher and higher up into a blue sky – free, happy, singing – struck a chord with a Europe only just emerging from the ruins of its cities and a decade of austerity. It would be another three years before La Dolce Vita arrived in the cinemas, but life in 1958 Rapallo struck me as a good deal sweeter than in London, especially in the boarding school where I was incarcerated for much of the year. One of the most powerful experiences I recalled was of entering into a grocer’s shop with my mother and being assailed by wonderful smells many of which I couldn’t at the time identify – of cheeses, hams, giant sausages, garlic, lemons, oregano and basil. I would, I now promised myself, see whether, in the age of supermarkets, such a grocer’s could still be found in Rapallo. I would follow my nose in the side streets.
The ice-cream van was by now on its way along the beach, but the strains of Volare that were still just audible provided the perfect incentive for me to close my eyes and think back to the day I first heard the song. It was probably when it was being played by the pianist in the bar of our hotel on the evening we arrived. He had to repeat it twice, I remember. And I heard it again when, the next morning, my parents and I walked across the road to the beach and commandeered some chairs and parasols.
It was on this beach that I spent most hours of the day during our week in Rapallo. I’d made friends, on the second morning, with the two sons, a couple of years younger than me, of an English family staying in the same hotel as ours. We happily spent hours swimming in the warm, crystal water, kicking a beach ball around, rowing a boat out to sea, and eating ice-creams. The three of us successfully resisted, for the most part, our respective parents’ attempts to take us on visits to castles, churches or museums.
The beach was not, as it would now be in the summer months, crowded with tourists. It would be several years before charter flights and package holidays guaranteed that Spanish, Italian and Greek resorts were crammed to bursting with visitors from Northern Europe. The richer British tourists also preferred to holiday in nearby Portofino or Santa Margherita, where they were more likely to encounter film stars and tycoons than in Rapallo.
But there were enough people on the beach to lend it a lively atmosphere. More specifically, there were enough attractive girls to draw me to the beach each day, instead of sight-seeing with my parents. Most of the girls were, of course, Italian – several of them in bikinis that, officially, were banned from public spaces. Nearly all of them were deeply tanned with long, usually dark hair cascading down their backs.
The two English brothers were too young to be as dedicated as myself to watching the Italian girls. But I did manage often to manoeuvre them onto the sand in front of a group of girls, where we would engage in boyish horse-play designed, in my case, to impress the girls with my athleticism. I was aware, though, that my rather bony physique and pale skin, now blotched with sunburn, made it hard to compete with the bronzed Italian youths who were also showing off in front of the girls.
I was aware, too, that I was unlikely ever to talk with any of the girls. I didn’t know Italian, and English, at that time, was not in the standard curriculum of Italian schools. My spirits rose, therefore, when on our fourth morning on the beach, I saw two pale-skinned girls sitting in the front rank of the deckchairs, right by the boardwalk down to the sea. Blond, with pinkish cheeks, they looked very English, and indeed, when after some minutes I walked past them, on the way to the ice-cream stall, I heard them speaking to each other in what is nowadays called ‘Estuary’ English.
When they left the beach that afternoon, I followed the girls at a discreet distance. I’d hoped they would be staying at our hotel, but instead they walked inland and to a more modern part of the town. They then disappeared into a rather modest, ugly and newly built hotel.
I started to work on a plan to get into conversation with them the next morning. People, today, may be amused to hear that, in those days, a teenager needed a ‘plan’ for this. Why not go straight up to the girls and say ‘Hi!’? But that’s not how it was in 1958. Sisterless, middle-class, boarding school teenagers like myself had very little contact with girls and were horribly ignorant about how to get to know them. The plan I’d began to formulate had to be scuppered, however, when my parents insisted that I went with them to Pisa for the day. They couldn’t let me come to Italy, my father exclaimed, without seeing the Leaning Tower.
The day after the Pisa visit – which was our last day in Rapallo – I went onto the beach, but without any clear plan for getting to know the girls. My problem, however, was solved for me. I saw their bobbing blond heads as they swam out to sea. I walked into the water myself when I saw a pedal-boat, in which sat a couple of laughing young boys, heading straight towards the girls. I ran through the water, shouting and gesticulating. It worked. Both the pedal-boaters and the English girls recognised the danger, and disaster was averted.
The girls thanked me for saving them from what might have been a bad accident, and as we walked back towards the beach, the taller of them asked where I came from and how long I’d been in Rapallo. Her name, she said, was Doris, and her sister’s Lilian. They’d arrived yesterday and were here for a week before driving back through France to England. I sat on a free deckchair next to theirs and the three of us then talked, rather awkwardly and intermittently, in-between spells of silent sun-bathing.
When I looked at the girls close-up, I was disconcerted to realise that they were older than I’d imagined – older, certainly, than myself. Since leaving school, they’d worked for some years, Doris explained, in a haberdasher’s in Colchester. Fortunately, they didn’t ask me what I did, for I didn’t want to confess that I was still a schoolboy.
After less than an hour in the deckchairs, Doris said they had to go. Their parents, like mine the day before, were insisting that they saw the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I had to act quickly if I wanted to see them again and have a ‘date’ on my last night. To my surprise, I summoned up the courage to invite them for a drink that evening on the terrace of a restaurant and bar, La Luna Blu, at the far end of the lungomare – a place I’d been one night with my parents. They exchanged somewhat doubtful glances with each other before Doris said that would be okay, but there would be three of them: they’d agreed with a girl staying in their hotel, Margaret, to go out together this evening. I replied that this would be fine, even though, at the same time, I was calculating whether I had enough money to pay for all three of them. I reckoned I had, so we agreed to meet on the terrace of the bar after we’d had dinner in our respective hotels.
It was difficult for me to disguise my excitement during the afternoon and over dinner from my parents. And I’m .not sure they believed me when, after bolting down my dessert, I told them I was meeting a couple of English-speaking Italian lads for a beer. Even so, my mother told me to enjoy myself and my father pressed some lira notes in my hand.
I walked slowly and nervously along the lungomare, and arrived early at La Luna Blu. I went up the staircase to the terrace where there were only a few people. 9.00pm, I remembered, was early by Italian standards. At a small table sat a young couple romantically engrossed in one another, and at another was an older English-looking couple, nursing glasses of wine. Apart from a trio of young, sharply dressed Italian men with oiled-down hair who were sitting on stools by the bar, the only other people on the terrace were the small band, who were still arranging their sheet music and stands. They specialised, I recalled from my previous visit to the bar, in recent popular Italian songs – Ti vuo fa’ l’Americano, Come prima, Arrivederci Roma, Volare – and woodenly performed rock ‘n roll numbers.
I ordered a beer and sat down at a table with four seats to wait for the girls to arrive. I was beginning to think that I was being ‘stood up’ when, twenty minutes later, they appeared. The three of them looked remarkably similar: fair-haired, with skimpy, almost see-through, knee-length dresses, and the bare skin of their arms and legs reddened by the sun. I stood up, greeted them, ushered them to the table, and asked them what they would drink. My hope that they would order something cheap – Coca-Colas, say, or glasses of wine – was dashed when, unanimously, they asked for Campari cocktails.
The drinks arrived and the band began to play. I would need another beer before summoning the courage to ask any of the girls to dance, but this was pre-empted when – as the band launched into Blue suede shoes – they got up, walked to the dance floor, and started to jive with one another. They gave no sign of wanting me to join them. When they returned to the table, the girls ordered another round of cocktails, by which time they were in high spirits, giggling and, to my annoyance, smiling at the oily-haired youths at the bar.
After a few minutes – and a second beer – I needed to go to the men’s room on the ground floor. I took the opportunity to count the money my father had given me, hoping it would be sufficient to cover what was becoming a large bill. I then spent a few minutes, at the downstairs bar, checking on the price of drinks. I’d be able to afford, I estimated, only one more round of drinks.
When I returned to the terrace, to the strains of Volare, I saw that my table was empty. For a few seconds, I assumed the girls had gone together to the ladies’ room. But I then saw that their glasses were empty, their handbags had gone, and that the young Italian men by the bar had also disappeared. My fears were confirmed when I asked the waiter where the young ladies were. He shrugged his shoulders, raised the palms of his hands in an apologetic, Mediterranean gesture, and told me that they’d left with the Italians.
For a few minutes, I felt nothing. I paid the bill, and even gave the waiter a generous tip. It was only when I’d left La Luna Blu and walked across the sand to the edge of the sea that I was overwhelmed by a bitter anger that I’d never before experienced. It wasn’t disappointment at realising that I wasn’t going to ‘score’ that evening, for this, I knew, was never on the cards anyway. Nor was it the sheer ingratitude and rudeness of the girls that was so upsetting. It was something harder to define: a sense, painful to a boy who has started to want to count for something, of being irrelevant – of being so unimportant that girls could just walk out on him without bothering to apologise or express a word of thanks.
I could think of only one way to vent and channel my anger. I returned to our hotel and went up to my room, taking care not to bump into my parents or let them hear that I was back so soon. On the desk in the bedroom was a folder containing writing paper and envelopes embossed with the name of the hotel. I took my pen from a drawer in the desk and sat down to write, beginning with the envelope that I addressed to ‘The Three English Girls’.
It was the letter which I then wrote on two sheets of thick paper, in only a few furious minutes, that, over the years, I have recalled with shame. I can remember what I wrote with almost the accuracy that I know the words of the other letter – the one that Doris’s daughter sent me – that I’d re-read a dozen times since receiving it. ‘Disgusting’, ‘vicious’, ‘horrible’, ‘treacherous’ were among the words I used to describe their behaviour. I used, too, all the terms I was with familiar with for insulting women – ‘slut’, ‘tart’, ‘cow’, ‘bitch’, and so on. If I’d known some even cruder terms at the time, I’d have no doubt employed them as well.
When I’d finished the letter and sealed it in its envelope, I crept out my room, descended by the fire escape staircase, and walked from our hotel to the one that the girls were staying in. There was little chance, I thought, of bumping into them: they would be out late enjoying themselves, in a night-club, with the sharply-dressed Italian men. I went into the hotel and explained to the man behind the reception desk who the letter was for. He smiled and replied that he knew exactly the girls in question, and would give them the letter when they returned.
Writing the letter had done what I intended it to do. I now felt calmer, my anger and bitterness still there, of course, but now manageable and muted. Although, when I lay down in my bed, my mind was invaded by unwelcome images – of the empty table on the terrace I’d returned to, and then of the girls dancing or swimming naked with the Italians – I did eventually succeed in getting to sleep.
When I got up the following morning. I had no time to reflect on the events of the previous evening and the letter I’d delivered. It was the morning of our departure from Rapallo, and I needed to pack my things so that we could leave for Milan straight after breakfast. It was only during the drive that – sitting in the back of the hire car, which my father was driving – slowly and relentlessly my remorse at what I’d done grew. I remembered every line that I’d written, and I shuddered with embarrassment at each one.
It was not, of course, that I could forgive the girls for their behaviour. But now, in the cool light of day I could at least understand it. Why would three lively young women want to spend the evening with a callow schoolboy when, instead, they could go and party with some suave-looking Italian men? And even if I hadn’t been able to understand it, that was no justification for my letter.
My mother, who kept enthusing about the various sights we were driving past – bays, castles, mountain peaks – asked why I was so silent. My lame explanation was a headache, at which my father laughed and said ‘A hangover more likely!’. I gave a false laugh in response, and then returned to thinking about the letter. I spent the hundred-mile drive to Milan – nearly three hours – mixing remorse with reflection on how I might ease my conscience. There seemed only one possibility: another letter, apologising for what I’d said in the first one.
The afternoon that I had to spend with my parents sightseeing in Milan seemed interminable. The great cathedral, which I’ve visited many times since, was incapable of diverting my attention from what I needed to do. And, when we went to the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie to see Leonardo da Vinci’s mural, The Last Supper, I might as well have been looking, for all the effect it had on me, at a mediocre watercolour in a village hall art exhibition.
Just as I’d had to pretend to take an interest in the cathedral and the mural, so I tried to look as if I was enjoying the seemingly endless dinner that we ate that evening in the huge, chandeliered dining room of our hotel. The moment I finished my dessert of peaches and ice-cream, I said ‘Goodnight’ to my parents, blaming my headache or hangover for wanting an early night. As soon as I got to my room, out came my pen and I set to work on the thick, creamy writing paper that lay on the desk. As I wrote, I paused only to listen to the heavy rain that was driving against the window and to wipe away the occasional tears that formed in my eyes.
The letter I wrote that night was posted the following morning to the hotel in Rapallo where the girls were staying. On the envelope, above the name of the hotel, I wrote ‘To Doris, Lilian and Margaret: The Three English Girls’. It is this letter that, nearly sixty years later, I am now carefully drawing out from the inside pocket of my blazer as I sit beneath a parasol on Rapallo beach – just a few hundred metres from the hotel to which it was posted.
In its own way, the letter I am now reading was written with as much emotion as the one I’d written after leaving La Luna Blu. The anger and humiliation with which the first letter seethed was matched by the remorse and shame expressed by the second one.
Insult or apology? Which, I find myself wondering, did Doris judge me by? It would be nice, and perhaps not unreasonable, to think that it was the apology, for it was this letter, not the first, that she had kept for more than fifty years. Perhaps she was touched by my remorse and forgave me the vitriolic letter I’d delivered to her hotel. I had been in her company – on the beach and on the terrace of La Luna Blu – for little more than an hour. Yet I have a clear memory of how she looked: the curly fair hair, pink cheeks, and even the red patches of sunburn on her arms and knees. Perhaps it is the vividness of this memory that suddenly makes me feel sad to remind myself that she is now dead. What sort of life, I find myself asking, did she have? All I know is that she had a daughter who’d read a book of mine and was kind enough to contact me about the letter she’d found. A daughter kind enough, too, not to press me on what I’d done to make me write a letter so full of remorse.
Right on cue, the ice-cream van is returning along the lungomare. As it draws up only a few yards behind my deckchair, the tune coming from its speaker changes from Funiculi, Funicula to Volare. I find myself silently singing along:
Nel blu dipinto di blu
Felice di stare lassu
As I do so, the decades that separate this present moment from the day I first heard the song, a stone’s throw from where I’m now sitting, evaporate. I had been right, after receiving the letter from Doris’s daughter, to decide to come to Rapallo, not Florence or Lucca. For I’m succeeding in experiencing a sense of intimacy, of identity, with my earlier self. I always dimly knew that such an experience could be induced by recollecting moments of shame. But, as I sit here listening to the song coming from the ice-cream van, I realise that the memory of doing something decent can have the same power. In its own humble way, the fragile letter I hold in my hands was an act of decency.
But now it’s time to stand up and return to my hotel - before images of Dirk Bogarde expiring in a deckchair on the Venice Lido return.