Excerpt from a work in progress:
I’m a Bermondsey boy, though Ratcliffe Highway north of the river became my home. I was born twice. First in a wooden room that jutted out over the black water of the Thames, and then again eight years later in the Highway, when the tiger took me in his mouth and everything truly began.
Say Bermondsey and they wrinkle their noses. StilI, it was home before all other homes. The river lapped beneath us as we slept. Our door looked out over a wooden rail into the channel at the front, where dark water gobbed up an odd sullen grey bubble. If you looked down through the slats, you could see things moving in the swill below. Thick green slime, glistening in the slosh that banged up against it, crept up the crumbling wooden piles.
I remember the jagged lanes with bent elbows and crooked knees, rutted horse shit in the road, the dung of sheep that passed our house every day from the marshes; and the cattle bellowing their unbearable sorrows in the tannery yard. I remember the dark bricks of the tanning factory, and the rain falling black. The wrinkled red bricks of the walls were gone all to tarry soot. If you touched them, the tips of your fingers came away shiny black. A heavy smell came up from under the wooden bridge and got you in the gob as you crossed in the morning going to work.
The air over the river though was full of sound and rain. And sometimes at night, the sound of sailors sang out over the winking water – voices wild and dark to me as the elements themselves – lilts from everywhere, strange tongues that lisped and shouted, melodies running up and down like many small flights of stairs, making me feel as if I was far away in those strange hot-sun places.
The river was a great thing seen from the bank, but a foul thing when your bare toes encountered the thin red worms that lived in its sticky mud. I remember them wriggling between.
But look at us.
I came to Civitella 1600 words or so into a long novel. Civitella was a gift – undisturbed time to carry my work forward in a beautiful place, spoiled by an ever-helpful staff and nourished by the most delicious Italian cooking imaginable. Along with this came the opportunity to meet people I have grown deeply fond of and will never forget, to encounter new ideas as I learned about their work (our backgrounds and disciplines varied in a most stimulating and harmonious way) and to enjoy the luxury of being taken on fascinating day trips. I have seen beautiful art, explored wonderful Renaissance towns and eaten in marvellous restaurants. My book has developed, deepened and focused during an incredibly rich and fruitful six weeks. I have learned so much.