Skip to main content


(Eugenio Montale — Honey)

At one time, Sir Donald L. loved journeys, and particularly journeys to Italy. His already long life had been comfortable and, at least in its first half, fully ‘Edwardian’: the life of a rising man in a rising nation; a life always ‘in progress’, to use the English phrase, meaning in development, with no shadow of tragic doubts about himself and about the social caste which not long ago had admitted him to its company. Son of a Newcastle brewer, probably Jewish but not such a thoroughbred and not so rich as to be able to benefit with maximum rapidity from the advantages of his birth, delicate in health in first infancy and showing no early signs of particular intelligence, regarded with suspicion at Eton and flogged until he bled by the ‘senior chaps’; he graduated with honours from Oxford after a four-year struggle with tutors and students who didn’t wish to associate with him, then entered the civil service, from which he emerged, after the first great war, with an honorific title and a strong desire to live amongst his peers, amongst gentlemen. From that date, this self-styled man of the North who feels the call of the South begins long journeys to his great Eldorados: Greece, Spain, Morocco, the Balearics, the Azores, and most of all Italy, which he knows intimately — southern Italy, that is — where he has written his books (no one knows anything about them) and where he maintains, or rather maintained, close friendships. A different age… How times have changed, through the fault of political and social revolutions which he abhors, an interminable crisis, the madness of an Italian dictator at first moderate and ‘charming’ and in the end utterly cruel, a second interminable war, and the accession to the government of England of men who won’t allow travellers to leave the country with more than 35 pounds sterling: all this, in sum, conspires to mean that Sir Donald has to spend years and years (and these are perhaps the last years of his life, the most precious!) in a gloomy little flat with three rooms one above the other, rich in books and memories but poor in sunshine and human warmth. We are in the district of St John’s Wood; there is no shortage of trees for those who appear at their window; each owner or tenant even has a pocket handkerchief of a garden protected by a gate on which are displayed strange free-of-charge requests and offers (‘Home wanted for lovely parrot’ — someone wants to get rid of a parrot); it’s a little way from the heart of the city, and this city is the very heart of a world and of the best organised civil society in existence; yet Sir Donald feels himself a prisoner, he needs someone with whom he can admire and disdain this gigantic piece of machinery one of whose ornaments he has considered himself to be. With whom can he do this? Certainly not with the young things of middling quality who frequent his company: half-painters, half-writers, half-hangers-on, ready to give him advice, to drive his Austin for him (on rationed petrol), to eat his toast, ready in fact to profit from the melancholy of an old bachelor who cannot bear to be alone. No, there’s nothing to be done with parasites like these, useful as they may be. A passing Italian, an Italian young enough for him to say, ‘When you were a babe in arms, I…’ and cultured enough to be able to give as good as he gets in an almost Platonic dialogue with him: that would be his ideal.

I was his ideal for forty-eight hours. On our first day he took me on a tour of the city, apologising for not being the perfect guide (but of course he could have been my guide in Italy too; what did I, young man, know of the real Italy?), but trying not to omit anything which he considered particularly dreadful or sublime: docks, slums, the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, taverns and chemist shops with extant ceilings and rafters dating to the 1600s, antique shops, a visit to his club, and then endless parks and gardens, in which the grey squirrels, recently imported, have eaten the red squirrels which were there once, and where unfortunately even the greys are beginning to be scarce. Have they been eaten too, by humans? I said that the red squirrels are excellent; I had tried one myself, in Italy. At this point the topic of discussion turned to the culinary arts. Sir Donald was vexed that I took seriously the placards depicting bowls of carrot soup and bottles of yellowish sauce, described in ornate lettering as ‘perfect soup’ and ‘marvellous sauce’. So he decided to invite me to dine. He would show me that even though people of his sort were in straitened circumstances, nonetheless the art of making the best of things still existed for an island citizen who had had the necessary initiation under other skies. The proof would be provided without delay; on the spot. No; a moment of reflection; on the spot was a step too far. The business must be planned, thought about. It wasn’t a question of dropping into a restaurant, let alone an Italian restaurant. There they can cheat a passing Italian, but not a man who knows what’s what. He would invite me to his house. Not straight away, not that evening, goodness no! He would have to inform his cook, Honey, who was usually in Manchester and who came occasionally to prepare a meal for him. Too far away? No; scarcely four hours on the train. An urgent telegram, and the next morning his darling Honey would make her appearance. The banquet would be ready about nine in the evening. I was asked to arrive early; he would expect me at seven. I asked whether I might bring an Italian friend with me. Naturally; two even. And I was dropped at my hotel, where that evening I would have to content myself with a little run-of-the-mill supper. But the next day…

The next day, at about half past six in the evening, I was at the corner of Oxford Street and Park Lane, where, by whistling, I was trying to get some taxi driver to take pity on me. But my whistles were in vain, because at that hour it isn’t easy to find any taxi in London. A hotel porter, having pocketed a couple of shillings, whistled better than me and rescued me from this predicament, so that at seven o’clock I and my friend Alberto Moravia were able to clamber up Sir Donald’s narrow staircase and make the acquaintance of Honey. The angel who’d arrived from a coal-black city was herself very black. She was one of those ladies who, when asked their age, may reply, ‘…ty-five,’ leaving a gap which goes upwards from thirty-five, with no limit; she was round, fat, with a shining face, curly-haired and friendly. Sir Donald and his hangers-on were standing about her, laughing merrily. There were introductions and words of praise all round: of her, of the guests, and of the impending meal. Honey wasn’t in the kitchen, as might have been supposed; perhaps the food was already prepared and was warming in the oven. She was certainly not the classic English type; she must have been of mixed blood too, and she seemed a woman of dynamic energy, open and vigorous in mood, ready for banter, quick to pick up witty double entendres and saucy hints. It wasn’t easy to follow her conversation, because of her Cockney accent, but nothing prevented me and my friend Alberto from roaring with laughter, partly as the duty of guests, partly because a few casually mixed drinks had put us in a good mood. There was discussion of the meal too, incidentally: antipasti, with gulls’ eggs (not rationed), roast chicken and a nice tart with preserved fruits. It was all prepared, but unfortunately someone flicked a switch and on a screen appeared the first scenes of a crime drama, which seemed to absorb the interest of Honey and of everyone present. A television drama.

I took advantage of this to withdraw to the little sitting room below, followed by Alberto. We were worried.

‘Gulls’ eggs: that means seagulls,’ I said. ‘No way of avoiding it. They’re black too, like her, with a salty taste.’

‘Let’s hope the chicken isn’t a roast seagull,’ said Alberto. ‘Courage.

Howls and laughter reached us from the other room. ‘Murder! Murder!’ Honey screamed, wildly excited. We went down to the courtyard, where for half an hour no one came to call us. The drama must have reached its climax; Honey alternated little shrieks and sobs; then at a certain point the screams became furious and suddenly ceased, followed by the jabbering of people who seemed to be encouraging or bringing aid to someone. The drama had finished or had been interrupted. We climbed the stairs in a hurry.

They had turned the lights on again. Honey was semi-conscious on a sofa. They were standing around her, fanning her and slapping her cheeks. She had been hugely entertained, but the coming to life of the body in the trunk had given her too strong a thrill and she had collapsed. We’d better eat in a hurry; they would take her to her son’s place close by — about half an hour away. Alas, the meal had burnt to a crisp in the electric oven; never mind, we would do it again another time. Three young dandies brought the hard-boiled eggs out of the kitchen, their shells blackened and their insides a deep green from overcooking. Not advisable to eat them, warned Sir Donald. We’d better make up for it with the chicken, which was the genuine item, but carbonised, sitting in the midst of a pretty little garden of pickles and radishes. The tart wasn’t too bad, however, and we were able to celebrate with half a carafe of Australian wine, the sort which is ‘bottled by the customer’. It was getting late; we should go our separate ways. Honey was at her liveliest again, and was ready for the off; everyone gave her little kisses behind the ear and assured her that her success had been extraordinary. A youngster went out to look for a taxi. We left in two groups and in opposite directions: Sir Donald, Honey and two young men in the Austin; Alberto, I and two other guests in the taxi, to the cavernous entrance of the nearby underground station, where we were deposited with smiles and handshakes. As I let myself be transported downwards on the escalator I looked at my watch; it was half past eleven, too late to find a restaurant open. And, oh dear, we had forgotten to thank our host.