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The Place That Is And Isn’t

Searching for the Land of Lost Content

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

Novels that offer a dream of lost places fascinate me. I often wonder whether the attempt to reconstruct that place is one of the impulses to becoming a writer. Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani and the autobiographical novels La Gloire de Mon Père and Le Château de Ma Mère by Marcel Pagnol, celebrate the magic of first perceptions, while dramatising the impossibility of living in the past. Illness (Pagnol’s mother died young), racial laws (Bassani was Jewish), encroaching war, and the forces of separation delineate these places of epiphany with the tragic sharpness of history. The scene hovers ahead of the characters, down a path, along a cart track, up a hill and over a river to be reached on foot or by bicycle. In Le Grand Meaulnes, the characters strive to make a map from memory, hoping to rediscover the magical estate of Meaulnes’ truant adventure. From a British perspective, it is easy to romanticise journeys to a garden in Ferrara or the wilds of Provence, whereas Bognor seems a less promising destination. R.C. Sherriff in The Fortnight in September lovingly describes a family’s annual journey from Dulwich to Bognor. Every humdrum moment, even finding the platform at Clapham Junction, is endowed with the anticipation of freedom. Inspired by fellow soldiers remembering peacetime holidays while in the trenches, Sherriff probes the conditioning of class and work in his quietly humane novel. This once international bestseller spoke to its interwar zeitgeist by celebrating a peacetime family holiday, a subject more confidently valued in French culture.

But is it possible to find a lost domain? Meaulnes’ and his friends’ fixation on the past almost destroys their present. What reader can forget the hard-up Pagnol family, on their long walk to the countryside each weekend, taking a short cut through a private estate? Pagnol never forgives the caretaker who challenges and humiliates his soon-to-be-dead seamstress mother with charges of trespass and sours their hard-won paradise. Bassani cannot return the Finzi-Continis to their tennis courts once the Jewish family has been transported from Italy to be murdered. Sherriff implies that this is the Stevens family’s last holiday together in Bognor before the elder children leave home. The time-limited nature of a holiday or summer crystallises events, but memory is unstable and may deceive.

My own lost place is in Northern Italy. My father served in Italy in WW2 and had to stay on for another year at the war’s end, because his unit was monitoring Yugoslavian and Italian border disputes. He took Italian lessons and made Italian friends. And so years later, because of this history, we’d catch the midnight ferry from Dover to Boulogne and drive through France at night, on our way to the small almost-island of a wooded camping site by the sea.

I don’t want to be judged on veracity, so I will call the town, the town of F—, as writers do in nineteenth-century novels. It isn’t the usual destination that English people hope for when they holiday in Italy today. F— is a shipbuilding town, with an avenue of lime trees, a square white piazza burning with heat, a fifties shopping precinct, some Mussolini buildings, a few remaining ornate Austro-Hungarian blocks, a town beach and lanes that disappear through bamboo-like reeds and end in a marshy lagoon of islands.

Some years after my father died, I return with my own family. Foolishly, I forget to take addresses and can’t contact the younger generation of my father’s friends. The campsite is by the sea. I reason the sea is easy to find. We used to drive along the causeway that threaded the campsite’s almost-island to the mainland. We’d unpack the tent on what we thought was flat ground but wake with tree-roots knuckling our backs. The poplars filtered light onto the tents’ orange top sheets and the candy-striped awnings of caravans. Paths twisted through the woodland to the campsite’s beach. The beach was near the dockyard. We heard metal-beating, drilling and the creaking of rusting dredgers. At intervals, the soughing of tamarisks was outdone by the blast of an all-clear, signalling the end of the shipbuilders’ shifts. There was a better beach along the way, with more space to play and less weed in the water, but we loved our small and stony strip with its view of a derelict ship. Our Italian friends preferred a beach with showers, sunbeds and umbrellas. Our campsite beach was originally made for shipworkers. Possibly, it was too working-class for our friends. In these memories are clues to the location, but nevertheless we fail to find the site.

So, we drive on to Croatia, disappointed. But on our return, we try again. I follow my instinct, and suddenly we’re driving along the causeway to the place where the lane ends at the over-sized gateway to the campsite. The gate is locked. But the beach is open. I pay the entry fee and then take photos through the wire fence. The lamps that lit our way through trees to the shower block at night still stand, but the lampposts are bent, the paint peeling and light bulbs smashed. Bins sit at regular intervals, empty and scratched. A skewed post numbers an overgrown tent pitch. One rotting caravan floats under the dark pines, a dirty white among blond grasses. The manager’s house flakes, with little trace of its former pink stucco. The windows are barred and broken. But familiar sounds persist. The shipyard still hammers metal. The reeds rattle, shifting their canes and rustling leaves. Someone has painted ‘vietato’ and ‘periculoso’ on concrete blocks in the shallows. Forbidden and dangerous. The owner of the ice-cream shack startles me. He shouts and mutters, escorts me from the premises, even though I explain in my poor Italian that I camped here with my parents when I was a child years ago, and that’s why I was taking photographs. He softens when I mention my parents but insists on walking me out anyway. Maybe there is a controversial land deal going on. Maybe he thought I’d been sent by some rival business. Maybe the writing on the concrete blocks is true, and there are bombs here from the war. My husband and children, waiting in the car park, watch me being evicted.
‘I’m glad you found it,’ my daughter says.
‘Yes, at least you found it,’ my son and husband repeat.

An angry man may accuse me of trespass, but the fences are down. Here we are, tired and hot, legs sticking to the seats, caught in a queue, counting the blue morning glories which stare at us from the causeway’s wire fence, while we listen to reeds shimmy through the open car windows. In our heads, there’s the night crossing from Dover, and the drive through France, wrapped in sleeping bags in the back of the car. Our day has unreeled from last night’s pitch beside a bouldered river to the hairpin bends of mountain passes, and then taken us past a glacier and marmosets sunning themselves in Alpine meadows. We buy peaches from a roadside stall, meander through lanes of tamarisk, until we arrive at the painted gateway. We are lumpy and itchy, bitten by mosquitoes, querulous and ready for a swim. The barrier rises and lets us in.

The tamarisks whisper. My foot kicks a pinecone. I smell the undergrowth’s ferny heat and hear the sea calling beyond the groan of mechanical cranes and the upturned billow of tents. Paolo and Giorgio wait for us on the beach with li-los. Our parents carry the cold box and rugs down to the sea. We run ahead tripping on roots, skin already burning. We buy cornetti in the pink-stuccoed shop and admire the manager’s shiny Vespa parked outside. My mother settles under a tree. The almost-island is derelict and lost. The gate is locked, the woodland forbidden, and yet simultaneously the almost-island is friendly, packed with families and days of pleasure. This is the place that is and isn’t. The sad things that will happen haven’t happened yet. But, for my father, the war has already happened. Does he think of friends burning to death in desert tanks, the blown-out houses, of everything he’d seen when, as a young man, he arrived here for the first time? Is this place how he remembered? How good to rest under a tree, to see his children splashing in the sea, his wife relaxing, to look forward to a meal under the leafy shade of a friend’s vine. It was a long drive and not uneventful, with the car breaking down on the St Bernard pass, but we coped, and we’re here now for a fortnight. He cuts a peach in half. The juice drips. Red streaks radiate from the stone like rays of sun, as I climb into the hire-car with my husband and children and drive away, guessing now that only writing can take me back.

Stephanie Norgate is a poet and playwright and former Reader in Creative Writing at the University of Chichester. Her plays have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Her two books of poetry from Bloodaxe Books are Hidden River (2008) and The Blue Den (2012); her third collection will be published in 2021.

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