For nearly forty years I appear to have lived a transparent life in Cambridge, the city I love. Friends, family, and those close to me think they know everything about my writing habits and domestic routines. As a writer I seem to be an open book.
But for twenty-six summers I have led a secret life in Austin, the Lone Star State capital of Texas, home to America’s eclectic music scene where I listen to musicians playing blues, country and rock in the streets and realise why Austin is called ‘The Live Music Capital of the World’.
I first came to Austin in 1991 as a fellow at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center on a fellowship awarded by the University of Texas for research for my biography of Radclyffe Hall. I fell in love with Austin that summer.
It’s easy to feel at home here, for Austinites include a motley mixture of artists, writers, government, high-tech and blue-collar workers, a vibrant LGBT community, a large Hispanic population, and college students at the flagship University of Texas.
I don’t drive but, unusually in the car-focused USA, public transport in Austin is excellent. Their buses offer visual and audio directions for their blind and deaf communities. Tired students heave their bikes onto the outside of buses whilst bus drivers look on placidly.
No one in Cambridge has seen me ride my racy red Texan bike. They haven’t visited my Austin loft. They haven’t climbed the spiral stairs to my balcony overlooking the live oaks, the mesquites, the prickly pears and cacti which line the wide streets of Hyde Park, my quirky neighbourhood.
On the balcony where I take my meals and search for words despite temperatures in the high nineties, I watch for double-crested cormorants, or great blue herons with their deep hoarse croak. I try to describe the excitement of seeing armadillos, rat snakes and the proliferation of raccoons and to explain the wonder of bluebonnets which sparkle like sapphires in spring. Even in June, wildflowers blossom, and I have spotted late Texas bluebells, purple passionflowers, and dozens of swamp rose mallows.
I love Austin’s crazy feel—symbolised by the city’s slogan Keep Austin Weird. That catchy label, used on baseball caps, tee shirts and hoardings, was coined to indicate the desire to protect unique local businesses from being taken over by large corporations. But the slogan has spread. Today it includes the good-humoured oddness of many of its citizens. On my first visit years ago someone said ‘If you don’t fit in anywhere else you will certainly be at home in Austin’.
Why is it that I am determined to keep it under wraps?
It is primarily the sense of privacy. No one can find me. The words can flourish. I love living in a different time zone. Time differences strengthen my realisation that I am indeed away from domestic and family responsibilities. Although I always live in the same apartment, it is rented and if the roof leaks I don’t have to repair it.
Not being easily caught on the phone is freedom. If there is a mini-crisis in England, by the time I’m awake to hear about it, it has probably been solved.
Austin, on the border of the Hill Country, has towering limestone cliffs, rugged hills and water everywhere. Rivers. Lakes. Waterways. Natural swimming pools. Outdoors I feel emboldened to do things differently. In Cambridge I don’t even punt, but in Austin I took a kayak along the Colorado to Congress Avenue Bridge, where I watched the world’s largest urban colony of bats wheel and circle.
Hyde Park, Austin’s first streetcar suburb, traces its origins back to 1891. It is a historic district (Blue Plaques abound) as well as a neighbourhood community. Its turn-of-the-century architecture offers a mixture of majestic mansions and quaint bungalows. Residents relax quietly on their front porches exchanging greetings with runners and their dogs who race up the avenues.
Most residents are health conscious, liberal-minded, vote Democrat, are eco-friendly, and warmly welcoming.
The neighbourhood’s unofficial motto is ‘Community and Friendship’. I watch these qualities in action in the small trendy ‘village’ and in Shipe Park, a green centre with its own swimming pool, basketball and tennis courts— even an art museum on the site of sculptor Elisabet Ney’s studio.
The village hosts several independent businesses, a bar, glassworks, launderette, cafés—all clustering around two roads, 43rd St and Duval. Vegetarians like me crowd inside Mother’s Café, established 1980, never empty. Opposite Mother’s, at the Hyde Park Barn and Grill, I go for the best home fries dipped in buttermilk I’ve tasted anywhere. Next door, open late for live music and gelato-based cocktails, is Dolce Vita, a chill hangout. A world away from gigantic American supermarkets I found Fresh Plus, a deli and organic food store, the information centre for everything liberal and nutritious.
All these quaint outlets revolve around Quacks, the idiosyncratic bakery. Inside, students work at laptops and drink coffee. Outside in the sun the locals meet up and currently talk with dismay about Trump.
What do I miss?
I miss my family and my friends, but I am not lonely and have never once felt homesick.
I miss my garden, for in the backyards of most Austinites few flowers survive the excessive heat.
I certainly don’t miss the Cambridge weather, often wretched, always unreliable. By contrast, I awake every day throughout Austin’s sub-tropical summer seeing blazing sunlight stream into my studio. I am passionate about heat over 80F. My health, often poor in England, improves dramatically. And with it the quality of the writing.
My life in the States has always felt unlike that in Britain. In Austin I go to to spin cycle classes at a fitness centre. At home I’ve never been seen in such a place! In Austin I swim daily after work at the Gregory Gym which has three warm pools and sun loungers under live palm trees. I never swim in England’s freezing waters.
For years I thought my two lives were essentially different. But this belief was suddenly rattled when recently I reread a passage in my biography of Dashiell Hammett.
In Hammett’s novel, The Maltese Falcon, his detective Sam Spade talks about a man named Flitcraft who was a stable, content, rich, real-estate dealer in Tacoma. Flitcraft’s life was routine with wife, two sons, good food and a game of golf every weekday after 4pm. One day Flitcraft left for lunch and never returned.
For five years Mrs Flitcraft searched fruitlessly. Then she turned up at Spade’s agency to say she’d seen a man resembling her husband in Spokane. Spade soon discovered the man, now called Pierce, was indeed Flitcraft, who had a new wife, similar to the old, a new son, and who played golf every weekday after 4pm.
Spade learnt that Flitcraft disappeared because that day he had passed a building being erected, when a beam ten stories up suddenly fell, smashed into the sidewalk and narrowly missed him. Flitcraft, frightened, felt the lid had been taken off his old life. Until then he had believed life had meaning. Now a falling beam had shown it was purposeless. So he decided to make the random change of disappearing. But in fact he had soon settled into Spokane with a new relationship and a new routine astonishingly similar to the old.
Despite everything Flitcraft had learnt about the disorder of existence he persisted in behaving as though life was rational. He did not see that order and meaning are mere human fabrications and that we construct our own reality.
I took a closer look at my two lives.
Austin is six and a half times larger than Cambridge but they both have a small-town feel. They are both bike cities, family friendly, pro-gay, pleasantly overrun with students, and the general populations have a particularly high educational capability. My strong sense of community in Hyde Park is strangely similar to that in my Arbury home. The only difference is that Arbury’s sense of community comes from its working class traditions, whereas Hyde Park like the rest of Cambridge city is built on solid middle-class values.
In Austin I have brunch out every Saturday and every Sunday at Mother’s Vegetarian Café. Pancakes. Eggs. Maple syrup. And the New York Times.
Most Sundays in Cambridge I have breakfast at Bill’s Café.
Pancakes, eggs, maple syrup. And The Observer.
In Austin when I need a break, I whizz my scarlet cycle round the neighbourhood.
In Cambridge when fretful I ride my bike (Cambridge blue of course) to the river, and wander along the bank.
In Austin I have buddies I’ve known for twenty-six years, a small reliable bunch of friendly feminists whose pleasures are eating out, drinking wine, talking politics and discussing books. I have even been a member of an Austin Women’s Book Club for ten years. Sometimes we go to a drive-in movie.
In Cambridge I have a close network of friends who talk about literature and politics over food and wine and meet for our weekly Film Club and our monthly Women’s Book Club.
OK Hammett: you win.
I am more like Flitcraft than I ever imagined.
You might also like:
Catherine O’Flynn dissects her enthusiasm for failed utopias, such as the ghost real estate ventures of the Spanish Riviera, and the influence of growing up surrounded by the 'bizarre and melancholy landscaped public spaces' of Birmingham.
Siân Rees takes us to Asunción in Paraguay, where magical realism makes sense and ghosts haunt the landscape and the imagination.
Marina Benjamin examines the changing role of the personal voice in contemporary memoir, celebrates the sharing of ecstatic highs and vertiginous tumbles, and notes that it’s writerly craft that lifts a work beyond mere self-pimping.
Alyson Hallett takes us to Launceston in Cornwall, home of the writer Charles Causley, in the centenary year of his birth.