I wonder if the tendency to romanticise is a particularly writery thing? I don’t mean the ‘hearts and flowers’ kind of romanticise – I mean imagining unknown people, places and situations in larger-than-life colour and intensity. When I was younger I was constantly disappointed by the failure of the real world to live up to my romantic imagination. Someone I found interesting would describe their house to me, and I’d immediately construct some fabulous grotto in my mind. It was crammed with esoteric art and stuffed animals, or painted brothel red with fake chandeliers and gothic fireplaces. It was Zenly empty – cavernous white-walled rooms, sunlight coming through Venetian blinds onto polished wood floors, a grand piano, a Siamese cat. It was semi-derelict, with ivy growing into the living room through a broken window, dusty old sofas and candles and graffiti. And then it turned out to be an ordinary little flat in Walthamstow with brown carpets and Ikea furniture.
I’ve learned not to give much weight to my imaginings, but it’s a wonderful thing when occasionally something or someone surprises me by being even more interesting, strange or beautiful than my wildest romanticisations.
One of my classmates at UEA, Kate Moorhead, used to talk of ‘romantic appeal’. I knew exactly what she meant, as soon as I heard her mention it. It’s an aesthetic probably quite well summed up by a line from an old Cars song: “You think you’re in the movies / And everything’s so deep…” It’s the feeling that a scene or person or situation is fizzing with mysterious potential; the feeling that something amazing might happen at any moment, or is in fact already happening. I love ‘romantic appeal’. I go out of my way to seek it, create it, live it. I’ve chosen my last three or four addresses purely on the basis of romantic appeal, and it really does work for me. I think I’m in the movies, but it’s my own personal movie and I don’t need it to be a box office hit.
I’m writing this sitting on the first floor balcony of an old stone house in Santanyi, Majorca. There’s a view of red-tiled roofs (wonder if any poems are hiding in there somewhere?), TV aerials, the crumbling backs of sandstone houses, pink bougainvillea, a wide stretch of sky. The September sun is hot, but not unbearably so. I can hear pigeons cooing, the church clock striking the hours (and half hours and quarter hours) and there’s the lovely Mediterranean smell of old stone buildings, dust and wild herbs. This is the first time in years that I’ve managed to get it together to go on a ‘proper’ holiday and I was quite excited about it. In the lead up to finishing work, I romanticised it to death: I imagined a quiet – somnolent even! – village away from all the tourist madness of the coastal towns, and long, languid days spent lounging about in a shady piazza drinking strong Spanish coffee and effortlessly knocking out three thousand words a day, followed by a trip to a deserted beach for a leisurely evening swim. Something like that.
In reality, Santanyi and the nearby beaches are crammed with strapping blonde German families, I’m covered in big, red, itchy mosquito bites and am feeling dazed by the sudden blast of heat and sunlight after months of Argyll monsoon. I should add that I don’t have a big thing against German tourists – they just don’t tend to be all that romantic. I do have a big thing against mosquitoes, which also don’t tend to be all that romantic. For the first couple of days I felt exhausted and blank and unable to write a word, even of my journal. Yesterday, though, I finally got it together to sit on the balcony with a fairly disgusting cup of tea and wrote about 649 words. Well, hey – 649 words is always better than no words, and this balcony has definite romantic appeal.