And so the melancholy return to Blighty. The journey was gruelling, involving about ten hours of travel, but that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst of it was that every moment in motion took me away from a world of coffee and sunlight to a world of tea and cloud. There was a kind of Indian summer for a couple of days when I got back, but right now I am looking out of the window at the kind of gloomscape that makes you wonder whether it’s worth even opening the curtains. I once bought a book of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s sketches for TV, one of which has Pete being particularly depressed and Dud trying to cheer him up. Dud opens the curtains to show him the beauty of the world and the subsequent stage direction speaks a lot to my mood: “He hurriedly closes the curtains again.”
The last day in Italy was particularly magical: we went to the market and I bought new socks to replace those with gaping holes in the ankles which, as I was in a shoeless house, I was acutely embarrassed by; and fresh porcini, which my host Dino turned into such a wonderful risotto that I weep at the memory of it. He then showed me a trick the dog could do: a game of hide and seek in which Dino hid my notebook somewhere in their (not small) house, told her to fetch it, and she would. Part of me was hoping that she’d eat it so I’d have to stay there another week and do things all over again.
But here I am. Dino and Erika’s house was, as I say, large; it even had a laundry room. It was on two floors and had two roof terraces, one above the other. I’ve just measured one of my two rooms: it’s about 300cm x 300cm; the other one is smaller. The kitchen is actually too small to measure. For this I pay the thick end of £1,000 a month.
[See also: Cat-sitting has messed with my mind]
The other thing they have which I don’t is someone else, ie each other. Being the gooseberry among a happy couple isn’t too bad when they are not only happy but looking after you and making you risotto; when you get back to your own tiny home with only the plants to keep you company, one’s solitude is brought to bear upon one with some force. The last time a woman held my hand and kissed me was a year ago, but the next morning she decided it was all a mistake so I’m pretty sure that’s never going to happen again. Last night I heard a programme on Radio 4 which talked about the importance of human touch and that brought the tears to the eyes, but not in a good way, like a mushroom risotto does.
There are other kinds of solitude. One I experienced on my return was the existential solitude of trying to speak to a human being who works for… I shall call them Not Had Sex Yet Media. I will not say a word against them. I will say several. They are, by some margin, the most useless, horrible, cynical company, in any field, I have ever dealt with. My pity for everyone who uses them is boundless and if I can stop one person from signing up with them then my time on Earth will have not been entirely wasted. To try to deal with them is to enter a world of dystopian, bureaucratic soullessness. This has been a public service announcement.
OK, finita la commedia. Here the jokes stop. A couple of days after I got back, the reports from Israel started coming in. And, as you know, they kept coming. There is no need to list the atrocities here – you will have heard them. For no deliberate reason, my friend list has a far higher Jewish proportion than that of the country as a whole, and I spent a lot of time asking after people, and in one or two cases taking calls from people who could do nothing but cry. And, as I might have mentioned before, last year I discovered that I am Jewish, or can call myself Jewish if I wish. I now wish.
Until last week I thought this was of interest, but not of existential interest. It wasn’t as if my life was going to change. But now I feel it has. The worst way in which it has changed for me is that I have learned that some of my non-Jewish friends, including my oldest and dearest, have simply failed to grasp the horror of what is happening, as I write, in Israel. Some even suggest that as an ethno-nationalist state it pretty much had it coming. They don’t get it.
And now, for the first time in 60 years, I finally begin to understand what it means to be Jewish: to be hated, to be isolated, to feel horribly alone. And that is the worst kind of solitude.
This article appears in the 18 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, War on Three Fronts