Thirty-something years ago I wrote a lyric about being on holiday. “So here we are in Italy, with a sunhat and a dictionary”, it began, and when Smash Hits reviewed the record they misheard it as “a sonnet and a dictionary”, taking the piss out of me for being twee. Mildly annoyed, and mildly amused, I wrote in to correct them. Although, in retrospect, there’s not much difference between writing about a sunhat and a sonnet in terms of lyrical tweeness.
This has come into my mind because I’m in Italy again on holiday. For a while Everything But The Girl were as successful in Italy as in all other European countries put together, so we toured here a lot, feeling loved, and falling in love with the place in return.
For now though, I’m purely on holiday, and the same one as usual – a rented villa with family and friends. No sonnets, or dictionaries, but lots of books. I look around to see what everyone is reading, always fascinated by the definition of a “good holiday read”.
One daughter has the new David Nicholls novel Sweet Sorrow, a bittersweet summer romance; meanwhile, her sister is ploughing through a book called Origins, which traces the geographical and geological influences on human development.
I can see two copies of the recent Women’s Prize winner An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones, and also two copies of Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall. Ben’s old friend Matthew is reading a book which he describes to me as “an explication of the spiritual underpinnings of the Sermon on the Mount”; while my friend Carol has an Italian murder mystery, written by a woman from Lancashire called Magdalen Nunn, and set in “the seedy underworld of Florence – lap dancing, prostitution and illegal human trafficking”.
I glance at Ben, who is sitting on a deckchair under a tree reading a book simply entitled Leave Me Alone.
As for me, I’ve brought Andrew Holleran’s 1978 novel, Dancer From the Dance, which takes place in “the disco-lit decadence of New York’s 1970s gay scene”. It’s elegiac, and profoundly romantic; a kind of gay Great Gatsby. A Gay Gatsby, if you like.
There are scenes in New York clubs that capture the transcendental, transformative euphoria of the dance floor. At these moments, the writing becomes a love song to the spirit of the underground scene, the unifying passion for the right music in the right place at the right time.
“It was extraordinary, the emotions in those rooms… everyone was reduced to an ecstatic gloom… We lived on certain chords in a song, and the proximity of another individual dancing beside you, taking communion from the same hand, soaked with sweat, stroked by the same tambourines.”
I’m enthralled by the unashamed passion of the book, and the way in which love, sex and dancing are intertwined, all equally longed for and equally meaningful.
“‘Yes’, he said, turning to Malone, ‘that is all that’s left when love has gone. Dancing.’”
There’s also a sense of a wider world, set slightly apart; a conservative, straight world, from which the main characters are excluded, giving them a sense of perspective about its conventions and hypocrisies. “He despaired of politics; the world, like the city, seemed an unmanageable mess… a vast kindergarten of infantile delinquents who had to be supervised.”
As I read that line I’m plunged back into the present, and to the state of politics right now. In my bag is my recently renewed passport, which, while still burgundy in colour, saddens me by not having the words European Union on the front. Occasional looks at my phone update me on political resignations, inflammatory speeches, belligerent behaviour. An overwhelming feeling of discontent, discord and disharmony, from which I’m enjoying a brief respite.
I think again of that song I wrote back in 1987, which was about missing England, while having no illusions about its faults. Even then, I feared that the people in charge were fucking things up.
“Why does England call?” I wrote. “There’ll soon be nothing left at all.”