And speaking of walking and cruising (as I was a few posts back), there’s a curious piece in Alan Bennett’s collection Untold Stories, titled “Common Assault” in which he describes being on holiday in Ladispoli in Italy with his boyfriend and being attacked by a group of local youths, while out walking at night. It is a serious assault, as well as a common one: metal pipes and head injuries (Bennett’s) are involved.
The local Italian police are no help at all and they assume, quite incorrectly, that Bennett was out trying to pick up young men, and he got what they (the police) thought he deserved.
Bennett is especially affronted by this assumption since, as he says, “I have never been able to cruise and have never had much inclination to do so, though seeing it as a definite shortcoming, one of several masculine accomplishments I have never been able to master ... It was partly that, never feeling I would be much of a catch, I saw no point trawling the streets for someone who might feel differently. And then, too, I was quite hard to please.”
Well, these all strike me as perfectly good reasons not to go walking the dangerous streets of foreign cities at night looking for sex, though as I saw with my friend Martin, it’s obviously perfectly possible to do it in broad daylight in familiar territory, though I can see that might not be quite as exciting.
There is perhaps also the possibility that the youths attacked Bennett simply because he “looked gay” but since robbery was also involved, they may well have been entirely unprejudiced attackers who’d have robbed anyone out walking who looked vulnerable, gay, straight or bi.
I haven’t been able to find a picture of Alan Bennett walking, though there is this one of him standing in the Yorkshire landscape, and I suppose he must have done at least a little walking in order to get there:
In the course of the book Bennett also offers his opinion on W.G. Sebald. He is not besotted. He writes, “… the contrivance of it, particularly his un-peopling of the landscape never fails to irritate. ‘It was already afternoon, six in the evening when I reached the outskirts of Lowestoft. Not a living soul was about in the long street.’ In Southwold ‘everybody who had been out for an evening stroll was gone. I felt as if I were in a deserted theater.’ Maybe East Anglia is like this ... but Sebald seems to stage-manage both the landscape and the weather to suit his (seldom cheerful) mood.”
Well I do take Bennett’s point. I’ve always wondered what happened on those occasions when Sebald went out for a walk, found the sun shining and the streets filled with throngs of happy people and laughing children. I suppose the simple answer is that he went home with nothing to write about. Or he went home and wrote a “fictionalized version” which, of course, as an artist he was perfectly free to do.
My own suspicions about Sebald’s stage-management comes from knowing that he used to drink in a pub Southwold called the Crown. I only went there a couple of times, and it seemed to be full of full of media folk up from London, drinking Chardonnay, savoring the local Suffolk “fayre” and talking about their latest projects. Sightings of Melvin Bragg and Michael Palin were reported. There are plenty of gloomy, chilly pubs in and around Southwold that would surely have been better-suited to Sebald’s professed melancholy.
On the other hand, to give him his due, I think it’s perfectly possible that some of Sebald’s descriptions of the unpopulated East Anglian landscape, and even of Southwold, are literally true, and do stick to the letter of what he saw, of what anybody might see. These empty places do, of course, make cruising an extraordinarily pointless exercise.
The pictures accompanying this post were taken a few years back on my last night in Suffolk. I had owned a cottage there and I was finally selling up to live full time in Los Angeles, and I took a final long walk around Southwold, through the town, down the seafront, along the river and back. The streets and roads, the beach, and certainly the caravan parks, were completely deserted, and I did indeed feel a great wash of yearning, though not entirely unpleasant, melancholy. I was not, however, for a moment, tempted to go for a drink in the Crown.
As a matter of fact I didn’t find it all that much easier to find a picture of Sebald walking than I did Alan Bennett, though for what it’s worth, here's this one: