I may have lied. Well, it was not really a lie — call it an omission. But I didn’t do it deliberately, so it must not be a big sin. Nonetheless, now that I have realised I had forgotten something as dramatically important as this, I need to come clean.
I think about the mummies of Palermo very often – almost certainly more often than is healthy. I have never seen them, mind you, but I am planning to; they are on my bucket list, after all. That’s not the lie. The problem is not the mummies at all. I mean, they have been there for decades; they can wait for a few more months, or even years. No. The problem, it turns out, is me.
I always say that all my life, I have known that I wanted to be a writer. I was that awkward child that you’d see scribbling in a notebook at any hour of the day. I was often lost in my thoughts, daydreaming about dragons and princesses and long-lost kingdoms. And in a sense, it is true that I have always written, and that I have always toyed with the distant idea of becoming a writer, all the while thinking that it was the sort of things that only happened to other people.
When asked about my writing influences, I never hesitate before answering. I know who my influences are: Bill Bryson, Caitlin Moran, John Higgs, and to a certain extent, all the authors I’ve read ever since I was given my first “grownup” book (The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, if memory serves). But I lie. I don’t do it on purpose, mind you, but I lie.
The one author that really influenced me was A. A. Gill. And I am willing to bet that, if like me you grew up in any country that’s not the United Kingdom, you’ve never heard of him. Until today, I had forgotten his name entirely, and it is why I have never mentioned him as one of my influences — let alone my one major inspiration, the one that once blew my mind and continues to do so. But now I remember.
2009 was a weird year for me. I was completing my master’s dissertation, and things weren’t great with my mum’s cancer. I got together with Jon, and I already knew he was the one. It was a warm summer made of short nights. I was losing my mind over Caravaggio (one of the subjects of my research), and I needed some distraction.
In a desperate attempt to take a breather, I reached for the copy of the National Geographic magazine that had been sitting on my desk for at least three weeks, and distractedly read the first few pages until I reached an article titled “Where the Dead Don’t Sleep” that started with the words:
“Palermo’s airport is named Falcone-Borsellino. It sounds like a ‘70s American cop show, and you’d be forgiven for not knowing who either of the names belong to. They were a pair of mortally brave magistrates who tried to finally break the ancient grip of organised crime in Sicily. Both were assassinated.”
The article goes on with the narrator’s short commute to the Capuchin Monastery in Palermo through a laconic yet sparkling description of the city. The writing is uncompromising and mentions the mafia, the 1943 bomb damage that was never repaired, the masculinity of the place, the refugees and “the smell of mandarin blossom and incense.” The whole piece is subtle, heartbreaking, and painted with a hue of strength. It is, I thought at the time, the work of a writer who has mastered his art.
And then, of course, there is the visit of the catacombs themselves, the impression the mummies make on the beholder, the curious historical account, the scientific approach, and ultimately, the weighing of what it means to be human. The conclusion oscillates between despair and comedy, then leaves the reader ponder about life and death.
The images conjured up by A.A. Gill’s writing stayed with me for days. Then months later, I was unable to tell if those images were the photographs that came with the article or if they had been implanted in my mind through the vivid descriptions. I often returned to the magazine to check what was true. Then my copy got lost, maybe in one of my pointless efforts to keep my desk tidy or, more likely, when I moved houses.
I no longer needed the copy by then. I remembered everything — or I thought I did; maybe I just remembered the impression the words had made on me. I still remembered the first paragraph by heart; that much is true. I once looked it up online to use it with my students (it must have been four or five years ago), but the piece had been archived behind a paywall. “It doesn’t matter,” I thought, “I remember it.”
Until one day, I didn’t.
That’s what life is, in the end. My mum died. My cousin got married. We bought a house. My dream job turned out not to be what I thought. We went to Ireland. Planes, and drinks, and bills to pay, and everyday worries. Tragedies and happiness, until at some point, what once took up a lot of space is just a distant dot blurred by the raindrops that cloud the rear-view mirror. We have to forget in order to make room for new memories, I guess.
I started taking my writing more seriously. I tried to find my voice, and outlets to make it heard. Some pieces were published and many more were rejected. I kept writing. I admitted to myself that it was my calling, and that I didn’t want to live a life in which I wouldn’t be writing. And writing is the easiest thing in the world, really: you just have to string words one after another.
But good writing is difficult. And great writing demands sacrifices and commitment, not just the ability to find the right word. Conjuring up images is what the craft is all about, and it takes a seriously good writer to do it. Like A. A. Gill, whom I had forgotten entirely. Or maybe I just never paid attention to his name in the first place, as if the author was just an accessory to the words, and not the other way around.
And then, this morning, I thought of the mummies of Palermo, like I often do. They’re just a passing thought, nothing more. Like an earworm you’ve periodically had for years. Like Sweet Dreams by Eurythmics or the Benny Hill Show theme tune. You just catch yourself thinking of it, have a mild experience of déjà vu and move on with your day. This morning was different, because for the first time in ten years, I was able to pinpoint what it was that I loved so much in that story.
Sure, the idea of having mummies in Europe is interesting in its own right. But if I need to be reasonable here, I have to admit that there are even more fascinating stories than that, like the one about rich Europeans eating Egyptian mummies in the 18th century, for instance. Surely that’s more bonkers than the catacombs of Palermo, and yet, I never grew obsessed with that historical curiosity as much as I did with the Sicilian mummies. It is simply because none of the accounts of medicinal cannibalism I read had been written quite like “Where the Dead Don’t Sleep.”
National Geographic has recently lifted the paywall on it, probably because it is now too old for anyone to want to pay for it. I read it again, and it cast its spell on me once more. I was mesmerised by the words, and soon travelled to Sicily in A.A. Gill’s footsteps — at least in my imagination.
It has everything, from that perfect combination of description and reflexion to the ability to paint a whole world with only a few words. It shows the tranquil assurance of an author who has seen it all and yet effortlessly conveys amazement and surprise. There is humour and gravitas, intertwined in a swirling mist of similes and collocations. In other words, there is a spark of magic in that piece.
With all I have learned about writing since I first read that article in the summer of 2009, I still find myself in the shoes of the dazzled master’s student I was then. “I want to write like that when I grow up,” is still what comes to my mind as I finish reading the last paragraph. “Someday, maybe, I’ll be capable of writing a piece that will be so good that my readers will remember it ten years later.” Someday. Maybe.
It is a shame, really, that I remembered A. A. Gill’s name only this morning. I thought I’d write him a letter to tell him how much I had loved “Where the Dead Don’t Sleep”, how influential it had been on me, how his style had forced me to develop mine and why I thought this single piece was a masterclass in writing. But A. A. Gill passed away three years ago.
He was not really a good man, from what I have read, between insulting the Welsh and shooting a baboon in the face, not to mention his very public homophobia. It’s sad really. They say you should never meet your heroes. A lot could be said against reading their Wikipedia page too.
In the end, I don’t think one single piece of great writing, or three thousand, can be a man’s redemption. But sometimes, perhaps, such a piece can be remembered, as we let the memory of its author fade away.
And now that I have atoned for my omission, I can someday hope to write, like A.A. Gill once did, in such a way that my readers will see images dance before their eyes. In the meantime, I can let go of the mummies of Palermo — at least for a while.
Psst! While you’re here…
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