||Sunday, March 19th, 2000
The Good Life
Oh, for a slice of paradise
When the operative words in your world are "more" and "faster!', you
find yourself longing for an island getaway like Graham Greene's Capri
GRAHAM GREENE was quoting a Robert Browning poem, The Lost Mistress, to his friend when he got stuck at the end. He couldn't remember the last line.
He and his friend, a retired reputable sailor, were in a cafe in the piazzetta of Capri, the
small island getaway off southern Italy.
Seated at a table next to them and doing her cross word puzzle on The Times was the American writer Shirley Hazzard. After she had finished her coffee and paid up, she said the line to Greene before leaving the cafe.
This was in the late 1960s. Greene was already in his 60s, and Hazzard in her late 30s. It marked the start of a friendship that would last till the prolific English author died at 86 in 1991.
Greene had bought a villa on Capri in the 1950s with money from the film The Third Man, so that he could be alone with his great love of the postwar decade, Catherine Walston, a married woman with four children.
By the time Hazzard met him in the late 1960s, he had a new mistress in tow, a petite French beauty named Yvonne Cloetta.
Cloetta was a devoted mistress. She took care of the writer for the last 30 years of his life. The couple would spend two weeks each during spring and autumn every year on Capri, till he was in his 80s and could no longer travel.
Greene's base, if you can call it one for someone who needed to be always in motion, was an apartment in Antibes, near where Cloetta lived with her husband. Yes, she too was married. But her Swiss husband was "complaisant', Greene told an intevierwer in The Observer in 1989.
"All parties are in agreement,'' he said.
Hazzard and her husband, historian Francis Steegmuller, spent part of each year on the island. The four would meet in their favourite restaurant, Gemma, or in Greene's villa, which looked down the island's western slope to the sea and had "vermilion views of extravagant sunsets'', according to Hazzard.
Apart from the politics of the day and Greene's latest cause he was the rebellious adolescent who never quite grew up their conversation would invariably revolve around literature.
And they would quote Browning and other poets freely over a bottle of Sicilian Corvo wine or rose from Ravello.
"We were writers and readers in a world where the expressive word, spoken or written, still seemed paramount,'' Hazzard writes in her recently published slim memoir of their friendship,
Greene On Capri (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000).
That world is no more. And Capri, as I've found out from the Electric Library, is overrun with thousands of day-trippers each day. The old villas on the island are out of reach to all except the international jet-set.
Reading Hazzard's memoir was like a long sigh for me.
Caught as I am in a world where the operative words are ""more!'' and ""faster!'', I long for just the life described in the book.
To be able to get away to a charmed island, and be among soulmates, and have an extravagant sunset in the background as you open the first bottle of wine for the evening that's the good life.
I suppose that is why the bestselling books in the travel genre in the United States in the last few years are not travel tales, but Edenic tales of people who have restored old houses in the more laid-back parts of Europe.
Peter Mayle, a former advertising executive, started the trend in the early 1990s with A Year In Provence, which was a huge publishing success. Last year, he had a follow-up bestseller, Encore Provence.
And there are Frances Mayes' Under The Tuscan Sun and Bella Tuscany; Ferenc Mate's The Hills Of Tuscany; and Nicholas Kramer's A Place Like Normany.
I have the LD of Bernardo Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty (1995), and have watched it at least three times. It basically has the luscious Liv Tyler frolic under the trellised vines of an artist's villa in Tuscany.
I am old enough to know that I don't have to go all the way to Tuscany or Provence to find my slice of paradise. Ubud in Bali, or Chiangmai in northern Thailand, or even Xiamen in Fujian, China, will do nicely.
In places such as these, the Singapore dollar can go a long way.
And since I don't care for old, restored houses, I don't need to fork out a huge sum of money, the way Frances Maye did, to buy paradise.
Just give me a little leased apartment with all the mod-cons and I'm all set. Like Greene, I would put in the mandatory minimum of 350 words each day, so that I don't go to seed.
A couple of weeks ago, I met a former colleague who now freelances and spends two or three weeks each month in Kuala Lumpur. He is tanned and looks youthful, although he's in his mid-50s.
The only thing he misses, now that he no longer meets the kind of people he had to mingle with as a political journalist, is the intellectual stimulation and corridors-of-power gossip that these people provided.
Ah, but one can't have everything.
In my case, I can afford the books and the wine, but certainly not a mistress.