Notes on Reading Geoff Dyer in Devon

1. I've been reading Geoff Dyer's Yoga for People who Can't be Bothered to Do it. I love Geoff Dyer. I have a literary crush on him in the same way I do Alain de Botton. Maybe even an actual crush; I like his photo on the backs of his books and the way he describes himself, in Tripoli - "grey hair, bulbous nose, scrawny neck...I have often ben disappointed by my appearance, but I have never looked so utterly repulsive as I did then." And I think it would be hard to read anything he had written and feel truly sad, because at the end of the day (or the book), no matter what the subject matter, there remains the fact of someone living in this world who writes the way he does.

But it is also hard for me to read this book and not, at times, feel sad - or, more precisely (if we're going to talk about precision), on the edge of sad. There is a preoccupation or flirting with ruin; in Rome he reflects, "I was well on the way to becoming a ruin myself, and that was fine by me." There is the theme of Keats' "season of mist and mellow fruitfulness", the Autumnal whiff of decay - the sense of vertigo, of tumbling; of simultaneous helplessness and resistance to something as natural as gravity or seasonal change. In Amsterdam he writes: "I was happy to be here in this chair-intensive café in the autumn of my drug-taking years, with my soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend, Dazed, who a few weeks later would succumb to one of her periodic bouts of severe depression, and my old friend Amsterdam Dave, whom I had met only the night before and who months later, would himself - like the author of the present memoir - go completely to pieces." So I read the book with the feeling that I am with him on the edge of a precipice; that the fall will be both inevitable and survivable; that it will nonetheless hurt.


In Libya, though, Dyer visits some ruins - Leptis Magna - and observes that, "ruins do not make you wish that you had seen them earlier, before they were ruins - unless, that is, they have become too ruined. Ruins - antique ruins at least - are what is left when history has moved on. They are no longer at the mercy of history, only of time." And even in Amsterdam, he realises: "I have just described exactly the place we're in. I'm already in the place I want to go to."


I have this preoccupation with nostalgic places, places where memory seems to be a stronger motivator than anything else. Oxford is, to me, very obviously one such place; its essence is not actually (for instance) in the happy days of men in boaters punting down the idle Cherwell in the calm after one war and before another, or the mahogany rooms in stone colleges, the sounds of bells and port being poured - it's in the memory of these things, or, more specifically, a sort of shared, made up memory of these things, an irrational yearning for them.

The reason I feel at home in nostalgia is that it is the only lasting thing. It is comforting. We are all so very much at the mercy of history and time, and nostalgia is the forever-feeling, the feeling that lasts after a thing goes. It is the only safe space, really. You do not wish you had seen ruins before they were ruins; they have transcended the forces that will eventually render you yourself obsolete. And similarly I do not wish I had seen Oxford at any other time, because I know that Oxford at any other time would be just like it is now - constantly looking backward towards those days: "Oxford, in those days, was still a city of aquatint," Evelyn Waugh writes in Brideshead Revisited; "Oxford in those days," observed William Morris some fifty years earlier, "still kept a great deal of its earlier loveliness".


Then there are places on the uncomfortable edge of nostalgia.

One Sunday, while my parents are visiting from California, we drive to Ilfracombe, which is not a place I know anything about. We drive down motorways and then through rainforests along narrow roads. We arrive in early evening and the fierce rain that has followed us from Oxford begins to subside; the sky spits and fizzes, then goes quiet. I am left feeling exactly as I always feel in these sort of seaside towns: as if I have arrived just in time, although nothing has changed for a very long time.

On the walls of our hotel, of every hotel in Ilfracombe, probably, there are photos of the place in happier days: Victorians standing on the shoreline, Edwardians mounting a hill to view the ships below, men holding on to their hats in what is, the photograph manages to imply with its impressionistic blurriness, a mild and welcome breeze, not at all like the angry winds now whipping through the town. The hotels then, I think, would have seemed grand. Or perhaps they are only meant to make us feel like that, perhaps they have always been as grim as they appear now, and the miracle of them is their ability to convince you that in those days they really were something. Women with parasols would have walked out to the water, and there would have been a cheer if not a warmth in the air, where now there appears primarily to be nothing: nothing open, nothing of note, nothing to do, nothing to say, except to sigh and wonder if the fat cat curled up in the alleyway has a home and whether the seagulls are deliberately targeting your car or if the dappling of guano on the windscreen will start to feel normal, soon.

As we walk down the High Street my mother remarks that this is the sort of place that only had its heyday so that we could reflect on it later, that it was built with ruin in mind. Maybe this is true; we pass the empty chip shops and derelict pubs, the charity shops, the vacant storefronts, and the nightclub, open till 3:30 every night, next to the Indian restaurant and across the street from a cashpoint. We eat dinner in a restaurant nearish to the sea; the interior has been recently renovated (so recently, in fact, that all the tools and materials are still stacked up in the back near the toilets). There are straight-backed chairs and fake antlers hung from the walls, and it is full of people looking like they are on their big night out, in dark jeans, with slicked back hair, eating fancy food that is utterly devoid of taste. Even the wine tastes of nothing; I drink a large glass of it without noticing that it is not my water. Across the street is an antique shop selling wooden ships trapped in glass bottles and RAF commemorative china and rusty basins, which sounds nice written down, sort of poetic and eccentric, but looks sad, perhaps because the shelves in the window are so sparsely populated.

But everyone has such a brave - or rather indifferent, which I think is much the same thing - face! Or at least, everyone we see, which is about two people, seems to be the picture of pleasantness. And the proprietress of our hotel is so cheerful and accommodating that she moves two cars just to make room for ours and neglects to ask for a deposit or a card number or any indication, in fact, that we might have a means of paying her.

In my hotel room, trying to mollify my angry tastebuds after a cheesecake the flavor and consistency of ice and a glass of distinctly un-port-like port, I make hot chocolate and listen to the seagulls. Two towels have been neatly folded on my bed, a chocolate resting on each, although I am sleeping alone tonight. There is wifi and a flatscreen television. The chalky taste of the hot chocolate is familiar, and the seagulls, too, remind me a little of my childhood, in the sense that I lived somewhere as a child where you might hear seagulls from time to time.

The problem is that everything is so earnest, and so earnestly awful. I like these seaside towns, I like the crumbling facades and the empty shops and the faded shutters and the ice cream aesthetic. But I like them in a very ambivalent way: I like them in the same way, maybe, that I like Geoff Dyer's recognition of his own deterioration. And I'm as unfair on these places as we are on ourselves - affectionately, resentfully bemoaning our "bulbous noses", while the reality is, we're not so bad after all, we like ourselves really, we're just surprised, sometimes, by what we see, and in our surprise a little cruel.


So when I wake up the next morning it seems to me that maybe the places on the uncomfortable edge of nostalgia are only uncomfortable because they are - like certain ancient ruins - "too ruined". After breakfast (heavy pieces of wet white toast, sopping up the yellow egg yokes) we drive to a nearby village, from where we embark on a coastal walk which takes us up and down along the cliffs and affords us great views of the blueish sea and the purpleish sky and the green and brown place where the land begins, and I see that maybe the towns only look tired in comparison.