Literary walks are always good fun, whether it be mooching along a Nottingham canal path, thinking about Arthur Seaton and his cousin Bert fishing on a tranquil Sunday Morning, after a riotous Saturday Night in town, a gentle ice cream stroll up Haworth Main Street to pay one’s respects at The Parsonage with the moors beckoning beyond or following in the boots of ST Coleridge in the Lake District, puffing and panting up to the top of Scafell Pike. Treading familiar literary and physical ground is a treat, as you cast your eyes about and dwell upon what Alan Sillitoe, the Brontes and the Romantic Poets might have been thinking within these, you like to imagine, shared Ordnance Survey coordinates. Treading unfamiliar ground, in the footsteps of your literary heroes, is even more exciting.
Two Summers ago, on the Hebridean island of Jura, we walked a ten mile round to Barnhill on its wild northern coastline where, seventy odd years ago, George Orwell wrote “1984”, perhaps the most telling novel of the Twentieth Century. Its eerily accurate prophecies of manufactured pop music, wall mounted flat screen TVs, national lotteries and fake news make it as relevant as ever. Has such a dystopian story ever been written in such beautiful surroundings? On the return leg of our Orwellian pilgrimage, as the sun warmed the heather and coaxed the residual Spring fragrance from the wayside gorse, we were stopped dead in our tracks by the sight of an adder, lazing on a bank of dark peat no more than three feet away from our dusty boots. Lit up by the sparkling Hebridean light it was like a bejewelled necklace against black velvet. The last time I’d been so close to a snake was in a stuffy but not somnolent classroom back in Chesterfield nearly twenty five years previously. I’d read DH Lawrence’s “Snake” to a keen group of GCSE students and we’d enjoyed talking about its themes and imagery, its notions of deep time, volcanic cataclysms and Man as a gauche newcomer in the realm of the stately Sicilian snake.
At the end of the lesson a shy lad called David held back. “Excuse me Sir, I’ve got a pet snake. Can I bring it t’next lesson?” Risk assessment forms had not yet been invented at that stage of my teaching career, although I had enough common sense to assess the obvious risks of such a proposition.
“Is it poisonous David?”
“No Sir. It’s a Corn Snake. Theer rate docile.”
So there we were, a couple of days later, back in the same classroom as David’s snake (I’m ashamed to say I can’t remember its name) was passed from one set of inquisitive hands to the next, each of us marvelling as he “flickered his two-forked tongue from his lips”, as rapt as Lawrence had been on a distant Sicilian morning nearly eighty years previously.
So, in the pause of a heartbeat and thrilled recognition, I leapt from Jura to Chesterfield to Sicily. Back home in Derby from our Hebridean adventure I felt more inclined to reread “Snake” than “1984”. Its evocation of Southern Mediterranean heat was compelling, as was the concluding contrast between snaky elegance and manly violence. Immediately beneath the online poem was the name “Taormina”, the village on the north eastern coast of Sicily where Lawrence wrote the poem. How wonderful would it be to complete that serpentine journey from a Chesterfield classroom, via the wilds of Jura, to the Sicilian setting of “Snake”. As luck would have it the following year we’d already planned to do a Sicilian road trip, starting in Palermo, before driving an anti clockwise loop around the island. I asked my wife/ tour guide if we could include Taormina on our itinerary. “It’s already booked,” she promptly replied. And sure enough, from 12-15 June we’d be staying in Elisa’s air b&b, adjacent to her family’s restaurant, the terrace of which, according to her confirmation email, has “una vista favalosa” of smoking Etna.
The road to Taormina took us to and through Selinunte, Agrigento, Piazza Amerina and Siracusa. During these azure days we heard of heavy rains back home and had to agree that Lawrence’s choice of a two year stay here in the early 1920s was pretty sound. The two hour drive from Siracusa to Taormina was dominated by the tough looking sprawl of Catania to our right and the even more forbidding bulk of Etna to our left. Along this interesting stretch of Sicilian tarmac my tour guide told me that Taormina would be the busiest of our destinations so far: a tourist honeypot. Surely not, I thought. Why then, down the ages, has it been such a refuge for poets, novelists, artists, sculptors? I pictured a sort of Wirksworth-on-the-Med, quietly quirky with maybe the two week bustle of a Summer festival, when the village’s population would double with a influx of exquisitely attired Italian opera buffs. After all, Lawrence’s poem, apart from the “clumsy log” that hits the water trough with a “clatter”, has a languid “thrice adream” quality, perfectly at ease with my preconception of the sweet-sounding Taormina.
Upon arriving my idealised notions were quickly shattered. The main street was even busier than Haworth on a bank holiday! Awash with vendors selling novelty toys (none of which had a DH Lawrence connection I’m relieved to report), cheap jewellery and leather belts, its guerilla army of front of house waiters almost manhandled you into their trattorias. “Told you it would be busy,” said my tour guide.
For the first couple of days of our stay we visited Mount Etna and Taormina’s incredible Greek amphitheatre and, having picked our way through the crowded beach, swam in the glittering Mediterranean. On our last day we walked, uphill, towards the Via Fontana Vecchia, where, all those years ago, Lawrence came face to face with a snake and an amazing poem was born. Beyond the busy main street the narrow side alleys were magically quieter and soon the sounds of the street vendors were replaced by the flip flop of your own flip flops. Here extravagant iron-wrought balconies faced one another, as close as we were to that adder on Jura and just as beautiful, with each a burst of flamboyant flowers and cacti cascading towards the cobbles below. Through the maze of alleys we emerged on to a steeply curving road and had to keep our wits about us as the local ragazzi and occasional grandma sped by on their scooters. Then we were at the Via Fontana Vecchia. I’d read one or two online articles which were a bit sniffy about the locale with, God forbid, its new houses but we thought it was lovely. The previous year on Jura, having reached Orwell’s Barnhill, we were disappointed by the lack of information boards or blue plaques. Here though, where Lawrence lived, was an excellent information board provided by the Taormina International Book Festival, neatly entitled “Fontana Vecchia, Where Literature found its Home”. Included are his own words: “We love Taormina and in particular our house. I like this place more than any other. I love the sun rise over the open sea to the east.” As at Barnhill we felt a buzz of excitement at seeing and sensing this place where, nearly a hundred years ago, Lawrence shaped his ideas and wrote stories and poems. Just to the left of the whitewashed rear wall of Lawrence’s Sicilian home is a magnificent tree, with the blue Mediterranean beyond, perhaps that very same “great dark carob tree” under whose “deep strange-scented shade” the thirsty speaker of the poem encounters the thirsty snake. Back in the bustle of Taormina’s Main Street we treated ourselves to a lemon granita at The Bam Baa, which, according to Elisa, serves the best granita in town. Its tangy icy zest was just the thing to toast our literary wander around the back streets of Taormina where Lawrence spent many happy times.
A year on from that sultry Sicilian afternoon the opportunities for literary wandering, or any sort of wandering for that matter, have been curtailed, with no immediate chance of following the Lawrence trail even further afield to say New Mexico or Australia. Ah well, with only a few miles between us and Eastwood, Underwood, Cossall and Ilkeston, the “country of [Lawrence’s] heart”, those walks of a Laurentian variety are well within range, although they might be better done in walking boots than flip flops.
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