I was put on to Jan Morris’s Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere by a comment from David at I’ll Think of Something Later and then again by my friend Simonetta. Both assured me that it was a brilliant piece of writing and as always both were right.
Morris began life as James Morris and first visited Trieste as part of the British Forces of Occupation after the war. I won’t go into the details of his becoming Jan and the incredible career that has led her to prominence as a writer. Morris has said that Trieste is her last book and if so it is a touching farewell to a city and perhaps for Morris a life that is rich in memories.
The overwhelming tone of Morris’s Trieste is one of nostalgia but my own few days there lead me to believe that is a constant in that often forgotten city in the middle of “Nowhere”. Here are a few quotes from the book and pictures I took on our visit there.
Trieste is a historical chameleon which is reflected in its architecture. Small alley ways (like the one above down which a drunken James Joyce often wended his way home) lead into piazzas lined with facades adorned in the Austro-Hungarian style. And decorations bear the stamp of so many influences.
Across the world we may see famous old havens now neglected or debased, sometimes simply because modern ships need deeper water or different facilities, but sometimes because their fundamental purpose has been lost. Everywhere once vigorous waterfront areas have been emasculated or mutated, with reconstituted flagstones and fancy fittings, warehouses turned into trendy apartments, novelty shops smelling of pot-pourri, dry docks filled in for more office space. The quays where the lovely clippers berthed in Manhattan now form a maritime museum. The docks in London where the East Indiamen unloaded their jutes and spices have been turned into Docklands, a grim, modish city of corporations. Bristol and Liverpool, one great bases of the Atlantic trade, now find themselves on the wrong side of Britain for the European markets, just as one day Hong Kong may wish it were on the mainland of China after all. Nearly everywhere the jumble of port life, with all its stinks, noises and clashing colours, has been removed from the city centres, and so from the public consciousness.
Trieste is still very much a city of the sea. Morris is right, in that the waterfront has become gentrified and, at least when we were there, was often deserted during the day. In the evening the cafés and trattorias were very much alive but not with seafarers. Simonetta and Sheryl tell me that the Grand Canal – that juts into the city from the sea – was very busy one Thursday evening when they were there.
One evening I heard music in the street, and looking out of my window I saw two strange figures passing. One was a young man in a tall brown hat, blowing on a shepherd’s flute. The other was attached by complex apparatus to a variety of apparently home-made instruments – bagpipes, drums, cymbals, a triangle I think – and in order to bet the biggest drum he had to move in an abrupt but creaky shuffle. Slowly and sporadically these engaging characters pottered down the pavement below me, tootling and drumming as they went.
In Trieste that day they were like visitors from another, less inhibited world. They brought a touch of the maverick to this ordered cit. They were musicians from the Karst, strollers from the wild side.
On one side of steps leading from the water to the Piazza is a carabinari bravely entering the Piazza flag flying and on the other side these two women engaged in what appears to be sewing. I wish now I had photographed the plaque explaining it but it seemed to me it had something to do with the World War – the first of that name.
There are places that have meant more to me than Trieste. Wales is where my heart is. A lost England made me. I have had more delicious pleasures in Venice. Manhattan excites me more than Trieste ever could, and so does Sydney. But here more than anywhere I remember lost times, lost chances, lost friends, with the sweet tristesse that is onomatopoeic to the place. What became of that innocent young man I escorted to the brothel on page 123? Dead and gone, and all his horses too, from an English countryside that is no more. The friend who came with me to the schooner on page 69? Still sailing his yacht about the seas, loaded with rank and honour now, but no longer the lithe young bravo who clambered on board with the prosecco that evening. Otto, my natural Triestine, was stabbed to death in Arabia long ago. The woman who slept one dreadful night at the Risiera has gone to her peaceful rest at last. And the stranger I bumped into that day at the Savoia Excelsior? What swinging door is he passing through today, with what arthritic difficulty, and what tender lies is he telling now that he is old and grey?
The ecclesiastical heritage of Trieste is as varied as its history. The Cathedral of San Guisto was built on the site of a Roman basilica and is now a mixture of the modern – a very ugly mosaic over the high altar – and ancient – the very lovely 12th century mosaic (above). The Anglican Church (3rd photo)only holds 6 services a year and the rector comes over from Venice. There is a very strong Orthodox presence – both Greek and Serbian. The Greek cathedral is being restored and extensive work done on its fine fin-de–sciecle mosaics.
Now that I’ve discovered Morris, Amazon.UK will be showing a profit – I’ve already ordered her book on Venice, the Pax Britanncia trilogy and Conundrum – her story of her gender dysphoria. And of course I still have much of the Benson books to finish – I really shouldn’t be pursuing a job all that seriously when there’s so much to read.
Note: All excerpts are from Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere by Jan Morris, Published by Faber and Faber.
07 luglio – San Pancrazio di Taormina