This journey has taken nearly thirty years – from the time I met James Pyman at art school, to his wedding to fellow artist Penny McCarthy last weekend. Back in 1980, James lived in Eastbourne and we met up there a few times, exploring his vast collection of comics, little imagining that decades later we’d be masked up ourselves, drinking toasts on an island near a sinking city…
Anticipating the trip to Venice filled me with low-level dread. The idea of a place without roads, with no obvious ways to move about other than unlikely-sounding boat-like affairs, was unsettling. The helpful notes sent out in advance of the wedding said it would be hot, may smell, and that we would almost certainly get lost. My stay-at-home self thought ‘Great, a foetid maze!’… In my mind’s eye Venice loomed a sinister, dubious place, like the city portrayed in Clark Ashton Smith’s story A Night in Malnéant. As in that tale I imagined that I would ‘lose myself more and more in the grey labyrinth’, drawn inexorably towards a strange fate while the buildings ‘grew vaguer and vaguer amid the ever-mounting darkness and fog, as if they were about to dissolve into oblivion’…
I set off from Ormskirk, seeing the newly-opened station building for the first time, its acid-corporate-yellow ticket hall like a miniature pod of international travel. Liverpool South Parkway, not new but new to me, was equally forceful in its modernity – I was struck by the picture of Liverpool vinyled onto a window, its watery viewpoint foreshadowng my destination.
The airport was pleasant enough, the presence of Wetherspoons outlets complete with real ale on either side of the security gate beginning to reassure me that this trip might be OK after all. A few hours later I was walking through a surprisingly empty Venice at midnight, wondering how safe the ancient alleys were, getting lost and overshooting the hotel having radically misunderstood the scale, then realising I had arrived after all.
In the morning, woken by the heat at 4.30am, I walked about for a bit. Saw many beautiful things, found St Mark’s Square empty except for men hosing it down, looked for the famous runes on the Piraeus Lion but (story of my life) found different runes on a different beast, did find the almost-suppressed golden arches on a McDonalds near St Mark’s Square but as it was shut was forced to stumblingly order a coffee from a real place – which damn near blew my head off, in a sublime way.
At 10 I met up with the wedding people and we were into the delightful process of the day. The average period of time I hadn’t seen people was about 12 years, so there was a sense of time-displacement – as if the guests at a 90s party had been hit by an ageing ray, or extrapolated into a sitcom dream-sequence future with the addition of grey hairs, laugh-lines, partners and children (not pictured).
Walking around again the next day, finding the whole place effortlessly enjoyable now I that I realised that you’re meant to get lost and it doesn’t really matter, I thought that Venice is replete with time and it’s hard not to feel sense of ‘long ruin’ amongst the collapsing masonry.
But I also got a sense of a place that is over-viewed, burdened by the net of criss-crossed camera-angles (sign on bridge carefully planted with flowers: ‘NO PHOTOS’). Space seems to be carefully protected
too, contested with the vast numbers of tourists, with notices official and amateur asking people not to sit, stand, or PIC-NIC
and (the previous night) a waiter asking me and Andy to move our chairs a few inches to optimise his route back and forth to serve drinkers in Campo S Margherita by a microscopic degree. Frequent graffiti may be a way of reclaiming the space.
The strange city of Smith’s Night in Malnéant is the site of an uncanny, neverending funeral. By contrast, Venice – a place I am unlikely to ever visit again – has been encoded for me as the scene of an eternal, joyous wedding, redeeming time in the very midst of all its beautiful debris.
There are people I’ve always known waiting to be met in the next street and writing on a wall by St Mark’s Square says: YES! YES! YES!