The year is 1970, and its a long, hot summer. In a castle on a mountainside in Italy, half a dozen young lives are afloat on a sea of change, trapped inside the history of the sexual revolution. The girls are acting like boys, the boys are going on acting like boys, and Keith Nearingtwenty years old, a literature student all clogged up with the English novelis struggling to twist feminism and womens ascendancy toward his own ends.
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Martin Amis: Martin Louis Amis (born 25 August 1949) is a British novelist, the author of some of Britain's best-known modern literature, including Money (1984) and London Fields (1989). He is currently Professor of Creative Writing at the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester. The Times named him in 2008 as one of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945. Martin Amis is the author of eleven previous novels, the memoir Experience, two collections of stories, and six collections of nonfiction, most recently The Second Plane.
Steven Pacey's extensive work in the West End includes Dolly West's Kitchen, The Birthday Party, Things We Do For Love, By Jeeves (Olivier Award nomination), and being directed by Harold Pinter in his successful productions of Celebration and The Room.
Where We Lay Our Scene
It was the summer of 1970, and time had not yet trampled them flat, these lines:
Sexual intercourse began
(Which was rather late for me)—
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
—Philip Larkin, “Annus Mirabilis” (formerly “History”), Cover magazine, February 1968
But now it was the summer of 1970, and sexual intercourse was well advanced. Sexual intercourse had come a long way, and was much on everyone’s mind.
Sexual intercourse, I should point out, has two unique characteristics. It is indescribable. And it peoples the world. We shouldn’t find it surprising, then, that it is much on everyone’s mind.
Keith would be staying, for the duration of this hot, endless, and erotically decisive summer, in a castle on a mountainside above a village in Campania, in Italy. And now he walked the backstreets of Montale, from car to bar, at dusk, flanked by two twenty-year-old blondes, Lily and Scheherazade . . . Lily: 5' 5", 34-25-34. Scheherazade: 5' 10", 37-23-33. And Keith? Well, he was the same age, and slender (and dark, with a very misleading chin, stubbled, stubborn-looking); and he occupied that much-disputed territory between five foot six and five foot seven.
Vital statistics. The phrase originally referred, in studies of society, to births and marriages and deaths; now it meant bust, waist, hips. In the long days and nights of his early adolescence, Keith showed an abnormal interest in vital statistics; and he used to dream them up for his solitary amusement. Although he could never draw (he was all thumbs with a crayon), he could commit figures to paper, women in outline, rendered numerically. And every possible combination, or at least anything remotely humanoid—35-45-55, for instance, or 60-60-60—seemed well worth thinking about. 46-47-31, 31-47-46: well worth thinking about. But you were always tugged back, somehow, to the archetype of the hourglass, and once you’d run up against (for instance) 97-3-97, there was nowhere new to go; for a contented hour you might stare at the figure eight, upright, and then on its side; until you drowsily resumed your tearful and tender combinations of the thirties, the twenties, the thirties. Mere digits, mere integers. Still, when he was a boy, and he saw vital statistics under the photograph of a singer or a starlet, they seemed garrulously indiscreet, telling him everything he needed to know about what was soon to be. He didn’t want to hug and kiss these women, not yet. He wanted to rescue them. From an island fortress (say) he would rescue them . . .
34-25-34 (Lily), 37-23-33 (Scheherazade)—and Keith. They were all at the University of London, these three; Law, Mathematics, English Literature. Intelligentsia, nobility, proletariat. Lily, Scheherazade, Keith Nearing.
They walked down steep alleyways, scooter-torn and transected by wind-ruffled tapestries of clothing and bedding, and on every other corner there lurked a little shrine, with candles and doilies and the lifesize effigy of a saint, a martyr, a haggard cleric. Crucifixes, vestments, wax apples green or cankered. And then there was the smell, sour wine, cigarette smoke, cooked cabbage, drains, lancingly sweet cologne, and also the tang of fever. The trio came to a polite halt as a stately brown rat—lavishly assimilated—went ambling across their path: given the power of speech, this rat would have grunted out a perfunctory buona sera. Dogs barked. Keith breathed deep, he drank deep of the ticklish, the teasing tang of fever.
He stumbled and then steadied. What was it? Ever since his arrival, four days ago, Keith had been living in a painting, and now he was stepping out of it. With its cadmium reds, its cobalt sapphires, its strontian yellows (all freshly ground), Italy was a painting, and now he was stepping out of it and into something he knew: downtown, and the showcase precincts of the humble industrial city. Keith knew cities. He knew humble high streets. Cinema, pharmacy, tobacconist, confectioner. With expanses of glass and neon-lit interiors—the very earliest semblances of the boutique sheen of the market state. In the window there, mannequins of caramelised brown plastic, one of them armless, one of them headless, arranged in attitudes of polite introduction, as if bidding you welcome to the female form. So the historical challenge was bluntly stated. The wooden Madonnas on the alleyway corners would eventually be usurped by the plastic ladies of modernity.
Now something happened—something he had never seen before. After fifteen or twenty seconds, Lily and Scheherazade (with Keith somehow bracketed in the middle of it) were swiftly and surreally engulfed by a swarm of young men, not boys or youths, but young men in sharp shirts and pressed slacks, whooping, pleading, cackling—and all aflicker, like a telekinetic card trick of kings and knaves, shuffling and riffling and fanning out under the streetlamps . . . The energy coming off them was on the level (he imagined) of an East Asian or sub-Saharan prison riot—but they didn’t actually touch, they didn’t actually impede; and after a hundred yards they fell like noisy soldiery into loose formation, a dozen or so contenting themselves with the view from the rear, another dozen veering in from either side, and the vast majority up ahead and walking backward. And when do you ever see that? A crowd of men, walking backward?
Whittaker was waiting for them, with his drink (and the mailsack), on the other side of the smeared glass.
Keith went on within, while the girls lingered by the door (conferring or regrouping), and said,
“Was I seeing things? That was a new experience. Jesus Christ, what’s the matter with them?”
“It’s a different approach,” drawled Whittaker. “They’re not like you. They don’t believe in playing it cool.”
“I don’t either. I don’t play it cool. No one’d notice. Play what cool?”
“Then do what they do. Next time you see a girl you like, do a jumping jack at her.”
“It was incredible, that. These—these fucking Italians.”
“Italians? Come on, you’re a Brit. You can do better than Italians.”
“Okay, these wogs—I mean wops. These fucking beaners.”
“Beaners are Mexicans. This is pathetic. Italians, Keith—spicks, greaseballs, dagos.”
“Ah, but I was raised not to make distinctions based on race or culture.”
“That’ll be a lot of help to you. On your first trip to Italy.”
“And all those shrines . . . Anyway, I told you, it’s my origins. Me, I don’t judge. I can’t. That’s why you’ve got to look out for me.”
“You’re susceptible. Your hands shake—look at them. And it’s hard work being a neurotic.”
“It’s more than that. I’m not nuts, exactly, but I get episodes. I don’t see things clearly. I misread things.”
“Particularly with girls.”
“Particularly with girls. And I’m outnumbered. I’m a bloke and a Brit.”
“And a het.”
“And a het. Where’s my brother? You’ll have to be a brother to me. No. Treat me as the child you never had.”
“Okay, I will. Now listen. Now listen, son. Start looking at these guys with a bit of perspective. Johnny Eyetie is a play-actor. Italians are fantasists. Reality’s not good enough for them.”
“Isn’t it? Not even this reality?”
They turned, Keith in his T-shirt and jeans, Whittaker in his horn-rims, the oval leather elbow-patches on his cord jacket, the woollen scarf, fawn, like his hair. Lily and Scheherazade were now making their way towards the stairs to the basement, eliciting, from the elderly all-male clientele, a fantastic diversity of scowls; their soft shapes moved on, through the gauntlet of gargoyles, then swivelled, then exited downward, side by side. Keith said,
“Those old wrecks. What are they looking at?”
“What are they looking at? What do you think they’re looking at? Two girls who forgot to put any clothes on. I said to Scheherazade, You’re going to town tonight. Put some clothes on. Wear clothes. But she forgot.”
“Lily too. No clothes.”
“You don’t make cultural distinctions. Keith, you should. These old guys have just come staggering out of the Middle Ages. Think. Imagine. You’re first-generation urban. With your wheelbarrow parked in the street. You’re having a little glass of something, trying to keep a grip. You look up and what do you get? Two nude blondes.”
“. . . Oh, Whittaker. It was so horrible. Out there. And not for the obvious reason.”
“What’s the non-obvious reason?”
“Shit. Men are so cruel. I can’t say it. You’ll see for yourself on the way back . . . Look! They’re still there!”
The young men of Montale were now on the other side of the window, stacked like silent acrobats, and a jigsaw of faces squirmed against the glass—strangely noble, priestlike faces, nobly suffering. One by one they started dropping back and peeling away. Whittaker said,
“What I don’t get is why the boys don’t act like that when I walk down the street. Why don’t the girls do jumping jacks when you walk down the street?”
“Yeah. Why don’t they?”
Four jars of beer were slewed out in front of them. Keith lit a Disque...
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