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Since Feeling is First: Lilian Pizzichini

Writers, artists and musicians talk about the things that have inspired them.

When I was growing up, books took me to a world where I could experience freedom. My experience of education was that I had to have neat handwriting and to learn history by rote and receive the opinions of others. When it got to A levels, I went to a different school and I was asked to think for myself. I couldn't do that. I didn't know how. Poetry helped me, especially Gerard Manley Hopkins because he was messy and he made words up. On the other end of the spectrum I found Samuel Beckett, who was bleak and knew what despair was. I could relate to a man who said that language did not express what he wanted to say but I could find what I wanted to say in Hopkins, who was a source of unending joy: rivers and bubbles of words and birds and God. A very elusive God, one who peeks out at you from the prickles of a holly bush, not the God who dominates schoolbooks.

Then I found French culture. The French seemed to be everything the English weren't: intellectual, curious about words and systems and ways of being, and in love with beauty, even if it was the beauty of the gutter. Baudelaire and his sex workers; Rimbaud and Verlaine's arsehole. They spoke about everything that was unspeakable. It was all wrapped in gaslight, from the Commune of 1871 to the 18th arrondissement of TV's Spiral.

I found flea markets late in life and already I had mined a source of nostalgia, because the best had already been and gone. I liked what was left: Portobello; the Jeu de Balle; the Levsha Flea Market outside Moscow. I liked them because I didn't know what I was going to find there. I was immersed in old technologies and stories; I loved the sheer greed of rifling through crates full of coins and metalwork. I marvelled at the stallholders and their mysterious relationship with money. It is an unregulated bartering system; an alternative economy. Divinity was at work. Now, if I could just divine a trinket that was worth millions of pounds. Amongst the paper and ephemera could be the Penny Black. Colours and shapes leapt up at me; I was junk drunk and grabbing at pleasure. At the Levsha, I found a blue glass tea caddy that comes from Kyakhta, an old trading post on the Selenga River in Siberia, close to the Mongolian border. This tea caddy was packaged in a port through which "all the tea in China" made its way into Europe. I had stumbled into the proverbial wormhole of history and it took me to far-off lands. At the same time it took me home. It reminded me of my Great-Aunt Dolly, her endless cups of tea and her proverbial sayings. By handling this tea caddy, learning its story, guessing at it, channelling its previous owners, I find that time comes alive and presents me with its nowness.

Patti Smith and the Soundwalk Collective: Smith talks about her vagina; she talks about pissing where a mad poet pissed. They record rain falling on a tin roof and Tarahumari songs and Sufi chants. They are salvaging scraps of sounds and strains of melody that then engulf Smith's vocal responses to place. She goes to places where mad French poets went in search of redemption, recovery and transcendence. The Soundwalk Collective provides fifty-five minutes of transcendence.

Finally, to cater once again to my nostalgia, pansies in a flower bed remind me of my Great-Aunt Dolly's humility. I am reminded of her planting flowers in a window box, creating beauty out of everyday life, and of the fragility of that beauty. Pansies are common-or-garden, so they are easy to ignore. They have heavy, blowsy, velvety petals that are easily bruised. If life does not crush them, and the eye takes time to see them, pansies combine colours like an artist's palette. They are not just violet. They are black and red and green and blue. They invite you deep into their flower beds. The earth beckons me to take the trip that Hopkins took; to breach the walls.

Lilian Pizzichini is the author of Dead Men's Wages: the Secrets of a London Conman and his Family (winner of the 2002 Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction), published by Picador. In 2009 Bloomsbury published The Blue Hour: A Portrait of Jean Rhys (a BBC Radio Four Book of the Week) in the UK. Norton published it in the US, where it was shortlisted for the Marfield National Arts Award. Her most recent book was Music Night at the Apollo: A Memoir of Drifting (Bloomsbury 2014), a Spectator Book of the Year. Her next book is The Novotny Papers, to be published by Amberley in March 2021. As a journalist and critic, Lilian has worked on the TLS, the Literary Review and the Erotic Review, as well as writing travel pieces and arts and book reviews for national papers. She has taught Creative Writing in prisons and in universities.


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