Just back from two days in London, where I recorded the audio book of With a Zero at its Heart. This is something I’ve never wanted to do with any other book of mine, and would have refused if I’d been asked, but Zero is special to me in a way (more personal, more intimate) that my other books haven’t been, and the idea of hearing any of it in some other voice (although Matthew Licht did a fine job in Florence earlier this year) was something I didn’t want to contemplate. It’s an easy book to read in some ways, divided as it is into bite-sized chunks of language, not that much longer than a decent breath (average time per section, just under a minute, I discovered), and with enough variety of tone to keep the reader alert. In other ways, as I also discovered, it’s not easy at all. One of the problems I had was that the microphone I was reading into was, well, just too sensitive. It didn’t hear only my voice, over which I had almost total control; it also heard my stomach, over which I had none. The man on the other side of the glass wall, the ever-patient, consummately professional Sam, would interrupt me alarmingly often with the words ‘A little bit of tummy on that one, Charles’. The greater my awareness of this became, the more my stomach decided to make itself heard. I ate a Kit-Kat, my first in decades, to no effect. A banana. Likewise. Eventually, Sam gave me a large, thick cushion, which I held, pressed close to my tummy, to muffle its intrusive presence.
The other problem, if this is the right word (and I’m not sure it is; perhaps realisation comes closer), was in the nature of the text itself. I say above that it’s an intimate book, but I think I only became aware of just how intimate it is as I read it out loud to a single other person (long-suffering Sam), not quite visible behind a sheet of glass to my left, listening to the entire book, to every word (and every gurgle), with an attention that no one had ever given the book before last Thursday, in my presence at least. I felt myself exposed in a way, or to a degree, that I hadn’t expected; I’d thought that the insulating distance afforded by the act of writing would protect me, and, with a larger audience than one, it always has done. But sitting in that small room at the top of a building in Wardour Street, with a cushion pressed hard to my stomach, and the shadowy presence of another person only feet away, isolated and yet almost pruriently close, I found myself wondering exactly what I’d chosen to share. The act of reading it aloud for what I’d like to think of as posterity is another, further exposure, I half welcome, half fear. I think this may make the audio book worth listening to in a way that I can’t control. I’ll let you know when it’s available and I hope you’ll tell me what you think.
It took us a day and a half to record the book. Almost as soon as I’d finished (after an excellent dish of pork belly slow-cooked in a clay pot at Tre Viet, Mare Street) I was travelling back to Italy, via Stansted. Stansted always struck me as a relatively pleasant environment (relative to London’s other main airports). I liked the sense of air and light in Norman Foster’s original design, with the roof suspended on elegant white spokes branching out parasol-fashion to cover the space beneath. There was an extravagant emptiness about it, as though the business of air travel were less important than the aerial wonder of it. Well, that was then. In its latest refit, the airport has become the epitome of mall culture, with a claustrophobic snake-like passage squeezing its way between fragrance hawkers, armed with their little wands of scented paper and weary smiles. The perceived ceiling is low, the air unbreathably perfumed. We trip over one another’s carry-on trolley cases to avoid the hard sell, or succumb to it, as I did (Dior Homme aftershave, if you must know). WH Smith is a shadow of what it was (and it wasn’t much to start with), the food outlets are jammed up together at the end of the gauntlet, the whole place looks tawdry only months after opening. Oh yes, there is no longer a bookshop. Not one bookshop. The only books for sale beyond security are the top 20 fiction and non-fiction choices at WHS, and the airport specials, possibly the least attractive or practical format for a book to have been devised in the history of publishing (although those odd little horizontal flip books, something else you hardly ever see except at airports, come very close). If I were Norman Foster, I’d be seriously pissed off. As it is, I pull my case onto the shuttle and join the queue for the flight to Ciampino, watching Italian fellow-fliers pretend not to understand the word Priority, or assume that it automatically applies to them. And I think about the time I flew into Genoa airport over thirty years ago, and the walk from the plane to a sort of hastily constructed shed, where we picked up our luggage from a heap in the middle of the room. Simpler times.