Writers are obsessed with words, of course, but with me the obsession goes so deep as to verge on the autistic. That’s why this blog is called Dreaming In Text because sometimes I do – dream in text I mean. In those dreams I am simply presented with a huge white screen on which the text of a story appears, word by word as I read it. I don’t know if anyone else does this but if you’re out there, I’d love to hear about it.
One of those moments when words wrapped themselves indelibly round my life was when I first heard Virgil’s most famous line, forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit, which most people translate as something like, ‘and perhaps it will help one day to remember these things’.
Aeneas, who has been shipwrecked on the way home from Troy, is talking to his men and he’s saying something along the lines of, ‘Cheer up guys, one day you’ll look back on all this and laugh,’ but at the same time Virgil, the poet, is talking to his audience, which stretches all the way from his time to mine, and telling us that one day we will be glad that this story has been recorded.
Virgil’s words were written in a book for me when I was seventeen by a girl in whose company I’d just spent my summer holiday studying Homer. I’d never had the chance to learn Ancient Greek at school but I loved Latin and my Latin teacher managed to get me a bursary to attend a crash course in Greek focusing on Homer’s Iliad. Everyone was there for the same reason.
I knew about the Aeneid, of course, knew that it was the great Roman epic just as Homer’s Iliad, that we were giving up our Summer to study, was the great Greek epic. But so far the only Virgil I'd read was Book 4 of the Georgics, a strange poem which seemed to be all about bee-keeping but was obviously about much more. ‘Forget the Georgics,' she urged me. 'Read the Aeneid. It'll blow your mind.’ (We all spoke like that in those days, I'm afraid. She was right, though.)
That afternoon we were going our separate ways. I can’t even remember how many days the summer school lasted but it had been an intense time. There had been love affairs going off like fireworks all around; some students had been picked up by the police wandering around the town at daybreak wrapped in blankets, wide-eyed as old testament prophets; one student had melodramatically taken too many sleeping tablets, fortunately not enough to cause any damage. Now we were all saying goodbye.
Memory plays the strangest tricks with time. Some summers seem no more than a regular procession of light and shade, while others burn as brightly as phosphorus. And afterwards, when all the names and places are no more than ash only the words are left behind.