the man of letters

I’ve written about Carlo Gébler before; the power of storytelling, the strength of a phrase, the power of an image.

Yesterday I spent an hour or so at a reading/ discussion with him, hosted by the always great No Alibis bookshop, and I left even more star struck. I didn’t think that would be possible. My head is full of images, and I’m still trying to figure out what the smell of ‘Bakelite and perfume’ might be like. I spent years thinking that telephone exchanges had a particular smell, perhaps something to do with the wires, before realising that my non smoking dad gathered up the smell of smoke from his colleagues when at work. It turns out that telephone exchanges actually smelled of companionship and a deep connection that was nothing to do with the wires.

Had I any wit I’d have brought Carlo (‘Gébler’ seems terribly formal) a bundle of his books to sign, as well as the book I bought yesterday. But why would I think of that? Maybe that’s not quite the done thing. Maybe I’m too forgetful to be gauche- a small miracle.

Had I felt like a peer rather than a fan, I’d have mentioned how his sentences have stayed with me:

Bang in the middle of the 20th century my father took a wife who produced a son whom he called Karl.

Then he lost that wife, took a new wife, acquired a new son and he called me- Karl. (Carlo, as I now am, only came years later.)


I have a narrative that makes some sort of sense of what happened.

You can’t change the past, but with understanding, you can sometimes draw the poison out of it.

On reflection I realise that a lot of what I try to do these days is try to draw the poison out of the past. Medical experiences, frustration with health care systems- we can’t make progress if we’re swimming in poison. Difficult though it can be, we need to find ways forward, routes round the roadblocks.

No, I didn’t have that conversation. I spelled out the letters of my name for him.

But why so star struck all of a sudden?


Carlo grew up in a literary home. His parents were well known writers- Ernest Gébler and Edna O’Brien. That wasn’t news, but I hadn’t considered the possibilities created by growing up around literary folk. Just like the little Beckhams or McCartneys, family friends & colleagues (who happened to be at the top of their game) were round at the house. I’m still reeling from him playing Samuel Beckett some music from The Who, and Beckett returning the favour by playing Wagner on piano. And Salinger. The old man who was so much less interesting than his sixteen year old daughter when Carlo was fourteen.

I’m not just in awe of his writing and his story telling, I’m in awe of his past. A past from a different world. I saw him not simply as a storyteller I admire, but as a link in a long and wonderful chain of connected storytellers.

Is that very odd? A bit too much like the woman who danced with a man who danced with a woman who danced with the Prince of Wales?

Fun, inspiring and challenging. I must do more of this getting out of the house business.




One thought on “the man of letters

  1. Lucky you Fiona I dont think if given the opportunity to meet a famous author that I would be cognizant enough to remember to bring books to have autographed I’d be lucky enough to not stumble or trip as I walked up to meet him so I think you did GREAT!! You constantly amaze me at your Grace under Pressure You are quite an example for your children😊

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