ali smith

Lines Writ on the Back of a Vespa

Has anyone ever moped on the back of a moped? I’ve a feeling it wouldn’t be possible. Not that I was feeling in any way mopey about the prospect of an afternoon spent signing hardbacks at various bookshops in London, a thing near unimaginable not so long ago, a kind of dream after the general Covid isolation we’ve all been in. On the contrary, I was lightheaded with delight at the thought. (Lightheaded? A symptom. Better test.) Especially since I’d been, myself, in a very particular kind of Covid isolation – I didn’t have it this time but my partner, Sarah, did: a foul visitation, not mild in any way – until two days before I was meant to be in London not just for these signings but also for the launch of my new book at the London Review Bookshop, my first event in public since 2019.

Would we make it? I really wanted to, to see everyone, to be back in the world, all of those things, but above all because roughly six weeks ago this email had hit my inbox: ‘When you come in to do your launch event for Companion piece and for the signing visits, would you like Simon to give you a lift to each of the shops on the back of the bike?’

Simon is my dear friend and publisher at Hamish Hamilton, Simon Prosser. He happens to have a Vespa Primavera. His Primavera is, I think, properly speaking a scooter (though Google tells me Vespas are versatile, can be both scooter and moped, depending on their engine size). The last couple of times we’d met up for work he’d had his bike with him and offered me a lift to the station on the back. I’d said yes in capitals both times. I’ve known you all this time and didn’t know you liked bikes, he said as we nipped down Mount Pleasant the first time, me marvelling at London all over again because the back of a Vespa gives you the everyday world like nothing else can, and marvelling too at how clearly I could hear him and he could hear me. I even imagined there was some Bluetooth speaker system inside the helmets, but no, it’s one of the miracles of a Vespa that you can actually have real conversation as you buzz from street to street.

without my mother knowing (though my father knew fine).

On the Tuesday, Sarah, feeling suddenly much better, thank God, tested negative. Doubly lucky, because she was also due to be chairing the LRB event on the Thursday. Cue happiness at the single red line on both our tests.

Cue, too, my happiest afternoon signing books anywhere, ever. The day before had been the one with the torrential rain. The day Simon and I Vespa-d from Daunt to Daunt to John Sandoe to Hatchards to Goldsboro, places where many of the booksellers have become my friends over the years, was the one with the high puffy clouds, the very strong breeze, the cool-warm sunlight, the occasional spat of raindrop, and the city more beautiful than ever in the primavera air. Everywhere we went – friendship, warmth. At Daunt Marylebone, the high glass dome was brighter than ever with its fall of natural light over the balcony and into the body of the shop; the booksellers and I fantasised about how it’d be a very nice place to, well, just live. At Daunt Holland Park I thought of how only six weeks before this, Sarah and I had come to the first book event we’d been to since Covid first appeared, a reading by Paul Bailey from his shining new book of poems, Joie de vivre, and of the life in the poems, the vitality in his reading, and the sheer joy of so many people together in a happy crowd for the first time in years, again, hearing him read. At John Sandoe, Hester the bookseller met us at the door: ‘Did you really both just arrive on that bike? That is so unbelievably cool.’ I laughed out loud. She clearly hadn’t seen me trying to get off the bike; more like that is so unbelievably inelegant. But so what, London in the spring sun was itself elegant beyond belief and it opened to us on that bike like open family, and maybe for a single April afternoon cool London itself momentarily rubbed off on even me.

‘What did you and Simon talk about on the back of the bike?’ my friend Xandra asked me last week (she’d had a summer break once on a motorbike and knew good conversations naturally happen in their forward movement).

I told him that first day how my father’d had a garage full of mopeds when I was growing up. There was the one on which he’d putt away upriver at first light, then back home with an hour to spare before work and a salmon or two in the box on the back. There was the one on which my sister had crossed Inverness to get to the grammar school, her crash helmet peaked like a jockey’s cap, and the one on which my brother did the same, my other brother on his pushbike coasting all the way up the hill to school by holding on to the back of it. I spent my childhood from about the age of nine onwards illicitly moped-ing over the fields between the canal and the house we grew up in on one or other of these bikes

Everything. The relationship between rivers and brickmaking; London architecture; the etymology of Marylebone; the possible speed of a Vespa Primavera; J M W Turner; Ferrara;

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Tommy Handley; dancing; glamorous air stewarding of the past; the ways the Covid years have changed us all; the ways lives sometimes work out with astonishing symmetry; our childhoods; 1980s daytime TV; of course a host of new and old books... And that’s just the start.

A day of bright air and movement. Then that evening Sarah and I came up the stairs at the launch to a roomful of people, to such communal warmth.

Pure joie de vivre. That’s what I call getting a lift.

may 2022 | Literary Review 1