Oman has a vibe so chilled, I sometimes have to ask myself if I’m awake or asleep. It’s strange because the media portrays the Middle East as a war zone (and of course some parts of it are) but this place is about as warlike as a flotation tank.
Driving home from the gym, I yearn to take a photo. In the time between 5 and 6.30 the sky turns yellow, then a deep red. At the time of day they call, in Arabic, Maghrib, the air stills, a sense of expectation hovers and then, very quickly, the sun is gone.
This said, like for all foreigners in another land, certain parts of living here are hard to swallow. These complaints are usually swapped, like wrapped boiled sweets, with a friend who feels the same. We confine our grumbles to a car journey and then invariably perk up.
In Muscat, it is easier, for example, to buy frankincense than an envelope. Trying to send something to England last week I had, in the end, to put the letter in a jiffy bag. It was that or hijack a Hallmark Valentine’s card for it’s scarlet covering.
As for anything bookish or or paper-based, forget it*. The malls here sell sugar and abayas and scent. Sometimes they set up book fairs for kids beneath the shopping centre escalators and I want to simultaneously cheer and cry. The reading revolution in Oman will happen, I reckon, through its children, but not while the stalls are still channeling 1970.
So it was with surprise one day that I found my favourite weekend newspaper tucked away in an ex-pat part of town. It was still crisp, a familiar peachy-colour. There were only two copies which somehow made the drive worthwhile. I looked one way then the other, and grabbed it fast before Muscat’s two other FT fans could elbow me aside. I could barely wait to get it home.
I had been reading the FT weekend since I moved to London in my twenties. A glamorous friend leafing through it at my kitchen table, said: ‘If you like good writing, this is the thing.’
A weekend treat and ritual it became. Whatever troubled my working week could always be overcome with an FT on the horizon. Following the thread of every editorial, I bored my friends and family with its merits.
One particular column had grabbed my eyes. The columnist, Susie Boyt took every day normality and imbued it with intricate meaning. She wrote of cakes and show tunes and disappointment. She described the space between the way we’d like to be and who we really are.
She had once upon a time written a book about Judy Garland where she revealed her lifelong love of the former child star. I realised then that I had become the fan of a fan. Like being at the end of a conga or an endless hall of mirrors. To invest such joy in a person you’ve never met holds a certain kind of light. So easy to admire a stranger, we see the best bits, of them, of ourselves, the soaring of their art.
Yesterday I found a slice of the FT Weekend from 2011 stuck into a scrapbook. The column was called ‘In the mood for medicocrity’. Susie Boyt wrote:
‘In a crisis, the second-rate has a great deal going for it. You need porridge, light grey clothes, repeats of comedy shows where you can say the lines along with the characters. When Jane Austen and the first blossom seem almost more visceral than you can take, caution is everything. People you quite like are possibly more use than people you are crazy about. When you need catharsis, reread Herzog, listen to Bach; but when it’s distraction that you want, something lower middle-brow (the back of a Cheerios box, even), can be comforting in the extreme. Read it slowly, memorise it even, but do try not to think too much, or you’ll be sunk.’
‘In the mood for medicocrity’ Susie Boyt, Financial Times, April 2/3 2011
Like the very best in literature, her column opened doors to places I thought that only I had seen. Reading her words each week, it became okay to not always feel okay. Her self deprecating one-liners snuck up on you until you couldn’t help but smile.
But when I got my copy home last week, and opened the Middle East edition of the Life and Arts section, the room went dark. For inside it said that Susie Boyt was packing up her FT pen. No longer would she grace the salmon pages. I would have to make do with her colleagues. Sure I liked their work. Of course I did. It just, well it wasn’t the same.
Fanhood is a fabulous thing. Projection of the most flattering kind. It’s easy to read the work of a person you have never met and think that you are truly privy to their life.
The same is true of a country you’ve only been to on holiday. ‘Live with someone to know them,’ my grandmother used to say. Before I moved to Oman, I visited for a week. Saw sunsets, moon-like mountains. I bought frankincense and bottles of Oud. We visited a village with a waterfall where a tree-frog yelped like a dog.
I didn’t try to buy an envelope.
I didn’t know that there are campaigns to encourage Omani children to read for fun, as well as at school. That it may take decades but slowly, this country is returning to its bookish roots.
I thought imagination was so close to truth that it might just make a steady substitute. But there’s nothing like the dust of life . No replacement for the grit and grind of everyday, its comforting refrain.
And heroes are sometimes best left where you saw them last, swerving on the football field, pirouetting on a stage. Framed by a column that in six years of weekly delight may well have inspired you to start to write.
Susie Boyt’s next novel: Love & Fame will come out in the autumn. My review of it is here.
*Update: I’ve recently discovered Al Fikr (stationery and art supplies) store in Al Kuhwair. Muscat, all is forgiven 🙂