Michael Harding: 'You need a good rogering, it loosens everything'

'Advice from a poet a long time ago when I was young and chaste and full of inhibitions'

 Michael Harding at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Annaghmakerrig, Co.Monaghan. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Michael Harding at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Annaghmakerrig, Co.Monaghan. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

 I met a poet in Italy when I was young. At his table one night, he stood up and sang Anachie Gordon. When he sat down the long-haired woman beside him enveloped his withered fingers in her lily white hands. They gazed at each other and I wished I was one of them. Because they were in love.

“Love is the prize,” he confided in me the following day as we drank coffee in the sunlight. “Poems are only the tracks of the animal. I couldn’t write a line if I was not in love.”

But I was young and chaste and full of inhibitions. A long time would pass before I met my own beloved.

“You are tongue-tied,’ he declared. “You need a good rogering. It loosens everything.”

I didn’t know what the word “rogering” meant. Rogering sounded like something you might do to a horse. If he had said “ you need a good ride, young lad” I would have got the message. 

“What is a rogering?” I wondered.

He stared at me with eyes as dark as a bucket of cherries. Then he leaned forward. I was afraid he was either going to bite my nose off or kiss me. I trembled, as a boy sometimes does, willing to believe everything and embrace nothing.

That was a long time ago.

I took the bus to Rome a few days later and never saw him again, though I have tried every day since to follow his advice. To find a love story on every street, and in the face of every stranger.

Which is what I was saying to Yolanda in Waterford recently, because she too is a poet. And we were having coffee in a restaurant and the day was bitterly cold and the clouds suggested sleet might fall.

Antibacterial cream

I told her I once heard a poet declare that there are three types of tears. The tears that rise from grief. The tears we shed when we don’t get what we want. And finally, the tears that never come to the surface at all.”

We both spoke the word Tolstoy in the same breath, and laughed.

“But nobody reads Tolstoy anymore,” she declared. “People only read Aleksandr Dugin now. It’s such a pity.”

That all happened in Waterford in the winter. I was on tour with my book. The nights were okay, although sometimes I sat shivering in unheated dressing rooms rubbing my paws with antibacterial cream to avoid the flu before embracing another audience.

And during the day I had a lot of time on my hands. And my body got cold as I traipsed the streets of small towns, gawking into shop windows. Which is why I phoned Yolanda and invited her for a coffee at lunchtime.

That night she came to the reading. Afterwards she waited in the dressing room. I mentioned that I first learned the secret of good cooking in that same building. It was 23 years ago and I was directing a play for a local theatre company. To get away from the wars in the rehearsal room I went to an art movie one evening in Garter Lane. It was a Chinese film and I couldn’t be bothered following the subtitles so I just let the images and language flow over me as I sat near a radiator in the corner.

On the screen an old monk was cooking. He had vegetables perfectly prepared and lined up for the wok. He was as thin as a pencil and moved like a Tai Chi master. Clearly he was cooking with single-minded attention. Steam rose from the wok. And when the meal was ready he poked a few noodles into his mouth with chopsticks and his face flushed with the joy of an enlightened being.

“That’s how to cook,” I said to myself. And when I had told the story to Yolanda she said, “No. That’s how to live”.

The staff were turning off the lights. We left the building and I bade Yolanda goodnight beneath the archway near the street and then I walked alone to my hotel on the quays. Rain from the river lashed my face, but I was carrying snow inside me. Like tears that never surface. Like the melancholy that comes with snowdrops. Because occasionally love is about letting someone go.

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