Surely it’s a trick of time. But the facts are what they are: I last visited Edinburgh 18 years ago. This time round, I’m here to give readings at the book festival. It goes well. After, I have dinner at an Indian place with Z, whose new book is just about to come out. I enjoy her excitement about it; we talk about Virginia Woolf, and about how Woolf dealt with reviews of her work (badly, from which we both take some comfort). I’ve time only for a little tourism. At the National Gallery of Scotland, I’m drawn in by Titian, Rubens and – a good surprise – a large altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes, moodiest of the Flemish primitives.
When we leave Edinburgh, the light at Waverley railway station, dappled and bright in the early morning sun, is like a photographer’s paradise. But on this occasion, it’s wasted on me: I can’t get into photographing mode. On the train to London, a couple – he a tattooed middle-aged man in an England jersey, she Chinese, and much younger – sit near us. The man insults the “Scotch money” in his wallet. One senses he isn’t joking.
At King’s Cross, the fine shock of suddenly seeing Wole Soyinka as he’s crossing the street. With his white hair and quick gait, he’s like an apparition. Shortly after, K and I check into the Roi des Belges, an art installation in the form of a one-room hotel in the shape of a boat. It is perched on the roof of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. I’ve been invited by Artangel, a London-based arts organisation, to stay in the boat for four days, one of a year-long rotating cast of musicians, writers, artists and idealists all of whom are meant to produce some work in response to the installation and the view.
The boat is ugly from a distance – a jumble of styles – but it’s also startlingly well-designed and comfortable. What is most astonishing, though, is the view it affords. In one sweeping glance I take in the London Eye, Big Ben, Waterloo Bridge, St Paul’s Cathedral and the Shard. Looking at the tiny people going about their business in the distance, it’s hard not to feel like a despot. Late at night, one or two voices drift up from the Southbank, echoes left over from the day.
We wake up on the boat. The sky is white, wide. In bed I read Heart of Darkness. The Roi des Belges is named after the boat captained by Joseph Conrad when he was in the Congo in 1890. I toy with the idea that my essay for Artangel will begin with the words “What the fuck am I doing here?”
The view improves my mood. This is in the morning hour when everything is lit up but is as yet without shadow, as though each object, each building and structure, were its own source of light. Unless you live with such a spectacular view, you forget a certain peculiarity of weather: how small it is. I notice a squall over St Paul’s at the same moment that there is blue sky over the Houses of Parliament. Things happen quickly, and they happen all the time.
I visit the Wallace Collection, which I find I don’t especially like – with the exception of one stunning Velázquez – then it’s on to Tate Britain for the exhibition Another London, a half-century of photography about the city between 1930 and 1980. Disappointingly, there’s no colour photography in the show; but the photos that are there, some familiar, others rare, are very good. Strangely – I don’t know why this should be strange, but it’s strange – the best pictures are by exactly the photographers one would expect to have the best pictures: Robert Frank, Inge Morath, Henri Cartier-Bresson. I decide that, allowing for variations of style, it comes down to their impeccable sense of rhythm. I note sadly that the dates given for Martine Franck (whose images in the show are very fine too) are 1938-2012. She died a few weeks ago; she was alive when the exhibition began. About death, one can only resort to the cliché: it is final.
It is an intense four days. I feel guilty about all the people I don’t have time to see, my cousins especially. In Bloomsbury, I have drinks at my publishers Faber and Faber (Auden and Eliot frowning from their respective photographs in the entryway); I give a reading and book signing at the LRB Bookshop (readings are all different, this one was especially sober and intense); I meet various friends.
The novelist T and her husband have joined us for dessert. We suddenly realise that the man standing next to us is Tom Stoppard. Shortly after, some cooks at the outdoor market decide I look like Mos Def and, bizarrely, begin to clap.
I give a whole day over to writing my essay. Rather than do another critique of Heart of Darkness, I decide to tell a more complicated story, the main strand of which is a recollection of an encounter with VS Naipaul. Writing such pieces feels like a descent. Writing as diving: an exhilaration, a compression, a depression. I get it done, and a recordist arrives to do a podcast of it.
And, too soon, London ends. The taxi ride from the Southbank to Paddington station is a march-past of empire: the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace and its enormous grounds. There are many statues of great men, including Abraham Lincoln. I notice for the first time the Memorial Gates at Hyde Park Corner. The gates carry the names of Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Africa. “Africa”! You experience yourself in the particular, and everywhere you are received as a broad generality.
I’m in Brooklyn for just a single desultory, interregnal day. I do laundry, iron my shirts and ignore my mail.
Then it’s off to Moscow, Idaho, for the Hemingway Festival. I arrive around midnight, after an uncomfortable, longer-than- transatlantic flight. This is big sky country, where the Pacific north-west abuts the mountain region. The air is cold. I’m deranged by jet lag: exhausted but unable to sleep.
It is strange – this is my diary, and since only you and I are reading it, I can be confessional – it is strange to arrive in a town I had never even heard of, as the guest of honour at an event that is a highlight of the local calendar, to be met at the airport by enthusiastic strangers, to be deposited at a hotel. I open the curtains to a new view: the forlorn red neon of a 24-hour pharmacy, the gloomy report of light from the dark asphalt of the parking lot. I half suspect that, like Ryder in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, I have been invited here for no other reason than to undertake a series of cryptic errands across an unfamiliar landscape. I am so tired that, at moments, I find myself laughing helplessly. In the hotel restaurant early the next morning, I overhear snatches of conversation: “Saw one grouse. Hardly any turkeys this year.” And, a little later, another man’s voice: “… Caravaggio’s secular paintings.”
Teju Cole lives in Brooklyn, New York. His novel ‘Open City’ is published in paperback by Faber and Faber (£7.99)