‘The Red Tendra of Bologna’ & the art of travel writing

I found it on Stuart’s bookshelf: John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’. A strange find.

A graphic designer, my brother was never academic or interested in essays. Yet there it was, and its contents promised serious thinking. Pages filled with talk of compositional unity. Black and white photos of paintings. Subjects staring at the viewer whilst they themselves were observed.

Essays, reflection, criticism. Stuart, how was this amongst the junk of your room?

I took it, read it and had my first experience of John Berger’s accessible writing.

And now I find this book, ‘The Red Tendra of Bologna’, tucked in the lowest shelf of Waterstones Gower Street, and I’m reading John Berger again. This time it’s a short piece of travel writing, £0.99 as part of Penguin Classics. “That’s the shelf for the ones going out of print”, the assistant kindly offers.

But is it travel writing?

And if it is, what is travel writing?

What make good travel writing?

It should have a mood

Filling ‘The Red Tendra…’ is the air of remembrance for a beloved Uncle, provoked by a visit to Bologna. The author’s visit in turn summons the Uncle’s presence. Not as a ghost, but as a fellow traveller and familiar mentor. Here is the spirit of a humble estate agent from South Croydon, whose love was reading and writing letters, who kept his eyes open to the world and guided a boy – as he now guides the man – through streets, cities and moments of Europe.

This is a book whose encompassing mood is not one of loss, but fondness. Of communicating. Of understanding. Of reflecting on martyrdom, paintings, history and coffee in another land.

Its mood is everywhere.

It should have a place

And the place should be everywhere. It should fill the distance between letters. And there must be places within place.

John Berger’s Bologna is a city of hidden places. Secrets hidden from the outside world by hanging red tendra hanging in windows (“from where they are not secrets”). Porticoes. Plazas opening out in revelation. The steps of a church from where you can watch grandmothers entertain young children. The fabric shop with a wall of materials, whose watchful owner perches in a high stool above the writer’s head.

It should not question

Here is a book that transports you without jolt or disruption and immerses you in Bologna, aware of its difference whilst perfectly accepting its logic.

Two pages showing the layout and book design of 'The Red Tendra of Bologna'
Look at the boldness of the padding and the layout design. On each page rests a unique moment in Bologna.

It should have a form. It should have the right weight

When I was in my twenties I met a literary manager who used to pick up a manuscript, weigh it in his hands and understand the weight as a measure of the words, ideas, complexity and intent of the author. Every submission was an artefact with its own weight. And sometimes the weight was true to the convictions it was trying to convey.

This is a book of exactly the right weight. Because this is a book that is weightless. It’s three dozen pages, each contain a moment of Bologna, a portrait of our beloved Uncle, an exchange, an encounter in a plaza. The weight is true to the message, the mood and the place being conveyed.

And each of these moments has space to rest upon the page and be discovered.

Look at that space. Look at the padding around the text. Such weight and simplicity requires boldness, work and decision making.

It should remain

I finish the book in a single sitting. On the rear, the shortest biography of John Berger. He’s “a visionary thinker and art critic”. But it is his how he conveys his vision and thinking that is remarkable. Visions of Bologna are spun without effort. To read this book is to lift your eyes and gaze from your chair over Italian plazas. To finish it is to keep them with you.

These are visions spun without labour. Thoughts, ideas and place as effortless as sight.

I must read ‘Ways of Seeing’ again.

A boat resting on the marina of Mitilini, Lesvos, Greece
A boat resting on Mitilini marina, Greece.

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~ For the travellers ~