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Peter Russell, par Richard Burns

1er mai 2008


My last meeting with Peter Russell

Casa del Riposo, Castelfranco di Sopra, December 2002

When I wheeled Peter back into the Casa del riposo in Via Roma, he was half the weight he had been two years previously. In the room on the right of the entrance as you went in, where they usually kept the coffins, they had set up a special reading magnifier for him. They had helped him make this ‘his’ room, except, presumably, for when a coffin needed to be used. The reading machine used simple mirrors and a lens to project a large image of several lines of the page of a book onto a screen. The book he was reading was the Authorised Version. [1] The room on the left of the entrance was communal and as I wheeled him in to the coffin-room, a nurse or social worker was leading a group of residents in a shaky version of an old song, just as if they were children at school, or on a picnic or summer school outing in the hills. I glimpsed them all sitting there in a big circle as we came in to the building.

Quel mazzolin di fiori
che vien dalla montagna
bada ben che non si bagna
chè lo voglio regalar,
bada ben che non si bagna
chè lo voglio regalar.

It was eerie and sweet at the same time to hear this old song being sung by all those people near death. Peter had decided that he wanted me to buy some books from him, which I did. This was his cigarette money. He had been chain-smoking the whole afternoon I was with him and in the hotel bar earlier that afternoon he had had an ashtray filled with water so that he could drop the stubs of his Nazionali senza filtro into it when they began to burn his nicotine-browned fingers. Now he was smoking again as he perched in front of his reading machine. He let the smoke waft out in great clouds. Still smoking then, Peter, I teased him. Yes, it’ll be the death of me, he replied. Well it hasn’t killed you yet, I said. He nearly smiled. Milvia and Gregorio and Leonello were chatting in Italian over his head about something to do with his welfare and he was getting irritated and it was approaching time to go.

And then it was supper time so I wheeled him past the entrance to his table in the big communal room and I don’t remember now if I helped him out of his wheelchair into a chair so that he could sit at the table or whether he just sat at it in his wheelchair. At any rate he asked me to prop his stick in an angle of the wall where he could reach it easily. There, he said, very definitely and firmly, pointing to the exact spot. At the table were three other residents. As soon as he sat down he seemed to have forgotten me or, rather, his attention was now focused on this regular social ritual. The resident sitting opposite him was an old lady and she said, in what struck me as a practical but caring and kind way, Peter, ti prego, mangia un po sta sera. Bisogna mangiare, non è vero ? Non si può guarirsi senza mangiare. (Peter, I beg you, eat a bit this evening. One needs to eat, doesn’t one ? One can’t get better if one doesn’t eat.) And he said, Si si, signora in his old-fashioned upper-crust English accent but still didn’t want to eat anything. As usual, he held his chin slightly in the air in that defiant prep-schoolboyish way of his and I knew this was the moment and I said, Peter, I’ve got to go now and he said Yes, and I said Peter, I love you, because I wanted him to know that was the last thing that he and I needed to say to each other. And I bent down to kiss him on the forehead. He didn’t seem surprised by this but peered in my direction and he said I love you too and turned back to the other old folks at the table. I stumbled outside choking back tears and Milvia and Gregorio and Leonello came out after me.

Peter Russell (1921-2002) was a fascinating and extraordinary man, who combined extreme and powerful contradictions more strongly than anybody else I have ever met. He was a disciple of Ezra Pound. You can see my obituary for him in The Independent at , as well as a slightly fuller version, ‘The Poet Odyssified’, at My account of the time I lived in his flat in Venice is given in the essay ‘With Peter Russell in Venice, 1965-1966’ in The Road to Parnassus, Homage to Peter Russell on his Seventy Fifth Birthday, ed. James Hogg, Salzburg Studies in English Literature, 1996. pp. 107-122.


[1The King James Authorised Version, the most famous and beautiful of all English translations of the Bible, published in 1611, the same year that Shakekspeare wrote his last play, The Tempest.

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