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The History of Love
All rights reserved
© Alan O'Cain 2011
Printed on Canaletto Liscio (HP) 125g/m2, 20% cotton
acid free paper using non water resistant pigment ink.
Bound by hand in the studio of Alan O'Cain by Juliet Lunn.
cover photograph: Author with friend,
Washington Street, Sunderland c.1968
for Nicole Krauss
Once upon a time, in a dark town far in
the north, a young boy came home from
school. There in the centre of the room
was a baby, squirming and new. The
boy's mother came up beside him,
flush-faced, wearing a nightdress.
"He's your new brother," she said, "what should we call him?"
The little boy thought. "Don't
know," he said.
"Well," said the mother, "what
are the names of your best friends at
"Urm," said the boy pushing his
fingers through his tightly-curled hair,
"Colin and Alan."
And for evermore Alan was
inexpressibly grateful not to have been
When Alan was twelve he had a
when he considered himself quite
attractive, even with his thick glasses.
The prettiest girl in the class (by
universally popular opinion) came up to
him, arm-in-arm with her best friend.
"We fancy you," she announced.
Like any healthy and well-
adjusted twelve-year-old boy Alan
didn't know what to say.
Aged fifteen Alan sprouted legs longer
than the River Wear running through
his town. Whilst his legs expanded
exponentially, his arms grew thin. His
chest vanished beneath the high
waistband of his capacious mid-70s
flared trousers. Alan considered himself
an awkward obelisk, topped by a lank-
Solace lay in the town Library, Gallery
and Museum. Every Sunday Alan hid
there, communing with beautiful books
that were oblivious of his freakish
proportions. The historically-costumed
mannequins also declined to hold
And then it happened. Love at first
sight. Alan was in the Art Gallery
eyeing the works from a nose-width's
distance (as usual). She was standing
behind a balustrade, her slender fingers
resting on a rail. Dappled light played
across her white dress. Blue-green eyes
glistened like jade. From inside Alan's
wren-cage chest, she whispered his
Her name was Juliet.
Picture the scene. Here we have Alan
much, much older. He is entering
Arrivals in an airport far in the north.
He is looking for a familiar face. There
by the currency exchange is a hunched
figure, dressed all in black: his father:
ancient-seeming, a quarter the man he
once was. Alan walks up and doesn't
know what to do. Men in the north
don't hug. "Yee can see yer mam at the
undertaker's," says his father, "shis still
Seven years later Alan walks slowly
with his father to the Library, Gallery
and Museum: something to make the
visit about more than his father now
being alone. The place has changed:
everything is "interactive" - a
playground of buttons and knobs.
Alan sees a woman selling
calendars of old shipbuilding scenes.
"What happened to the art collection?"
"It's been moved," she says, "to the place that used to be the department store Binn's."
Alan and his father enter the former
store, talking about the trips they made
there together when Alan was a boy,
past the former Television Sales area,
where many men once gathered on
Saturday afternoons to watch the
football scores, and on and on - on into
the former Ladies' Fashions: now the
"Artists of Sunderland" wing.
And there she is. Juliet. Radiant.
Unchanged. "I used to be in love with
her," Alan says, examining the painting
from a nose-width's distance.
"Gehr'away," says his father. "Aa
divvint beleeve it! When Aa wor a
nipper Aa used to come here ivry week
wi me best mate. We wor in love wi her
Here now is Alan. Reading a book:
"The History of Love" by Nicole
Krauss - something he is going to
discuss with new-found friends. "Have
you finished it yet?" comes a shout
from the kitchen, "and decided how
you're going to respond?"
His wife Juliet comes through
into the room. "Yes," Alan says to her,
"I'm going to write a story called 'The
History of Love'."
Thomas Francis Dicksee (1819-1895)
Oil on canvas 106.5 x 71cm
Sunderland Museum and Art Gallery
Written 23 January 2011
(for a meeting of
The Telegraph Book Club
the following day)
in homage to
"The History of Love"
by Nicole Krauss.