Friday, 29 January 2010

The Beach in Winter

This morning we took the dogs to the beach, which is about thirty minutes drive from where we're staying. The sky was grey and overcast, with the mountains just emerging from cloud in the distance, white-capped and unreal. The sea was almost as grey as the sky, but with big waves rolling in - very unusual for the Mediterranean.

All along the coast, the road is lined with beach clubs - you have to pay to go in and use their facilities. In summer it's nice to have an umbrella, a steamer chair, a shower and a bar! But in winter they're all closed and boarded up and you can stroll wherever you want.

Today we had the beach to ourselves, shared only with a couple of men exercising horses. We were surprised at the amount of debris. Apparently this is the result of the Xmas floods, which have washed down a whole forest of trees - they estimate it will take months to clear.

It was cold, but very beautiful. I feel very lucky to be here.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Fiore de Henriquez - a new film

I learned yesterday on Facebook that a young English film-maker living in America is in the final stages of a documentary about the Italian sculptor Fiore de Henriquez, who created Peralta. Richard Whymark came to Peralta last year to look at the hamlet and film some background. We also got to talk to him about Fiore and tried to find out what his approach to her life and work was going to be. This is obviously of some interest, and the cause of some apprehension, among those who knew her. Richard wasn’t revealing anything, so we still don’t know what his ‘angle’ is going to be.
Fiore was one of the most remarkable people I have ever met. She was an imposing personality - nearly six feet tall, with strong arms, a shock of white hair and the most extraordinary eyes. They looked at you with such penetration, it was hard not to believe that she couldn’t see inside the very landscape of your soul. But they were also full of sadness and supplication.
Fiore was born in 1920 - one of the two in every ten thousand babies born every year with ‘gender indeterminacy’. She was, she told everyone quite frankly, a haemaphrodite - the union of Hermes and Aphrodite. Her birth sign was Gemini, the heavenly Twins. ‘I can see both sides,’ she used to say, ‘because I am both sides.’ It was both her tragedy and her gift. Many of her sculptures and paintings depict double images, reflections, siamese twins. She was incredibly beautiful when she was young, as this photograph by Felix Fonteyne reveals. But her life was a restless search for personal happiness and artistic fulfilment. She had many lovers - some of them prominent figures in American and British society. She lived and worked with several big names in art, sculpted Augustus John, John F. Kennedy, the Queen Mother and many other celebrities. It was a life rich in anecdote and scandal. Fiore cared little for what people thought - she lived at full speed, right to the end.
Friends worry that the documentary might focus too much on her gender identity problem, and too little on her artistic achievement. When I first came to Peralta, Fiore was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and my friend Jan Marsh was writing her biography - ‘Art and Androgyny’. Getting the balance right was Jan’s central problem, and she probably erred too much on the side of caution. It is right to avoid prurient curiousity, but Fiore’s unique sexuality was so much a part of herself and her art that it has to be fully addressed. It will be interesting to see how Richard Whymark has tackled it.
One of her greatest creations was the hamlet of Peralta itself, which was a ruin on the hillside until she found it in the 1960s, traced all the original owners of the houses and little farms, then rebuilt and restored it. She wanted Peralta to be a place where writers and artists could meet, live and work. Not just for tourists. Unfortunately she didn't realise that most of them can't afford the kind of creative space that Peralta offers. Richard Whymark made a short film of Peralta when he was here, which I will include below.

Monday, 25 January 2010

A Walk in the Mountains

It seemed a shame to waste such wonderful weather, so yesterday we went for a walk in the mountains with the two dogs we’re looking after for a friend. Elly is a small Italian terrier who spends all day chasing after sticks and pine cones and anything else she can persuade you to throw for her. Frank is a Spinone - a pedigree breed, large and shaggy as a sheep, and rather similar to the English Lurcher. He’s good natured, but enjoys chasing and biting people on bicycles, so he has to be kept on a lead near pathways.
The views were spectacular as we climbed up towards the ridge of Mount Prana, and we could see far out across Torre del Lago (still swollen by flood water) and across the Mediterranean as far as Corsica.
These ancient pathways through the olive groves are punctuated by shrines, still decorated with flowers and candles, however high up or distant.
There are wild flowers everywhere - we found some small orchid like plants with flowers like cobras, spectacular funghi growing under the chestnut trees, hellebore along the edges of the paths, daisies and cyclamen.

We passed through a small mountain village called Torcigliano, perched precariously on the slope of the hillside - the streets accessed only by steps. Like most of these villages it still has the communal washhouse in the centre, fed by a spring.
All over the hillside, in the olive groves, are ruined, abandoned homesteads whose owners have migrated to the valleys, to big cities like Milan, or even to America, in search of an easier life than the subsistence farming these houses represent. We look at them longingly - dreaming of owning one and restoring it. We imagine sitting on the terrace, drinking our own wine, nibbling our own olives, looking at the views of mountain and sea on summer evenings ....... But the reality is that these ‘rusticos’ as they’re known, are very sought after as holiday homes for rich Europeans who drive down from France or Germany, or further east. Even in ruinous condition in an isolated location, they fetch 150 to 200 thousand euros. We had better keep buying the lottery tickets!

On the way down, against the red sky of a setting sun, we found these skeletons of wild clematis.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Il tempo fa bello - ma ........

The weather is beautiful in Italy at the moment - the sun warm enough to have coffee on the terrace in only jumper and jeans. The nights are cold - down to 2 degrees, but it’s worth enduring them for the clear skies studded with stars. Mars is visible at the moment, large and very, very red. Mars, the planet of War and human aggression, of which there is plenty. No doubt, if I knew where to look, Saturn is out there too, spinning its rings of misery-dust.
It seems unfair to be in such idyllic surroundings when there is so much suffering in the world - and I’m thinking continually of Haiti, where people are still being miraculously plucked from the rubble. What I can’t bear to think about are those who survived the quake and then perished, buried alive, for want of rescue.
The numbers of dead and missing are staggering. Somehow it’s always the poor countries, the deprived areas, that suffer most. Those rich enough to be able to afford to get out of such places have gone long ago, so only the poor remain. They can’t afford good, well-built housing, earthquake proof, and they don’t have the political power to force their government to build it for them. And, as in the Chinese quake, they are vulnerable to corruption. We don’t live in a fair, well-balanced world, but one that sometimes makes me ashamed to be human.
Here in Italy there is a great deal of sympathy for the Haitians and the Italian mobile phone companies have set up a text-and-donate service, asking everyone for 2.50 euros - a small amount, but multiplied by a million or so .......
The earth we live on doesn’t conform to any health and safety regs, as the Italians know very well. All around us there are examples of the earth’s violent activity - Italy is literally being torn in half. In the mountains we found a ruined tower - no idea how old - medieval perhaps, though some ruins date back to the Romans or even to the Etruscans. But, though the walls are several feet thick, the tower was destroyed centuries ago by an earthquake that no one now remembers. People still live in this area, though the settlement around the tower has long since vanished. I sometimes think that we humans manage to live in disaster zones only because living memory goes back so few years, relative to the passage of geological time.
When I look at the tower I wonder what happened to the houses that once surrounded it, to the people who lived in them and what their stories were. So much of our past history survives only in myth and legend - come down to us as stories; Atlantis, Noah’s flood, the Iliad, the Norse sagas, the Welsh Mabinogion. And I wonder what will survive of us in story 2,000 years from now?

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

T S Eliot Prize

Congratulations to Philip Gross for winning the TS Eliot award for poetry. He was not one of the best known names on the list and I'm very pleased for him. I used to know him back in Bristol days when I was involved with the Avon Poetry Festival and a performance group called Practising Poets. It was all great fun - with people like Libby Houston, Pamela Gillilan, Liz Loxley, Pat Van Twest, Anne Marie Austen, Len Gifford and Martin Barker. We used to do readings in shopping centres and pubs, sometimes with jazz bands (Fay Weldon's husband played the trumpet and had a marching band!) and there were also some alternative music events I'd prefer to forget! Philip was trying to write with young children underfoot (as we all were) and finding it difficult.

Now he's professor of poetry at Glamorgan university and has several collections in print - quietly slogging away all these years. So, congratulations Philip! Sorry about the author photo though. I wonder who supplied it? He's a much better looking chap than that.

The collection is called 'The Water Table'. I haven't read it yet, though I've read some of the others on the short list. I reviewed George Szirtes 'the Burning of the Books', and I've got the Fred d'Aguiar 'Continental Shelf' on my bedside table to read once I've finished the Eavan Boland.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Back to Work

Xmas is over now and all the offspring have returned to their own homes, despite snow, ice, delayed and cancelled flights and other obstacles. So there’s no excuse for not getting down to work again. Neil has returned to the marble yard where he’s converting a plaster maquette into a glittering white marble sculpture. He has bought a block of ‘statuary grade’ Carrara marble, which looks rather like Kendal Mint Cake. You can see it above. The man standing is Pietro who is providing the marble and the blue overalls belong to Anat, an Israeli sculptor who owns the marble yard.

Marble yards are filthy places - white dust everywhere like snow; pieces of marble piled up haphazardly among the machinery; fork lifts and hoists. Even a small piece of marble weighs a ton - quite literally.

Since Monday Neil has been attacking the block with an angle-grinder and diamond blade. I would be terrified of sawing off the wrong bit - unlike writing, once something’s edited out, it’s out for good! But his block now looks something like this.

And I’m back to the editing of the book - now working on the end notes and references, which is a long and frustrating process. Will my reputation as a biographer really be ruined if I can’t read my handwriting when I jotted down a reference 5 years ago? I don’t believe it will, but my editor has other ideas! Thank goodness for the internet.

The weather here is still cold and often wet. We are staying in a large, unheated house with marble floors, high ceilings and draughty doors. Last night it was cold enough for two duvets, a pair of fleecy pyjamas, a cardigan and the electric blanket. But at lunch-time I went outside and ate my lunch on the terrace in the sun. Miraculous!

Friday, 8 January 2010

Epiphanic Mayhem

January the 6th was Epiphany, or 12th night. In England it means you take down the Christmas tree and all the decorations or you will have bad luck all year. But in Italy it seems to have a much wider significance that mixes pagan and Christian in a very interesting way. It’s not just the anniversary of the arrival of the Magi at Bethlehem, or the descent of the holy ghost, but a public holiday with celebrations and music. Children are given stockings filled with sweets and a witch - La Befana - flies on her broomstick.
We were having a pizza in our local bar when suddenly the door opened and a group of musicians and singers arrived, visiting homes and restaurants like carol singers and playing strange eastern European music. It’s fascinating to live in a place where local traditions are still strong, spontaneous and not just something trotted out for tourists.
Neil did a small video of the music, which I will put up here, though the quality isn't very good because it was filmed in a very dark bar!