Monday, 31 October 2011

Tuesday Poem: Halloween with Emily Dickinson

It's Halloween in Italy - a Festa they celebrate well, since it coincides with All Souls Day, when everyone visits the family graves and places flowers on them and remembers the dead.  In South America tomorrow is called the Day of the Dead.

Looking around for a suitable poem, I thought of Emily Dickinson's 'One Need not be a Chamber to be Haunted' and then found this strange video of the poem.  Emily Dickinson's portrait has been animated so that it seems as if the poet herself is reading the words.

I love the poem because it works on so many levels - not least because it talks about the 'haunting'  of the creative imagination. We all function on 2 levels - the conscious and the unconscious.  The unconscious is the basement - we take the lift down, it’s a bit dark and murky - most definitely haunted -  and most people don’t want to linger there for long, but if you want to create - that’s where you have to be.  Margaret Atwood in her essays about writing 'Negotiating with the Dead', says that the act of writing is the business of going down into the underworld and making ‘something or someone’ that is dead alive again. 

For more Tuesday Poems please go to the Tuesday Poem Hub and check out individual poets' contributions on the sidebar.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Italy's Storm of the Century

Just back to Italy, arriving at midnight to discover that the storm that wiped out one village in the Cinque Terre and buried another, had removed the pathway to our house and deposited it somewhere in the olive grove. We are left with a rutted river bed strewn with rubble. The storm had also tripped our electricity so that the fridge and freezer were full of rotten food - not a good surprise when you open the front door!

But it could have been worse - we can see the Cinque Terre from our terrace and it’s only a few kilometres as the crow flies. Apparently the rain was biblical, making it impossible to drive or walk anywhere for a few hours. 20 inches of rain fell in that time.   Roads turned into rivers and the water brought down rocks, trees, rubble and mud. There are mini landslides all the way up to our village, but nothing major. Different in the Cinque Terre - which is a World Heritage site. The pictures are horrific. In Vernazza rubble and mud have been deposited up to first floor level - filling houses and shops and railway tunnels. In Monterosso, parts of the town were washed completely away.
Rescuing people from 1st floor windows.
This used to be a shop.

Our road and the contents of the freezer fade into insignificance when you look at these pics.  And it's such a delight to be back in Italy - the sun shining, still with some warmth. Our landlords are beginning to pick the olives, though this year apparently they’re small and dry and hardly worth the effort. Too little rain during the summer months. The storm we’ve just had has also stripped the trees of many of the olives that were there. Not much left for oil.  Don't try being a global warming sceptic in the bars round here!!

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Filming Rossetti

Just off to London to make a short film for the BBC on Christina Rossetti.  They want to feature her Christmas carol 'In the bleak midwinter' and the film will go out just before Christmas as part of the magazine programme 'The One Show'.  Apparently I'm to wander around the streets of London (and the Tate Gallery) discussing Christina with a celebrity!  I'm sure it will be great fun, but very nervous at the moment.  Being camera shy I don't feel comfortable in front of a TV camera.

The really nice thing is that the phone call about the programme came just as we were re-formatting my Rossetti biography  'Learning Not to be First', for Kindle - hopefully it will give it some publicity - a brilliant piece of luck!

Christina was one of the most fascinating people at the centre of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and her poetry knocked spots off the poetry of her brother Dante Gabriel.  Apparently she was very good at art too, but girls didn't get any training in those days.  It makes you very glad to be a woman born in the 20th century.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Tuesday Poem: Autumn Haiku

One of Tomas Transtromer's last poetry collections, published in 2004,  is called 'The Great Enigma'.  The largest part of the collection is a long series of haiku.  This is one of them;

The darkening leaves
in autumn are as precious
as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

And I liked this one - though it's rather sombre.

Death stoops over me.
I'm a problem in chess.  He
has the solution.

At the moment I'm enjoying his 'New Collected Poems' published by Bloodaxe and translated by Robin Fulton.

For more Tuesday poems, please visit the hub at

Saturday, 22 October 2011

One Writer's Week

The reality of a working, free-lance writer’s life is not the peaceful existence a lot of people fantasise about.  Virginia Woolf famously wrote all morning (after ordering meals from the cook), read and wrote her journal after lunch and took a little walk before dinner.  For most writers it's very different.  There's the business end of writing (it is like running a business these days) and then there's the actual writing.  There are usually half a dozen projects swilling around in your head at any one time and the pace is killing.  This week has been particularly brutal.  It started in Italy.

Monday - up at dawn, drive to airport, early Ryan Air flight from Pisa to London.  3 trains in vile weather, eventually make it back to the Mill around 9pm clutching a pint of milk grabbed from a station shop.

Tuesday - up at dawn, open a month’s mail, sort whatever possible, dash out to bank, pay bills, go to dentist, hairdresser, get flu-jab, buy shopping.  Pack suitcase and write talk for Manchester LitFest and print out directions for Library I’m also going to do research in.  Fall into bed with 2 alarms set.

Wednesday - up at dawn, bus, 2 trains, arrive Manchester.  Dash into Library Archive to arrange reader pass and check they received the manuscript order I emailed yesterday.  12 pm Drink coffee in the street on the way to the LitFest to arrange IT for power point and meet the organisers of the event.  Give talk, meet audience and chat, answer questions, sign books, drink bottle of water (no time for lunch). 2.30pm Dash into archive to make a start on the ordered boxes.    3.20 Meet my new poetry editor in a cafĂ© - latte and about an hours’ chat about book launches etc.  4.45pm sit outside station and eat yogurt and pot of fruit bought earlier for lunch!  5.00pm, train to Daughter no 1's house where I arrive just before 7 in time for supper.  Do email and fall into bed.

Thursday - awake at 5.30am - do email - check library catalogue, catch train to Manchester - all day in archive until 7pm.  Back by train to Daughter no1 about 8.30.  Picnic supper on train.

Friday - ditto.

The problem is that you’re usually working on 3 books at once - arranging publicity for the one that’s in the publishing pipe-line, finishing another and working on ideas for the next.  At the moment I’m publicising the Katherine Mansfield, arranging publicity and readings for the poetry collection Not Saying Goodbye at Gate 21 (would anyone like a review copy?), and doing edits for the paper-back of Katherine Mansfield - due out in about six weeks.  Then there’s the permissions for illustrations etc that I have to re-do for the Japanese edition of Katherine Mansfield, due out in 2013.

I’m also working on the Kindle edition of my Christina Rossetti biography - just finished proof reading and sorting out rights and permissions.  By a huge stroke of luck the BBC have decided to do a small Christmas film about Christina, which I’m filming in London next week - so that’s all running around in my mind too.

Then there’s the research I've been doing in Manchester to put together a proposal for a new biography I’ve been asked to look at.  Another publisher has also asked me to prepare a proposal for a non-fiction book that seems an attractive idea.   Two things on the boil.

Then there’s the creative work in progress - almost finished a novel, which I am deeply into at the moment and trying to get time to scribble bits on trains and planes and every single spare moment I get - not easy.  Desperate to finish it.  Fed up with characters running amok in my brain.  But paid work has to come first.

Then there’s the blogs - 2 of my own, (they help me keep sane rather like an online shrink!) I also contribute to 2 others regularly, and I’ve just been asked to be a guest blogger on two other blogs - already said Yes.  Am I mad?  Oh, and I tweet.

And yes, I do have a personal life - a partner and four long-suffering children and I try to see as much of them all as possible, but this week I’ve been too tired to have an intelligent conversation with anyone.  One of my daughters, who is older and more sensible than I am, tells me that I MUST STOP RACKETING AROUND LIKE THIS.   She’s right, of course, but can’t see any chance of it happening soon.  Working for yourself is either all cream-and-custard or it's prison fare.  You have to lap up the cream when you can!

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Not Saying Goodbye - First Glimpse

Just had the advance copy of the new poetry collection Not Saying Goodbye at Gate 21 put into my hands yesterday by Alex McMillen, the editor of Templar Poetry in the coffee shop at Manchester Art Gallery.  There's no feeling like seeing your book in print for the first time - however many you've published.  Smiled all the way back on the train! 

Templar Poetry are known for their unusual covers, so I was really interested to see what they'd do with the title and for a few moments couldn't work the image out, but then realised - Suitcase!

It's not out officially until the first week in November - launched at the Derwent Poetry Festival, Matlock Bath, Derbyshire, 11th, 12th, 13th November. 

Lovely event at Manchester Literature Festival, good audience and very well organised event  - introduced by a very enthusiastic librarian - Libby.  It gives you hope when you find someone who really, really,  loves books.  Interested to discover that the libraries in Manchester operate an E-book lending system.  

I'm now in the archives at the John Rylands Library investigating a New Project!  Very exciting.  

Monday, 17 October 2011

Tuesday Poem - There's Nothing Like the Sun: Edward Thomas

There's Nothing Like the Sun

There's nothing like the sun as the year dies,
Kind as it can be, this world being made so,
To stones and men and beasts and birds and flies,
To all things that it touches except snow,
Whether on mountain side or street of town.
The south wall warms me: November has begun,
Yet never shone the sun as fair as now
While the sweet last-left damsons from the bough
With spangles of the morning's storm drop down
Because the starling shakes it, whistling what
Once swallows sang. But I have not forgot
That there is nothing, too, like March's sun,
Like April's, or July's, or June's, or May's,
Or January's, or February's, great days:
And August, September, October, and December
Have equal days, all different from November.
No day of any month but I have said -
Or, if I could live long enough, should say -
"There's nothing like the sun that shines today"
There's nothing like the sun till we are dead.

I've just been reading the new biography of Edward Thomas by Matthew Hollis, so I thought a less well-known poem by Thomas might be appropriate, particularly on a wild, wet autumnal day in England when the sun is in very short supply.  But my late, last damsons are still clinging to the branches of the tree.

Edward Thomas wrote this poem when he was in training to go to France, convinced that he would be killed there, but nevertheless, resolved to go.

I've reviewed the biography on my book blog - it comes well-recommended.

For more Tuesday Poems, visit the Tuesday Poem hub and read the main poem and those of the other poets on the sidebar.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

War Tragedies in Capezzano

We realised soon after we moved in here that we were living in what had been a turbulent area during World War II.  The massacre that occurred in Santa Anna is only a few miles over the hills and we are quite near what was called the 'Linea Gothica' - an important front between the Allied and Axis forces.  This area was an active Partisan zone and the hillsides are scattered with crosses and memorials to long-forgotten battles.

A couple of days ago we began exploring our olive grove and went right down to the bottom, where we found a path that led through the woods.  Just past our neighbour's olives,  about a hundred yards from the bottom of our olive grove, we found this memorial to the massacre of six 'unarmed and defenceless' men who had been killed there.

Their names are also on a plaque in the village, which we'd read, but had  had no idea where they had died.  There are no ages listed on the memorial.  As most of the men of military age were in the mountains fighting, it was probably only young boys and old men who were left.  According to our landlord, Roberto, whose family have lived in this village for generations, the German forces came along the path below our olive grove, taking the village by surprise.  These six were taken down into the woods and shot on the 12th August 1944.  The memorial is very well tended, with fresh flowers and the Italian flag planted in the ground under the trees beside it.   

Coming from England, it is very difficult to imagine having to live, as Europe does, with this kind of history - it's many centuries since we were occupied by a foreign power.   But many of the people here are relatives of those who died and are old enough to remember them.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Big Book, Small Page. The Mobile Phone Novel

Want to write a mobile phone novel?  Apparently they're big in Japan as 'keitai shousetsu'.  Flash Fiction writers all take note!

Just follow this link to Dan Holloway,  at the 'Man who painted Agnieszka's Shoes' blog.   At 100/200 words a chapter, it's even more challenging than Twitter!

And you might like the Mobile Phone Novel awards site  at

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Exploring the Olive Grove

Below our terrace the ground falls away so steeply under the olive trees, you can’t see the bottom. It’s quite hard work clambering from terrace to terrace, so during the hot weather I haven’t explored very far. You can’t climb straight down, but have to tack like a ship in a gale, and it’s several hundred feet to the bottom.

But now, the weather is becoming cooler and the family who own the land have begun to spread the nets for the olive harvest. Soon it will be raining and slithery with mud. I realised yesterday that if I didn’t go now, I might not get another chance until the spring.

After three or four terrace levels I was already in another country - the house had disappeared from view, and wherever I looked there was evidence of a wide variety of wildlife. There were dens and bolt holes everywhere -

This one perhaps the den of the fox that came and looked at us one breakfast time.

This one looks as if it might be the badger den we’ve been told is there.

And who lives in these little holes?

The creatures who chatter in the trees at night and scamper across our roof are Ghiro’s - they look like a large squirrel and are a relative of the dormouse. They behave rather like possums. You rarely see them because they’re only active at night. I've been lucky enough to see a couple, but not quick enough to get a photo.  I found this rather nice drawing on an Italian wildlife site.

At the bottom of the olive grove is an old pathway with walls of cyclopic masonry - all now falling into ruin. It used to be used by residents to connect the village and the town. To the right of the path is ‘the wildwood’ - a jungle of trees, shrubs and brambles that fills the precipitous gorge and apparently contains a huge number of wild animals including deer and wild boar.

Above the path, gazing back up towards the house, the olive grove looks quite beautiful.

Its ancient trees grow straight out of volcanic rock outcrops and the walls of the terraces are constructed from the same stone.

Some of the trees are very old indeed.

And in the rocks around their roots wild clematis are blooming in every crevice they can find a space to grow.

Neil and I also explored a short way along the path at the bottom of our neighbour's olive grove and found something very interesting, which I'll be blogging about as soon as I've managed to find out more about it. 

Monday, 10 October 2011

Wild-Fire in the Trees

Yesterday we had a bit of a fright when a forest fire sprang up just a few hundred yards from our house, at the bottom of our neighbour's garden.  Just below Capezzano Monte, olive groves and clumps of pine and chestnut cover the hillside all the way down to the town of Pietrasanta.   Fire had broken out in the undergrowth - probably a spark from a bonfire of grass cuttings - and quickly leapt up into the trees.

Suddenly we felt very vulnerable, as the pine cones burst in the branches like hand grenades and bamboo exploded in the undergrowth.   But the fire brigade and the antincendio dei boschi arrived within about 20 minutes, ran a pump and hose down through the olive groves and soon got it under control.  Luckily there was no wind to fan it or carry it deeper into the gully. It has made us see how easy it is for these things to happen.   I was already calculating which of my possessions I was going to take with me when I ran from the house!  Hopefully, we will never have to.  Must take care with the barbecue!!

Thursday, 6 October 2011

National Poetry Day, Tomas Transtromer wins Nobel Prize

Happy National Poetry Day everyone.   You may remember some time ago, I posted a poem by Swedish Tomas Transtromer on the blog.  I loved his work, which I hadn't come across before.  Just now, on Twitter, I've heard that he's won the Nobel prize for Literature 2011.  Great stuff!

This is a copy of my previous blogpost.


2 a.m.: moonlight. The train has stopped
out in a field. Far off sparks of light from a town,
flickering coldly on the horizon.

As when a man goes so deep into his dream
he will never remember that he was there
when he returns again to his room.

Or when a person goes so deep into a sickness
that his days all become some flickering sparks, a swarm,
feeble and cold on the horizon.

The train is entirely motionless.
2 o'clock: strong moonlight, few stars.

Tomas Transtromer (trans Robert Bly)

I've just found this poet - who is apparently one of Sweden's greatest and was a candidate for the Nobel laureateship. Why haven't I heard of him before? Translations don't always work either - but these do. Robert Bly, his translator, was a personal friend and I think this closeness has made for really good translations - not just a transcription but the creation of a new poem. Shelley is very good on this problem. He wrote 'It were as wise to cast a violet into a crucible that you might discover the formal principle of its colour and odour, as to seek to transfuse from one language into another the creations of a poet. The plant must spring again from its seed, or it will bear no flower - and this is the burden of the curse of Babel'.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

How to Get Your Book Blogged

Today I'm blogging about how to get your book reviewed on the Blogosphere, over at 'Authors Electric'. You can find us at

Monday, 3 October 2011

Tuesday Poem: Allen Ginsberg, Howl

I've just seen this film, which came out last year, and really enjoyed it. The script is taken from Ginsberg's collection 'Howl and Other Poems', from transcripts of interviews he gave, as well as the obscenity trial in New York, all linked together with some amazing passages of animation. It's a long time since I read Howl, and it made me want to pick it up all over again. It also seemed to fit with a book I've just been reading - Joyce Johnson's Beat Memoir 'Minor Characters'.

For more poetry please go to the Tuesday Poem hub, at

Saturday, 1 October 2011

The Economic Crisis in Italy

Nothing illustrates the state of the Italian economy more clearly than the plight of the marble yards in Pietrasanta.  Once they were full of sculptors from all over the world and the skilled artisans helping them.  They worked alongside other artisans making commercial objects out of marble - fireplaces, statues for churches, floors, bathrooms - and it kept the town alive.  But over the past few years more and more marble yards have closed and there are fewer and fewer places for sculptors to work.  Recently the pace of change has accelerated.  Last September the yard Neil worked in had to close when the owner decided to sell the land for a block of flats.  He and a few other sculptors found a new studio in a beautiful location with good working conditions - it all seemed set to continue happily.  But the owner has been hit by the economic downturn during the summer - no one can afford fireplaces, or marble floors, garden statuary, and even the church is cutting back on renovations.  Yesterday, Friday, the sculptors were suddenly told that the space had been sold and they had until Sunday to remove their work.  Temporary space will be made for them on another part of the site, but it's been a big shock.
Packing Up
Ready to go

The newspapers are full of gossip stories about the private life of Silvio Berlusconi and rumours about his business dealings, but he remains the most powerful man in Italy, despite the fact that the country has one of the biggest national debts in Europe.   We are watching our Italian friends struggling to make a living and hope that Italy will survive.  The cartoon below is doing the rounds of the bars at the moment and really sums up the ordinary Italian's attitude to SB.    It's called 'the Trouser Salute'.