Saturday, 30 April 2011

Happy Travelling!

Finally made it home, travelling Pisa to Glasgow and then three trains and a bus to our home town.  It took all day, but at least it's still possible by public transport.
You can tell the passengers who are travelling by Ryan Air - they're the ones wearing three jumpers and two coats, with shoes bulging from the pockets and a couple of books stuffed down their trousers.  You can't get away with baggage even a centimetre over-size now and anything that looks remotely heavy is weighed before you get on the plane.  Saw two distraught Italian girls sitting on the airport floor hysterically throwing away their clothes because neither had the money left to pay the 35 euros it costs to put your cabin baggage in the hold.
I found this card in New Zealand and it says it all.  Theyre created by Cecily Allison and you can find more about her on her website at      I really like her sense of humour!

Now there's only the washing to do, and the garden is a foot high with weeds.  Back to work at the university on Monday. 

Friday, 29 April 2011

Goodbye to Peralta

Sadly it's goodbye to Peralta and goodbye to Italy.  Sigh ........
But some lovely memories and images to take home, like these Fritillaries fluttering in the bougainvillea (sorry - couldn't resist the alliteration!)  


Monday, 25 April 2011

Tuesday Poem: Found in a Second-hand Bookshop

Found in a Second-hand Bookshop

To Julia, with love from Mummy. 1931

Lines of neat copperplate
mark Pavlova’s art deco ‘Life’.
A home made book-plate

promises to ‘keep and treasure’
in Julia's childish hand -
her pencilled ambitions underlined

`Art is hard work . . . you must not
think of self . . be practical . .
dreaming is useless . .'

On pages rubbed and frayed
the illustrations peel
from double-sided tape
as teetering ballerinas dance

through Julia's fantasies.
Saturday class. Pink satin shoes -
the rasp of sugared net.

`Art is hard work.'
The pages slip and curl.

Kathleen Jones

From a new collection 'Not Saying Goodbye at Gate 21', to be published by Templar Poetry in November.

For more poetry visit the Tuesday poets' blog at

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Frescoes in Florence

Whenever we’ve taken the train to Florence we’ve gone straight to the Duomo, always walking past the back of the church the station is named for - Santa Maria Novella. But this time we took a different street and went into the church - very glad that we did. Of all the wonderful things there are to see in Florence this has to be among the best. It was also very quiet - without the queues and the crowds of the Duomo.

The church is ancient - the original basilica in Florence, with adjoining cloisters, begun in about 1240 on the site of an even older church. The outside is very beautiful - a white and black marble facade (designed by Alberti) completed in 1470.

The marble obelisk outside is held up by four bronze tortoises.

Inside are a number of beautiful decorated chapels and paintings by some of the best artists in Italy at the time - Brunelleschi, Fillipino Lippi, Ghirlandaio, Giambologna - Giotto and Uccello in the cloisters, but my favourite was the very early chapel painted by Nicolo Tomasi around 1360 showing Paradise, the Last Judgement and Inferno - probably inspired by Dante. There’s a portrait of Dante in the Last Judgement behind the altarpiece - but I couldn’t get a good enough photograph because of the low light levels and flash is sensibly not allowed.

The Paradise wall is very faded, but I’m just awed by the age of it all - how has any of it managed to survive?  What is also poignant is the knowledge that the faith that paid the painters is as faded as the frescoes and the significance of all these figures - even their names - is unknown to almost everyone except art historians.  I'm a humanist, but I still have a sense of loss.

I loved this altarpiece - behind it is the Last Judgement I couldn’t photograph.

Outside we sat on the grass in the sun and ate a sorbet bought from one of the ice cream sellers and watched the students doing the same. You see the other side here too. One of the African traders was selling his wares among the sun-worshippers and an Albanian woman was begging. Italy has a multitude of refugees from north Africa and eastern Europe and absolutely no idea how to deal with them. So they lead a strange illegal existence working unbelievably hard on the wrong side of the law, and living in squalor. What they have left behind must be pretty bad to make it worth their while. A modern Paradiso and Inferno.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Visiting Dante

The meeting of Dante and Beatrice in the 14 C illustrated Codex

Dante Alighieri and Beatrice Portinari are probably, with Romeo and Juliet, one of the most famous pairs of lovers in literature.  And the first lines of Dante's Divine Comedy have got to be some of the most famous opening lines in poetry

‘Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
che la diritta via era smarrita.’
Which roughly translates:

‘At the midpoint of my life,
I found myself in a dark wood
and the true path was lost to me.’

This is the fourteenth century codex of Dante’s Divina Commedia  in the Dante museum.  It was written between 1308 and 1321 in exile (Dante's family were on the wrong side of a power struggle in Florence) and it's written in the Tuscan dialect that is now standard Italian.

Difficult to translate ‘la diritta via’ - diritta just means straight or direct, but Dante seems to be using it metaphorically to mean ‘the straight way’ in biblical terms, which implies true faith. And then ‘smarrita’ - which means to lose, but if you lose something you would usually say ‘perdere’ - ‘smarrita’ implies an element of confusion and bewilderment. Translation is so difficult!

Dante is to Italy what Shakespeare is to England. He first met Beatrice when they were children of 8 and 9  and was powerfully attracted to her, but he was already betrothed by his parents to the daughter of another powerful Italian family, so they were never destined to have a future together.  They met again when Dante was 18 and Beatrice 17 and he was just as struck by her then as he had been before.  Beatrice died at the age of 24 and Dante seems to have spent much of his later life thinking about what might have been.
Dante lived among the murky politics of fourteenth century Florence, where every family with money had a fortified tower house to protect themselves and their goods from their neighbours. The heads of families were warlords and women were married off to provide strategic alliances as towns fought against towns.  One of Dante's sisters was snatched from a nunnery to clinch just such a deal.

La Casa di Dante

We went to Florence yesterday - just an hour and a half train ride from where we’re staying. You can’t go to Florence without going to visit Casa di Dante - no one knows if his family ever lived here, but it’s a house associated with his family.

Beatrice' tomb

And round the corner is the small, but ancient, church where Beatrice’s family worshipped and where she is buried. Her tomb is permanently decked with flowers and in front of it there are baskets and baskets of requests in a dozen different languages.  Some of the messages are very poignant.

The effect is rather spoiled by the electric candles that have now replaced the wax variety - much cleaner and more efficient I suppose, but they lack the symbolism - physically lighting the candle and watching it flicker (and sometimes go out) has a deep emotional significance.

We walked through Florence and would have loved to go into the Duomo - it is so impressive (despite the inevitable scaffolding), hemmed in by other buildings, towering over everything.

But the queues to get in stretched round the block (and this is only a Wednesday in April!) - you can’t waste time in sunny Florence queuing!

So we walked down to the piazza in front of the Uffizi, which has some wonderful sculpture just standing there waiting to be admired, and we had a glass of wine and looked at ‘David’ (and the queues for the Uffizi!) for an hour or so before getting the train home.

On the train we downloaded the whole of the Divine Comedy with illustrations by Gustave Dore onto the Kindle (the joys of 3G!) for only £1.39 and read some of it.  The 19th century translation isn't very good, but at least it gives the meaning - and the illustrations are wonderful.  The complete Italian version cost 69 pence so between the two we had the whole experience.

Gustave Dore - Dante and Beatrice

Monday, 18 April 2011

Easter Markets

There are always markets in this area of Italy, particularly around easter.  This weekend we had a 'garden' market - where small gardens were created in the street with wood and plastic and lots of compost.   Some of them came complete with chickens!  It made me really long to have a garden of my own here to plant up.

You could also buy traditional craftwork too - this is an area where people still make things in the old ways.  This woman was doing what I think is called 'cut-work' - very complicated embroidery.  I suppose the fact that Italian television is virtually unwatchable does help these things to survive!

In the olive groves, the wild flowers are really beginning to get going here - I saw these small orchids beside the path.

And in the woods the anemone blanda are still flowering.

Now to get back to my Italian homework - I've an assignment to hand in for my course by tomorrow.  There are too many distractions, not to mention the Work In Progress!

Saturday, 16 April 2011

A Very Nice Surprise!

I never thought, when I decided to enter the Straid Poetry Collection awards back in February, that I would actually be a winner.  One gets so used to rejections - particularly in poetry - sending off manuscripts into a void is routine, editors rarely even acknowledge them.   For me, sending work out is a useful way of providing a deadline - I can't seem to finish anything properly without one.  February the 28th was the deadline for this award;  such a long time ago I'd completely put it out of my mind.  So, it was with a degree of disbelief that I answered my mobile on Thursday night to hear a voice telling me that I was one of the three selected poets.  Afterwards, when I put down the phone, Neil said 'Are you sure you're not just short-listed?'  and I really did go to bed wondering if I'd heard correctly.  But after the second phone call next morning to discuss contracts (contracts!!) the blissful feeling of an about-to-be published poet took over.   The two other poets are Martin Malone and Suzanne Ehrhardt - both much published poets - Suzanne was one of the Chatto New Poets and Martin has an impressive record of publication and readings.  I couldn't find websites to link into, but there's plenty  about them on the web.

Putting a poetry collection together is a difficult business.  Poet Pascale Petit runs courses on it and I wish that I'd been able to go to one.  How do you decide what to put in?   Do you compile it chronologically?  Or thematically?  And if the  latter, what is going to be the theme?

I spent two weeks with an assortment of poems on the dining table, arranging, re-arranging, seeing what sat comfortably next to what, deciding which poems fitted and which ones didn't.  At first I put out what I thought were my best poems, but it was a wierd assortment.  So I began to think about what subjects I'd written on most.  Travel seemed to come up quite a lot, then other kinds of journeys, such as relationships.  So the collection began to take the shape of a travelogue with all the people I'd met, or who had been important to me in there too.   The title gave me a lot of trouble - I know they have to be eye grabbing.  In the end I used the poem I wrote in Wellington last August  when I waved Neil off to Cambodia.  'Not Saying Goodbye at Gate 21'.    Then I pressed 'send' on the email toolbar, crossed my fingers, and forgot.

Thank you Templar Poetry!

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Boa Constricting at the Ceragetta!

Yesterday I took a day off from the Work in Progress and Neil played truant from the marble yard. Warned that the beautiful weather was about to break, we went up into the Alpi Apuane for lunch. We have a favourite place for special treats - La Ceragetta. It’s high in the mountains - over 3,400 feet - with spectacular views over the alps and down to the glacial lake called Isola Santa.

view from the terrace

down below

 It’s also cheap - 23 euros (about £20) buys you the fixed menu with 5 courses, plus as much alcohol as you can drink. We had antipasto - seven different kinds of meat and savoury - followed by pumpkin soup, then two sorts of pasta (one with salmon, one with bacon and porcini mushrooms), then the main course - a huge platter of pork, chicken and beef grilled over an open fire, followed by three types of dessert (chocolate mousse, cherry tart and custard pie) plus coffee, all accompanied by sparkling wine, chianti and sweet sangria. We somehow staggered to the car where we sat like a couple of boa constrictors, and lay in the sunshine looking at the mountains and sleeping it off.

It’s lovely walking territory, with a maze of old packhorse routes across the mountains which we love to explore. There are shrines everywhere, and crosses and madonnas on every pinnacle of rock.

the madonna of the rock

 This was partisan territory during the war and every now and then you come across plaques erected in the memory of those who died - a story behind every one of them.

Shrine to the madonna

Partisan Plaque
I wondered who this young man - nicknamed ‘the bayonet’ - had been and how many times he had lead people to freedom along this path to the Allied Lines. The elderly lady who owns La Ceragetta is over 90 and old enough to know the story, but my Italian isn’t good enough to ask her - yet!  I'm doing an on-line course in an effort to improve it.

Today we have a huge thunderstorm, snow on the mountains and torrential rain and hail at lower levels. I’m curled up indoors working on my new (and rather secret) project and Neil is chipping away at his huge chunk of the mountain in the marble yard.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

E-readers for Writers

I recently - after a lot of thought -  bought an e-reader to make travelling with books a lot easier. The Ryan Air luggage allowance doesn’t give you space for reading matter and I’m tired of sneaking through security with a paper-back crushed into every pocket, as well as wearing my entire wardrobe!

In the end I bought a Kindle (sorry!) because they’ve got the 3G capability anywhere in the world where there’s a satellite - it works here, where other internet technologies don’t and I’m hoping it will work in Cuba and Cambodia. They now come with the new ink screen technology that handles graphics and is very easy to read. It doesn’t hurt your eyes like a computer screen and is perfectly visible in sunlight. I’ve also discovered that I can use the reader to check my email, and download newspapers, magazines and blogs that I regularly follow.  I had distinct reservations about E-books, but I'm completely won over now.
What I didn’t realise was that the e-reader could be such a useful tool for a writer. I can load my Work In Progress onto it from my computer, as a text file, and then sit out in the sun and edit it. The Kindle allows me to highlight sections I want to change and to add notes of text I want to insert. Then, when I go indoors to my computer, it will show me the list of edits I’ve made so that I can alter the text on my hard-drive. I’ve never been able to work out of doors like this before. It has a built-in dictionary - and I could also download a Thesaurus to look up words instantly while I’m writing.

I can see a lot of possibilities here. The machine has an audio capability so that you can be read to if you feel lazy, and it handles the new ‘enhanced’ E-books. Apparently you can get editions of books that include music and pictures to accompany the text - a whole new reading experience. This technology is going to change things - I wonder how long it will be before we’re all writing with the E-reader in mind?

Saturday, 9 April 2011

April in Italy

Early morning from the terrace
So here I am back in Peralta, waking up to the mist lifting out of the valleys and a chorale of birdsong.  I'm hoping for enough peace and quiet to get some creative work done, free from the stress of  deadlines.  Definitely suffering from exhaustion of the spirit - if not of the body.  My mind feels completely wrung dry.

It is very beautiful here in spring - the wisteria is out and the white spirea, though the trees are still hung with winter-ripened oranges.  Time for a glass of wine on the terrace (medicinal!) and some sun-worship.  I am incredibly lucky to be here!

Wisteria on the tower

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

The Tuesday Poem: Carol Ann Duffy

Have just bought Carol Ann Duffy's latest collection 'The World's Wife' and really enjoying it as I prowl through, poem by poem.   This one made me laugh out loud on a day when I'm tearing around sorting, packing, cat to the vet, torrential rain,  a TODO list a mile long before I leave for Italy, paying bills, and definitely in need of a cheer-up!

Mrs Darwin

7th April 1852

Went to the Zoo.
I said to Him -
Something about that Chimpanzee over there reminds me of you.

Carol Ann Duffy

For more poetry please go to The Tuesday Poem blog.  It's our anniversary and we're celebrating by writing a collaborative poem on-line - two lines each over a series of days.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Failing to Complete the Census Return

Whether I’m writing biographies or just tracing my own family history, censuses have always played a major role in my research. It was through the 1891 and 1901 censuses that I discovered that my Irish great grandmother was not the respectable farmer’s wife I had always been told - but a single parent living in derelict property with three illegitimate children! The census told me who else was living in the house, how old they were, what their occupations were (her 13 year old daughter was a machine cleaner in the cotton mill), and where they were all born. It’s a gift for a historian.

So I approached the current 2011 census return in a positive frame of mind. It didn’t last long. My problems started with the questions on ethnicity and marital status. The ethnic origins page asks you to discriminate between being white British (England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland) and white Irish, and white gypsy (I was very tempted to be creative here!). Then there are multiple categories of other ethnic groups - all of them having some kind of colour - and I found myself feeling quite squeamish about it. There’s no way of reflecting the reality of ethnic diversity here - no questions about parental origins that might have told interesting stories. The tick boxes also seem to conflict with the ‘national identity’ section, where you’re asked to specify what kind of Briton you think you are. Very confusing for someone whose national identity is probably British but whose ethnic origins are Irish/Italian/Scottish.

Then I turned to the page that asks you for your marital status. There are categories for Never Married/ Married/Separated/Divorced/Widowed and the five categories for being/not being/have been/ in same sex partnerships; but absolutely nothing to indicate that you’re living in a heterosexual partnership. As there are huge numbers of people doing just that, the results of the Census are going to give an incomplete picture.

In the end I found the form impossible to fill in. We have lodgers in the granny flat, who look after the Mill for us when we’re away. One of them is currently in India and the other has gone off to stay with his Aunty at an unknown (to me) location, though the census asks you to give the info even if they are not there on the night.  There's no way I could possibly know any of it.  Even if they had been here, I could not have asked them for the very personal information the census demanded of them because they probably wouldn’t have wanted to tell me any of it.

So my census return is a total lie and I will probably be arrested and fined for not filling it in properly. It doesn’t give the truth about who usually lives here and it doesn’t tell the truth about me - my marital status or my ethnic origins. What is the point?

The whole justification for spending the millions that it costs are that it’s supposed to give a picture of Britain which the government can use to plan for the future. But most of the information asked for is irrelevant for that purpose and the rest of it - my age, income, status, etc can all be found from other sources - electoral rolls,, Inland Revenue, and other public records. And, as the form is filled in by Oneself (they used to be filled in by a Responsible Person appointed by the government) there’s no way of checking whether any of the info is correct. It seems to me a great waste of money and a terrible lost opportunity for a snapshot of a moment in time in history.