Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Kittens on a hot roof

The kittens are 5 weeks old today.   Last week they began to fall off the top shelf in the tool shed and Neil re-located them to ground level - a move that mum wasn't too happy with.  During the day Batcat moved them again herself and we tracked them down under the roof of our landlord's shed further down the olive grove.  The main roof is corrugated and overlaps another flat roof by about a foot - just enough space for a cat and kittens.
Spot the kitten!

It's an ideal location - the kits can play on the roof during the day and hide under the roof when necessary.

Mum is very protective.

The kittens are getting curious now - this one is almost off the roof.  He's the male of the trio.

Saved by Mum!  We're amazed how good a mother she is considering that she's a novice.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Book-lovers in the Piazza

On the Duomo steps
 Yesterday was a day for book-lovers in Pietrasanta.  Volunteers were invited to read books aloud to whoever was passing by and their pitches were marked by a suitcase of reading material and a red balloon.  The books were all in Italian, ranging from classics such as Dante, to modern authors like Andrea Camillieri.
A fairy-tale for mother and daughter

 If we'd known about it in advance, we might have been able to rustle up a few volunteers for books in other languages, since there's such a large population of expats here.  But it was a lovely experience, though we didn't find anyone reading from a Kindle.

With hand gestures!

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Sharing a rock with a snake....

Pania del Croce - the View from La Ceragetta
 I've got a friend staying here at the moment - the first time we've tried out our spare room - and we've been going out and about, having a mini-holiday at home.  The weather is very unpredictable here - thunderstorms and low cloud, while in the UK apparently there's a heat wave.    But we chose a clear sunny day to go up into the mountains to our favourite restaurant - a family run place with Tuscan home cooking where you can eat as much as you like for a set price.   I defy anyone to consume the whole menu - the antipasto alone is several courses followed by 3 different varieties of pasta, followed by a rack of grilled meat, followed by cheese, fresh fruit, dessert, cakes  ........   Local wines and liqueurs are included - you don't order, they just arrive.  We had fizzy white wine, then a locally pressed red, and the designated driver (me) was resolutely abstemious, until they produced some home made berry liqueur with the Pecorino cheese,  a strawberry punch with the pudding (which just had to be sampled)  and then a really delicious home made cherry wine with the coffee (the owner would not take no for an answer).  At this point I finally lost the plot and we were sent reeling towards the car.
We were lying with our backs against these rocks

Rest and recuperation was essential before going anywhere, so we made our way up to a rocky shrine with spectacular views over the valley and the mountain range in front of us, spread a rug on the rocks and lay down to have a much needed nap.  I opened my eyes about half an hour later and found myself eye to eye with a large yellow and black snake beside me on the rock, rearing up to have a good look at me, tongue flickering.  I stayed very still, only nudging my friend with a free hand and whispering 'Snake!'   I felt oddly calm, just fascinated to be so close to it.   As my friend sat up the snake slithered off the rock and down the slope.
The snake I saw

When we eventually got home Neil began to look around on Google to identify the snake. There are lots of grass snakes here - but this didn't look like any grass snake I'd ever seen.  Vipers are also quite common in Italy and are usually brownish, to blend in with the vegetation.   This snake was bright yellow and black in a distinctive diamond pattern - the skin quite shiny, the head wedge-shaped.  It certainly wasn't afraid of humans.   I had a lucky escape, I think, because, if we've got it right, it turns out to have been a type of viper - sometimes called Orsini's Viper - and they're very poisonous.  But it's also quite rare to catch sight of one, so I feel privileged to have been eye-ball to eye-ball with such a beautiful creature. 

I'll be a bit more wary where I put my feet in the mountains now though - and I might think twice about having a nap on a rock!

Monday, 21 May 2012

Tuesday Poem - Casa Guidi: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s home in Florence

I heard last night a little child go singing
    ‘Neath Casa Guidi windows, by the church,
O bella liberta, O bella! Stringing
    The same words still on notes he went in search
So high for, you concluded the upspringing
    Of such a nimble bird to sky from perch
Must leave the whole bush in a tremble green,
    And that the heart of Italy must beat,
While such a voice had leave to rise serene
    ‘Twixt church and palace of a Florence street!
A little child, too, who not long had been
    By mother’s finger steadied on his feet,
And still O bella liberta he sang.

Palazzo Guidi

From the windows of her Casa Guidi apartment, Elizabeth Barrett Browning observed the Italian popular uprising taking place in 1848 - initially successful, but then ruthlessly crushed.  Shortly afterwards  Elizabeth saw the troops of the Austro Hungarian empire marching through the Pitti Palace square where she had watched and applauded the rebels.  ‘We beheld the armament of Austria flow/into the drowning heart of Tuscany’, she wrote in her long, political poem ‘Casa Guidi Windows’.  It’s not much read now, but there are some lovely sections.  She was scathing about the Catholic Church:

        ‘Best unbar the doors,
Which Peter’s heirs keep locked so overclose
They only let the mice across the floors,
While every churchman dangles, as he goes,
The great key at his girdle.’

And there’s a warning.  ‘Those whom she-wolves suckle/Will bite as wolves do’.

Casa Guidi stands in a tiny piazza ‘San Felice’ at the southern corner of the Pitti Palace.  It’s a big palazzo created from two houses built in the 15th century and then owned by the ambitious Guidi family who worked for the Medici.   Elizabeth and her husband Robert Browning rented an 8 room apartment on the first floor after their marriage and it was here that their son ‘Pen’ was born, and where Elizabeth wrote some of her most famous poetry, including her long, ardently feminist, verse novel ‘Aurora Leigh’.   After the Brownings’ deaths it was used by their son Pen until his death in 1912.

Pen Browning
  It’s now a museum and has been re-furnished with as much of the original furniture and paintings as the trustees could find.  It’s surprisingly homely, with beautifully proportioned rooms and polished floors.  There’s a small entrance hall, with doors through to the kitchen, the maid’s room and Pen’s nursery.  The dining room also opens off the hall and you can walk through to the drawing room and the Brownings’ bedroom.  

On the other side of the dining room is a small dressing room used by Robert as a study until they acquired the large bedroom beyond it, which was converted into a study and library for him.

Elizabeth wrote in the drawing room on a reclining chair with the bustle of the house going on around her.

The chair is on the left, under the window
 I was struck by the fact that 19th century women writers so rarely had their own workspace - Emily Dickinson writing in her bedroom, EBB and Jane Austen scribbling in the drawing room, the Brontes in the dining room at Haworth, Mrs Gaskell writing on the corner of the kitchen table.   How did they do it?
Elizabeth's letter to Napoleon
It’s a lovely museum, where you can sit on the furniture, peer out of the windows and take the books down from the shelves and read.  Casa Guidi is owned by the Landmark Trust and you can also book to stay there - the thought of sleeping in EBB’s bed and having breakfast in her kitchen is very, very tempting.  I might just try it next time I have to stay in Florence, but it’s difficult to find an excuse to do that when it’s only a short train ride away from where I live!

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's grave in Florence

Yesterday I went on a kind of literary pilgrimage to look at Elizabeth Barrett Browning's house and her grave in Florence.  EBB had precarious health all her life and was addicted to the pain-killer Laudanum.  She contracted tuberculosis (probably in 1837, eight years before her marriage to Robert Browning) and died in Italy in 1861 at the age of  55 leaving one son - Pen Browning - who was only 12.  Elizabeth was buried in what's often referred to as the English Cemetery, not far from the city centre in the Piazzale Donatello.

 It's quite small - created to accommodate non-Catholic visitors - and it contains the tombs of other nationalities too - Americans, Russians, Swiss, German, French - as well as a cluster of Jewish graves.   The cemetery has been closed to burials for a long time - Elizabeth's son Pen was buried in the new cemetery outside the city  - though it's still possible to get permission to have your ashes interred there if you are famous enough!

The graveyard is quite wild and beautiful - cared for by a custodian, Julia Bolton Holloway, who employs homeless Roma to do the gardening and maintenance in return for shelter, food and education.  It's a fantastic project.  You can read more about it on Julia's blog.    In this picture, the women are working on the garden and some of the men are restoring a marble tomb.

This is Elizabeth Barrett Browning's tomb with its simple inscription, commissioned by her husband Robert.

Just behind it is the grave of Fanny Holman Hunt, who died in childbirth in Florence less than a year after her marriage.  Holman Hunt himself sculpted her tomb.

Walter Savage Landor is here.

 And so is Frances Trollope - mother of Anthony - and herself a very successful novelist.

The most recent tombstone I could find was of the Russian dancer, choreographer and Maitre de Ballet, Evgeny Polyakov, whose ashes are interred here among his compatriots in 1996.

After the graveyard we wandered off into the backstreets of Florence to find our favourite restaurant - La Nella - well away from the tourist track and then to spend the afternoon at Elizabeth Barrett Browning's house.  - More pics tomorrow.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

My Wild Garden in the Olive Grove

The grass is thigh high in the olive grove at the moment and it will soon be time to strim it bare to avoid the risk of fire.  Sad, but very necessary.   But for now it's a beautiful wild garden.  The grasses are a mixture of grains - corn, barley, wheat, spelt - all crops that I presume would once have been grown on these terraces before the olive oil industry took over.  Among the grasses wild flowers proliferate - all colours and types and sizes.  We don't have a European wild flower book so we're struggling to identify them all.  The intention is to try to photograph as many as possible and make our own database, but there are so many!   Here are just a few of them.

These strange fellows with the punk blue tuft, (as prolific as bluebells under the trees), are apparently Tasselled Hyacinths.

These orchids are everywhere.

And so are these bulbs with a big head of white flowers.

This is something we can identify - wild dianthus!  And these rock roses that open in the sun are probably my favourites!

Tomorrow I'm off to Florence to visit the Browning museum and Elizabeth Barrett Browning's grave - a real treat.

Avril Joy over at Writing Junkie is doing a series on book blogs and today she's very kindly featuring mine - it was a lovely surprise.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Tuesday Poem/Flash Fiction: W.A.G.S.

It's Flash Fiction day in the UK tomorrow, so today I'm posting a short observation piece, overheard in a cafe.  I don't write Flash very often, but it's a form I want to explore.   To see what can really be done with prose poetry/flash fiction Robert Hass writes with absolute mastery about another couple and another baby in 'Museum' over on  my book blog. 


She doesn’t look old enough to leave school;  his cheeks are smooth.  But they have this baby between them, which he’s struggling to feed, tilting the bottle the wrong way.  ‘No, not like that,’ she says and he looks stressed, letting the baby’s head loll from his wrist, swallowing air.  A sharp cry.  The girl reaches across the table, more expert, holding the infant like a doll, its small face contorted with rage.

He has one eye on the exit, one on the Sky screen.  She reminds him they need nappies, a baby seat.  He isn’t listening.   ‘Look at that,’ he says.  ‘Magic.  Rooney’s bloody magic.  Could be good as Messi, what d’you think?’  She has no opinion.  ‘Can’t wait to take him to a match,’ he says, nodding to the future sports fan cradled against the fake tan of her arm.  ‘Look at those feet,’ he says, fingering the long digits, curling and uncurling from the cuffs of the giant shorts as he sucks formula.  The Man-U shirt three sizes too big.  ‘When d’you think we can buy the boots?’

For more Tuesday Poems please visit the Tuesday Poets and check out what they're sharing on the hub.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Three kittens in a laundry bowl

Taken today - ears up and fluffed out

The bat-kittens are two and a half weeks old now and growing rapidly.  They have their eyes open and when we go into the shed they peer over the edge of the shelf and squeak.  Their ferocious mother has taken to going on walk-about for some R and R every afternoon and only then do we get the opportunity to take them down and have a cuddle.  They are just beginning to realise they have legs, so their shelf-life is obviously limited!  Their ears are also beginning to unfold properly - the photos underneath were taken two days ago and there's a real difference between these and the one taken today.

This is our attempt to put them on a flat surface for photographic purposes.  There are two big bat-cat look-alikes, one definitely male (on the left) the other possibly.  The tiny tabby in the middle is a female and she's much smaller than the others.    Our attempts at photography ended in failure - they always end up in a heap!

Monday, 7 May 2012

Tuesday Poem: Lavinia Greenlaw - Audio Obscura

Lavinia Greenlaw is this year's winner of the Ted Hughes Award for new work in poetry.  Audio Obscura is a soundscape - the background recorded in a railway station, the words in the foreground 'the inner voices of imagined passengers'.  It's a clever piece that shows the possibilities of working with words as sound, rather than text, taking us back to an older, oral tradition.

Lavinia Greenlaw is a poet (she's also a novelist and non-fiction writer) that I haven't read before - definitely a name to go in search of. For more Tuesday Poems please visit the hub site at The Hub Poem today is a wonderful poem by Brian Turner

Sunday, 6 May 2012

All the flowers of the field - and a lemon tree!

The Lemon Tree - after a couple of accidents!

No Italian home is complete without a lemon tree.  Our little 'casina' in the olive grove didn't have one and it was too late in the year to plant one when we moved in last July, so the lemon tree remained a spring promise.  Yesterday we headed down onto the coastal plain to find a small tree for the terrace and a terracotta pot to put it in.  Because it's a rented house, anything we grow has to stay portable.

 Early summer is in full bloom here, flourishing in the warm temperatures and the rain showers.  In another month 'il gran caldo' will be upon us and everything will be burnt brown in the drought.  But for now the olive groves are knee high in wild flowers and herbs. They don't use herbicides here and it shows.  There are probably at least a hundred species, if I knew how to name them - orchids and bluebells, ornamental grasses, chervil and clover, wild garlic, daisies and dandelions, small red poppies (corn cockles?) and dozens of plants I'd have to buy at the garden centre in England - pink and white oxalis, canterbury bells, hellebore and irises. 
The Wild Meadow
 The whole landscape has suddenly been turned into a flower garden, but some areas are more intense than others. Driving down to the tree nursery, we suddenly passed a wild meadow beside the canal and had to stop.  It was awash with flowers of every kind, but particularly poppies, irises and a froth of  yellow over the top from wild rape - like a Monet painting.   I just had to get out of the car and walk into the field with my camera.  These are just two of the dozens of photographs I took.

Afterwards I managed to buy my lemon tree and it's now carefully installed in its pot on the terrace.  If it looks a bit lopsided, that's because we had a bit of a struggle getting it into the car, then out of the car and down our steep track.  Some pruning was required by the time we got to the front door!

Saturday, 5 May 2012

25 Things you can't do with a Kindle!

Today I'm blogging over on Authors Electric on the subject of newspapers and Kindles and discover that there are some things you just can't do with an E-Reader.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Authors Collectives and the Great E-Book Giveaway

As some of you will know I’m a member of Do Authors Dream of Electric Books?, a group of established authors who’ve branched out sideways into E-books because of our publishers’ reluctance to take a risk on anything unusual or publish anything that hasn’t got ‘instant best-seller’ stamped on it.  An alternative name for the group might be ‘the Revenge of the Mid-List Author’!    There are 28 of us - a mixture of children’s writers, young adult, crime fiction, mainstream fiction, poetry, general non-fiction and romance.  So far I’m the solitary biographer, offering up my back-list of out-of-print biographies.   Publishers haven’t yet woken up to the fact that E-books are brilliant for the back-lists of authors they want to keep, but can’t afford to keep in hard copy. 

Recently it was World Book Night, which still doesn’t have an E-dimension, and we thought it would be a great idea to change that.  So, we organised a free E-book giveaway for the event.  The advantage of being part of an author’s collective is that you can generate so much more activity because you don’t have to do it all yourself. It’s also much easier to approach people if you’re promoting a group rather than just yourself.   Some of the group wrote press releases, we all blogged about it, those of us on Twitter tweeted like crazy, we called in favours, approached contacts,  talked about it on radio and TV and in as many newspapers, local and national, as we could persuade to give us a mention.  From the Guardian to the Bangalore Times, from Irish TV to BBC radio we gave it our all.

The result was extraordinary.  Between us all we ‘sold’ more than 24 thousand books and several of our members got into the top 10 best-sellers on Amazon.  Jan Needle made number 1 with his political thriller ‘Kicking Off’, as did Dennis Hamley with his historical mystery ‘Of Dooms and Death’.   And I sneaked into the number 1 spot on Amazon USA with Christina Rossetti.  I was gob-smacked.  Literary biography is a minority form and Christina Rossetti not exactly a household name.  If only the freebies had been paid for, we’d all have been able to pay the bills for a month or so!

Since the giveaway we’ve all reverted to more normal ratings, but many of us have sold more books in the week since the promotion, presumably because Amazon is giving us more of a push, based on our downloads.  It seems so far to have been well worth doing, and it’s also got Authors Electric mentioned a few times in the press (most notably the Guardian Book Blog).

Authors collectives seem to be the way forward for self-published authors because of the support and advice they can offer and the possibilities of wider publicity. We are also better placed to take on the sometimes hostile traditional publishing/bookselling establishment and defend the position of the independent E-author.  Individually, we take every opportunity to comment on articles about E-publishing, and challenge some of the more outrageous assertions in the great E-debate currently raging in Book World.  Some of us have also joined the  Alliance of Independent Authors, begun by the indefatigable Orna Ross, which this year took a stand at the London Book Fair - the beginning of something much bigger I think.

This is all really exciting, but tremendously fragile.   It’s going to be interesting to see what happens. 

[Please note that all the opinions in this blog are entirely my own!]

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Tuesday Poem: For I will consider my cat Jeoffry

For I will consider my cat Jeoffry

by Christopher Smart

For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in
his way.
For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant
For he keeps the Lord's watch in the night against the adversary.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For he purrs in thankfulness when God tells him he's a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incomplete without him, and a blessing is lacking in
the spirit.
For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped.
For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.
For by stroking of him I have found out electricity.

As a cat-lover and grandmother of three kittens I thought this unusual poem was very suitable this week.   Christopher Smart was born in 1722.  He wrote under the wonderful pen names of  Mrs Mary Midnight (a midwife) and Ebenezer Pentweazle.  One of his poems is the mock epic The Hiliad.   But apparently he began to have religious delusions - believing himself to be a prophet.  His relatives (some say it was his father-in-law) committed him to St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics suffering from “religious mania” . The confinement was considered controversial and attracted the attention of Dr. Johnson.  In Boswell's Life of Johnson,  he records this conversation between Johnson and Fanny Burney. 
BURNEY. “How does poor Smart do, Sir; is he likely to recover?”
JOHNSON. “It seems as if his mind had ceased to struggle with the disease; for he grows fat upon it.”
BURNEY. “Perhaps, Sir, that may be from want of exercise.”
JOHNSON. “No, Madam; he has partly as much exercise as he used to have, for he digs in the garden. Indeed, before his confinement, he used for exercise to walk to the ale-house ; but he was carried back again. I did not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities, were not noxious to society. He insisted on people praying with him; and I’d as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else. Another charge was, that he did not love clean linen; and I have no passion for it.

'For I will consider my cat Jeoffry'  is one of the poems that Christopher Smart wrote there and it's a fragment of a much longer piece called 'Jubilate Agno'.  Even after his release from the asylum his troubles weren't over and he ended his days in a debtor's prison.

For more Tuesday Poems from around the world, please go to the Tuesday Poet's website at