Friday, 27 June 2014

Parties, Picnics and Sculpture

This writer has been having a bit of a blog holiday because it's been a packed week of work and social events.  Perhaps it's a sign of age, but I can't party like I used to and still function the following day!
Last weekend was the anniversary celebration at Peralta for the Italian artist Fiore de Henriquez, who died ten years ago.  I had the privilege to know Fiore and she was one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met.  Full of vibrant energy, passion, and a complete disregard for rules and regulations! There are some film clips from Richard Whymark's film 'Fiore' on this link.

 The party at Peralta went on for three days, so her life was very thoroughly celebrated.  Fortunately for the guests, the Comune chose to open the road to allow residents through, even though it's not finished.   In January, after the catastrophic storm that dumped 300mm of rain on us, the road looked like this - 6 feet of crumbling slippage

before disappearing down the mountainside altogether, taking the trees and utility services with it, leaving an unbridgeable gap.
It's been a really big engineering job to rebuild it - involving a huge retaining wall - and everyone thought it could be many months before the village was reconnected to the outside world. But the Italian workforce has pulled out all the stops and got there early!  It's not finished yet, but is usable. Everyone was cheering and tooting as they drove through for the first time in 6 months.
I've been tied to my desk with deadlines all week, but did manage to get out for a picnic to belatedly celebrate the summer solstice.  We went upriver into the mountains where there are rocky gorges and deep pools to swim in.

We had two lovely pieces of news this week.  My biography of Norman Nicholson has been shortlisted for the Lakeland Book of the Year Award (judged by Hunter Davies, Fiona Armstrong and Eric Robson), and Neil has been selected to carve a piece of marble for the 'Omaggio a Michelangelo' at the Carrara Marble Museum.   He picked up his block a few days ago and is already busy chipping away at it.  Nice things do happen!

A bit rough now - but watch this space!

Friday, 20 June 2014

Premiere of Richard Whymark's film 'Fiore'

I'm in Peralta, a Tuscan hamlet on the shoulders of the Alpi Apuane, quite a lot this weekend for the premiere of US film-maker Richard Whymark's film 'Fiore', about the life and work of Fiore de Henriquez, who created Peralta and spent much of her life there.  She died ten years ago tomorrow and many of her closest friends and colleagues will be at Peralta to remember her.

This page on 'Art is Life' talks movingly about her life and work.

Fiore was unforgettable - an extraordinary person who was one of the inspirations behind my novel 'The Centauress' and is the subject of Jan Marsh's biography, 'Art and Androgyny' which will be re-published shortly by The Book Mill.

This is an extract from her life story:

"Born in pre-war Trieste under the twin sign of Gemini, she discovered during puberty that she was, in fact, hermaphrodite. This theme of duality was to run through all facets of her fascinating and varied life – her art, her friendships, her romances and her self-image; it was possibly this struggle between the warring sides of her nature that gave Fiore’s art its vitality and extraordinary diversity.1
After experiencing an epiphany of purpose in Venice, she developed an enormous talent for sculpting and began working in the male-dominated world of fine art. Her first creation was entered in an anonymous sculpting competition; when she won, the other male entrants, discovering she was female, threatened to blow up her work.
She fled to England and immediately became a consort of the rich and famous, who were attracted to the young, androgynous, provocative Italian sculptor with her perceptive talent and forceful persona. . . .'   To read more, click here.  

Monday, 16 June 2014

Tuesday Poem: 'Flag' by John Agard

With everything that's happening in the world at the moment, this poem by John Agard seems very apt.


What’s that fluttering in a breeze?
Its just a piece of cloth
that brings a nation to its knees.

What’s that unfurling from a pole?
It’s just a piece of cloth
that makes the guts of men grow bold.

What’s that rising over a tent?
It’s just a piece of cloth
that dares the coward to relent.

What’s that flying across a field?
It’s just a piece of cloth
that will outlive the blood you bleed.

How can I possess such a cloth?
Just ask for a flag my friend.
Then blind your conscience to the end.

© John Agard
Half-Caste and Other Poems (Hodder Children's, 2004)

If you would like to hear John Agard reading this and other poems this is the link to the Poetry Archive. 

John Agard photographed by Caroline Forbes
John Agard was born in Guyana in 1949 (a British colony at the time) and settled in Britain with his partner, the poet Grace Nichols.  He has an awesome list of publications - 'Flag' is included in the GCSE English syllabus.  

Many thanks to Gerry's blog, for recommending this poem to me. 

Why not pop over to the Tuesday Poem website and see what other Tuesday Poets are posting?  Just click on this link. 

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Secret Gardens and Abandoned Houses

In the woods on the other side of the river bank is a beautiful house I often fantasise about living in - mainly for the wonderful gardens.  It was owned for years by the same family and very private - I only once crossed the doorstep, for a fund-raising fete in the walled garden.  But for some time the house has lain empty, a forlorn For Sale notice on the gates.

Today, walking in the woods to see the rhododendrons, which are in full bloom now, I noticed that a section of the perimeter wrought iron fence was missing and there was a boot-track through the wild garlic.  Who could resist such a temptation?

The track soon expired, but I beat my way through the nettles between the yew trees, all curiousity and courage.  There was a fallen tree and on it a rather poignant wooden plank - 'My Daddy's Tree Hows'.

I discovered a seat overlooking the river, mossy and overgrown but very peaceful.

Emerging from the darkness of the wood, but still waist deep in nettles I found the gate to the walled garden ajar.  Who could resist this?

Or these steps?

The garden, once an immaculate lawn with picture perfect flower beds is now a wilderness of wild flowers.  Probably a haven for wildlife.

In the middle there's an old apple tree -

with a  neglected wooden seat under it.

And there is a small summer-house in the corner, just perfect for a writer to tuck herself away! Or as the setting for a murder mystery......

Inside, the obligatory abandoned umbrella.

There were roses too, lost in the frantic weed growth, but you could smell the perfume. This one is an old rose called Buff Beauty - one of my favourites.

I didn't have the courage to wander round the outside of the house - that felt too much like trespassing (who knows what security cameras they have installed!) but took this picture from the driveway.

My imagination is now racing!  Who knows what might happen next. . . .

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Tuesday Poem: Dylan Thomas - Under Milkwood

Dylan and Caitlin Thomas - Photo, Dylan Thomas Society
It's the centenary this year of the birth of Dylan Thomas, who wrote some of the most memorable poetry in the English language.  I've loved his work ever since I first read Fern Hill as an impressionable teenager and then had to study Under Milkwood for A Level English.  I'd never listened to such singing prose poetry, particularly narrated by Richard Burton.  The chorale of voices perfectly portrays the small town Protestant fundamentalism that created almost as many psychological problems as extreme Catholicism. The night skies of Milkwood are 'Bible black' in more ways than one.

"Listen.  It is night in the chill, squat chapel, hymning, in bonnet and brooch and bombazine black, butterfly choker and bootlace bow, coughing like nannygoats, sucking mintoes, fortywinking hallelujah;  night in the four-ale, quiet as a domino;  in Ocky Milkman's loft like a mouse with gloves;  in Dai Bread's bakery flying like black flour.  It is tonight in Donkey Street, trotting silent, with seaweed on its hooves, along the cockled cobbles, past curtained fernpot. text and trinket, harmonium, holy dresser, watercolours done by hand, china dog and rosy tin teacaddy.  It is night neddying among the snuggeries of babies .......

Time passes.  Listen.  Time passes.
Come closer now.

Only you can hear the houses sleeping in the streets in the slow deep salt and silent black, bandaged night.  Only you can see, in the blinded bedrooms, the coms and petticoats over the chairs, the jugs and basins, the glasses of teeth, Thou Shalt Not on the wall, and the yellowing dickybird-watching pictures of the dead.  Only you can hear and see, behind the eyes of the sleepers, the movements and countries and mazes and colours and dismays and rainbows and tunes and wishes and flight and fall and despairs and big seas of their dreams.

From where you are, you can hear their dreams."

Dylan Thomas was extraordinarily gifted, but also with a strong compulsion towards self-destruction. He drank excessively, and died at the age of 39.  His wife was a dancer - formerly a model for Augustus John (who was a family friend) and raped by John at a very young age.  Caitlin too had a problem with alcohol.  The stormy relationship between the Thomas's was beautifully explored in the BBC film A Poet in New York - the events of the last few months of his life taken directly from Caitlin's own autobiographies, Leftover Life to Kill and Caitlin:  Life with Dylan Thomas, also Not Quite Posthumous Letters to my Daughter, and a journal that she kept during her marriage.

After Dylan's death in 1953, Caitlin moved to Italy and lived with a film director much younger than herself, giving birth to a son called Francesco when she was 49. She died in Sicily in 1994 aged 80.  I find her life absolutely fascinating.

And yes, I do know all about Dylan Thomas's verbal excesses (much disapproved of in university circles!) but even now I get goosebumps when I read the last lines of Fern Hill

"Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea."

I didn't know what it meant when I was 16, but I do now.

If you want to listen to Richard Burton reading Under Milkwood, this is the YouTube link.

For more Tuesday Poems please follow the link to the website - check out what the Tuesday Poets are posting!

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Horses in my garden - Appleby Fair

All week the riverbank has been full of horses - and a few human beings! It's Appleby Horse Fair - the biggest Gypsy gathering in Europe.  The Mill is on the riverbank and it's traditional for the gypsies to bring the horses down here to wash them before the trading/racing/trotting starts every day.   This peaceful place suddenly becomes like the wild west!  This year it's been very busy because the town council and the police have put restrictions on the section of the river they usually use in town and so more people and horses have moved up here.

Some of the individual horses are very beautiful.

They take the trotting horses into the river to strengthen their legs.

We've witnessed a great deal of animal cruelty over the years and the RSPCA are a constant presence. This year a foal was abandoned, lame, with a sore mouth, and had to be rescued.    I saw the tailgate of a horse trailer being slammed against a young stallion who was kicking up because he was frightened - and there are lots of other brutalities.  Sadly the horses are a commodity and there are some who treat them like that. Trotting horses and breeding horses fetch a high price, but many of the rest go for pet food. There isn't the market for horses that there used to be.

This has been a lively week! Just getting out of our driveway has been challenging, and I've had to fence off my flowerbeds, but in a couple of days they'll be gone, the council will send people to clean up the rubbish that's being generated, and we'll have the riverbank to ourselves again.  The horse fair has been going for hundreds, maybe even thousands of years here, and I love the horses and the feeling of tradition, but much of what comes with the Fair (like the cruelty and the refuse)  isn't easy to tolerate, so - like most people in the town - I'm very ambivalent about it. 

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Inside Brunel's great iron ship - SS Great Britain

The 'great' may have been quietly dropped out of beleaguered Britain (will it exist at all after the Scottish referendum?) but Brunel's iron ship, the biggest ship ever built at the time, the first to be powered by both sail and steam, is still Great in every sense of the word.  I haven't seen it since they finished the restoration, so was eager to see the ship with all six masts erected and the interior re-constructed.  The SS Great Britain was launched in 1843 and finally scuttled in the Falklands in 1937 - in service for almost a hundred years.  Money was raised to bring it back to Bristol in 1970 and return it to the dock where it had been built.

Bristol dock is the place to see tall ships.  The ship below is the Kaskelot, between television appearances.

First glimpse of the SS Great Britain is the gilded stern with gallery windows and gilding like the old 17th century sailing ships.

They've very carefully restored only sections of the ship - leaving the hull below the waterline in the same condition it was in when the ship was a hulk rescued from the Falkland Islands.  The iron plates have been 'conserved' leaving the holes visible.

The original wooden rudder is on show.

Up on deck, the length of the ship is amazing!

She was very impressive under sail (and steam) as this 19th century painting shows.  I would have loved to have been sailing on her then!

She was very roomy below decks too, though even the First Class cabins were very small.  Only the First Class toffs could stretch their legs on the promenade deck, or eat in the plush dining room.

First class cupboard - whoops - Cabin!
There was a massive kitchen with several huge ovens for bread, cakes and roasts.  The crates of cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, ducks and geese on deck were destined to end up here.

There was even a fully equipped doctor's surgery, complete with leeches.

It was a fantastic experience - unlike some tourist trips - and worth every penny.  If you want to know what it was like to be a passenger on board one of those ocean going sailing ships this is brilliant.  You can explore all the different decks to your heart's content and even climb the rigging up to the crow's nest.  That'll be me - next time!

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Norman Nicholson, love, music and geology

Black Combe with sunshine and cloud
It's been a brutal week, and I've driven more than 500 miles for events connected with Norman Nicholson's Centenary - another interview for a BBC documentary, library talks (including one where nobody braved the torrential rain to listen!), workshops and finally, yesterday, a day in Millom with the Norman Nicholson Society discussing Norman's early love affair with a Russian Jewish emigree in the sanatorium - mostly conducted by letter from their respective beds.

Norman at 19, his father Joe, and ?Sylvia Lubelsky

Norman was fascinated by, and very knowledgeable about, Geology and his poetry is littered with references to the bedrock we all stand on and take very much for granted. Professor Brian Whalley took us on a walk round the streets of Millom to look at some of the oldest rocks on earth, embedded in the stone walls around the town.

Amazing what we walk past and never look at.  There's Skiddaw Slate, several different kinds of sandstone, volcanic granite and limestone, from the ancient to relatively modern (2 or 3 hundred million years anyway!)  in one wall alone, arranged in a style that's unique to this area.

And in some of them you can see the waves of those ancient seas still etched in the stone.

The sun shone and there were lovely views of the fells.  The day ended with the first performance of a newly commissioned piece of music, composed by award-winning young composer Harry Whalley - a setting for strings of Norman's poem 'Seven Rocks'.   St George's Church, with its memorial stained glass window, had the perfect acoustic for the Gildas Trio who came up from Manchester for the performance. Unforgettable!

The Gildas Trio - part of the Gildas Quartet

Norman Nicholson's Memorial Window by Christine Boyce
This morning I'm about to get on a train for Bristol and Weston-super-Mare.  Another suitcase, another train .......