Sunday, 29 November 2009

Olive Oil

We arrived here just in time for the olive harvest and, although I was glued to my computer editing the biography, Neil spent some beautiful autumn days on a ladder jiggling branches with a length of bamboo.
After this hi-tech operation, the olives fall into nets spread under the trees and are scooped up into plastic bins, brought inside and spread on the floor to dry off. It’s a job for lots of friends.

Then they have to be picked through to take out leaves, mouldy olives, bits of twig etc, before being put into sacks to take to the local Frantoio for pressing.

They don’t press in the traditional way any more, mashing the olives and spreading the paste on woven mats before screwing the whole lot down.
The Frantoio is full of gleaming machinery - the olives go in a hopper at one end and a greeny/yellow sludge pours out at the other into stainless steel milk churns.

This year it’s yellow rather than green - something to do with the soil apparently. It’s nothing like the olive oil we buy in England - even the posh Extra Virgine. There’s something nectar-like about it - medicinal in the tradition of magic potions and elixirs.
My grandmother used to keep a small bottle in the cupboard for earache - to be warmed on a heated teaspoon! But this stuff is much better ingested, preferably with warm bread, Tuscan tomatoes, some home-made pasta and a sprinkling of Peccarino cheese.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Cumbria's Floods

Here, from my safe vantage point in Italy, I 've watched the news anxiously wondering how friends are managing to cope. Some of them have had to leave their homes for the second time in a very short period. Last time the centre of Keswick flooded it was over a year before all residents got back into their homes. It's easy to overlook the devastation this is going to cause in people's lives. In a few weeks time it will no longer be news, but the displaced residents will still be living in temporary accommodation and businesses may well be closed until Easter or beyond.
Many people no longer have insurance (we don't) and after this flood, those who do will find that it's been withdrawn. This is going to have a terrible effect on businesses like the one above. The book trade is difficult enough - many rely on Christmas as their big earner. Cockermouth was lucky to have one of the last independent bookshops in the county - a wonderful place to browse - author friendly and very pro-active in supporting book-related events. It made me very sad to see the picture above. Only one image to represent many, many altered lives.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

The Year of the Floods - Again

It seems unfair to be sitting in warm Italian sunshine, while my home county is under-water and the lead feature on the international news. It’s been an anxious time - we live in an old mill on the banks of a big river and it floods regularly. Before we left we stripped everything out of the ground floor, just in case the water rose high enough to come inside. And on Thursday it happened. A series of telephone calls as the river rose. Appleby on the news as residents filled sandbags and evacuated their belongings, expecting the Noah-style inundation we had in 2005 which almost reached the ceilings and made thousands of people homeless across Cumbria.

You can see from the picture the force of the water powering its way through windows and doors - the lintels of two windows are just visible. The wreckage left behind can be seen from outside in the photo taken next morning.
This time, it only flooded the ground floor of the mill (which is raised up about four feet above the river) to a depth of six inches, leaving a mess of mud and river debris. Appleby's riverside shops and houses were also flooded, though it escaped the worst of the weather. Other towns and villages weren’t so lucky and some of our friends are homeless again only five years since they were last flooded out. Neil has gone home, while I watch the internet news with disbelief at the scale of the flooding.
Living as we do with the rising and falling of the water, we’ve got used to compromising with it. I don’t grow anything in the garden that doesn’t survive being under-water. We don’t use the ground floor except in summer. We park our cars at the top of the hill as soon as it begins to rain. And, although it washes away my garden soil and floats off anything not tied down, it also brings gifts.
Last winter it left two beautiful
'accidental' sculptures on the weir. One a branch like a water sprite, trailing her arms in the water; the other a tree-stump like the head of a beast. They stayed there for a couple of months before the river rose again, carrying off the naeid, and moving the ‘beast’ up onto the river bank next to my garden.

There he’s remained all summer like a primitive carving - a god of the river - looking at me every time I glance out of the window. I suspect, after the water levels of the past few days the river will have moved him on, perhaps to dump him in someone else’s garden and I will be very, very sorry.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

The Editor's Cut

When I got back from Cambodia, the editor’s proof of my new biography was waiting for me. This is the moment I dread with every book. Having lovingly crafted every sentence and agonised over every chapter link, suddenly someone else is in charge of your masterpiece and they don’t love it the way you do.

But having a good editor is the most essential thing for any writer. They know when you’ve been self-indulgent (murder your darlings!), careless, or just downright confusing. This is particularly true with biography, because there’s such a fine line between giving the reader enough information to understand the situation, and either loading them up with irrelevant detail, or telling them so little they’re mystified.

Novels need pruning too, and there are some very badly edited books on sale. I’m just reading a bestseller and have come upon this in the second paragraph: ‘Just north of Tarvisio, on a curve that led down to the entrance to the autostrada and thus into the warmer, safer roads of Italy, the driver braked too hard on a curve and lost control of the immense vehicle.’ Didn’t the editor point out that having ‘on a curve’ twice in one sentence on the first page was a bit much? Or maybe they were too respectful to do so? We can probably all think of very famous writers whose editors became unwilling (or just too intimidated) to wield the red pen. Catherine Cookson was one of them - and her later books suffered from it.

Fortunately I’m not famous enough to experience this syndrome and I don’t think my editor would be worried even if I was. As you can see from the picture, she’s not afraid to do a bit of crossing out or re-writing. The book runs to more than 600 pages, and most of them look like that. By the time I’d reached page 100 I was ready to commit homicide! But by page 250 I was full of respect for someone prepared to give my manuscript such minute attention and willing to acknowledge that there were a lot of words that needed to be eliminated instead of the editor. There were also a lot of stupid errors and Freudian slips I would rather have died with embarrassment than have exposed to the public. Katherine Mansfield: The Storyteller will be a better book for having such a stringent editor. I’ve just emailed it back to her and the whole process has been what my mother would have called ‘a character-building experience’.

So, now to open a bottle of Prosecco and wait for the corrections to the corrections to come floating across the internet between New Zealand and Italy! But the acknowledgements will have a big vote of thanks to the editor.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Dangling the Dongle in the Olive Groves

This is my first post for two weeks. Followers must think I’ve vanished from the cyber-sphere! Not quite - I’ve simply moved to Italy, a country where the internet is still advanced technology rather than an everyday convenience. Once you get away from major cities such as Rome, or Milan, telephone lines capable of broadband transmission simply don’t exist. Most people use the new plug-in ‘dongles’ for wireless internet using the mobile phone network.
So, on my first day here (after queuing for an hour) we acquired a mobile ‘dongle’ for the laptop which promised immediate access on a pay-as-you-go basis. The only problem was that, after a whole evening deciphering Italian cyber-speak for beginners, it didn’t work. After several phone calls and visits to the shop (more queuing, more frantic flicking through the dictionary) we still didn’t have a connection.

Now (more queuing) we have another one from another Italian server and - after another wait - and a lot of dangling the dongle out of the window for the best signal - we finally have email!!! You really do begin to wonder whether there is a conspiracy somewhere to keep Italians off the internet.

It’s frightening how cut off you feel without access to your email; how frustrating it is not to be able to look things up on Google (let’s not mention Wikipedia!) - I suddenly realise how cyber-dependent I’ve become.
Apart from these struggles - it’s good to be back to the alternating storms and sunshine of the Alpi Apuane. One moment the sun is shining - the next it’s thunder, lightning and torrential rain. The olive picking is in full swing everywhere and the grapes are off the vines and beginning to appear as red frothy liquid from the vats in the Cantine. I haven’t seen much of it, because I’m glued to the computer going through the editorial alterations on ‘Katherine Mansfield: The Storyteller’ and already planning a Homicide - but more of that in my next post!

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Jet-lagged Memories of Cambodia

Back in stormy, cold, wet England with only memories of Cambodia filtering through the jet-lag. It's a wierd condition. You feel light-headed and slightly drunk. You lose all sense of time and your short term memory fails completely(never very good in my case!).

What are the things that have stayed with me? Dawn on the island. A boy on a polystyrene raft singing in the very early light.

A centipede on a monkey's skeleton in the rain forest.

Six people on a moto - yes, you can just see a bit of the head and one arm of the sixth person.

A boy asleep on a moto - you can do almost anything on a moto in Cambodia!

The 'Fast Food Massage Special' - do you eat it during, or have it smeared all over you?

Below - Cambodia's answer to the economic crisis!

The landscape - which is very distinctive, dotted with villages of stilt houses.

And the poverty. Not the starvation level, life-threatening poverty I've seen in Africa, but border-line subsistence poverty. Life on the edge of survival. We met several people who are involved in organisations hoping to alleviate this by putting long-term measures in place. On man was raising the money to send Khmer teenagers to university - another running a project for the street children. This is called 'Friends' and they work with about 2,000 children in Phnom Penh, training them to cook and to make things that they can sell. These children can help to support their families without begging, and they get schooling too.

There's a darker side to the children on the streets. China is building garment factories there now (we saw Debenham's name tabs) and employing a lot of young Khmer women (cheaper than the Phillipines). Many of the women have small children but no child care. So their children are either lent, or in some case rented out, to begging organisations during the day. This is becoming more of a problem but there are people who think it too incredible to believe. They've obviously never read Dickens.

Now I'm in a mad whirl to get to Brussels on Friday for a day-school I'm tutoring on Saturday and I have to pack up myself and the house because I'm joining Neil in Italy for three months. The suitcases have hardly had time to cool! And the editor's version of my Mansfield biography has just slithered down from the internet - 650 pages of alterations, queries and re-writes. It's enough to make any self-respecting author turn to drink! Except that I've got no time just now to even open the bottle. Suddenly, watching the sunset from a hammock on the beach is very appealing!