Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Snow and Rain in Italy

Snow fell in Italy before Christmas, in places where it doesn’t usually snow. Laura, who is 65 and has lived in this village for her whole life, can’t remember it ever snowing here - except perhaps the odd flake trickling down out of the sky on a very cold day. But just over a week ago, Tuscans - right down to the edge of the Mediterranean - came out of their houses to find the roads six inches deep in the white stuff. All great fun and very pretty. It only lasted a few days before it began to melt. And then on Christmas Eve it began to rain - and that’s where the trouble began.
Rain in the Tuscan Alps is never ordinary - you either get a light mizzle or you get the fully grown up version as seen in Hollywood movies with six fire hydrants trained on the set. So on Christmas Eve we stayed beside the fire and listened to it drumming on the roof and rushing down the gutters. Christmas Day was bright and dry and we didn’t have the TV on all day - or the computer. So when we went out on Boxing Day to take members of the family to Pisa Airport we were totally unprepared for what had happened.

Swollen with snowmelt and rain, all the local rivers, including the Serchio and the Arno, had broken their banks. The main autostrada to Pisa was underwater, the secondary ‘A’ road (SS Aurelia) was also flooded and the train line was under water too. The police had blocked off all the roads, but no one had thought to provide details of a diversion. We drove around for hours frustrated at every attempt by the flood water.

This isn't the river - this is a new channel cut by the flood across fields and through a raised flood dyke. Eventually we found a way through, by driving more than half way to Florence and then coming back across country in a nose-to-tail traffic jam that stretched for miles. We missed the plane, of course, and then had to find a way back. The route we had taken was closed by an accident, another was closed because the bridge was down ...... We made it home eventually, but a trip that would take 45 minutes each way normally, had taken us 8 and a half hours. Then, because their flight had been re-scheduled to the following day, we had to do it all again.....
Landslides up in the hills have caused even more problems, sweeping away roads that provide the only link for small communities. It will be months before the roads and railways are completely restored. The President of Tuscany has declared a state of emergency. It seems England isn’t the only country in Europe to have problems dealing with weather!

Thursday, 24 December 2009

A Consumer's Christmas Carol

The success of the American economy apparently depends on how much people spend on ‘Black Friday’ in preparation for Christmas.

A Consumer’s Christmas Carol

Deck the doors with plastic holly Tra-la-la-la-la etc
Sarah wants a Barbie dolly Tra-la-la-la-la etc
Tom’s asked Santa for Nintendo
But it’s on us their gifts depend for
Dad’s redundant, Mum’s on Prozac -
If we spend enough they’ll get their jobs back
Tra-la-la-la-la etc

This is your consumer Christmas Tra-la-la-la-la etc
And we must pay to solve this crisis Tra-la-la-la-la etc
Bankers gambled with the money
If not so sad it would be funny,
That we must pay the debts they left us
And bung them all a hefty bonus
Deck the doors with plastic holly
Can no one stop this senseless folly?
Tra-la-la-la-la etc

Happy Christmas everyone!

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Tired of Turkey?

I'm in London for some brief family visits and pre-Christmas shopping and couldn't resist the culinary horrors of this shop window! Particularly having just read Margaret Atwood's latest novel (The Year of the Flood) where one of the forbidden delights is the consumption of endangered species. Not that camels are exactly endangered, but do they really taste that good?

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

The Feast of Santa Lucia

Yesterday was the feast of Santa Lucia. Around the mediterranean and in Scandinavia this is widely celebrated. We went to Pietrasanta to watch three friends making the traditional circuit of the town. You are supposed to stay awake all night on the 12th December (good excuse for all night parties) and the following morning just as dawn is breaking the women form a procession wearing crowns of candles on their heads, and they process again as darkness is falling in the evening. The song they sing - 'Santa Lucia' - is neopolitan but there are lots of Scandanavian variants. The candles symbolise the fire that refused to consume Santa Lucia in the Christian calandar, but it has much earlier pagan associations. It used to fall around the winter solstice before the calendar was changed in the 16th century. We don't celebrate Saint Lucy in England now, though John Donne wrote a wonderful poem about the feast, that connects its significance with the death of his wife. 'A Nocturnal upon St Lucy's Day'

'Tis the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks ;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays ;
The world's whole sap is sunk ;
The general balm th' hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed's-feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr'd ; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compared with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring ;
For I am every dead thing,
In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness ;
He ruin'd me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death—things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that's good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have ;
I, by Love's limbec, am the grave
Of all, that's nothing. Oft a flood
Have we two wept, and so
Drown'd the whole world, us two ; oft did we grow,
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else ; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death—which word wrongs her—
Of the first nothing the elixir grown ;
Were I a man, that I were one
I needs must know ; I should prefer,
If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means ; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love ; all, all some properties invest.
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light, and body must be here.

But I am none ; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
At this time to the Goat is run
To fetch new lust, and give it you,
Enjoy your summer all,
Since she enjoys her long night's festival.
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year's and the day's deep midnight is.

Monday, 14 December 2009

A Picnic on Monte Corchia

We’ve been having a series of lovely autumn days here - too good to stay indoors. We try to stick to a routine of working in the morning and then going out for a walk in the afternoon. Yesterday we decided to head up into the marble mountains just behind us - a short distance as the crow flies, but longer on the tiny roads that slalom up and down the slopes. Monte Corchia is quite high, but you can drive up the quarry road to about 4,000 feet - 1300 metres before it turns into a 4x4 track. The views are spectacular.

We ate a late lunch (4pm!) at the side of the road, next to the shrine, and stayed to watch the sun go down. It was bitterly cold - ice on the road - but the view is so wonderful it’s worth suffering for. You can see across the Mediterranean as far as Corsica. The sea seemed to go on forever beyond the glare of the sun.

On our right was the marble quarry of Mount Altissimo. The summit of the mountain has been eaten almost completely away by centuries of mining. It’s a visible reminder of the way human activity has affected the landscape.

As the sun goes down the colours change and the whole landscape glows. We drove home in the fading light, reminding ourselves how lucky we are to be here. Tonight the weather is changing - there’s a cold wind from eastern europe rattling the windows and storm clouds gathering over the mountains, so probably no walk tomorrow.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Kate Clanchy: The Not-dead and the Saved

Congratulations to Kate Clanchy who has just won the BBC Short Story award with a story called 'The Not-dead and the Saved'. It's a wonderful piece of writing. Some critics have expressed surprise that a Poet should have won, but the crafting of the short story has more to do with poetry than prose.
Margaret Drabble - one of the judges - has written a very good article about the award. 'Critics wisely shy away from trying to define the short story. We know one when we read one, and we recognise the names of the writers of the past — Chekhov, Isaac Babel, de Maupassant, Henry James. But the form remains elusive and unpredictable. It’s not just an apprenticeship for longer work, though it has served as that. It’s a genre complete in itself, and some of the great stories have the economy and concentration of poetry. Some are interior monologues, some evoke one moment in a relationship, some suggest a huge backdrop of un-narrated events, some depend on a devastating punch line.......Short stories aren’t just very short novels'
She adds that 'the winning story was outstanding, one of the finest I have read'. Apparently the judges verdict was unanimous.
I love Kate Clanchy's poetry - I'd like to share one from her first collection, 'Slattern', [a poem now in the public domain].
Poem for a Man with No Sense of Smell

This is simply to inform you:
that the thickest line in the kink of my hand
smells like the feel of an old school desk,
the deep carved names worn sleek with sweat;

that beneath the spray of my expensive scent
my armpits sound a bass note strong
as the boom of a palm on a kettle drum;

that the wet flush of my fear is sharp
as the taste of an iron pipe, midwinter,
on a child's hot tongue; and that sometimes,

in a breeze, the delicate hairs on the nape
of my neck, just where you might bend
your head, might hesitate and brush your lips,

hold a scent frail and precise as a fleet
of tiny origami ships, just setting out to sea.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Driving in Italy

This is Pruno - one of my favourite hill-top villages in the Alpi Apuane and it’s about twenty minutes drive from Pietrasanta. The driving here is not for the faint-hearted, though you do get used to it. Italy has one of the highest death rates in Europe, due to a combination of speed, bad driving, and a lot of machismo. We’ve witnessed some unbelievable behaviour since we’ve been here. And it doesn’t help that the roads are not as well maintained as elsewhere in Europe. Italy has a large network of tiny mountain roads and it struggles to keep them up to scratch - this one is typical of Tuscany. They were never built for motorised traffic and are only wide enough for a small car, with steep gradients and right angle bends you negotiate with your front bumper among the flower pots and your wing mirrors scraping the corner of someone’s house!

It’s wise to hoot very loudly before beginning the ascent/descent because there’s nowhere to go if you meet another driver. The metal safety barriers are a recent innovation. Locals tell hair-raising stories of coming back from the bar late at night in winter and being found next morning hanging from a branch, completely sober but minus a vehicle.

Tourists aren’t expected to tackle the chicanes. They can leave their cars in the car park and walk the last few yards. When we first started coming to Italy we came across blurb which read ‘We will collect your luggage with the Ape’ which produced much hilarity. This useful animal is pronounced ‘Apay’ in Italian and isn’t a gorilla, but a narrow vehicle constructed around a motor bike frame like this.

There are no easy options in this part of Tuscany, but the tranquility of the mountains and the views are worth any amount of effort to get up here.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

The Corrections to the Corrections

I’ve been quiet for a week because my Mansfield manuscript has bounced back across the internet and it coincided with running a tutorial for my Open University creative writing students.
I’m now at the stage of the book where we are doing the corrections to the corrections. I’ve had a bit of a tussle with the editor because of the style. The biography is written, experimentally, in the present tense, to try and convey a sense of Katherine’s life as it was lived, rather than looking back on it with the biographer’s privilege of hindsight. And because the present tense gives such an informal feel to the narrative, I’ve opted for an informal style, which I hope is more readable. Somehow colloquial contractions such as she’s, can’t, doesn’t, won’t, etc seem to fit the rhythm of the present tense much better than she is, cannot, does not etc. But it seems that this might compromise my academic credibility! However, I’m digging in. The following is an example - where Katherine and her friend Ida are living in Italy; Katherine is ill and the hapless Ida is trying to look after her:

‘Katherine and Ida, living together in such a small place, are soon quarreling. Katherine wants – needs – Ida to be everything she’s not. They can’t get a maid because the local girls are all afraid of catching TB, so Ida has to cope alone with their domestic affairs. She’s stubborn, clumsy and inept; her appetite for food revolts Katherine, and her terror of offending or doing the wrong thing drives her to a frenzy of irritation. Ida is also impractical: she breaks dishes, glasses, thermometers, wastes money on fuel because she doesn’t know how to operate the chimney flue and burns the meals. There are times when Katherine hates Ida so much she’s almost consumed by it. Ida, aware of her feelings, does her best to remain in the background and wait until the fit is over.’

I’d be interested to hear opinions on the pros and cons. Katherine Mansfield herself was a supreme technician. While going back through all my references for a last check I came upon this quote in one of Katherine’s letters, about editing her own work.

It’s a queer thing how craft comes into writing. I mean down to details....... In Miss Brill I chose not only the length of every sentence, but even the sound of every sentence - I chose the rise and fall of every paragraph to fit her - and to fit her on that day at that very moment. After I’d written it I read it aloud - numbers of times - just as one would play over a musical composition, trying to get it nearer and nearer to the expression of Miss Brill - until it fitted her.
.......... I often wonder whether other writers do the same. If a thing has really come off it seems to me there mustn’t be one single word out of place or one word that could be taken out. That’s how I AIM at writing. It will take some time to get anywhere near there.’

Now, thanks to my Penguin editor (who must be almost cross-eyed with the strain of going through 200,000 words yet again with a fine tooth-comb) and a lot of eye-strain on my own part, the manuscript is as honed as we can get it. I can’t wait to see it in print, but at the moment I can hardly believe it will ever get there. And now I have to sort the illustrations ..........