Saturday, 29 May 2010

The Street-sellers of Pietrasanta

Meet MorteLà, the king of the street sellers. Ask for anything and he will find it for you. Cigarette lighters, bags, hats, tissues, watches, leather belts, jewellery - and so on. There are now a lot of street-sellers here, ready to descend like hawks on their tourist prey, keeping one eye open for the police because, of course, they don’t have licences. Everything they sell starts at 25 euros and it’s up to you to beat them down to the baseline price in a display of street theatre that is sometimes excruciating and often hilarious
Most of the foreign residents here buy from MorteLà. He is from French Senegal and speaks fluent English, French and Italian. He’s extremely intelligent and very good company. Like many of the others he came here on the promise of a proper job and money to send back to his family to give them a better life. But when he arrived there was no job, only a kind of modern slavery selling things for gang masters who take the money and pay a pittance to the sellers. Because MorteLà has no papers he can’t go anywhere else or get a better job. And he doesn’t earn enough money to buy his fare back to Senegal where he has a wife and 3 children.
One of the others we’ve spoken to is in a similar situation. He was a law student in Denmark and came to Italy with his Danish girlfriend who had a job here. The relationship foundered, his Danish visa had expired, and he is now selling on the street like MorteLà. Tough laws passed by the Berlusconi administration mean that they can be fined thousands of euros and put in jail for six months just for being here. Fortunately the police don't seem to be able to enforce them for the 600,000 illegal immigrants estimated to be in Italy.
Among them are tens of thousands of Albanians expelled from states in the former Yugoslavia and deprived of citizenship. Some of them had lived there for generations but they aren’t allowed back. Without passports and visas they can’t go anywhere else either. In every country across Europe it seems there are hordes of stateless, paperless people trapped in a kind of immigrant No-man’s Land, permanently in transit, with no legal means of subsistence and no rights to state welfare.
With Europe in financial chaos, it can only get worse, particularly as extreme right wing parties use them as fodder for their manifestos. The rise of the right in Italy and elsewhere is frightening - not that it's ever gone away. One of the parties, the Azione Sociale, is led by Mussolini's granddaughter. Perhaps because of this, most other political parties are failing to confront the problem, but sooner or later it will have to be addressed - humanely and sensibly. These people aren’t criminals, they are casualties of conflict and economic collapse, as well as the fraud and greed of the people who exploit them.
The residents of Pietrasanta often buy MorteLà a drink (non alcoholic as he is a strict Muslim) and chat before buying some token item (Neil doesn’t smoke but he’s got an amazing collection of cigarette lighters!). The bar owners give MorteLà any food that is over at the end of the evening so that he is at least well-fed, but it’s no way for an intelligent, hard-working person to live.

Monday, 24 May 2010

The end of the Writing Course and the beginning of Summer

The writing course is finally over, bags packed and loaded into taxis to go to the airport. In a couple of days it will be just a memory. We wrote a lot, ate a lot, drank a lot of Italian wine, and talked. Maybe that’s the best part of it - the sharing of experiences. Sometimes I think that these intensive courses are most useful in giving people confidence to believe that they can write and providing a supportive environment in which to do it. Self-belief is everything if you’re a creative person. And then there’s the skill sharing - everyone brings something that they can share with the others. For the two tutors it’s a lifetime of writing for a living - the techniques of the craft, as well as the experience of publishing and editing. This time there was a variety of life-experience among the participants - a painter, an ex spy, several women with successful businesses and three people with a background in the performing arts. There were Australians, Americans, English and Irish. We laughed a lot, surprised each other, and were moved to tears on more than one occasion by what was written. In the evenings there was some energetic guitar playing, singing and dancing in the bar.
After everyone had gone, I walked up to the ruined tower. Summer has finally come to Tuscany, after a cold, rainy spring. The buds that have been forming for weeks have suddenly popped and the walls and pathways are bright with flowering plants. Small animals and insects are gleefully making the most of the weather too. I pressed my nose into a pink rose growing up the wall of the house, to sniff the perfume, and an indignant brown and orange monkey spider jumped out at me!
Under the olive trees there are meadows of wild barley, corn cockles, small orchids, Canterbury bells and other flowers that I usually have to buy for my English garden. Round the base of the tower, wild clematis is writhing through the tall grasses and the broom is covered in big yellow blossoms. But among the familiar plants there are others I haven’t seen before. These ones looked as if they came from an alien planet.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Writing in Peralta

I’m at Peralta again, tutoring a residential writing course. Ten people, mainly from England and America have come to spend a week eating Tuscan food, drinking Tuscan wine and spending blissful free time just writing. They are all eager, passionate, all with different reasons for being here, but a common ambition - to put words down on paper and pick up as many tips as they can from professional authors.
My co-tutor is Mary-Rose Hayes, a British novelist who lives and publishes in America. She also teaches fiction at the University of Arizona. It’s an interesting combination, but I’m discovering that creative writing is taught in much the same way on both sides of the Atlantic. My approach is looser and more concerned with motivation and inspiration, sharing rather than 'teaching', but we both have the same respect for the ‘tools of the trade’ - narrative technique, the structuring of a plot, the creation of vivid characters.
Today I’m doing a workshop on life-writing, and it’s interesting for me to have to reflect on and analyse what I do for a living. My love of biography is easy to explain - I’m fascinated by people’s lives. But autobiography - or ‘Me-moir’ - is something I’ve always shied away from. Writing a blog is the nearest I’ve come to writing about ‘me’.
I know that I should - my grandfather wrote about his Irish family, passing on stories from far back into the 19th century, as well as keeping a World War I diary until he was blown up at Ypres and invalided home. Back in England, as a war hero, permanently disabled, he found it difficult to settle. Eventually he married my grandmother - another Irish immigrant family - and their first home was a small two room cottage in the old workhouse.
My father, when he came to write his memories down, wrote vividly about the elderly inmates, remnants of the old system, who stayed there until they died and the workhouse was bulldozed to the ground.
So I know I should be continuing this tradition of family history. One day, I keep telling myself, one day .... But maybe I should start soon? And why this reluctance to write the ‘I’ word?

Monday, 10 May 2010

All Embracing

I've never found flash fiction particularly satisfying - I always want more. But this short short by David Pescod is beautifully filmed and says it all without needing a word more. The title also seems very apt for the present political situation!

Saturday, 8 May 2010

The Need for Electoral Reform

The photocopied paper notices on the wall outside say it all. Inside the village hall - which doesn’t have a telephone - there are a few elderly people behind a trestle table (one is aware of a sub-text of knitting, thermos flasks and sandwiches). When you approach, one takes your name and checks it off the list, another writes your name down on a sheet of paper alongside the number of your ballot paper (no secret votes in England) and another tears off what looks like a strip of raffle tickets. The booth is a rickety fold-up plywood affair. There’s a blunt pencil stub attached with string and a tattered print-out pinned up that tells you not to vote for more than one candidate, but nothing to show you whether to tick or cross or otherwise mark your ballot slip correctly.

It is all gloriously amateur and redolent of Miss Marple films of the thirties and forties. No one asks me to prove my identity. I could tell them I was Mrs W.W. from number 34 and they wouldn’t be any the wiser (unless she’s already voted). It’s frightening.

So, given this atmosphere of complacency, the lack of stringency and antiquated procedures, it’s not surprising that there were severe electoral irregularities, or that officials couldn’t cope with large numbers of people turning up after work to exercise their democratic right. In our constituency, people were turned away because the local council hadn’t processed their registrations in time (They have had since March 20th!).

The problem is that we still think we have a proper modern democracy in Britain. But what kind of democracy allows a quarter of the population to vote for a party that then has only 10% of the seats in Parliament? We live in a country where large chunks of legislation never go through Parliament at all, but are simply signed into law by the Queen as ‘Orders in Council’, after being put in front of her by the Privy Council (well named as it’s an unelected private club chaired by Lord Mandelson). We live in a country where you can be arrested and imprisoned for years without trial, without even being told what you are supposed to have done, and without the right of appeal or Habeus Corpus. You can thank Tony Blair for that one. It’s supposed to be justified by the threat of terrorism, but has caught many innocent people. We live in a country where half the Parliamentary body is unelected and consists of hereditary peers, and life peers created by successive governments. Our judiciary is appointed by the government and we don’t have a constitution - simply a hotch potch of traditions and ‘gentleman’s agreements’ that have developed over the years.
It’s time for a change - for real democracy in Britain, or, shamefully, some third world countries are going to be able to say that they are more democratic than we are.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010


Even on a cold May-day bank holiday the beauty of the Lake District is hard to beat. Spring is arriving here slowly and painfully, blossom by blossom. The oyster catchers have arrived up river to breed, and their distinctive shrieks mean that winter really is over now. They sit on the stone walls in their black and white evening suits, wielding vicious orange beaks, daring anyone to mess with them!
Loweswater is one of the smallest and least known of the lakes. That means it’s quiet and unspoilt and an absolute delight for lovers of solitude. Not quite at its best in cloud, but beautiful in any weather. The blackthorn is just coming into bloom - the star-shaped white petals are really vivid on the bare black stems. Some of them were furred by lichen.

There are also some wonderful trees around the lake - gnarled by age and shaped by the violent weather.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

The Lakeland Book of the Year and Self-Publishing

Just as well that I love books! The submissions for the 2010 Lakeland Book of the Year awards have just arrived - three boxes of fiction, non-fiction, travel, cookery, children’s literature, poetry and memoir, all piled up on my dining table. So that’s my reading taken care of for the next month or so.
There aren’t many regional book awards in the UK - the Yorkshire Post is, I think, the only other prize like this. Hunter Davies (who is married to that other famous Cumbrian writer Margaret Forster) founded the prize just over 25 years ago to give a higher profile to Lake District authors. The third judge is television presenter and author Fiona Armstrong. It’s great fun to be one of the judging panel; the sheer diversity is a challenge. I read everything - from military history to books on sheep breeding and mining technology.
I’ve noticed, over the past six or seven years, that there is an increasing proportion of self-published books. This seems to be a trend and I think, with the parlous state of publishing at the moment, that this is going to increase. Self-publishing is a good thing - someone described it as the ‘democratisation’ of publishing and I agree. But many self-published books are so shoddily produced it gives the whole process a bad name. It makes my heart sink when I take a book from the box that looks and feels thoroughly ‘amateur’. However good the content, if the book doesn’t look right and isn’t easy to read, no one is going to pick it up.
If you’re self-publishing you need to get a book designer to design a beautiful jacket AND the inside pages. Many self-published books are printed out as cheaply as possible, with the maximum number of words that can be squeezed on the page - narrow margins and tightly crammed lines. They don’t look right and they’re difficult to read. You need plenty of space around and between the text and a font that is easy on the eye. Book designers know how to do it. If you can’t afford one, take a page from one of your favourite books and show it to the printer, telling him/her that you want your book to look like that.
But however beautifully produced, if the content isn’t right you’ve wasted your money. Every author - even the most famous - needs an editor. I despair when I read book after self-published book full of typos and grammatical errors. You can’t copy-edit your own work - your eye sees what it expects to see and you won’t pick up your own errors. And it’s not just the copy-editing that’s been omitted. A good editor will challenge what you’ve written on every page - do you need this sentence? Couldn’t this have been worded better? They will pick up the continuity errors - characters sometimes have blue eyes on p.1 and brown eyes on p.178. They will also tell you that sections of the narrative don’t work and need to be re-drafted.
It’s this process of critical analysis that is most obviously lacking in self-published books (particularly fiction). It doesn’t cost much to use one of the available editorial services (a quick google supplies a list), and it’s money well spent.
If your book is worth publishing at all, it’s worth publishing properly.