Thursday, 30 December 2010

Porto Venere and the Madonna Bianca

Just north of Peralta is a beautiful coastal area called the Cinque Terre - literally the Five Earths - a series of small ports in mountainous terrain. They could, until recently, only be reached by sea or on foot. In more ancient times they were the fortified hideouts of pirates and maritime marauders.

I’ve visited several of the ports, but Porto Venere - the gateway to the area, never. You drive in from its bigger, more industrial neighbour la Spezia, through Lerici, which has connections with DH Lawrence and Byron, along a narrow road carved from the rocks along the edge of the sea. The town is heavily fortified. Narrow coloured houses rise like giant walls around the bay and the quay-side is lined with small restaurants serving plates of fish just delivered by the boats tied up outside.  

Perched dramatically on a rocky promontory at the entrance to the bay there’s a small Romanesque church, built on the site of an ancient Temple of Venus.  It was damaged by wars between neighbouring Italian states and parts of it rebuilt in the 12th century.  It has beautiful, crumbling bronze doors and vaulted terracotta ceilings.  Below it is Byron's grotto, where the poet plunged into the sea to swim across to visit his friend Shelley.

San Pietro

bronze doors

romanesque interior

In San Sebastian, the 12th century main church in the centre of the town, there’s an image known as the Madonna Bianca. Legend has it that this small icon, which has early middle eastern influences, was apparently found by a fisherman with other relics in a floating ‘casket’ made from cedar wood whose origins are mysterious but probably flotsam from a shipwreck.

In Europe it would be in a museum under glass but in Italy it is, of course, too modern to merit any special attention. The church is open, anyone can wander in to look at it, photograph it and there’s no fuss.
The sun was setting as we left, lighting up the ochre coloured buildings and turning the sea pink.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Xmas in Italy

The tree in Pietrasanta Piazza
Xmas in Italy usually begins with a family meal on Xmas Eve.  Just being the two of us, we went out to a restaurant in Pietra Santa where we bumped into two friends and made a foursome over antipasto, primo, secondo and - being Xmas eve - a dolce as well!  They do wonderful chestnut cakes here, as well as hazelnut and chocolate tarts to die for.

The Piazza is decorated for Xmas, but no brightly coloured Santas and not a reindeer in sight - it's all very tasteful.

Pietrasanta Piazza at midnight
 Around ten o'clock, even in the pouring rain, the Piazza begins to fill up for the Grande Festa - every bar is serving hot punch, which is bright pink, smells like paraffin and has enough alcohol in it to fell a mule.

Ready for High Mass

Some people go to High Mass at 11.30pm, but not many.  I look in out of curiosity and a sense of tradition, but  - like many Italians - I don't stay.   The rituals and the music remind me of my childhood, even though I can't believe any more.

Having a quick cigarette before mass

On Xmas morning it's still raining and now blowing a gale too.  We have a quiet coffee beside the stove and then take the dogs down to the beach, where the Mediterranean is giving a good impression of the North Sea.

Frankie and Ellie

Then back to Peralta to huddle beside the stove again with a rather nice local wine - Vermentino from the Lunigiana (a small area just to the north of Tuscany).  Later I cook some Italian lamb with rosemary, garlic and red wine.  We ring the children in various parts of the world and then fall asleep in front of the TV, in the great English Xmas tradition.

Hope you all had a good Xmas too - comfortable, peaceful and neither flooded nor frozen!

Friday, 24 December 2010

Buone Feste!

Buone Feste to everyone, whatever your beliefs or cultural context!   

I was brought up with the traditional Christmas story and I really like this humorous update.  For those who can't imagine Joseph and Mary on Facebook, or the Three Kings on Ryan Air, just click below!

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Made It!

Stansted Airport - note glass of wine
So, at last, after four days of travelling and waiting around, I finally got to see a departure board!  Admittedly there were fewer flights than usual on it, most of them delayed, but at least mine was one of them.

I arrived  at Pisa in the early hours of the morning, to the accompaniment of thunderstorms, but no earthquakes here.   Odd that I missed the Cumbrian quake, after going all the way to New Zealand for the experience!

This morning I woke to a rainy, windy Peralta, but at least it's warm and the sun is peering round a cloud as I write, glinting off the rain dripping from the olive trees. 

Monday, 20 December 2010

The Tuesday Poem: by Catherine Fitchett

Kitchen Sonnets

“Cream the butter and sugar”, as if by beating
hard enough we could reverse time,
return it to what it once was.
“Add the eggs”. Medieval painters
would grind their pigments for hours,
bind them with egg yolk, mix it with water.
It was Irina who told me this. How
the holy icons, the flowing robes, the shine
on the faces of the saints were built up
with layer on layer of thin transparent glaze.
I am thinking of her as I crack the shells
on the side of the bowl, let the yolks fall
like heavy haloes, one, two, three,
giving themselves up for the cake.

When we arrived for the summer,
the bees were there before us
– the hum in the roof above our heads
as loud as the city traffic we had left behind.
The local bee-keeper turned down the offer
of the swarm. Wild bees, he said,
too aggressive, too inaccessible.
The children couldn’t sleep, for fear of
the bee heliport above them. We called
the exterminator. Returned from a day on the lake
to a carpet of dead bees. For weeks
we kept finding them, in the cupboards,
behind the stove, and on hot days honey
dripped from the ceiling, sweet poison.

3 In memoriam Margaret Miller 1925 – 1977

Sometimes I feel ten years old, watching you
in the kitchen. You are mixing mash for the hens.
I will feed them, gather the eggs, carry them
carefully into the house. Did you ever wonder
how eggs in the nest bear the warm weight
of the hen and do not break? Here I am now,
older than you ever were. I don’t feel wise,
but astonished to have arrived in this body.
Every year there is more I do not know.
There is so much I would still ask you, but
you would not know the answers, even if you could speak.
I am the child who has run ahead on the path.
I glance over my shoulder, you are no longer there.
I am as strong as eggshells, and ready to break open.

Catherine Fitchett
From ‘Flap’, Chook book 2.

This week we’re having a kind of ‘secret santa’ Tuesday Poem - posting poems by each other - so I’m posting one of Catherine’s poems and she’s posting one of mine. Catherine’s poems are contained in both The Chook Book and Flap: The Chook Book 2, and it was quite difficult to choose one because there were so many that I liked, but I finally pared it down to this group.

I’m always impressed by someone who can write sonnets and make them completely contemporary. Writing in strict form is so hard to do. And to do three linked sonnets. Catherine apparently set out to write a series about kitchen ingredients.

I like the connection in the first sonnet between the eggs and history - certain things are timeless - a woman beating a cake, a painter mixing pigment. I particularly liked the image of the egg yolks as haloes.

I loved the second sonnet, (apparently based on a real incident) with its collision of human need and the natural world. We can’t co-exist with it - ‘Wild bees, he said,/too aggressive, too inaccessible.’ But the children can’t sleep, so the exterminator has to be called in. Dead bees can be swept out of sight, but the honey remains, dripping from the ceiling, a reminder of the massacre - ‘sweet poison’. The poem is deliberately non-judgmental, but all the more powerful for that.

Again in the third sonnet there’s a sense of timelessness - mixing up chicken feed, collecting eggs. And I related to the lines

‘Here I am now,
older than you ever were. I don’t feel wise,
but astonished to have arrived in this body.’

When Catherine wrote the line ‘the child who has run ahead on the path’ she was thinking of her mother who died at the age of fifty two. It must be a strange feeling to suddenly be older than your mother.

Catherine Fitchett studied chemistry and worked as a forensic scientist before leaving to raise a family of five children. She now works in accounts and lives in Christchurch in a house that's still standing after the earthquake, near the Heathcote River, where she writes poetry while serenaded by frogs and ducks. Other interests include genealogy and quilting. Catherine says: ‘ I'm quite convinced that if I study my family history long enough I'll find a connection to everyone in Scotland.’ Catherine’s poems appear in two collections; The Chook Book, and Flap (The Chook Book2).

For more poems by the Tuesday Poem Collective please go to

Going Nowhere

It's official.  I was woken in the middle of the night by British Airways cancelling my flight.  :(  I'm just grateful I didn't have to struggle to the airport to join the thousands who've been sleeping on the floor since Friday.  They've refunded my money and now all I have to do is find a new way to get to Italy that isn't hampered by snow and ice.  Wish me luck!

Saturday, 18 December 2010


Just about to set off to Italy to spend Christmas with Neil when yet another blizzard turns the UK into a film set for Ice Age 3.   Having chosen, just for once, to fly British Airways from Heathrow instead of Ryan Air from Stansted,  I watched in horror as both Heathrow and Gatwick closed!  British Airways flights all cancelled, even if passengers could reach the airports.  Unlikely, since nearly half the trains in the UK are either cancelled or delayed and the roads are impassable.   Apparently it could take 48 hours to get back to normal.

 Will there be any trains tomorrow?  Will there be any planes?  Watch this space.  I will probably be doing the same!

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Making a Sales Pitch

Just back, exhausted, from the trip to London to 'present' the book to the publisher's sales team.

This is all part of the changing face of the book trade. The days are gone when all an author had to do was deliver their manuscript to the publishers and then sit back and think up another.  Now, authors are expected to be pro-active about publicising their work.  Sometimes you're asked to come and talk to the sales reps - these are the most important people for a writer.  They are the ones who are going to go into the book shops and persuade the management to stock your book.  So this is not like an ordinary presentation - you have to think of an unusual angle on your book - something that's going to catch the jaded eye of the bookseller - and then you have to somehow enthuse a whole bunch of rather tired reps so that they actually want to promote your book out of the (literally) dozens in their book bags.

They were a very nice group of people, from all over europe and I was invited to xmas dinner afterwards in a rather plush gentleman's  club in Whitehall - the kind of place women were never allowed to go in until recently!  But there's nothing nicer than eating good food and drinking wine among a group of fellow book enthusiasts and I do hope they're going to like mine and persuade somebody to buy it.

London was strange - police everywhere for the student protests, and a Santa Claus convention in Trafalgar Square - or was it just students again?

Thursday, 9 December 2010

It looks like Fairyland .... Feels like Siberia!

View from bedroom window early
Went for a brief walk today, dressed up like an arctic explorer and barely able to move for the layers of padding and fleece.  After almost two weeks of sub-zero temperatures everything is frozen solid.  Last night was -18  though by  mid-day it was a balmy -9.
kitchen window

Despite the central heating and the double glazing there was ice on the inside of some of the windows. 

But the view outside was spectacular - an ice fantasy.

Everything is clothed in ice crystals   - trees have morphed into coral reefs against the blue sky - every twig disguised in white.

Even the fences have become ice sculptures.

It is utterly beautiful - but as cold as Siberia and anyone who stops long enough to look risks hypothermia.  I took photographs until my camera froze.

I met a very cold horse

Getting in and out of the front door has become hazardous - the mill has waterfalls of icicles - some nearly six feet long.

Tomorrow I'm off on my travels again.  Down to London for a meeting with publishers and the sales team.  Authors are sometimes asked to meet the sales reps and 'pitch' the book to them.   The reps are the people who are going to sell your book to the book shops and you need them on your side.  So I will be working very hard to persuade them that it's a wonderful book - however nervous I feel about it! 

Monday, 6 December 2010

Tuesday Poem - Winter Light

The season is wintering in.

Horizontal light
laid in long bars
across the russeting slope

the contours of the land
the fierce geography of rock
the patterning of sheep through bracken

lipped water-marks on sand

The mountain’s shadow
bruises the lake.

The cold is like loss:
a cramping hold on bone
muscle, thought,
spilling in from the east.

The air tastes metallic
like snow dissolving on the tongue.

This is the death month
December's Druid alphabet
that signified

the rebirth of the spirit.

An ash tree clumsy with unshed seeds,
a deer’s teeth grooved on the bark
a snowdrop spiking up through a dead leaf

And then the falling sun herds
the rocks into the long shadow
of winter night.

Feeling very wintry here in the north of England with temperatures diving below -15 at night and lots of snow and ice.   The poem is only a series of observations really - I need to do more work on it.  The photograph is of ice crystals on glass with the sun behind - taken this morning outside my office.

For more Tuesday Poems go to

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Allan Russell and 'Publish or Perish'

I’ve been following Allan Russell’s blog ‘Publish or Perish’ from the beginning, fascinated by his marathon journey from manuscript to publication and all the angst in between. His account of that journey is a classic for many authors today, caught up in the dramatic changes happening within the mainstream publishing industry; changes that mean really good authors, who should be being taken on and nurtured into future Dan Browns and Catherine Cooksons, are being rejected unless they turn up on the doorstep with a surefire winner first time round. Catherine Cookson had written ten books, none of which had made it into paperback, before she wrote the one that took off. What would Random House have done if some short-sighted editor had rejected the previous ten?

Allan’s book ‘Veiled in Shadows’ was published in November and I read it with much more enthusiasm that I’d anticipated. I’d had a notion it was about WWII and I’m not a fan of Boys’ Own adventures. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. It wasn’t like that at all – a compelling bit of story-telling, from a natural story-teller. So I asked Al to tell me some more about himself. These are the answers.

1. When did you begin writing and what started you off?

The first thing I can remember writing was a sequel to the Hobbit. I was probably about seven and hadn’t heard of LOTR at that stage. Writing has always been an escape for me, a flight from the day-to-day into another world

2. Did you read a lot as a child? What sort of books did you like then?
I have always been an avid reader. My Mum instilled that in me from the beginning. I loved reading anyway, but when my little brother wasn’t reading well enough to suit Mum she banished our TV. Reading became the main form of entertainment in our household from that point. A little later we moved up the bush to a place without power so reading remained our primary entertainment. In fact not only did we read ourselves but most nights we took turns to read aloud. So many of the classics and books like LOTR were shared family experiences.
My absolute favourite authors as a child were AA Milne, Rosemary Sutcliffe and John Wyndham. Sutcliffe’s Eagle of the Ninth is the first “chapter book” I can remember reading so naturally I still have a soft spot for it.

3. What kind of books do you like now?
A bit of everything really. For the last few years I have mostly read history of some form, much of it quite specialised and technical. The main focus of this has been military and social history of the 20th century as research for Veiled in Shadows and the books that are following on from it. I read some biography (mostly with a military bent in recent years). I also love non-fiction natural sciences, archaeology and history generally. As for fiction a wide selection, recently Ian McEwen, Jodi Picoult, Geraldine Brooks, Ian Harris. I have to say I also have a taste for trashy thrillers but I often cringe at the standard of writing.

4. Did you ever think of writing as a career?
I have always dreamt of writing as my day job, but I am pretty realistic about how unlikely that is. I am aware of how few authors ‘make it’. Also my father has had half a dozen natural history books published and has essentially never made a cent.

5. Did you carry on writing, or did you let it slide? And if so, what made you take it up again?
Writing has been an intermittent feature in my life. In fact even Veiled was a stop start affair. My first draft was written back in the early 90s. I put a copy away on a floppy disk and didn’t look at it again for years.
Then a couple of years ago I had a bit of spare time (and if I am honest a need for escaping my daily routine at the time). To cut a long story short I thought I would like to ‘write a book’.
Then of course I remembered that I had in fact already ‘written one’ and hunted down that lost floppy. I was quite excited at the prospect of looking at it again, but I was bitterly disappointed. It was awful! The writing was really poor (embarrassingly so), the characters were cardboard 2D cut-outs, in short it was almost fit for nothing. But, I liked the central story. I thought the themes could be developed into something meaningful and the characters could grow into credible beings. I began re-drafting from there. Most of Veiled has been redrafted three times since then with a few sections probably changing eight or ten times.

6. Had you written other things before Veiled in Shadows?
I tried my hand at novels a couple of times in my teens but gave up in disgust at my own ineptness. Other than that the only things I have completed were an academic thesis and numerous pieces for work (reports, policies, press releases and the like). Oddly I think the effort I put into my thesis was the most formative in terms of my writing. Academic writing is so unlike fiction, yet writing thousands of words (even in a very constrained way) still lets you experiment with language.

7. How did you get the idea for the book?
That is a hard question to answer, where do such ideas come from? I have had a fascination with history and a horror of war all my life. I guess I have also been fascinated by the capacity of individuals to be both gentle and inhuman.
My central character Katharina was where I started, I had a vision of her running through the forest and coming across a young hunter. I am not sure why but at that moment it came to me that she should be half German and he SS. In my experience when I have the start of an idea the rough plot outline simply cascades into my consciousness. A mysterious muse, or the subconscious mind who knows. When I am in that state it simply flows. I have to come back later and see what is worth keeping and what needs to be trimmed. Then comes the work of fleshing it out.

8. What were the most difficult aspects of writing it?
The first draft was easy, but I wasn’t really thinking about my writing in those days!
My first draft was in the form of an omniscient narrator. Later I really struggled with the voice. I began the re-write in first person from Katharina’s point of view. But there is a significant plot problem with that given what happens in the prologue. Then I thought of writing from Ebi’s perspective. But he couldn’t possibly ‘know’ much of the story. I went back to a detached narrator but really wasn’t happy with it. Then in a Eureka moment I realised I could weave the story around Ebi and Katharina by using multiple points of view. A real bonus of this was that it really drove me to develop far more depth for many of the minor characters.

9. Were there ever times when you felt like giving up? What kept you going?
Never during the writing, editing and redrafting phases. All of that is a pleasure.
No I take that back - I hate copy editing, my hippie childhood gave me an opportunity to skip boring classes like learning times tables and basic grammar. I still have only a hazy idea of where to put a comma.
Where I struggled was once it came to submitting to agents. I am rather a novice at self promotion and every rejection felt painfully personal.

10. What influenced your decision to self-publish rather than wait for a mainstream publisher to recognise your work?
I guess there were a few factors. Not insignificant was the pain of rejections, I know they shouldn’t be taken as personal, but…
Also, there was the fact that with the publishing industry the way it is at the moment I wasn’t likely to get a decent advance and the support out there for first time authors seems pretty dismal anyway. Finally, there really is a sense that this is mine. Apart from minimal editorial advice and a couple of copy edits everything in the book is mine. The story, formatting, cover, the whole works. That gives me a real sense of pride.

11. What has been the most tricky part of the self-publishing process?
As I said above, I am atrocious at basic grammar. The very routine editing and checking is a real struggle. Apart from that most of it has been surprisingly easy. Many of the stages were quite time consuming, especially because I had to fit it all in around being a husband, a dad and working full time.
The other issue was I had to make all the decisions with very little feedback or support. I guess I had to rely on my own judgement which can be scary, even for an arrogant bugger like me!

12. Would you do it again?
Absolutely. I guess if someone waltzed up and offered me a huge advance for the follow-up books in the series I might be tempted. But otherwise, when I get to them I suspect I will not be submitting them to the traditional agent/publisher meat grinder. Of course the pessimist in me wonders if something might happen to sour the experience.

13. How do you think the blogosphere has helped? - encouragement? publicity? validation?
I can’t over emphasise how important the blogosphere has been so far. In terms of things like asking for feedback on my cover and various blurbs it has been very useful and affirming. Also I have people who want to read and review my book because they know me, that is a jump start in what is a very challenging field.
I’ve always been a loner in terms of my writing largely because most of the communities I have lived in have been very small. I live in a large city now, but a community that comes into my study is wonderful. And what I really like about this community is its diversity, people from every possible background, with different world views and from all over the planet coming together in an essentially supportive way.
I am a publicity novice, it is very much make it up as I go along. The blogosphere is a huge opportunity for promotion, at the same time I don’t want this experience to simply become a marketing opportunity. I enjoy participating in this community too much to want to make it feel a chore.

14. What's the best time of day for you to write and how do you fit it into your busy life?
I am a morning person by inclination. I am usually at my best when I manage to wake up before the household is stirring on a weekend.
The sad fact is that at the moment my writing is languishing. What little time I have had has been taken up with getting Veiled in Shadows ready for publication. However, now I am commuting by train so as soon as I can organise myself a new laptop I am planning to claim nearly two hours a day back for writing. I have been using computers since the early 1980s and I can’t conceive of any other way of writing.

15. You obviously love history. Who is your favourite character? Your most villainous villain?
To say I love history is an understatement. Yet, I always go blank when asked this kind of question. I’ll answer by being a little flippant to start with. My favourite fictional character is Winnie-the-Pooh, I think the wisdom of the bear of very little brain is very profound. My most villainous villain would be O’Brien from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. His capacity to be almost intimate with Winston Smith while destroying him is chilling.
As to figures from history. For favourite characters there are too many to pick just one; Samuel Pepys, Themistocles of Athens, Hypatia of Alexandria, Einstein, Charles Darwin, The Black Prince and Wellington to name but a few.
I guess my most Villainous Villain of history would be Albert Speer, he serves as a stark reminder of how absolutely power corrupts. He is a warning of how debased someone who starts out as decent can become. Yet at the same time as Gita Sereny said in her study of him, in the end he tried to find his morality again.

Many thanks Al - now time to get back to the next one!

What did I think of the book?  You'll have to read my book blog to find out!

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

More and more snow

The mill through a blizzard

So here I am again in the cybersphere, courtesy of a new router, several yards of cable, and the help of a very kind young man in India who talked me through a foreign language of pinging, subnet masks and internet protocols,  being very patient with someone who doesn't know her DHCP configuration from her static IPS!  The benefits of globalisation!

Rafts of ice on the river
 At least, if I can't go anywhere today, I can get on the internet.   For the first time since the snow began, I've felt it prudent to stay at home.  It's been snowing for days and the temperatures haven't managed to get above freezing since last week.   Big, fast running rivers aren't supposed to freeze over, but that's what's happening at the moment.

We don't have temperatures as low as Scotland or Wales (-20 last night) and we don't have as much snow as Northumberland a few miles further east (more than 5 feet and still falling), but there's enough to cause havoc.    This is what the main road looks like and it's very slippery.

You have to dress like Scott of the Antarctic just to go to the Coop for a pint of milk, and  - yes, it does take some time!  But the snow is also beautiful and my inner child keeps eyeing the sledge under the stairs and thinking .......