Thursday, 29 December 2011

Walking in the Marble Mountains

Looking across to Mt Corchia

It's a bit of a ritual for us to go for a Christmas Day walk in the mountains, whatever the weather.  We've been out in hurricanes, monsoon rains, Lake District mizzle.  I've got a whole album of photographs taken cowering behind walls, under trees, almost invisible in thermo-fleece and Berghaus!  But this year the sun shone - bitterly cold at 4,500 feet, but clear, blue and sunny.

The marble quarries stop work at christmas, so it's a good opportunity to get up into the high mountains using the tracks they've built for the gigantic rock lorries without risking one's life.  This year we went up to the Henraux quarry on the highest flanks of Mt Altissimo, whose summit is getting lower year by year.  They are literally slicing it off.

Tough environmental call for a sculptor who loves working with the stuff, watching the environment be altered so drastically.  But it's not sculpture that's done this - a few blocks here and there for statues etc can be accommodated - no, it's the public appetite for bathroom tiles, fireplaces and table tops that's eating it away at this rate, helped by the ease with which it can now be quarried.  Once it took months to cut a marble block by hand;  now it takes minutes.  And you don't have to take it down to the town by buffalo sled (which took days).  A lorry can do the trip in half an hour.  How much of the mountain will be there when we walk back next year?  I suppose that depends on what happens to Italy's economy.  The machinery is idle at the moment.

Tomorrow we're off to an Italian town further south - Orvieto, near Perugia - for New Year.  It's the birthday of  jazz musician Stan Tracey and Neil (who used to run a jazz festival in England) has been invited to the party.  I'm really looking forward to seeing another part of Italy, as well as the music and the festivities.

Oh, and this year's Christmas picture?  Muffled up to the eyebrows for the sub-zero temps, but at least it wasn't raining!  Auguri and Buone Feste everyone!
Perched on the ledge of Altissimo, Mt Corchia in background

Friday, 23 December 2011

Christmas in Italy

In England in winter, what I miss most is colour - the landscape seems to be leached by cold and rain to a dull, muddy, sepia.  Not so here - where the buildings are picked out in every shade of ochre and rose, the olive trees are still a silvery green, and the sun sets in the sea every night in a spectacular light show.  This was the solstice sunset last night.

The weekly markets too, are gaining in colour towards Christmas.  the Italian have a sense of style in their shop windows and even their stalls.  Not much sign of the Italian economy slowing down here.

I'm signing off for christmas now - to be spent with a group of friends - Israeli, Italian and Danish, a real mix of customs.  And I've managed, despite an oven that probably knew Julius Caesar, to cook an English Christmas cake (and even ice it in a wobbly way!) to take with us.

Auguri a tutti!  Wishing you all a very happy Christmas and New Year, whatever and however you celebrate. Particular thoughts to Christchurch New Zealand, where there has been yet another big quake.  Daughter, husband and two little boys, were fortunately at home safe and not shopping at the time.  Hope everyone else is safe too.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Tuesday Poem: Wordsworth's 'Minstrels'

The minstrels played their Christmas tune
To-night beneath my cottage-eaves;
While, smitten by a lofty moon,
The encircling laurels, thick with leaves,
Gave back a rich and dazzling sheen,
That overpowered their natural green.

Through hill and valley every breeze
Had sunk to rest with folded wings:
Keen was the air, but could not freeze,
Nor check, the music of the strings;
So stout and hardy were the band
That scraped the chords with strenuous hand.

And who but listened? - till was paid
Respect to every inmate's claim,
The greeting given, the music played
In honour of each household name,
Duly pronounced with lusty call,
And "Merry Christmas" wished to all.

William Wordsworth

And a very merry Christmas to everyone!!!

I'm the editor of the Tuesday Poem hub this week and have posted 'A Child's Christmas in Wales' by Dylan Thomas. To listen to this and look at other Tuesday poet's contributions please visit

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Ted Hughes in the BBC Archives

Ted Hughes has just been honoured by a place in Poets' Corner at Westminster Abbey.  Melvyn Bragg takes a walk through the BBC Archives with some wonderful tapes of Ted Hughes reading his poetry and talking about it.  Informative interviews with his wife Carole and best friend Seamus Heaney, as well as intimate letters from Ted Hughes to and about Sylvia Plath.  The programme deals very frankly with their relationship.  The best thing I've ever listened to on Ted Hughes and his work.   Available on BBC Radio 4 free anywhere in the world from this link.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Tuesday Poem: One Raven

That day by the lake
when you wouldn’t stop and
I made you and you stalked
off into the bracken and I sat
on the rock looking up
at the crag  wondering why
do I always take it why
am I still here and then
saw a bird circling
as a crow circles its carrion -
but more slowly, wings spread wide
and the feathers fanned out against the sun
and it seemed larger and darker
with more history than a common scavenger
and then I knew I was watching an omen,
riding the thermal, effortless,
croaking a harsh truth.

Kathleen Jones

I've now got almost a complete collection of poems on the raven theme, inspired by the culture of the Haida Gwaii indians of North America.   This one is about a quarrel (quite a long time ago now) and the moment of realisation when you know a relationship is going nowhere!    I'm also guest-blogging about the book that started it all 'A Story as Sharp as a Knife' over on Norman Geras' Blog today. 

For more poetry please go to the Tuesday Poem website and check out to wonderful selection on offer at

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Sculpture by Candlelight

It’s the festive season in Pietrasanta - Christmas markets, parties, and exhibitions.  We’ve been to several lately - nothing big, just quiet celebrations of current work in artists’ studios and small spaces.  

Last night one of the bigger marble studios opened up for the people working there to show their work.   Not just some lovely pieces, lit by candlelight, but a chance to see the context - the rough drafts of WIP.    This is work by Swiss sculptor Rita Meier.

There are so many wonderful women sculptors working here.   At one of the local wine producers, another artist, Swedish Nigerian Italian Yemisi Wilson was showing her ‘Animalia’ - lovely drawings of primates and joyful marble carvings of elephant seals and rhinoceros’s.   There was the added bonus of being able to sample the local wine harvest at the same time!

One of the real treats last night was being able to go up into the loft of the Cervietti studio where they keep the plaster maquettes of all the sculptures that the artigiani used to be asked to copy.  It’s a ghost gallery of figures out of fairy tales  - a film set for a horror movie.   These are just some of the ones that caught my eye.

I could have wandered around this attic all night - there are probably a thousand stories up here!  

Thursday, 8 December 2011

The Lost City of Luni

Neil and I try to take our days off during the week, rather than trying to battle crowded roads and pavements on Saturday and Sunday.  This week, grasping the opportunity of a bright, sunny winter’s day, we headed out a few miles north - about forty minutes drive - to find the ruins of an old Roman  city we’d heard about from friends.

You wouldn’t think that a thriving Roman port of several miles in diameter would vanish.  Luni had existed since Etruscan times and was home to tens of thousands of people, but somehow, around five hundred AD the sea began to recede, the population dwindled, the marble temples tumbled and the city disappeared under a tide of river silt and agricultural loam.  Only one or two bits of evidence remained - fragments of the city wall, the ruins of the amphitheatre, a carved column - the rest was buried under farm buildings and fields, as you can see above.   The sea is now half a mile further out and the nearest port is La Spezia.
This is what is under the grass.

In the 1960s archaeologists began to excavate and, although only a fraction of what is there has been uncovered, you can now wander round and look at the buildings they’ve dug up.  Around you, green fields stretch out to the horizon with hummocks and bumps and dips and you know that you’re standing on what were once busy streets and people’s houses.  Most of it will remain underground.   Italy has so much archaeology and precious history - it’s a miracle they manage to afford to preserve so much of it.

This is all that is left of the foundations of the temple - the building itself stood on top in glittering white marble and must have been visible for miles.

These are vats that once contained olive oil or wine.  You can just see the terracotta necks of some of the ones that have survived.

This is the amphitheatre - which is fenced off so I could only take a photo through the wire.

The people didn’t go far though.  Luni is situated beside (and sometimes under!) the modern town of Ortonovo, and afterwards we drove up into the  ‘centro storico’, built - like so many Italian medieval towns, on a fortified hill top. Here you can see profiles straight from a Roman coin, and a woman in the bar with curled hair held back in a band was the image of one of the marble statues in the museum.   Ortonovo Paese was utterly beautiful in the evening light - a stark 9th century tower standing next to a baroque birthday cake of a church in total harmony.   Down below, not a rumour of a Roman city on the plain visible to the naked eye,  and you begin to wonder how long before these human habitations too will vanish and what will replace them?

Monday, 5 December 2011

Tuesday Poem: A Sad State of Freedom, Nazim Hikmet

A Sad State of Freedom

You waste the attention of your eyes,
the glittering labour of your hands,
and knead the dough enough for dozens of loaves
of which you'll taste not a morsel;
you are free to slave for others--
you are free to make the rich richer.

The moment you're born
they plant around you
mills that grind lies
lies to last you a lifetime.
You keep thinking in your great freedom
a finger on your temple
free to have a free conscience.

Your head bent as if half-cut from the nape,
your arms long, hanging,
your saunter about in your great freedom:
you're free
with the freedom of being unemployed.

You love your country
as the nearest, most precious thing to you.
But one day, for example,
they may endorse it over to America,
and you, too, with your great freedom--
you have the freedom to become an air-base.

You may proclaim that one must live
not as a tool, a number or a link
but as a human being--
then at once they handcuff your wrists.
You are free to be arrested, imprisoned
and even hanged.

There's neither an iron, wooden
nor a tulle curtain
in your life;
there's no need to choose freedom:
you are free.
But this kind of freedom
is a sad affair under the stars.

Nazim Hikmet (1902-1963)

Translated by Taner Baybars

For more poems by Nazim Hikmet got to

I thought that, with the elections in Egypt and the ongoing push for more democratic freedom in the Middle East, it might be good to feature work by a Middle Eastern poet for this week's Tuesday Poem.

Born in Turkey in 1902, Nazim Hikmet was politically active as a communist and spent many years in and out of prison for his beliefs, despite being a recipient of the International Peace Prize (alongside Picasso and Pablo Neruda). He is one of Turkey’s most important writers. Hikmet died in Russia in 1963 suffering a heart attack as he bent to pick up a newspaper from his doorstep. His poems have been put to music and sung by Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen and The Byrds.

For more poetry by the Tuesday Poets please visit the Tuesday Poem website at

Blogging at Author's Electric

Today I'm blogging over at Author's Electric on the dilemma of whether to E-publish a novel or go down the traditional route.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Katherine Mansfield in Paperback

Yay!!!!   Katherine Mansfield is out in paperback on Amazon and in all good bookshops.   And on the wonderful blog 'The Reading Life', Mel U is giving away a copy in a competition if anyone wants to try for a freebie. 

The paperback looks exactly like the hardback, but it's a lot cheaper - list price £15.99 but being discounted.

  Here in Italy it's pouring with rain today, raining and thundering as only the Italian mountains know how to do it!  But I'm having a cosy day, making apple and lemon cake to take to a party tonight being held by some Danish friends.  It takes my mind off 3 weeks Cambodian washing steaming on the radiators, and the fact that my ex-husband has just come back from Thailand having married a Thai wife of 4 days acquaintance, to the consternation of the family.  This writer's life is never dull!

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Autumn in Italy

So here I am again in the little house in the olive grove.  Despite the fact that it's the 1st December the weather is mild, with hazy sunshine - warm enough to eat lunch outside.  Coming straight from a northern British winter it seems strange to step back a season.  It's autumn here.   The chestnut trees are turning a lovely golden colour and the leaves are dropping. 

In the Pietrasanta Piazza they're putting up the Christmas tree.

And the Pri-mate is back from Cambodia, bringing a hammock in his luggage, which he's strung between the two trees on our terrace.  It will be lovely in the summer - but not too bad even now.  Just the thing for hanging about doing a bit of scribbling, though I might want it higher off the ground!

For me it's back to work - two guest blogs to write before Monday, the illustration permissions to sort out for the Japanese edition of Katherine Mansfield, and a proposal to write for the New Project - all will be revealed soon.