Monday, 27 February 2012

Tuesday Poem: Superior Corvid

One metre long from beak to tail-tip
more black than black and curious,
quick to mimic, clever, a problem-
solver, shape-shifter, solitary
but coupling for life. (They often
live for forty years.) Gate-keeper,
talisman, prognosticator, doom-
merchant. At a distance sometimes
mistaken for the common crow.

Kathleen Jones

This is one small raven poem from my growing 'Haida Gwaii' collection which is going to be called 'Sea, Tree and Bird' and which seems to be becoming more of a meditation on how we live with the environment, though it didn't start out that way.

The beautiful Raven photo was taken by Gavan Watson and is licensed under the Creative Commons agreement.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Spring has come to Capezzano

I’ve just come back from a very stormy England, tired and travel-lagged.  Pisa airport at midnight was very cold and damp and not unlike the UK airport I’d just left.  But waking up in our little house in the olive grove the following morning things looked very different.   Spring has really sprung in Capezzano.

The mimosa is flowering and the grass is starred with purple/pink anemones and tiny narcissi.  The creamy green hellebore we call ‘Easter Roses’ are everywhere.  The sun has warmth in it - enough to sit out and drink a glass of wine wearing only a jumper.  It certainly lifts the spirits.

It has obviously affected the cats as well.  Our adopted wild cat, Batcat, (who turned out to be female) has been sitting in the olive grove wowling at the spring sun (and everything else) in a very ominous way and it seems as though every tom cat in the village is strutting across our terrace trying to look suitably feral.  After dark there’s a great deal of tumbling and chasing and more singing - a kind of feline X-factor!  I fear this means kittens for Easter, but Batcat sadly isn’t tame enough to catch, put in a box and take to the vets.   Yet.

I was given a couple of preview copies of Young Adult novels to read when in the UK - ‘Wonder’ by P.J. Palacio and ‘Now is the Time for Running’ by Michael Williams -  neither of them out until the beginning of March. It’s interesting to read another genre, also interesting to see what publishers are buying from abroad - one was a best seller in America, the other in southern Africa before being brought over here.  UK publishers aren’t taking many risks these days.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Guest Post: Wendy Robertson on John McGahern's 'Amongst Women'

I'm on my way back to Italy at the moment, and it's a real treat to have best-selling novelist Wendy Robertson as a Guest Blogger to talk about writers' retreats and a particular writer, John McGahern,  whose novel 'Amongst Women' has meant a great deal to her.  Over to Wendy!

John McGahern -  Amongst Women

 I have participated in several writers retreats and now have run a few. Something significant always happens at writer’s retreats: they can be life changing events.

I met the late, great John McGahern at my first writer’s retreat at Lumb Bank in Yorkshire – a great place on the side of a hill with a scattering of garden huts furnished with a chair, a bench, and a great view of the countryside. I had been suffering from overwork and a loss of confidence.

At that time I’d had three children’s books published and was hungry – not to write  a better book as I knew writing for children can be the highest part of our calling – but I felt the need for  bigger scope and scale: the opportunity to fly higher, dig deeper. So I saved my hard earned pennies and went to Lumb Bank, exhausted, clutching half a novel and shot through with that down feeling you get in the middle of a novel. ‘What have I done? Is this any good? Is this no good? This is no good.’

 John McGahern was one of the two tutors on that retreat. I’d read The Dark – a masterpiece of a book – but knew little about the writer. A good tutor, he read my half-book and I shared my misgivings, my lack of confidence about it, and my sense of foolishness. He chuckled. ‘You’re surely joking, Wendy. Sure, I see you’re a great writer!’ And he went on to tell me why. He gave me the confidence to surge on and write many more adult novels. He treated me as an equal, a fellow artisan.

One morning we talk about an extract from my manuscript where a girl is walking with a basket up a bank.  She lifts up her skirt to show her friend where her brothers have kicked her, leaving boot marks on her thigh. John then talks with some intensity about how much one can render in fiction the dark things that have really happened to you.  And he tells me something so terrible it could not make its way onto even his pages which – always beautifully written – are undercut with the complex interplay of cruelty and control, love and loyalty inside the crucible of family life.  

His work is cut through with the chillingly honest view of his own difficult childhood which is a strong strand of most of his fiction, often dominated by the figure of the strong, cruel, seductive father. His fiction - emerging as it does out of his territory of rural Ireland - consistently reflects on the politics of family life where power, and even love, is wielded in subtle and brutal ways. He allows the reader access to these excesses by rendering the highly subjective experiences of his characters in a pared- back, detached style allowing the reader to infer the terrors for themselves. As well as this he allows us some rest for our emotions - with his great prose, his acute observation and lyrical rendering of time and season in rural Ireland. 

 Amongst Women, his 1990 prize-winning[1] novel, has at its centre just such a cruel controlling seductive father and husband. Michael Moran, an ex hero and a leader in the historical war against the British, wields total power over his family of three girls and a boy. Michael prefers family to friends and dominates his family using rituals of meals, domestic tasks and prayers as the syntax and grammar of his domination. (Brainwashing comes to mind…) There are physical aspects to his domination that have sexual undertones but the writing is too subtle for that to declare itself as incest.
Michael is handsome and has charm and is prepared to use it – as when he courts his second wife, Rose, so he can add her as caretaker and fellow-hero-worshipper to his brood of women. McGahern, though, shows Rose as the only one who, though loving Michael, holds out against his domination. This is logical. She has not been brainwashed by him since birth.

It is significant that the daughters, whom he bullies, manipulates and dominates, adore him and make excuses for him to each other and to Rose and other outsiders. And the final irony – and the brilliance of the perception in the writing – is that these women do not break down. At his death, around which the whole of this novel is tuned, they become their father. He has created them. He is in their hearts, in their skin, in their soul.

I have many other stories emerging from this particular writing retreat but this is the most important. Writing retreats, as I say, can change your life.

Wendy has two wonderful blogs of her own which you can check out at

 Wendy Robertson grew up in the North of England, one of four children whose widowed mother, an ex-nurse, worked in a factory. Wendy has worked as a teacher and lecturer, gaining a Masters whilst also writing short stories, articles, a column in the Northern Echo and novels for young adults.  She is the author of more than 25 novels, including the wonderfully titled,  'Sandie Shaw and the Millionth Marvell Cooker' (published by Headline).  She was Writer In Residence at Long Newton Prison, an experience that resulted in a novel 'Paulie's Web' now available on Amazon Kindle.  She is now part of the Room to Write group and writes and presents a radio programme 'The Writing Game'  for writers and readers on Bishop FM.  Her most recent books are a memoir, The Romancer, and two novels 'An Englishwoman in France' and 'A Woman Scorned'.

[1] Irish Times/Aer Lingus Literary Award (1991), GPA Award (1992), nominated for the Booker Prize (1990).

Monday, 20 February 2012

Tuesday Poem: Rae Armantrout - Making Poetry out of Crisis

Poets are expected to be contemporary and some even expect poetry to be subversive and offer solutions to (or at least analysis of) social turmoil.  Most of us remember, or carry around, scraps of poetry that have offered comfort or support in uncertain times, and some of us were maimed for life by having to learn the Charge of the Light Brigade at primary school!  But writing overtly 'political' poetry is very difficult and the results can be dire.   I found this fascinating video (link below) on the Poetry Foundation site.  Rae Armantrout, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, talks about how and why she writes about contemporary situations and reads some of the poems from her new collection 'Money Shot'.

The title has references only regular viewers of pornography might recognise - in these poems the financial 'exploitation and greed' that has ruined us all is identified as a different kind of pornography.  One reviewer writes that Rae Armantrout's poems  'work off the sleazy undercurrent of contempt and lazy petulance which one sees, or reads and hears expressed everywhere these days. The underlying quest of Armantrout's critique of our language is to identify and tag those elements which threaten to compromise our potential for goodness, or fulfillment, or ease.'  The poems themselves are deceptively spare.

Money Talks

Money is talking
to itself again

in this season's
and safari look,

its closeout camouflage.

Hit the refresh button
and this is what you get,

money pretending
that its hands are tied.

On a billboard by the 880,

money admonishes,
"shut up and play."

Interview and Readings here: -

For more wonderful Tuesday Poetry, please check out the Tuesday Poem website by clicking here.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Thanks for the comments

Thank you to everyone who sent me comments on the text - the general feeling was positive and I had several helpful suggestions.    I will now be starting on the Big Edit - working my way through the manuscript trying to hone it to perfection.  In a couple of weeks I'm going to post a list of editing musts put together by a friend and shared many times with students and other writers - a life saver! 

I'm doing a lot of travelling this week, but there will be  a Tuesday Poem and then novelist Wendy Robertson is doing a guest blog on the subject of Writers Retreats and the wonderful Irish novelist John McGahern.

I should be back in Italy by Friday, snow, wind and rain permitting!  I hope you're all having a good week wherever you are and whatever you're doing.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

The Centauress - New Work In Progress.

Rodin:  The Centauress

This is the really scary bit - I've just finished the first draft of a fictional project I've been working on for a while.  A difficult story with a complicated plot, set in Istria - a traditionally Italian area of Croatia.  The two central figures are an elderly painter, Xenobia, who has led a controversial life, and her biographer, Alex, recently bereaved and trying to find the narrative of her own life again. I have no idea whether it will interest anyone other than myself.  I've been so immersed in it, I haven't been able to stop to think about what anyone else might think!  So, before I spend precious weeks re-writing and editing, I need to know if a reader would be interested enough to read on after the opening pages. These first pages are critical in any book - if you're not hooked by page 3 you usually give up.   That's why I'm pasting them below and would really appreciate honest, straight-forward comments from my lovely blog-readers.  Would you want to read on?  Or would you not?  You don't have to be tactful! If you'd like to email me your comments you can do that on

The Centauress (working title)

Chapter One

London, October 2003

        ‘So, how would you feel about writing this book?’  Jane asked, a forkful of spinach and mozzarella pizza poised halfway between plate and mouth.
        Alex had realised how far down the ratings she’d sunk when her agent had asked her out to lunch and then suggested a Pizzeria on the South Bank rather than one of the smart bistros and wine bars that Jane usually favoured.  But in fact, considering her own long silence, the unanswered emails and the abandoned book contract, it was a miracle that Jane was still speaking to her at all.
       ‘Xenia’s marvellous,’ Jane put down her fork.  ‘So articulate!  And only the tiniest bit ga-ga -  she’s so eccentric you don’t even notice.   But apparently she’s very ill and it’s going to be vital to get everything down quickly before she deteriorates.’
     Even before the menus had arrived,  Alex had been aware that this lunch was simply an excuse for her agent to sell the notion she’d had on her recent holiday in a fortified village in Istria, owned by someone Jane described as ‘the most extraordinary person I’ve ever met’.
       ‘Xenia lived in England and America, knew Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon, stayed in Paris with Picasso.  She even painted Marilyn Monroe for god’s sake!’
       Xenobia de Braganza, one of the most famous living painters, the grande dame of  the Veneto, who owned an entire Istrian hill village rented out to tourists in the summer (hence Jane’s visit) but in the winter filled it with her friends, creating a colony of artists and simpatici.
       ‘She seemed to like the idea,’ Jane said.  ‘Wants to tell the truth while she’s alive so that people can’t tell lies after she’s dead.  And I’ve talked to her London agent - no problems there.  It would be a good excuse for a retrospective in the Tate Modern.  Bloomsbury might be interested, and Harper Collins, providing I can get a good writer.  So I thought of you.   A spell in Istria might cheer you up.’

       Alex suppressed a sudden impulse to hit Jane hard across the face.  The surge of anger was so strong and physical, Alex could taste the bile in her mouth.  But, thanks to the little blue capsules of anaesthetic, prescribed by the doctor, Alex managed to contain her rage.   Why Jane should think a holiday would cure what she’d just been through was in-comprehensible.  Alex could only assume Jane had never experienced any kind of family tragedy or real pain in her entire life.  Alex’s whole world, her way of seeing everything was irrevocably altered.   It was like going back to the Tate Gallery after having become  colour blind;   the paintings would be there, still the same, but all the colour and life would have gone out of them.  There would be no point.

       Alex hasn’t written a word in almost two years.  The grief counselor she’d been assigned afterwards,  had recommended that she kept a journal to record her thoughts and feelings, but the journal too has remained obstinately blank.  The feeling still  persisted that there was no point in anything any more, but the grant from the Royal Literary Fund was almost spent and her small legacy down to single figures.
The flush of anger receded, leaving Alex feeling slightly shaky.   She held her tongue between her teeth for a moment longer and then asked.  ‘What’s the advance?’
       ‘We’ll have to negotiate that.  But her agent seems to think they can cover all your expenses to go out there on an initial visit - see how you get on with her, whether you like the idea.  Get a synopsis together based on the published material - there’s loads apparently.   Then I’ll try to sell it while you’re out there.  You speak Italian don’t you?   Of course it's Croatia now, but  Istria used to belong to Italy before it was Yugoslavia and they still speak the language.’
       Alex looked out of the window.  It was a cold autumn day with persistent drizzle.  Pedestrians in gloves and scarves were scurrying along the concrete walk-way of the South Bank.  An unkind wind was whipping the Thames into spiky waves.  Jane had just been talking about Istrian  sunshine, the citrus odour of the lemon tree below her window, describing the sunset in the Adriatic.   Alex was conscious of a great longing for warmth, colour and light.  Could she write this book?  Was she actually still capable?  It was the first time in two years that Alex had felt even the stirrings of an inclination.

        Alex spent the rest of that grey afternoon in the National Portrait Gallery looking at a canvas by Francis Bacon, early work but still with the characteristically dramatic strokes, the cruel drawing out of the figure.   Xenobia de Braganza’s name was on the label, but the painting didn’t give any clues to the reality of her appearance or character.  In another room was a photograph of her aged twenty five by Man Ray - a dark unruly head sculpted by light, jutting, furious brows, half closed eyes and the most beautiful, androgynous face Alex had ever seen.  The strong bone structure, voluptuous lips and brooding eyes could have belonged to either sex.    This was no ordinary person.   It was that face that decided her to tackle the biography.   


That's Chapter One -  all comments gratefully received.  Now I'm off to England for a brief visit to look after my small grand-daughter Isabella for a few days while my daughter is at a conference.  I'm really looking forward to spending time with her and hoping the English weather will be better than the Italian - which is still below zero.  Some parts of Italy have had 3 metres of snow, as far south as Sicily.  The worst winter in generations - that's what they're calling it.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Carnival in Viareggio

It's carnival time again in Viareggio, which is one of the best carnivals in Europe - famous for its gigantic floats, some of which are designed by leading artists.  This one is 'Anger', identified by its maker as the most problematic human emotion.

It's hard to convey the sheer joy of the carnival;   every kind of music - from Puccini to Abba - bouncing off the walls, whole families in fancy dress,

people dancing in the street, ankle deep in confetti and streamers.

And the sheer size of the floats - towering many stories above the buildings, and taking up the whole width of the road.

In between the floats, small parades, just as striking.

There's always a satirical theme - this year European politics took another beating.  We had Sarkozy as Napoleon on a horse

with Angela Merkel riding shot gun dressed (or undressed) as a dominatrix.

And it was hard not to connect this float with Captain Schettino of Concordia fame, steering the ship of Italy onto the rocks, a vulture on his shoulder, taking the whole of Europe with him,

though Berlusconi is in a life belt with three nubile mermaids (well, he would be wouldn't he?).

One of the most impressive floats was a visualisation of last year's Japanese Tsunami, with the motto 'On the surface we contemplate Flowers - underneath an Inferno'.  Video Link here.

Surrounded by Geishas with umbrellas and fans dancing out an impeccable choreography, it  was really moving.

I had a fabulous time and the weather stayed fine, temperatures around zero, but no wind or snow.

If you want to know what it sounds and feels like to be there - I found recommend this little video on You Tube filmed at last weekend's parade.  The final parade will be next week, but by then I'll be in England - unexpectedly.  Meanwhile, I've got to go and get the confetti and silly string out of my clothes!

Thursday, 9 February 2012

The Pity of War - Romano Cagnoni

Watching the heavily edited and filtered images coming out of Syria at the moment, proved to be a sobering context for Romano Cagnoni's latest exhibition.   I've blogged about him before, when he had a small show in London, but this one is a big retrospective at the Palazzo Mediceo (the wonderful former home of the Medici family) in Seravezza.  Romano is probably Italy's greatest living photographer and has made his reputation  in war zones.  He specialised in going in under the radar and reaching the places the authorities didn't want anyone to see.

The result is a  narrative record of the terrible things that human beings do to each other.   His photographs of Biafra are brilliant, but too horrific for me to reproduce here.  He was also in Vietnam and in Croatia and Bosnia when Yugoslavia imploded.   His pictures of what was left of Vukovar are particularly shocking.

More recently he's been to Groszny to photograph the conflict in the Chechen Republic.

One of the most interesting things about the exhibition is Romano's commentary on what is, effectively, a record of his life.   Under a stunning black and white photo of a room full of men all sitting at separate tables in a bar, he writes that  'men's loneliness is linked with fear.  Men fear one another.'  And fear leads to war.

 And he sees the Chechen guerilla fighters as modern-day Greek heroes like Ulysses.

With his recent work he's been experimenting with a large format camera and huge colour prints that use landscape, colour and texture with the dexterity of a painter.  I'm afraid my poor little sony pot-shots can't even begin to convey the beauty of these photographs, or the size - the canvases above and below were both life-size.

As a writer, struggling with words, I do envy the amount of narrative that can be conveyed (without any translation) in a single image.  This is work of the highest possible calibre.  The exhibition lasts until 9th April.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Tuesday Poem: Martin Figura's 'Whistle'

 This poem comes from the compelling narrative sequence of poems 'Whistle' by Martin Figura, published by Arrowhead Poetry.  For a full review of the collection and the context of the poem please click here.

Strange Boy

We believe there is a one in ten chance
the boy will inherit it from his father
The boy is top in maths
He is near the bottom of the class in everything else
He writes wild imaginative essays with little regard
for spelling or grammar
He cries easily
The boy’s house is Belmont 47 (a prime number)
We know he steals, but are letting it go for now
We also know he smokes
He pulls a face when he concentrates
The other boys have noticed this
The boy is left here during half-term breaks
He occupies himself with dice games of cricket and football
that can take days to complete
They are too complex for anyone else to participate in
The boy maintains a number of statistical graphs
He is a good goalkeeper
He has made some friends through football
He has invented an elaborate past
He carries a 1966-67 News of the World Football Year Book at all times
Father William lets him complete his pools coupon
He has had some small successes

Copyright Martin Figura
reproduced with permission.

Martin Figura was born in Liverpool in 1956 and works part-time at the Writers’ Centre, Norwich and as a photographer. He is a member of the poetry ensemble The Joy of 6. A spoken word version of his new collection Whistle (Arrowhead Press, 2010) is being toured by Apples and Snakes. He is Chair of the CafĂ© Writers Live Literature organisation in Norwich.

For a review of the whole collection please visit

For  more stunning Tuesday Poems please visit the website at

Sunday, 5 February 2012

When Women Writers were Mad, Bad and definitely Dangerous.

The seventeenth century Margaret Cavendish - one of the very first women writers to publish her own work -  was known as the Mad Duchess.  King Charles II is alleged to have described her as ‘an entire Raree-Show in her own person - a universal masquerade - indeed a sort of private Bedlam-hospital, her whole ideas being like so many patients crazed upon the subjects of love and literature’. 

Although she lived like a nun, scribbling away in her study, so that even her ladies in waiting hardly saw her, she was still nicknamed ‘the Whore of Welbeck’. 

Margaret was born in Colchester in 1623, the daughter of a wealthy gentleman. She had a very eventful life - living through the English civil war.  Her family home was razed to the ground by Cromwell's troops, her mother imprisoned,  two of her brothers killed, and she escaped to France to join the court of Queen Henrietta in Paris, where she met her husband.  She was only a gentleman's daughter, Newcastle was a friend of the king and one of the greatest landowners in England, so there was a lot of opposition to their marriage.  It was a genuine love match - they lived in relative poverty and exile for 20 years before they were able to return to England. Newcastle (a cavalier author himself) encouraged his wife to write and paid for publication of her work.

The problem was that women in the 17th century were supposed to know their place, which was in the home, meekly, modestly ruled by their husbands - a state of subservience which had been ordained by God and could not be argued with.  But women did argue - and Margaret Cavendish was one of the most vocal. 

‘Men are happy,’ she wrote, ‘and we women are miserable, for they possess all the ease, rest, pleasure, wealth, power and fame, whereas women are restless with labour, easeless with pain, melancholy for want of pleasure, helpless for want of power and die in oblivion for want of fame; nevertheless men are so unconscionable and cruel against us as they endeavour to bar us of all sorts of kinds of liberty, as not to suffer us freely to associate amongst our own sex, but would fain bury us in their houses or beds as in a grave; the truth is we live like bats or owls, labour like beasts, and die like worms.’

The problem, Margaret identified, was lack of education.  Most women received their instruction from their uneducated mothers - ‘one fool breeding up another’ as Margaret put it.  The result was a spiral of ignorance.   There was also a lack of role models.  ‘What woman was ever so strong as Sampson, or so swift as Hazael?  What woman was ever so wise as Solomon or Aristotle, so politic as Achitophel, so demonstrative as Euclid, so inventive as Archimedes?’  If there had ever been such women they had left no traces to encourage their descendants.

Margaret became so notorious that when she visited London, Samuel Pepys was one of those who crammed the street to see her carriage pass by, with a crowd of small boys running after it trying to get a glimpse of so infamous a woman.

Why did she risk all this?  She confessed to an addiction to words, and being childless, she wanted to avoid the oblivion most women sank into when they died.  In a preface to her autobiography she penned a wistful apology.

‘Some censuring Readers will scornfully say, why hath this lady writ her own life?  Since none cares to know whose daughter she was, or whose wife she is, or how she was bred, or what fortunes she had, or how she lived, or what humour or disposition she was of?  I answer that it is true, that ‘tis to no purpose to the Readers, but it is to the Authoress, because I write it for my own sake, not theirs, to tell the truth, lest after ages should mistake in not knowing I was daughter to one Master Lucas of St John’s, second wife to the Duke of Newcastle.’

Margaret Cavendish ‘A Glorious Fame’ was my first published book, scribbled in the university library while my children were at school and when I should have been studying for my own degree.  It’s been out of print for a few years now and I am very happy to put it up on Kindle with a new, previously unknown portrait of the Duchess and her husband I found in a German art gallery.  Margaret deserves every little bit of fame she can get - we owe our own freedom to write, and publish what we write, to women like her, who risked their sanity and reputations to get into print.  However bad the current publishing industry, it isn’t as bad as that!

Margaret Cavendish:  A Glorious Fame  is available on Kindle at the introductory price of £1.54

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Winter comes to Capezzano

Yesterday  we had a blizzard - winds strong enough to blow a steel barbecue across the terrace and relocate the TV aerial, and a few inches of snow frothing over the olive trees like soapsuds. We're on the edge of a Siberian front that's bringing unusually cold weather across europe.    It's still snowing on and off and more snow and freezing temperatures forecast for the weekend.  Winter weather like this doesn't usually last for longer than a couple of weeks, though further north it's more severe.

We're cat and dog sitting at Peralta for ten days or so at the moment - one frisky little hunting dog called Ellie who's obsessed with chasing objects, an elderly, deaf, arthritic, but very aristocratic Spinoni called Frank (short for Frankenstein!), Vaniglia- a shy burmese cross cat, and a big, affectionate black and white male called Pino.  Tonight they're all in beside a roaring fire and we've opened a bottle of wine to keep out the weather.

Neil is about to start another sculpture down in the marble yard, but tomorrow is the feast of San Biaggio, so nothing is open now until Monday.  Typical Italy!