Thursday, 27 February 2014

Carnivale in Viareggio

One of the great highlights of the year, for me, is the carnival in Viareggio - one of Italy's biggest and best.  So last Sunday (my next to last day in Italy for a while) we headed down to the city.  It's a family party and a great chance for some dressing up and dancing in the street.

The floats are always awe-inspiring in terms of their size and complexity - some bigger than the buildings on either side of the street - and there's always a strong political message.Some floats are just plain whacky!

Or even scary!!

But the costumes are always fantastic.  I loved Neptune's attendants.

This year, pop music was quite prominent, with homages to both Freddie Mercury and John Lennon.

This was one of my favourite floats - a gigantic insect, lit up from within, with moving head and legs - like something from War of the Worlds.

There was a strong environmental message - a First Nation American float featured endangered animals and butterflies -

and there were several that also highlighted the precarious economic situation.  The figures of Poverty and Famine were stalking the parades, particularly on this float - The Last Beach

and I found this wonderful money pig having a rest on a pile of skulls beside the route.

Elsewhere, the message seemed to be that the world is being run by clowns - many of them with tanks and bazookas.

As always, it's the people along the route that catch my eye.  This innocent little boy sprayed me with silly string!

And I loved this Pirate family - he could certainly give Johnny Depp a bit of competition!

The carnival route is along the promenade which runs parallel to the beach.  What better way to end the day than a walk along the edge of the sea.  And a great place to cool off tired feet!

Saturday, 22 February 2014

An Early Spring in Italy

We have now moved back from our winter care-taking of Peralta to our little house in the olive groves of Capezzano Monte, just in time for Spring which has sprung rather early in Italy this year, probably because of the very warm weather we’ve been having.  In December it was warm enough (well . . . for the English!) to go to the beach.  And through January we’ve had days around 16 degrees - up to 20 when the sun shines.  But we’ve had enough rain to last for several months.  The record was 300mm (30 cm - about 12 inches) in one night.  Another deluge last night and another due on Monday, but today the sun shone.  The wild plum tree on the terrace is in full bloom.

The Mimosa is also blossoming everywhere in drifts of yellow blossom and exquisite scent.

My English daffodils are coming out and in the olive groves the cyclamen are flowering.

Time for my landlord to prune the olive trees - an arduous and never ending job which he does in his very limited spare time.

The Italians work hard - Roberto has a full time job building - he works from 8am until 6.30 or 7pm every day, plus Saturday morning.  In addition he looks after his mother-in-law’s olive grove, and the small family vineyard. His sister and brother-in-law help when they can, but it’s hard work.  The children, sadly, aren’t interested, so a generation is growing up that won’t know how to make a living from this land.

Today I've had all the windows and doors open to air out our little house and scrub the floors and do a bit of spring cleaning.  Since mid-December we've only been here to feed the cats and check for leaks or storm damage, so the house was in need of a thorough blitz. Sadly, I'm also packing to return to England next Tuesday for some events related to the Norman Nicholson biography.  I think I'm going to need the thermal underwear, wellingtons and a sou-wester!!

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Living on a Precipice

The road out of our village now ends in a precipice, as the landslide that took away the road carries on sliding to the bottom of the gorge.

What started out like this

now looks like this

Where the road was, there's now a cliff face of crumbling soil.  But work has started to solve the problem.  They've built us a temporary car park in a field, with a walkway to the village, and they've begun to stabilise what's left of the road by putting in concrete piles.  What they'll do about the gap isn't yet known.  It looks quite a challenge.  But the politicians of the commune have got to come up with a solution!

I've been doing a bit of escaping from the rain and the wind and the mud.  This is what afternoon tea looks like Italian style!  And it only cost me 2 euros 60 cents.  Thank you Dazzi Patisserie.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Tuesday Poem: Everything is going to be Amazing with Jo Bell's 52

Poet Jo Bell had the wonderful idea of running an online workshop that would get people writing a poem a week.  52 is the result and every week there's a new prompt.  Jo herself is a fantastic poet who lives on a narrow boat (she's currently Britain's Canal Laureate) which - given the amount of rain that's falling in southern England at the moment is probably something we should all be considering.

The prompts are lively and perfect for sending you off in different directions.  Have a look!  Have a go!
Write a poem a week!  Everything is going to be amazing, because this is the year of 'Quit the dumb shit'.  Jo is sharing some wonderful poems, like this one .....


Lauren Zuniga

Put on your knickers, girl. We gonna eat these heavy
decisions for breakfast. Smother ‘em in gravy, wash ‘em down
with Grown Ass Woman Soda.

We got this. This is the Big Girl Processing Plant.
Don’t nobody work through their issues like we do. We swallow
abandonment and cough up independence.

You wanna scream? You see that freight train coming at you?
You havin’ that lead-in-yo-legs dream again? Kick that
muthatruckin’ train in its teeth and do a jig.

That’s what you need. Some Mongolian Throat Singing action
and a can o’ Riverdance. Unwad your drawers, Little Mama.
Let’s go to the drag show.

Bust out yo corset, Sweet Ginger and show ‘em all that bouillon.
We were made for the stomp. We were made out of spoon
whittlin’ voodoo stew. Play those spoons, girl.

Don’t let ‘em take your dysfunction and turn it into a brothel.
That’s YOUR dysfunction. You chop that shit up and make it
into a masterpiece. This is the year of Quit the Dumb Shit.

So, you know what that means?
Quit the dumb shit. Stop washing your pearls down
with swine. Get up off your Cadillac britches and show them motor

mouth badgers how it’s done. Everything ain’t gonna be alright.
Everything is going to be amazing.

[From Lauren Zuniga,  The Smell of Good Mud]

Why not head on over to the Tuesday Poem hub and see what other Tuesday Poets are posting today?  You'll find it on

Thursday, 13 February 2014

My local (Italian) library and a chunk of the Berlin Wall . . .

I'm trying to finish some short stories I've been working on for a while and having a problem with concentration (too many cups of coffee and Facebook visits!).  So I decided to spend at least two days a week working in the Pietrasanta library.  This is part of the wonderful Sant' Agostino church, which now acts as a venue for major art exhibitions.

The library is on the first floor above the cloisters - a quiet, well-lit and surprisingly modern space, perfect for writing.  I think I'm incredibly lucky to have such a beautiful place to work in.

On two sides of the first floor space, there's a small museum of sculpture, which you can wander round when you need a bit of inspiration.

In the cloisters underneath at the moment there's an exhibition featuring chunks of the Berlin Wall painted by European artists - much of it quite political, as you'd expect.

This is a small selection.

And, of course, I'm quite handy for the marble studios and can drop in on Neil, who also has work in progress, to take pictures of him covered in marble dust and looking rather like Coco the Clown!

It's good to be working near each other and we can pop into the bar together for a quick glass of wine at the end of the day.  I love Italy!!!

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Tuesday Poem: The Night Horses by Jean Atkin

The Night Horses

are stalled between sleep and dreaming.
In the steading they lower their massive heads
to the earth’s nod. In darkness
white-faced Clydesdales lip at nothing.

Below a halo of bats they rest their load
of feather and bone and horn. They hear,
don’t hear, the scrape of shoes, as a gelding shunts
his weight to tilt the other haunch.

Their slow brains orbit the tracks and rigs
breathing in water, heather, grasses.
Sometimes through the slats above their heads
they watch the burn and tremor of the stars.

(Copyright Jean Atkin from Not Lost Since Last Time Oversteps Books 2013)

Jean Atkin is a fellow Cumbrian who now lives in Shropshire, England and works as a writer and educator.  You can find her poetry here.  And she blogs here - Love Letter to the Bothyman 

This poem brings back a lot of memories.  When I was a child my father used to rescue heavy horses being sold off everywhere and destined for pet food, or the continental meat market.  I loved going into the stable with him in winter to bed them down for the night.  This poem catches the atmosphere perfectly.

The poem is shared by invitation from this wonderful website - And Other Poems ... which has some wonderful poetry on it.

Please pop over to the Tuesday Poem hub and see what the other Tuesday Poets are posting today ...  You can find them at  Don't forget to check out the sidebar for more poetry. 

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Sea, Sex and Surf at Viareggio

We're having wild weather here in Tuscany, like many other parts of Europe.  But today was fine, with even a glimmer of sunlight, so we headed down to the beach, where the waves were crashing in from a very stormy sea.
Viareggio with the Alpi Apuane in the background.
Elly, the little dog we're looking after, was absolutely fearless on the jetty wall!

One lone surfer was braving the sea and giving an  awesome display.

Further along the beach two men were running in and out of the waves (in temps of 9 degrees) for a photo-shoot.  I hope someone was paying them well.

The sea is pretty wild!
And, this being Italy, whatever the weather, there is always time for Amore!

Thursday, 6 February 2014

The Destructive Power of Publishing

I've been blogging over at Authors Electric about the current crisis for authors in the traditional publishing industry - this is cross-blogged from there.

The Destructive Power of Publishing - Kathleen Jones

In the past few months I've had some distressing emails from friends - successful writer friends published by big publishing houses here and abroad.  One of them was a Whitbread award-winner with his first novel and the others have also won awards, as well as being very commercial - one has regularly had books serialised by the Reader's Digest. But two in particular have really made me aware of the cruel and destructive power of the contemporary publishing industry, which cares more for its shareholders than the creative egos of the authors it depends on for its income.

Recently two friends have told me stories which are very similar. Both are distressed, depressed and have had their lives, their confidence - and their writing careers - damaged by the very people supposed to nurture and support them.  It's difficult not to come to the conclusion that the supposedly 'traditional' model of the publishing industry has begun to cannibalise itself.

One symptom of this is a recent post on the blog Random Jottings about the historical fiction author Cynthia Harrod Eagles - always chronically under publicised.  Recently the publishers have suggested that she should bring her very successful Morland Dynasty series to an end because it is no longer making quite so much money (but still selling and still in print).  This produced an outcry from her readers, but was apparently very wounding for the author. The publishers could have promoted her books (they're as commercial as Philippa Gregory)  in order to make themselves more profit, but they preferred to wield the axe instead. Why? Something is going on in publishing that is very damaging to authors.

One of my friends - with whom I shared an agent for a couple of years - had a couple of successful novels published both here and in America.  They are upmarket literary fiction - think Marika Cobbold, and Maggie O'Farrell - but they're also potentially very commercial.  She's recently had another baby and has taken a while to finish her third novel, which is a big, glorious account of twenty first century society - a complex Russian style novel with four main characters and narrative threads woven together.  Her agent (my ex for good reasons) initially praised the book, then began to make discouraging noises and asked her to rewrite whole sections of it, deleting characters and changing the plot.  But the book was complete just as it was. To delete characters and plot-lines would have turned the book into something it was never intended to be.  It could never be a commercial pot-boiler romantic saga - there's a lot of stark realism and some challenging situations.  To turn the book into what the agent wanted it to be would have maimed it fatally, even if the re-write had been possible. 

It's a situation that Costa award-winning Indie author Avril Joy addresses in her new book 'From Writing With Love'.  "It’s not difficult to find yourself losing your way and writing something that’s not true to who you are.  I’ve done it.  I’ve written more sex into a book to please an agent.  I’ve written crime fiction, invented a serial killer, ditched one book and moved onto the next, and more . . . Being new to writing I was vulnerable to such persuasions (which I have no doubt at all were made from a genuine desire to help me get a book deal). I wouldn’t do it like that a second time round because in the end if you’re not writing from your own truth the writing is not truly yours."

My friend wanted to believe her agent was right and could be relied on - we trust our agents to give us the right career advice, so she believed that the fault was with her and that her book was no good, although her gut feeling was telling her the opposite.  It came as a shock to realise that what the agent was really doing was advising her that she could only write for the market - the books she wanted to write, however great a work of art they might be, were just not going to be bought by a publisher. I read the novel to give an objective second opinion. It's a wonderful story, wonderfully written.  It deserves to be sold and sold and sold.  But her first two novels hadn't sold enough - there was some half-hearted muttering about re-launching her under another name.  My friend has lost confidence in her agent, the publishing industry and in herself as a writer, losing sleep and feeling depressed.

The cartoon says it all - but it's no joke for writers
Last week I got another email from someone else whose publishing career I've always envied.  Her latest novel, which her agent had raved about had - after an agonising wait -  just been rejected by her publisher with a brief curt note.  Other publishers weren't even interested.  She too was devastated and desperate, feeling that her writing life was at an end.  Her painful account of how she'd been treated made me very, very angry.

Both of them wrote to me asking for advice and there was only one piece of advice I could give - do what the rest of us have done and publish the b***** books yourself.  If publishers have lost the plot to the extent that they can't recognise a good book when they see one, then we have to take things into our own hands.  What bothers me most is that there are still a lot of writers out there who trust the traditional publishing system absolutely and are having their confidence and even their mental health affected by their treatment in the system.  Publishers want the new, the fluffy, the edgy, the quirky, the absolutely marketable, headline in the Mail on Sunday, one hundred percent guaranteed money-spinner. What they do not want is the quietly crafted good read that thousands of their readers enjoy - the mid-list that earned its keep but not the managing director's Bentley. Publishers have share-holders who need to be kept happy in this 'difficult economic climate'. They are no longer there to nurture talent and hold the hands of frail artistic geniuses. And agents are there to feed the hungry maw of the publishing machine with fodder, because they too have mortgages and cars and foreign holidays to pay for.

E-publishing is only one of several options . . .

It has never been easier to publish your own book - self-publishing is as old as the book trade itself. S** snobbery!  If a book's worth sweating over for years of your life, it's worth publishing - get out there and do it!! It takes a couple of weeks to turn a clean Word document into a published paperback and E-book courtesy of the Demon Amazon.  Go on -  I dare you .... press the button . . .

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Tuesday Poem: Sappho, Fragment 58 - Theresa Kishkan

Tithonus pursued by Eos/Aurora

Fragment 58 - A Version

You, pursuing the flower-girdled Muses’ beautiful gift, girls –
seize this clear-toned lyre:

my delicate body, now taken
by age, dark hair become white.

Spirit heavy, uncertain knees
(once as quick to dance as young deer).

I sigh – but what’s to do?
To be ageless, strong: not possible.

Once Tithonus, so they say, was swept up by rosy-armed Dawn
taken utterly by love, to the ends of the earth,

while he was young. Yet still grey age
seized him. And, oh, his immortal wife!*

Translation © Theresa Kishkan

* Tithonus was married to Eos/Aurora, goddess of the dawn, who pleaded with Zeus to make Tithonus immortal, but forgot to ask for eternal youth. 

I'm sharing this from Theresa Kishkan's wonderful blog where she talks about the poetry of Sappho and her dissatisfaction with a translation of a new poem by Sappho (trans by Martin West) discovered in 2005.  She read it in the TLS and her reaction was "Well, this is interesting but it doesn’t sound like Sappho to me." 
As she thought about it, Theresa found that it was the 'voice' of the poem that didn't ring true. "I realized that I missed Sappho’s plain-spoken voice. Hers was a woman’s voice, full of longing and wistfulness and occasionally envy. I thought I’d try to make a version for myself so I found the Greek online and took my lexicon to our upper sundeck — it was summer — and tried to find the Sappho I thought I knew. Bees hummed in the oregano and the sky was as blue as any sky I knew in Greece in the 1970s when I spent time there."  The poem above was the result.

Thanks to Theresa I've just discovered the wonderful translations by Anne Carson which seem to be perfect reading for a grey wet February in Europe (not far from Greece), called 'If Not Winter...'   Theresa also loves the translations by Mary Barnard, though she admits that these are "which are perhaps more true to Mary Barnard than Sappho" - the pitfall of every translator. 

Some new fragments of Sappho's poetry have just come to light again in a papyrus 1700 years old, showing that she didn't just write about love.  These new poems are about her brothers, and have altered scholars opinions of Sappho.  You can read more here -"New Sappho Poems Set the Classical World Reeling"

Today the Tuesday Poem hub has a poem by Australian singer/songwriter and poet Joe Dolce - the intensely moving 'Dogong Moth', which inludes this stanza....

I look up from my book
accepting the immortal,
fatal dance
of life and light,
like Icarus’s father
resigned to watch
his flying boy
hurl against brilliance.

To read more visit the Tuesday Poem hub and check out what other Tuesday Poets are posting. 

Saturday, 1 February 2014

The Curious Incident of the Blog in the Night

A few months ago I wrote a blog about the fall of  a certain prominent Italian politician whose name begins with B - a brief account of the Parliamentary tussle over his fitness to remain in the senate after his convictions and his attempt to retain power. I put up a photograph of the front page of La Repubblica.  It turned out to be one of my most popular posts and had a lot of 'hits'.

Then, just before Christmas I had an email from an Italian (who will also remain nameless) saying that he had  been seriously defamed on my blog.  I checked and - horror of horrors - there was a comment, naming this Italian and calling him a Fascist and member of the Camorra and all kinds of other things.  I deleted it and put up a warning that anyone putting defamatory comments on my blog would have them instantly removed.  All was peaceful.

But, a couple of weeks later, I get another email - the same thing had happened again.  This time it's someone purporting to be a banker in Milan making very similar accusations.  Again I deleted the comments.  It was beginning to worry me.  Then, only yesterday, I got yet another email.  The internet troll was still pursuing his hate campaign.  A different name - similar accusations.  Was it the same person?

By now I was utterly fed up - should I adjust my settings to monitor every comment?  I was loathe to do that because it's so time consuming, so I went for the only other option - I took the blog down. The world of Italian politics is a strange and scary place.

We're still house-sitting for a friend, looking after a dog and three cats - and driving over to our own house to feed our own outdoor cats every day.  Fortunately we have a wood burning stove here and it's all very cosy.  Which is a good thing, because the Italian weather is absolutely brutal at the moment.

We've had another 36 hours of heavy rain and gales and the road to our little village has slid even further down the  mountain gorge.  This is what it looked like originally, just after I'd managed to drive the car over it (thank goodness I did!)

And this is what it looks like now, despite the Commune sheeting it over to try and prevent further water penetration, cutting down the trees etc. The bottom of the sawn-off trees you can see on the left were originally level with the heads of the two men you can see standing on the plastic.

They are building a little temporary parking place for residents in a field, with a footpath to the village, but it's a long walk carrying everything you need (logs, heating oil, animal feed etc).  Also a long walk for emergency services.

 And a bit worrying that the part of the road where you will have to turn into the new 'parcheggio' also seems to be crumbling away.

The local Commune has been en masse to see the 'Sindaco' - the Mayor - but Camaiore is only a small place and it has 41 landslides to deal with, although ours is the only community totally cut off.  It's a major engineering job to construct a new road and I fear it will take months.  Not just an inconvenience to the residents but a threat to people's businesses.  Many of the houses here are holiday lets and guests like to drive their hire cars right to the door.

Meanwhile the Arno has burst its banks flooding Pisa and parts of Florence - like England, much of Tuscany is under water.