Sunday, 28 February 2016

The Magic of Montalbano and Andrea Camilleri

I was addicted to the Sicilian detective before I ever went to Italy.  What’s not to like?  The scenery, the food, the characters, the complex plots - a detective torn always between the love of an unattainable woman and his own independence.  Salvo Montalbano would like to be a faithful partner to the forceful Livia, who lives at the opposite end of the country, but he is an Italian man, an obsessive and morally driven policeman, both a cynic by experience and a romantic by nature (which probably sums up the entire national character of Italy).

And then I love the covers - particularly the Italian ones with their matt black format.  I’m OCD enough to long for a whole matching shelf of them!  But for practicality I have them on my Kindle.

I recently watched the documentary about their author Andrea Camilleri (literary royalty in Italy) with great interest.  He’s now 88 and has already written the last Montalbano book “just in case I get Alzheimers” and locked it in the vault.  It was his grandmother who taught him to love stories, apparently, but he didn’t write his first novel until late, to keep a promise he made to his father just before he died. Montalbano's complicated relationship with his father in the novels, is rooted in Camilleri's relationship with his own father.

Camilleri was originally an actor, then a theatre director, then a lecturer in drama.  All good training in the art of scene setting, creating dramatic tension and storytelling.  His book shelves are lined with the greats of Italian drama, including a lot of Pirandello. Salvo Montalbano, Camilleri’s main character, is named after another great contemporary writer, Spanish poet, gastronome and detective author Vazquez Montalban, who died in 2003.

The TV adaptation of the novels (made by RAI in Italy) has been so successful because they have faithfully recreated the Sicilian world in which Montalbano operates, where crime solving is a case of the Art of the Possible, and ordinary people have to live beyond the law to survive.  It is powerful families who control their communities and you have to be artful and cunning just to get by.

Luca Zingaretti, who plays Montalbano was a student of Camilleri’s and was coached by him when he auditioned for the role.  Perfect casting for this particular reader.  As is Fazio and the comic character Cattarella.  I’ve always thought the screen character of Augello was a bit over-played, though he’s true to many Italian men I’ve met.

The Montalbano novels are a very happy addiction for me - they take me to a special place and into a world I love.  Sicily, on a scorching summer day, the smell of dust, a whiff of goats, the dazzle of the Mediterranean, anchovies grilled in Parmesan, a glass of chilled white wine .......  Or, watching the sun go down and the lights begin to come on in one of those hill towns that seem hardly real.

Instead, on a cool February day in the Lake District, fuelled by English tea, I’ve been trying to reconstruct my flood-wrecked garden before the spring growth begins. Every shrub has been shrouded in debris from the river - dead leaves, fibrous material, string from hay bales, pieces of cloth, plastic. . . It feels good to be freeing them from their cauls.  The fences have been torn down, so every shrub, every rose bush has to be pruned down almost to the ground so that they can be re-established once the fences have been rebuilt.  The days are beginning to lighten, the sun is stronger when it shines.  I can smell spring!

I've just had good news from Italy - 2 more 'mini-films' of Montalbano are planned by RAI!  

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Tuesday Poem: a Valentine's Day antidote - Margaret Cavendish, 1673

Oh Love, how thou art tired out with rhyme!
Thou art a tree whereon all poets climb;
And from thy branches every one takes some
Of thy sweet fruit, which Fancy feeds upon.
But now thy tree is left so bare and poor,
That they can hardly gather one plum more.

Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, 1673

Not a great Romantic, our Margaret.  But then, she had a tough life.  Her family lost everything (including her brothers' lives) in the English Civil War.  She married one of the most famous Cavaliers, the notorious womaniser William, Duke of Newcastle,  and lived in exiled poverty until the Restoration of Charles II.

Margaret spent her time writing books - which was enough in the 17th century to ruin a woman's reputation.  The King is reported to have said of her;  'Her Grace is 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 . . .'  Known as Mad Madge, or the Whore of Welbeck, she was a spectre to frighten clever, bookish girls with.

But she persevered and ignored her critics.  'It is also a great delight and pleasure to me, as being the only pastime which employs my idle hours insomuch that, were I sure nobody did read my works, yet I would not quit my pastime for all that, for although they should not delight others, yet they delight me.'

I found her a wonderful personality and a great inspiration.  Her views were so ardently feminist, in an age when women had no freedom at all, I couldn't help but admire her audacity.  'True it is,' she wrote, anticipating Germaine Greer by several hundred years,  'that men from their first creation, usurped a supremacy to themselves, although we were made equal by nature, which tyrannical government they have kept ever since so that we could never come to be free, but rather more and more enslaved, using us either like children fools or subjects . . . and will not let us divide the World equally with them . . . which slavery hath so dejected our spirits, as we are become so stupid that Beasts are a degree below us, and men use us but a degree above beasts, whereas in Nature we have as clear an understanding as men;  if we were bred in schools to mature our brains and to manure our understandings that we might bring forth the fruits of knowledge.' 

A Glorious Fame:  The Life of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle

Monday, 15 February 2016

Reasons to be cheerful!

It's Valentine's Day, the sun is shining, the snowdrops are blooming ......  Time to smile, after a long and difficult winter.   In my flood-wrecked garden, things are beginning to push upwards towards rumours of spring.

The moles have managed to survive being under 20 feet or more of raging flood water, and are digging themselves out again.  This is one hell of a mole hill! It's a couple of feet across and a foot high.

Meanwhile, I've had another round of the Were-Wolf coughing virus, requiring days in bed and the ministrations of my lovely neighbour and the doctor.  Currently a medical drug addict, but hoping to get out of rehab shortly!  Life is too short to spend indoors with day-time TV (I have even watched Ice Road Truckers!). And I have a book to finish.  'Travelling to the Edge of the World' is now being trans-mogrified into html code, having illustrations added to it, and undergoing the painful process of editing to make it fit for Readers.  It will soon, I hope, be ready to go out into the world, a couple of months later than scheduled, but I didn't allow for the power of the weather, or subversive viruses!

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Margaret Forster - a very private life

Saddened yesterday to learn of the death of Cumbrian author Margaret Forster.  She had been looking cancer in the eye for more than forty years, after being diagnosed with breast cancer as a young mother. Although Margaret kept the diagnosis strictly private, the subject found its way, as writers' lives do, into her novels.  'Is there anything you want?'  is the story of a group of very different women who meet at a cancer clinic in a northern hospital that closely resembles the old Cumberland Infirmary in Carlisle.  She didn't tell the full story, publicly, until her most recent book, a memoir, 'My Life in Houses', written when secondary cancer had already invaded her spine.

Margaret had no time for euphemisms.  A spade was very definitely a spade, and her honesty sometimes terrified other people.  No talk of 'passing away', or 'kicking the bucket' -  'What's wrong with the word "dead"?' Margaret asked.   And she ridiculed those who talked about her brave 'battle' with cancer.  'There is no fighting that can be done,'  she observed.  'and being positive not only has no proven effect but it creates another psychological burden for the patient.'  She saw the illness as a 'touch of woodworm, or dry rot' in the house of the body - an insidious invasion that might never properly be eradicated.  It takes courage to see things with such ruthless clarity.

It was a novel, a film, a musical and a hit single!
Born and brought up in Cumbria, not far from where I was born, Margaret belonged to an older generation and her work was inspirational for younger writers.  'Georgy Girl' was a huge hit, both as a novel and a film.  It was a big influence - I even have a daughter called Meredith Jones!   Margaret and her husband Hunter Davies were, like myself, like Melvyn Bragg and many others, the product of a state education system that gave scholarships to working class children and enabled them to go on to university and enter the careers they dreamed of.  Margaret's parents lived in a council house in one of the poorer areas of Carlisle.  But she went to Oxford and became one of the UK's most successful novelists.

Margaret refused to compromise.  Her life revolved around her family and her writing.  She wasn't interested in the trappings of literary fame, though she did enjoy the financial benefits it brought. Publishers resigned themselves to the fact that she wouldn't go to literary festivals to promote her books.  A little radio, magazine and newspaper articles, some photo-shoots and that had to be enough. Margaret didn't do literary dinner parties either and many thought her sharp-tongued and reclusive.  As a new, rather self-conscious writer, I was terrified of her reputation.  I remember being struck dumb on a public platform where I was supposed to be giving a talk, because someone told me that Margaret was sitting in the back row of the audience.  When I actually met her, on another occasion, I was so tongue-tied I could barely stammer 'hello'.  She must have thought me a complete idiot.

But the friends who knew her well loved her incisive mind (Hunter Davies says that she was the most intelligent woman he had ever known) and she was extraordinarily generous.  I certainly found her so.  She gave my book 'A Passionate Sisterhood' such a rave review, I still blush when I read it. When I asked for permission to re-write the short critical biography I had originally been commissioned by the Arts Council to write, to bring it up to date, she gave me unqualified permission and her only worry was that it might cost me money, since she wasn't a sufficiently famous author (in her eyes) to merit such a work. But it wasn't a question of money, more of recognition for a Cumbrian writer I had always believed to be critically under-rated.

Her best work, in my opinion, is her memoir writing - Hidden Lives and Precious Lives - the stories of her own family. They reveal, more expertly than anything else I have ever read, the difficulties and tragedies, and the sheer waste of talent, of what used to be called 'the servant class' in the days before the welfare state, when women in particular were at the mercy of unscrupulous employers.   As we slide towards social inequality once more, books like this are worth reading as an awful reminder of what happens when we lose health care and education as a basic human right.

Margaret Forster will be much mourned by family, friends and readers alike.  Our thoughts go out to her husband, Hunter Davies - a partnership both literary and personal that has lasted for more than 50 years - and to her three children.

Margaret Forster:  A Life in Books
is published by The Book Mill

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Technical Hitches and Other Glitches

Jonah Jones does it again!  No sooner do I arrive in Italy than the gas boiler takes one look at me and expires.  4 days without heating or hot water.  I managed to endure that with reasonable fortitude (okay so I swore and used a lot of deodorant), but when I switched my computer on and it refused to obey, it was a major incident.  Writers are dependent on technology;  needing to work, committed to a monthly blog for Authors Electric, I was reduced to the basic communications of my mobile phone. I missed a couple of deadlines, but there was nothing I could do.  Rural Italy is not the world centre of IT.  It wasn't all doom and gloom though.  Neil's exhibition looked wonderful and the opening party was spectacular. The President of the Commune made a speech and called him Maestro Ferber, celebrating a lifetime of skill and knowledge.

Who cares about technology when there's wine and music?  And friends.   The first diagnosis on the computer was that it was the boot drive - the screen flickered for a couple of seconds when I pressed the start button but then went blank.  Nothing worked.  There didn't seem to be a way to get into anything to even do a diagnostic test.  I normally work on 'the cloud' so all my files were safe, but there's always a lot of things, mainly photographs, that you haven't backed up. I resigned myself to the loss. The culprit turned out to be a Windows update which had failed to load properly and corrupted the hard drive.  Windows 10 is a nightmare - you have no control over what happens. It's Thursday night now (almost a week) and I'm back in the UK and up and running again, thanks to a partner who is not just a gifted sculptor, but a computer geek as well.  Thank you Neil!

Neil and I before the hordes arrived, plus wine, minus computer.