Saturday, 30 July 2011

The Wombles of Capriglia and Capezzano

On the main road at the end of our track is a parking space containing the local recycling bins. Things don’t stay there long - recovering and redistributing is the local sport.

So far we’ve acquired a table for the terrace

two sun loungers

a garden bench in need of resuscitation

and (best find) a deep porcelain sink that’s going to become a herb garden.

Yesterday I was beaten to an ice box (ex Ikea, pristine) by an elderly Italian lady twice my width but much less inhibited about climbing into the skip and having a serious rummage. A television set with a broken, but fixable, on/off switch made up for it later. So now we can watch Berlusconi TV with half naked girls on seven inch heels fawning over paunchy, middle-aged presenters!

I can't believe how lucky I am to be here.  It's the kind of luck where you feel it's too perfect to continue - something is bound to go wrong.  How British is that?

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Music for Norway

We’re very lucky to live so close to a town dedicated to the arts.  During the summer they have regular music events - most of them ticket only affairs (and much too expensive for our modest budget), but some of them are held in the Piazza and are free to anyone who comes along.  On Sunday the Argentinian pianist Martha Argerich is performing (check out her Bach on YouTube) and two nights ago it was the Orchestra Cantelli from Milan. 

We’ve had a few days of stormy weather, and the sunset on the drive down the mountain to Pietrasanta was spectacular.

We were too late to get a seat, so had to stand in the Piazza, but the music was well worth it.  Perhaps it’s just the surroundings, but it felt magical. 

They played Verdi (the audience humming along!) Corelli, Mozart and Vivaldi, and then the conductor Michael Guttman announced that they were going to play Grieg’s Andante Religioso as a tribute to those who died in Norway at the weekend. Everyone in the square was silent, listening and thinking of the bereaved families.   It was very moving and I thought I'd like to share it here.

Monday, 25 July 2011

The Cat Man

From the terrace you can see a house - just the top storey and the terracotta roof tiles jutting out of the woods on the side of the ravine that slopes down towards the town. It’s puzzled us ever since we moved in because there isn’t a road, or even a track that could lead to it.
Viewed from above it looks derelict - loose pantiles on the roof, flaking stucco, window shutters broken. But sometimes, late at night, we've seen a light glimmering through the trees.

Both Neil and I love walking and have been exploring alternative ways of getting to Pietrasanta without taking the car down the winding, suicidal road that connects the village to the town - spiralling up 900 feet in just three kilometres. Yesterday we decided to attempt to find the old pony track down to the town which was originally used by the workers in the marble yards. A man in the village assured us it was still there - very overgrown and possibly obstructed in places. ‘People build new houses,’ he told us, ‘and they put up signs that say “Proprieta Privata”.’
We followed several paths through the woods, many ending in a terraced olive grove with no way out, but on our fourth attempt, pushing through tangled shrubs and brambles we emerged into a clearing and there was the house in front of us. It looked almost as ruinous as it had seemed from a distance, surrounded by discarded rubbish and the rubble of a lean to that had leaned too far. But we could hear the sound of a strimmer and as we walked round the end of the house we could see a sturdy figure in protective clothing strimming the long grass under the olive trees below.

An old garden table standing outside was piled high with empty dog food cans. There was a plate and a beer glass beside them. All around were plastic sacks of refuse and supermarket carriers, but an old shallow sink stood under a stand-pipe with two pot plants in it. A broken door, propped open, revealed a room full of the plastic baskets they use for the olive harvest, a plastic chair, an old television and a stained mattress. A sky satellite dish had been tied to the window shutter with wire.
On the patchy grass that still seemed to remember being a lawn, a colony of cats lay in the sun, but as soon as we appeared they shot off into a bramble thicket, where seven pairs of eyes watched us carefully.
The man looked up, stopped strimming, pushed up his visor and smiled at us, calling ‘Buona sera’ as he wiped the sweat from his face with his sleeve.
‘Sera,’ we replied.
‘Questa casa,’ I gestured towards the house, ‘e occupata?’
‘Si, signora.’ He grinned broadly. ‘I sleep there. And the cats.’
I looked at all the cans of dog food, but no sign of a dog anywhere and thought ‘Does he feed it to the cats?’
‘Is there a path to Pietrasanta anywhere here?’ Neil asked.
‘Si. Basso.’ He pointed down through the olive grove, and then we could see a flight of old stone steps, very overgrown, but heading in the right direction.

We parted with friendly greetings, though I didn’t have the courage to ask him his name, but I’m sure we will be meeting our nearest neighbour again, since we have to walk through his garden when we want to walk into town. And now I know where the wild cats - who sometimes appear on my terrace - come from.
She would like to come in!
One of them has appeared regularly since we moved in. She will eat from a plate when we are there, but doesn’t tolerate any close contact. A sudden movement and she’s gone in a flash. I’m happy to feed her - I just hope she doesn’t bring all her brothers and sisters.

Pleasure at being here rather overshadowed by the weekend news from Norway. There are two Norwegian sculptors working here in Pietrasanta, one currently in Oslo and we hope that she, and her family, are safe.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Save the Short Story

Today I've been in my new house a week and it's beginning to feel more like home.   There are pictures on the walls and I've managed to organise the kitchen cupboards.  Outside I've pruned and watered the rosemary bush which was almost dead from neglect.
The weather has been very unseasonal for Italy in the second half of July - rain almost every day, cloudy and grey with a strong, cool wind blowing.  I'm writing this on the terrace wrapped in a shawl on what would normally be a balmy evening.  The Mediterranean is very rough, as we found on an excursion to explore a new pier that's been constructed at Marina di Pietrasanta.   Standing in the sea beside it is a bronze cloaked figure staring back at the mountains.  On such a wild, dark day it felt rather melancholy.  There was no plaque to say who the artist was, or who it is intended to be.   The biggest waves were washing right up to the hem of the bronze robes,  and the beach  - usually crammed with tourists  - was deserted.

I'm not doing much writing yet - I'm not settled enough and my mind keeps wandering off to write shopping lists or wonder how to decipher the impenetrable communication from Italia Telecom written in a form of Italian previous unknown to me and demanding 220 euros with no indication of how or where to pay!

More depressing news has filtered through from the world of books and writing.   The BBC have decided to axe their daily short story slot  - one of the only decent markets for the genre left to us.  Not only that, it's such a good training ground for budding authors.   Writing a short story for radio is such good practice for writing prose fiction - lucid, with a clear story line and strong voices.   It's one of the ways I started out and I've discovered many a favourite author that way and gone on to read their novels.  These cuts are all down to money and it makes me feel even more angry about the mess the bankers have left us in.

The Society of Authors has initiated a petition which I've gladly signed.​tion/noshortstorycuts/

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

A Haunted House?

The New Office
We’ve now been in our new Italian house for three full days. We’ve finally managed to find out how (almost) everything works. The large, rickety wooden bedstead which creaked and groaned at every movement has been taken apart and stowed in the shed. For the moment we’re sleeping on the floor. And we’ve managed to organise the box-room into an office, using the dining table, a recycled set of shelves and the top of a gigantic dresser that used to dominate the sitting/dining room.

All so far blissfully going to plan. But on our second night here, something very odd happened. Neil, who is as down-to-earth a bloke as you can find, had a very strange and disturbing dream, which he was convinced at the time was not a dream.
It was a hot, thundery night and so we went to sleep with the electric fan on. Somewhere in the middle of the night the temperature dropped and I woke up cold, but didn’t want to get up and switch it off because that would have woken Neil who was still peacefully asleep. Then, suddenly, he called out really loudly - ‘Hoy! Hoy!’ and sat up in bed.
I said ‘what’s the matter?’ And he shouted ‘Get out! Get out!’
I leapt out of bed thinking, ‘Is there a fire? A rat in the room?’ Neil carried on shouting - switching the bedside lamp on so violently it fell off the table and shattered on the floor.
‘What’s the matter?’ I was by now quite terrified. ‘What’s happened?’
‘There are people in the house!’ Neil got up and began to run out into the hallway. ‘Didn’t you see them? Two men, one of them had a lighted cigarette. They were just coming in through the doorway.’
I’d seen no one, but it took some time - and a complete tour of the house - to convince Neil, who was totally spooked. He had obviously had a very vivid, real dream, in which he was able to call out, smash a lamp, and sit up in bed. Either that or the house is haunted!
I’m not a great believer in ghosts, but we are quite close to Santa Anna, in the heart of Partisan country, where terrible things did happen and whole villages were massacred in these hills. Who knows what echoes of the past remain.
Neil was so spooked by it we went to sleep the following night with the hall light on and the bedroom door locked, but so far everything has remained peaceful.  Perhaps this is a warning to reduce the consumption of  local wine and pecorino cheese just before bedtime!

Monday, 18 July 2011

Tuesday Poem - Two New Zealand Authors

Author’s Bluff

It never stops in the famous story
does it, the wind, the wind?
            It is there
when the book is shut, pelting
the house walls, pushing the pines
the wrong way, making the girl’s
skirts flounce like the edges
of the streamed clouds, her heart
riding the wind.
        No wonder the sea
rings, throws salt at her lips,
the street tilts its deck
beneath the bright, flung stars.

Open the book, only that
will stop it.  Open the book
to let her through.

Copyright - Vincent O’Sullivan: Further Convictions Pending
Victoria University Press

It’s National Poetry Week in New Zealand, so I wanted to use work by an NZ poet, and this poem manages to cover two.  The first lines reference Katherine Mansfield’s famous Wellington story ‘The Wind!  The Wind!’

A big thanks to Vincent for giving me his collection when I was in NZ last year, and for giving me permission to post this on the Tuesday Poem site.

For more Tuesday Poems visit the web site 

Sunday, 17 July 2011

A New Life in Italy

Just a quick post to say that I arrived here last night, have unpacked the suitcase, spent a night in the most rickety antique Italian bed I've ever slept in,  had breakfast on the terrace and am now sitting under the cherry tree, looking at the sea, and organising myself to do some work.  There is a recycling skip on the road outside the village and we found a small plastic table, absolutely perfect for the lap-top in a shady corner.  It (the corner) has views out over the Mediterranean and across to the village of Capezzano Monte, which I haven't explored yet, but may tomorrow when I run out of milk and bread.
I can see that skip is going to come in useful!  Currently looking for a bed frame.........

Friday, 15 July 2011

Dartington: Day 2

Beautiful sunny day - though I woke up feeling the effects of too much wine and partying the night before.  There were lots of interesting people at dinner - Howard Marks, the drug courier who has come out of jail to write crime thrillers (Sympathy for the Devil); comedian Harry Hill, who was quite unlike his TV persona.  I sat next to him but was too diffident to strike up a conversation. What do you say to someone famous for their wit?
Food writers Joscelyn Dimbleby and Elizabeth Luard were very good company - Elizabeth could remember dancing with Mick Jagger at parties in the sixties (check out her memoirs!).  Fiona Sampson, editor of the Poetry Review was there briefly, and Blake Morrison - who is as nice as his books suggest he might be.  He was sitting with Ted Hughes wife Carol.
So, a very enjoyable dinner.  Being shy is a distinct disadvantage though - I’ve never been good at this networking malarkey and have absolutely no small talk.  But I do like people and enjoy listening to interesting conversations.

We ate our breakfasts on the lawn after the fire alarm went off and the building was evacuated, but it turned out to be only someone burning the toast.  After my Christchurch litfest event was prevented by an earthquake, I did wonder whether my Dartington appearance would be thwarted by the Hall burning down - probably giving rise to the legend of the Mansfield Curse!!

In the end the talk seemed to go smoothly - all beautifully choreographed by staff and a very good chairperson.  Though nervous I was soon feeling better in front of a friendly, welcoming audience - I even sold some books afterwards.

The only downside was having to get into the car and drive 350 miles home afterwards - a gruelling 8 hour motorway epic on a hot sunny day we would have loved to spend on the lawn at Dartington.  I shall just have to write another book and get invited back!

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Dartington Hall: the Ted Hughes Memorial Lecture

The bliss of Dartington Hall and the Ways with Words literature Festival!  The Hall is one of the most beautiful buildings in the south west of England - grey stone walls crammed with history.  Add in the delight of many of your favourite authors, green lawns to lie on with the sunlight filtering through the cherry trees, a glass of wine in hand and Waterstones’ book tent just across the grass, and  - as a way of spending the afternoon - it takes a bit of beating.

I first came to Dartington 20 years ago to talk about Christina Rossetti, so it is wonderful to be here again to celebrate their 20th anniversary as a literature festival.   The bedroom I’ve been allocated is like a royal suite - one of the heritage rooms with antique furniture and medieval graffitti.  The bed was so big I needed a step-ladder to get into it!  Sadly, I couldn’t take a photo of the wall drawings because the white wall just reflected back the flash.  A ship has been carved into the wall, probably by soldiers billeted here at the end of the 14th century.

Once we’d unpacked and recovered from the 7 hour drive, we went to the Ted Hughes Memorial Lecture in the Great Hall, given this year by Blake Morrison.   He was brilliant on Hughes’s poetry and his life, making illuminating connections between the two informed by  interviews he had had with the poet.

I hadn’t known that Ted Hughes had given up his study of English Literature because, after struggling for hours on an essay,  he dreamt that a fox came into his bed, burnt and injured.  The fox put his paw (a human hand in the dream) on a white page and left a bloodprint on the paper.  ‘Stop this,’ he said to Hughes, ‘You are destroying us.’  After that, Hughes transferred to Archaeology and Anthropology believing that the structures of critical thought taught by the university system ruined creativity.   The fox became the equivalent of a ‘spirit guide’ and it occurs three more times in his poetry - the marvellous Thought Fox, and the ‘fox for sale’ poem in the Birthday Letters.   Later Hughes told Blake Morrison that for a poet  ‘Prose is a killer’.

Apparently Hughes felt that the real fall in human history had come with the loss of animal innocence - and that our egotism, introspection and self-consciousness separate us from our creativity and prevent us being whole.   He often quoted the phrase ‘Every man must skin his own skunk’, and he believed that every poet must be true to their own experience - getting to grips with what was real.  Poets who could do that became healers.

Later he apparently acknowledged that much harm had come from his decision not to write about his own tragic experiences  - the deaths of  Sylvia Plath and then Assia Wevill and her daughter by Hughes.  Not dealing with grief and its consequences, he said, creates a canker inside that eats away at your creative self - it ‘takes a piece of yourself away, like an amputation’.

More from Dartington tomorrow.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Ways with Words

Not much time for blogging at the moment.  I'm madly packing suitcases, arranging the house so that someone else can collect the mail and water the plants, and preparing a talk for the Ways with Words festival at Dartington  Hall on Thursday morning.   It's a long drive, so I leave tomorrow, returning for a few hours on Friday to collect the suitcases before catching a plane for Italy.   It's frantic, but also very exciting.

Rather nervous about Dartington.  It's a lovely festival in the most beautiful surroundings,  but the hall is usually packed with an audience passionate about literature and expecting the best from their authors.  It's one thing performing on the page, quite another on the stage!  My talk is going to focus on Katherine Mansfield and her relationship with DH Lawrence and his wife Frieda when they lived in Cornwall - not that far from Dartington.  Fingers crossed!

No Tuesday Poem from me this week, but please go to web site to have a look at what others are posting.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Going Down - a newspaper sinks with (almost) all hands

Extraordinary scenes in London this week as one of the most profitable newspapers in Britain has the plug pulled after revelations of a systemic culture of corruption, political skullduggery, police bribery and phone hacking.  Now we know how they got all those stories about footballer's fancies and politicians' peccadilloes.  The sight of white-faced journalists (with families and mortgages) having to pack their things and leave the office after only two days notice is sobering.  Many of them weren't even employed during the crucial period, or were too junior to have been involved.

Unfortunately the captain of the ship and the chief engineer seem to be almost the only members of staff to get a lifeboat.  Doesn't seem fair.

The News of the World crash is going to change things.  My guess is that it's the end of the line for the extreme power that the media has exercised for the past several decades unchecked.   The Prime Minister has already called in the men in dark suits to reform the Press Complaints Commission and  we don't yet know how far the reforms will go.  When politicians start tinkering with press freedom, one can't help but get a little anxious.  But the current situation  - where newspapers can operate above the law with owners too powerful to be called to account - is untenable.

I know people who feel so strongly about the Murdoch empire they won't have anything to do with literary events sponsored by them - I was given a very uncomfortable time when I agreed to do a creative writing workshop for the Sky Arts programme recently.   I was very torn - but there isn't a lot of employment for authors and you sometimes find yourself at literature festivals with sponsors you don't necessarily approve of.  After the revelations of this week, my reply to the invitation might have been different. 

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

The Tuesday Poem: William Blake

O Rose, thou art sick!
The Invisible worm,
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed
Of Crimson joy;
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

William Blake, from Songs of Experience

This poem always makes me shiver, but it is so beautiful I keep going back to it. I suppose some would say it's because the poem articulates a universal truth, the mortality that lies at the heart of everything. For me, it's also a poem about passion and about the transformation of one thing into another. The worm that munches the rose petals, thrives and eventually becomes a butterfly, or moth, laying her eggs on yet another rose.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Roses, roses, roses and more roses

We've had a few days of really lovely weather up here in the north - after months of poor weather and rain nearly every day.  Suddenly the garden has sprung to life and the roses - about a month late this year - are opening everywhere.  The mill looks at its best.   I have a passion for old roses - the ones with wonderful names like Cardinal Richelieu and Madame Alberic Barbier, Ghislaine de Felisonde, and the beautiful Queen of Denmark.  Couldn't resist taking a few pics to share - the perfume is unbelievable.  This is one thing I will miss when I go to Italy.  At the foot of the steps to the garden I've got one of the David Austin roses and the colour and scent are wonderful.  I love the chaotic patterns of the petals as they unfurl.

I'm also very keen on wild rose species and have two - a red one from China which the bees go wild for, and another white one called Rosa Alba. 

The Apothecary's Rose has striped petals and is supposed to be very ancient.

In order to deter Saturday night revellers from climbing into my garden  I've got some really prickly specimens on the fence.   Stanwell Perpetual flowers all the time, but is lethal!   And then I have a German rose called ParkDirektor Riggers - single, dark red and very precise.

I'm particularly fond of rambling roses - scrambling up trees and up onto the cliff behind the mill.  This one is called The Rambling Rector.

And this is the crowning glory - four storey's high and a pillar of colour and perfume.  Paul's Himalyan Musk.

Hard to leave England when it looks like this!  But Neil rang me last night, spending his first night in our new home.  He described the lights twinkling in the valley below, the sun setting in the distant sea,  and it sounds utterly magical.  Two more weeks!

Friday, 1 July 2011

The Next Big Author Scam

A few months ago I posted about what appeared to be a good competition for new writers working on a novel.  
The Next Big Author invited writers to begin writing a novel and submit the first chapters during the second half of May.  It had to be new writing - anything you’d already written was barred.  The top five would win a critique with a big publishing house, with the possibility of a contract if successful.  It seemed very exciting.  
But what happened next was a big let-down for most of the authors who joined.  When the submission date arrived in mid-May, writers were told to load their chapters into the already existing (and overloaded) You Write On dot com.  They were instructed to join the peer critique process, revise and edit.   Silence.
So, in fact there was no point in being part of The Next Big Author at all.  Those who joined, wrote the first chapters of their novels and submitted them within the date guidelines, have simply been thrown into the YWO pond to compete with the short stories, novels (both published and unpublished) and children’s books that were already on there - many of them for years.  The Top Ten includes work that goes back to 2008. 
There is no separate category or rating system for people who joined The Next Big Author, so one is forced to conclude that the whole exercise was simply a drive to get some new writing onto YWO.  This is very unfair, if not downright dishonest.
And what about You Write On?  The peer critique idea is generally a good one because you get feedback from readers on your own work and you have to work hard reviewing theirs - which, in theory, hones your own editing skills.
The flaws in the system are that everyone wants a five star rating for their own book and, because it’s competitive, they aren’t going to give anyone else a five star rating because that would mean they might go higher up in the charts. Reviews are also either very subjective ‘I don’t like this kind of writing.  It didn’t do anything for me.’  Or painfully Creative-Writing-Text-Book ‘I think you should Show not Tell more in the Third Person Revolving mode’.   The process also favours commercial, main-stream fiction because it’s such a broad audience - anything difficult, or a little out of the way, doesn’t do so well.  James Joyce would never have got anywhere with Ulysses!
The other problem is that YWO also operates as a publisher - for less than a hundred pounds you can get your work published by them and readers/reviewers can buy it either as print-on-demand or an e-book.  That means that new writers are competing in the ratings with already published stories.  There is no separate chart for them either.
It’s worth having a look though - you don’t have to load any work to join, you can simply sign up as a reader and browse.  YWO is keen to sell the work of those authors it publishes.  I would advise anyone to take a look before they decide to submit work.  And there have been some notable successes, such as ‘The Legacy’ which was picked up by Orion and then won the Costa.

And what happened to the three chapters I uploaded to try the whole thing out?  Well, I did make it into the top twenty (with about three hundred others!) and that - as any author will tell you - is just not good enough!!