Monday, October 01, 2012

A good walk ruined

Expressions not to be believed: the people who ring while you’re having dinner and say they’re not going to try to sell you anything. (I always put in an extra space between “who” and “ring” to avoid any risk of misinterpretation - especially during dinner.) Another credulity challenge is, “our software is now even more user-friendly and will save you eons of time”, which has about the same level of credibility as, “Of course I’ll respect you in the morning”. I used to have a rather nice header to this blog, but I tried to update it with the miraculous new software – and now look at it. Can anyone tell me how to unshrink my blog heading so that it goes right across the page? Tried the new software - even tried those e-mails that claim to stretch anything - but to no avail. I see myself as a sports fan, but I always make an exception of golf, which I see as about as sportive as synchronised swimming, darts or tiddlywinks. It’s just snooker on grass. But, having stayed up until 2.30 this morning to watch the Ryder Cup on TV, I may have to reconsider: we were totally rapt, and although we could have got the result online immediately, refused, preferring the nail-biting tension. But was it sport? Or was it nationalism: plucky Brits brave Chicago cyclones and humble golf Goliaths – a sort of Boston Tea Party in reverse? We’re taking on the French at p├ętanque next – in Marseilles. Staying with a relative in West Texas once, he suggested a game of golf; “a bit of exercise”, he said. At the golf course he had someone place two bags of clubs onto an electric cart and off we went. Half-way round, he asked if I would like to drive, and I said yes, so we returned to the clubhouse and he had someone change the bags of clubs over so that our respective bags were immediately behind us. “No point in walking any further than necessary”, he said.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Hey diddle-dee-dee: a writer’s life for me

ON November 17 last year – was it really that long ago? – I blogged about the mixed joys of finishing another book. Today, ten months later, you would be justified in expecting to see it at your friendly local independent bookshop. But it isn’t. I don't mean the bookshop's not friendly, I mean the book isn’t even at the printers yet. I’ve been having trouble with the publisher. Nearly all writers have the same: Dostoevsky, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and possibly every writer ever, except perhaps Barbara Cartland and J. K. Rowling. I shouldn’t really complain about the crassness of the leather-elbowed academics called upon to review the book: there’s always a gem or two hidden among their fatuities – and I have to agree that the book will be all the better for the fact that I now know the correct plural of gellateria. But I can’t help being reminded of Saul Bellow’s bellow: “Where were you when all I had was a sheet of paper?” I have been censored – and censured – for saying that Tony Blair is known in Tuscany as Il Scroccone – the scrounger – because of his alleged penchant for squatting, with his family, (I don’t know the plural) in the castles of wealthy Italian aristocrats and politicians, and for selecting RAF Transport Command as his carrier of choice. Some reviewers, on the other hand, have shown impeccable taste. The great authority on Tuscany, Frances Mayes, who knows the region better than anyone since Cosmo I de Medici, was kind enough to say “This book enriches my own journeys in this fabled land.” One cognicento even said it “out-Bryson’s Bryson”. We’ve battled over text, title, pictures – and now it’s the cover, which I thought funereal. They say you can’t judge a book by its cover. But you can. Have a look:
But now it really is over: the whole caboodle has gone to Sweden to be printed and soon you’ll be buying it in your trillions and I'll be working on something else. Lucky you.

Friday, August 03, 2012

What's in a Name?

My secret ambition is to have my name in The Oxford English Dictionary: it’s the literary equivalent of being nominated for the Booker Prize. The trouble is my name. Imagine someone saying ‘I got a jones for Christmas’. It doesn’t have the same air of authority as ‘I’ll wear my stetson today’. So I guess I’ll never be an eponym. Verbs are slightly easier: imagine how proud Mr and Mrs Bowdler must have been when little Tommy got his name in the OED. But the problem remains: ‘bowdlerized’ smacks of modest power, but no writer would say ‘my book’s been jonesed’. Even characters can get you into the OED: Micawbers, say, or Walter Mittys - but never Joneses. I thought of trying an abstract noun - like ‘serendipity’, but Horace Walpole’s got the copyright: he wrote a story, The Three Princes of Serendip. Now he’s in the OED for having invented a word for a chance discovery. It was serendipity that brought me to the village of Certaldo. I’d been looking for it all over Tuscany but without success: it wasn’t in the Michelin guide or on my maps. Then one day, when I was absent-mindedly looking out of the window of a train that I thought was taking me to Poggibonsi - when I saw the sign: Certaldo! Fortunately, the train stopped and I clambered out – my papers billowing in the wind. Poggibonsi would have to wait. Certaldo was the town in which Giovanni Boccaccio was born. He was one of the distinguished trio of fourteenth century Florentine poets, the other two being Dante and Petrarch. But Boccaccio was my favourite: his best-known work was inspired by the onset of the dreaded plague, the Black Death. After Mass one day in 1348, a group of seven ladies and three gentlemen retreat to a country house just outside Florence, hoping to avoid infection, and the ten friends – the decamarone - pass the time in telling each other stories, each trying to outdo the other in levels of impropriety and bawdiness - a kind of Italian Canterbury Tales. When English poet Geoffrey Chaucer visited Tuscany in 1373, he hoped to meet the poet whose work he had admired – and borrowed, these being the times before copyright law existed, but sadly, Boccaccio was already too ill for them to meet. He died in the family home in 1375, a late victim of the plague which had inspired his greatest work.
Stepping from the funicular cable car that takes you up to the old village is a step into another era. Buildings and roadways are laid in narrow red bricks, herringbone-pattern, like Roman roads. In the vast Piazza Boccaccio stands a statue of a giant medieval hoodie on a pedestal that bears the inscription: Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375). Halfway up the main street – the Via Boccaccio of course - is the Casa Boccaccio. During the Second World War it was almost destroyed by American B-26 bombers, but it has now been faithfully restored and looks as good as old. The view from its roof terrace is a 360-degree panorama of fields, vineyards and olive groves. But there is a surprise: eight miles to the south-west stands a cluster of medieval towers that can only be San Gimignano.
That’s serendipity.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Faulty Tower

When researching the current work, Pisa seemed the obvious hub to access northern and coastal Tuscany: its railway station is on direct lines to Livorno, La Spezia, Viareggio, Lucca and Florence, and its international airport is 1 kilometre from the station. We had decided to use public transport in order to meet some Italians and get a bit of local colour, and as the rail fares were cheap, we went first class. That was a mistake: we soon discovered that the first class compartments were full of American or Australian tourists with ‘Rover’ passes – which meant they were carrying three months’ luggage, which blocked the corridors and left nowhere to put your feet. If you want to meet Italians, we discovered, you travel second class.

Pisa’s literary credentials are impeccable: the Shelleys, the Brownings, Byron, Smollett, Dickens, Henry James, Mark Twain and many more literary exiles lived there. Not only has the city a Mussolini-esque railway station: it also has a Campo dei Miracoli – the Field of Miracles – with a magnificent cathedral, baptistery, and a well-known bell tower. As we walk up the Via Nicola Pisano, (named after the prolific Pisan sculptor whose work can be seen as far south as Sicily), the domes and pinnacles of the Field of Miracles appear and disappear like a mirage. Eventually, a cluster of 11th- to 14th-century buildings set in green lawns comes into full view: Cathedral, Baptistery and the most visited tilted tower in the world. The three buildings are a mix of Romanesque and Gothic - with a touch of Moorish: yet the whole harmonises as if planned that way.

But Pisa’s pride and joy - the magnet that pulls in the crowds - is the Torre Pendente, not for its inherent beauty, although it is beautiful, but because its top leans almost 4 metres to the south-east. Whilst the revenue it produces in admission fees and the sale of plaster replicas must delight its managers, (the Opera Primaziale Pisana), it must surely be frustrating for lovers of architecture to watch the hordes queueing up to pay €15 for the disorienting experience of climbing its 296 steps – or 294, depending which side you climb – while, barely 100 metres away, one of the world’s most magnificent cathedrals stands gleaming in the sunshine, relatively ignored. It is now generally accepted that the white marble bell tower, the building of which began in 1173, was already leaning when its construction was less than half finished. Tobias Smollett, who climbed it in 1765, almost six hundred years after it was built, goes so far as to say, not only that the tower was built aslant from the vertical, but intentionally so. ‘I should never have dreamed’, he wrote, ‘that it was done on purpose by the architect’.

The tower had a narrow escape in 1945, during the last weeks of the war in Europe, when a group of soldiers from the US Army passed through the town and found themselves under fire from German snipers, who they thought were hiding in the tower. The Americans’ group commander, deciding that the appropriate retaliation would be to destroy the tower, ordered up the necessary heavy artillery, but, either by chance or thanks to some sense of history on the part of his superiors, , he was ordered to another position before his plan could be carried out and the tower survived undamaged – as did the commander. The only war injury suffered by the tower was to have one of its marble columns destroyed by Italian anti-aircraft fire. No aircraft were damaged during this process.

It was not until the 1970s that experts began to worry that, with the tower moving a millimetre or two every year, unless something were done it would fall flat on its south-eastern face, and that, while a tower with a tilt of 5 degrees may be one of the world’s wonders, a horizontal one would prove to be a fairly resistible tourist attraction.
So a worldwide call was made for solutions to the problem, eliciting hundreds of proposals, ranging from the inspired to the bizarre, and in 1990 the tower was closed while the alternatives were considered. After three years’ deliberation, the authorities chose the most mundane and least aesthetic solution: to attach huge lead weights to the north-west side of the tower, with the objective of lowering its centre of gravity. It did not take the Opera Primaziale Pisana long to notice that several tonnes of lead stuck parenthetically along the side of the tower detracted from its Renaissance beauty. It was then decided that the only acceptable solution had to be below ground, and the tower reopened for business in 2001, unleaded.
The tower is now more popular than ever in all its oblique splendour, apparently held securely at 4.8 degrees from the vertical by those thousands of public-spirited people who standin profile beside it with their hands raised, palms outwards, while their friends take their photograph.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Here Today and Here Tomorrow

You must have noticed, (he said presumptuously), that I’ve been less than diligent in my blogging this year. This is my excuse: it’s the likely cover of the masterpiece I’ve been working on for the past year or more, and which, to my indescribable relief, just went off to the anxiously awaiting publisher. It will be another in a series being published by I.B. Tauris that features interesting places like Tuscany, the French Riviera, Morocco and such, as seen through the eyes of the writers who lived and wrote there.
One summer evening in 1787, in the conservatory of his garden in Lausanne, Edward Gibbon put down his pen having finished writing The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He wrote later that he experienced two conflicting sensations: relief - at what he called “the recovery of my freedom”. But then, “a sober melancholy was spread over my mind by the idea that I had taken everlasting leave of an old and agreeable companion…”. As I handed my manuscript over the counter in Windsor Post Office, I understood, on an infinitely smaller scale, just how he must have felt. Relief, yes, and freedom - but also loss. My own “old and agreeable companion” will be called something like Florence and Tuscany: A Literary Guide. But while Gibbon’s magnificent work had taken him 23 years, my humble effort has been my constant companion for fewer than 23 months – but long enough for me to miss it now it's gone.
We thought, the DG and I, after visiting Florence and Tuscany for more than 15 years, that we knew something about the region, but our research over these past months has shown us only how much there is yet to know about this wonderful place. Writing books about writers is both absorbing and exciting: it links them unforgettably with places you know and love, but there’s a bonus: the writers that you know introduce you to new and different writers, and together they lead you to places that you only thought you knew. I hope the book will do the same for its readers, whether exploring for themselves or armchair travelling. It’s been a fascinating journey for us, trekking in the footsteps of seven centuries of writers, from Dante and Chaucer to Sinclair Lewis and Muriel Spark - and a hundred others, and we’re sorry it’s over – especially as the next jobs are boring but necessary stuff like galley-proofing and the Index, but while I can’t wait to see it in the shops, it’s the great satisfaction of writing that, contrary to Gibbon’s “everlasting leave”, it’s not at all like pictorial art: because when the book goes out of the door, you still have it. For ever.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Mr. Butterfly

Watched a TV programme the other night in which Rick Stein talked about food in the context of Italian opera – just when you thought they’d run out of hooks on which to hang cookery programmes. Still, the music was good. Stein disclosed to awe-struck viewers the favourite foods of assorted operatic composers, so I know - or I did the other night - the culinary preferences of people like Verdi, Rossini and Puccini.
Puccini was born in Lucca. It is one of my favourite cities in Tuscany, and not only because my wife and I got engaged there. A bronze figure of Puccini sits, bronze cigar in hand, outside his natal home. The town honours him with a festival of his music every summer. A plaque on a wall nearby reads: “Love and poetry tormented the genius but the musical city gave his magical violin the wings of glory.”
A century later, another tormented genius lived in Lucca: the great jazz trumpeter, Chet Baker. The funny valentine who thought he could live undisturbed in sleepy Lucca spent a year there as a guest of the Carcere di San Giorgio, the town’s ancient prison, for possessing heroin. Every evening, while his red Ferrari gathered dust outside, the pie-eyed piper drew fans old and new to gather on the city walls outside the prison to listen to him practise. Local jazz musicians would join in to entertain what was truly a captive audience. Chet’s appeal against his 22-month sentence was eventually successful and he was released in time for Christmas - as was his album, Chet is Back, on which he sang some Italian songs he wrote in Lucca jail.

A few years later I saw him in a small jazz club in Nice, but I didn’t hear him play. He arrived on stage two hours late, someone led him by the arm towards a chair; he sat and put his trumpet to his lips, but no sound came out. No one moved, and the few people who started to murmur were immediately shushed by their neighbours. He tried again, several times, but produced no more than a few squawks and some mumbled words about new false teeth. I never saw him again: the last weeks in the life of one of the world’s greatest jazz trumpeters - the musician who played alongside the likes of Gerry Mulligan, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie - were spent in the back streets of Amsterdam, the city to which he had always returned in search of his needs. His twisted body was found in the street beneath the hotel window at which he used to play.

In Lucca, no bronze statue sits outside Chet Baker’s custodial home; no annual festival celebrates his music, and no commemorative plaque records his passing. But there is a plaque in a cobbled street in Amsterdam. It reads: “Chet Baker died here on May 13, 1988. He will live on in his music for everyone willing to listen and feel”.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


This is the Casa Magni, the beachside house in the Italian coastal village of Lerici, on the beautiful Gulf of La Spezia, to which the English poet Shelley was sailing when his boat capsized and he drowned, just days before his 30th birthday. Writing about writers is an endless process of discovery: you set off seeking traces of a writer and discover places that you weren't looking for. The converse is equally true: while looking for unknown places, you find writers you didn’t know. While researching the last days of Shelley I found Lerici and the magnificent Cinque Terre – the five crepuscular “countries” to the west of the Gulf. In turn, researching Shelley led me to another writer that I didn’t know: his biographer, Richard Holmes, of whom I’ve been a fan ever since. Not the moustachioed historian seen on BBC TV, but the self-styled “Romantic Biographer” whose Footsteps is the sort of book I wanted this one to be. (It isn’t.)
Places can also introduce you to writers you thought you knew, but didn’t. I thought I knew English author E. M. Forster - but that was before I discovered the medieval towered city of San Gimignano (below) and read Where Angels Fear to Tread, which is set there. It was his first novel, begun on his first visit to Tuscany with his mother in 1900 at the age of 21 - eight years before A Room with a View and 21 years before A Passage to India. One critic of the book complained that “The picturesqueness of his diction is invariably marred by his superficiality of thought” – the very words I would like to hear said about me. But, superficial or not, there is youthful wisdom there. Forster on Italian so-called “bad taste”: “it is not the bad taste of a country which knows no better; it is not the nervous vulgarity of England, or the blinded vulgarity of Germany. It observes beauty, and chooses to pass it by”. And on parenthood: “a wonderful physical tie binds the parents to the children; and – by some strange irony – it does not bind us children to our parents”. Fair enough - parental love is essential to the survival of the race, but not the filial variety.