Friday, November 28, 2008

The Write Stuff

What do you do when you discover that the book you’ve been working on for four years has just been published - by another writer who’d been researching it for twelve?

It seems writing is as much a test of character as of creativity. When John Stuart Mill decided that he was would never finish writing his history of the French Revolution, on hearing that Thomas Carlyle was working on a similar project, he generously gave Carlyle his entire collection of books on the subject – there were no lending libraries in those days.

So when Carlyle finished The French Revolution in 1835, he lent the one and only manuscript – there were no photocopiers either – to Mill to read. Mill’s housemaid, thinking it was scrap, burned it. What did Carlyle do? He sat down and wrote it again, and then – how's this for trust? – sent it to Mill to review. (Presumably he'd changed his housemaid by then.) It turned out to be Carlyle’s greatest work. Then he founded the London Library.

When Charles Dickens wanted to write a novel set against the background of the Revolution, he relied heavily on Carlyle’s book and reading list, which by then he was able to borrow from the Library.

It’s an interesting thought that if there’d been no Mill, Carlyle might not have written The French Revolution, without which there might not have been A Tale of Two Cities – and, worse, no London Library. Today, if you search the Library catalogue under “French Revolution” you get 575 responses.

The Victorian painter and poet, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, faced a different test. When Lizzie Siddall, his model, lover and, later, wife, overdosed on laudanum, he was distraught. Before she was buried in Highgate cemetery, he touchingly laid the manuscript of an unpublished book of his poems in the coffin beside her, implying that “Without you my poems are worthless”. But when, some years later, Rosetti decided he would like to publish the poems, rather than write all them out again, he had Lizzie’s coffin exhumed, took out his poems and buried her again, remarking that she was still as beautiful as he remembered. As always, Dorothy Parker put it succinctly:

Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Buried all of his libretti,
Thought the matter over – then
Went and dug them up again.

What am I going to do about the book? I wish I knew.

Friday, November 21, 2008


Palermo airport is called Falcone-Borsellino airport – for the two judges who were murdered by the mob there in 1992. Getting there at 1.00pm Monday for Alitalia’s 3.20pm flight to London seemed ample time. It was: the crews went on strike and I got home at midnight Tuesday. I won’t go as far as the guy who set up a special website to complain about his Alitalia experience, partly because the airport staff were incredibly helpful, but mainly because the guy is being sued by the airline. But next time I’m going by sea.
The amazing thing about Palermo is that whenever you think you’ve seen it all, another marvel pops up. The Piazza Pretoria is just one of many: a 16th century square – except it’s round – with a fountain in the middle, hidden around a corner from the Via Roma, surrounded by statues, which, instead of concealing their genitalia, Botticelli-like, with fluttering gauze or long hair, do it with their hands, like footballers facing a free kick. The square seems too small to hold so many statues together, until you try to photograph them - then you find it’s too big to fit into the viewfinder.
About five miles south of the city is a 12th century Benedictine abbey with a panoramic view across Palermo and its bay. It was founded by William II (William the Good), as a penance for the fact that his father, (appropriately, William the Bad), embezzled the country’s money on earthly pleasures. Williams I and II (pair Williams) are buried alongside each other in the abbey. Strolling the cloisters on a quiet autumn afternoon, you could imagine William II checking off his beads and meditating on his future image, eight centuries later. Just to make sure, he put old father William in a black sarcophagus. His own is white.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Lyon’s Corner House

We spent All Saints weekend in Lyon, France’s second city. It sits between the Rhone and SaĆ“ne, and it’s where the two rivers converge. Fittingly, for the weekend of the dead, it rained almost non-stop. There’s a block of flats on a corner in Lyon, one side of which is flat, windowless and pretty boring. Or was, until a local art school decided to make it a monumental trompe l’oeil. A lot of people chipped in money for paints, ladders, etc. and this is the result. Even standing right in front of it it’s hard to tell if the windows, cats, cars etc. are real. They're not: only the delivery van and the pedestrian crossings out front are real.

The next weekend we were in Palermo, Sicily. It is one of those cities whose fictional image is so intense that it obscures its factual one. Oh yes, there’s still a Mafia presence all right, but the visitor doesn’t see it – unlike St. Petersburg, where the mobsters sit proudly in their smoky-windowed Mercedes as they speed along the pavements. What the tourist sees is what travel brochures call a "bustling" city that lies between a blue crescent-shaped bay and a concentric semi-circle of green mountains. There are baroque churches in dozens and almost as many medieval monasteries. The picture is a 12th century mosaic the size of a cricket pitch.
Its cathedral is a hodgepodge of architectural history, from Roman to Moorish to Norman to Baroque with a touch of Gothic – yet strangely harmonious.
We were a group of “mature students” who, almost 12 years ago, met in the semi-circular piazza in front of the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena and every year since then have deserted our patient partners to go off to some historic European city for a weekend of museums, galleries and food. The main difference this time was that – thanks to a strike of Alitalia air crews - the weekend became almost a week. One of us is still waiting for his suitcase.