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.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Almost there

Taking a rest after four trips to Tuscany in ten months. We tried to get some sympathy but no one wept, so might as well admit that it was tremendous fun. It was like that song in Kiss Me Kate: We Open in Venice, except that we opened in Pisa last September, and then Florence, Livorno and Florence again, with side trips to Pisa, Siena, Lucca, Volterra, Arezzo, La Spezia, Montepulciano and San Gimignano, plus some writing and more research in between. Now that the research and writing on the Literary Guide to Tuscany is just about complete and the draft is almost ready for submission, I guess I should feel relieved, but can’t get rid of the feeling that there’s so much more of Tuscany waiting to be seen and that we just ran out of time.
Florence especially always has more to see. The great Sinclair Lewis – first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature - in his World So Wide called it “a city of ancient reticences and modern energy” – meaning it’s not just one city but several: Florence, the birthplace of banking, the city whose name became the first international unit of currency – eight centuries before the Euro; Florence the museum, existing thousands of years before the Romans arrived; Florence, cradle of the Renaissance; and of course Florence, the birthplace of Dante, Galileo, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci. All this genius from a city the size of Blackburn. Question: How many geniuses can you name from Blackburn? Answer: Nat Lofthouse.
There’s a large rock in the square by the cathedral, on which Dante is reputed to have sat in the 14th century while waiting for inspiration. It’s called Il Sasso di Dante – Dante’s seat - and it has since inspired many a poetic posterior: Browning, Wordsworth, Dickens - and me. (Well at least it worked for them.) A new marble Sasso di Dante appeared in the piazza recently, reputed to be a PR event promoting an adjacent bar, the name of which is, of course, Il Sasso di Dante. Now, to avoid confusion, the signage on Dante’s original granite seat has been changed. It is now labelled Il Vero Sasso di Dante - “The true stone of Dante”.