Thursday, 16 April 2015

London Book Fair 2015

I'm currently at the London Book Fair - for the first time and absolutely loving it!  Why have publishers and agents kept it to themselves for long?   Now the author invasion has begun! Some really interesting things going on. I'm at Author HQ and The Poetry Pavilion and tomorrow I'm at Foyles Bookshop for the Indie ReCon event organised by the Alliance of Independent Authors.  In the afternoon, from 4.30, we're selling books at the Foyles' independent book fair and later there will be wine!  Anyone in the area, please come and see us.  Neil will also be there, selling books.

No pictures, or proper blog because my computer has decided it isn't compatible with the hotel wifi (I blame Windows 8) and so I can only do what is possible on my mobile phone - but I will be blogging it all as soon as I get home.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Looking for my Family in the City of the Dead

Cimatero - Genoa

The hillside, among the tombs. A wonderful place to spend the day
My Italian great-grandmother is a mystery.  All I know about her is her name - Francesca Maria Theresa Nogaro - and not even that is certain.  Although she was always known as Fanny, her christian names could be in a different order.  And then there's the spelling of the surname.  The family were fairly sure that was how she wrote it when they entered it on the death certificate, but no one knew for sure.

The rest is legend.  She was supposed to have been the daughter of a ships' Chandler and my great-grandfather, who was the captain of a ship, apparently fell in love with her on the quayside, married her and transported her to England within the space of three weeks.  My grandfather used to talk about the cousins he had in Genoa - his mother was still in touch with them at that time - but after she died the family connection was broken.
Woman mourning her husband.

A teardrop beautifully carved.
So, being in Italy for Easter, I decided it was time to visit the old cemetery in Genoa to see if I could find any of my relatives.  My gt grandmother was born in the 1860s so surely some of the family would have died there?  But I hadn't realised just how big Cimatero is.  It's the size of a city and has a similar population, though they're all very quiet.

More modern interments are on the roof - these are repositories for ashes.

In the main building, there are endless corridors piled high on either side with the dead in their marble drawers.

And you are walking on crypts underfoot too.  Some of them a little wobbly.  You have to watch where you tread. Someone here must have had a nasty surprise!

The sculpture on some of the tombs is amazing.  This was Neil's main interest - particularly as some of the work was carried out in Pietrasanta by the skilled artisans and sculptors that have worked in this small marble town for hundreds of years.  Here are just a few of the most spectacular.

The quality of the carving and the detail is amazing.  This one was of a young woman standing outside a door with a symbolic egg-timer on it.  Every minute detail of her clothing - even her wedding ring - was perfectly carved.

Out on the hillside there are avenues of family tombs like little houses.

Some of the more modest family tombs.
Some of them are very posh, with iron railings and chapels and stained glass windows.  Many of them have not been maintained for years, presumably because the families have moved away, died out, or simply run out of money.
This is the rather neglected exterior of one chapel tomb. 

This is the interior, taken through the broken door. 
We had a picnic somewhere in the cypress groves, on the steps of a grand mausoleum.

Sadly, even among the more modern graves, I found no record of my gt grandmother's family.  But it would have been like looking for a needle in a haystack.  Next time I will have to consult the official records first!  Every grave is numbered, so someone, somewhere in the Great Italian Bureaucracy must know who is buried where.

The more modern dead in their marble drawers. I love the photographs. 

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Tuesday Poem: Ashes - Tara Divilly and Derek Walcott

and in the salt chuckle of rocks
with their sea pools, there was the sound
like a rumour without any echo

of History, really beginning.

Sculpture and photograph, Tara Divilly

Text, Derek Walcott from The Sea is History

This image and the accompanying lines of poetry are part of Tara Divilly's new exhibition, called 'Ashes', at the Ferrari Art Gallery in Vevey, Switzerland.  Tara is from Reunion and works in the Studio Sem in Pietrasanta.  You can see more of her work at 

The Tuesday Poets are an international group who try to post a poem every Tuesday and take it in turns to edit the main website.  We're all very different.  If you'd like to see what the other Tuesday Poets are posting, please click on this link. 

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Celebrating Pasqua and Pasquetta in Italy

They celebrate all the Christian (and some Pagan) festivals in carnival style here.  This year we managed to be in Pietrasanta for the Good Friday procession, acting out the whole story of the Crucifixion and Resurrection in spectacular style.  The whole town was involved - either as actors or marshalls or stage setters and everyone else turned out to watch.
The church decked for Easter
The streets were crammed as we followed the action from one location to the next.  This is the stage set for The Last Supper - I was so lost in the crowd by the time the actors got there I couldn't see a thing!

Then the Garden of Gethsemane, tucked away in a corner of the car park.

At the end of the main street a centurion was waiting with his cohorts to arrest Jesus (a very hot looking Italian with beautiful hair which he apparently keeps long for his annual role).

Centurion with Judas Iscariot and soldiers

Behind them the extras, including quite a lot of children, queued to join the procession.

Pontius Pilate waited in the shadows further up the street, ready to do his bit of hand-washing.

Meanwhile I hurried ahead of the crowd to find a good place in the main piazza where I could watch the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.   Jesus entered at the head of the procession, flanked by soldiers, carrying the cross.

The Crucifixion was enacted on the steps of Sant'Agostino and was very moving, even for an aetheist, with Bach's St Matthew Passion playing over the sound system. Jesus was, after all, a political prisoner, considered a terrorist by the Roman conquerors of Palestine, executed for his beliefs and for inciting others to believe. Times don't change much.

Then the small group around the cross took the dead Jesus down and carried him to the tomb on the steps of the Duomo.  On Sunday they will roll back the door and he will emerge in another pageant with pealing bells and joyful music.

Meanwhile we had a hot chocolate and sticky cakes at the local patisserie, Dazzi's, even though it was after midnight, surrounded by chocolate bunnies and eggs, from a completely different tradition.  This is the most beautiful place to live.

Tomorrow is Easter Sunday, Pasqua, when families will gather for a huge roast lunch involving lamb, though judging from the examples on the supermarket shelves the Sardinian lambs are the size of cats. Then on Monday - Pasquetta - they will all head for the hills equipped with picnics, or meet at the high 'rifugios' on the mountain slopes for gargantuan al fresco lunches and a bit of walking.  Not sure what we are going to do as it's thundering, with lightning and pouring with rain at the moment! Happy Easter everyone - or as they say here - Buona Pasqua!

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Jane Davis: Life Imitating Art

This week - as I'm on holiday in Italy - there's a guest post by the wonderful novelist Jane Davis.  Her first novel 'Half Truths and White Lies', published by Black Swan, won the Daily Mail first novel award;  'I Stopped Time' and 'Funeral for an Owl' are among my favourite reads.  This month, Jane has a new novel out in print and e-book form  - 'An Unknown Woman' - so I asked her to tell us about some of the strange events that happened while she was writing the book.

 ‘If we are what we own, who are we when we own nothing?’ 

Words Pulled From a Burning Wreckage
Thoughts on the writing of An Unknown Woman

A novel, wrote Henry James for an 1884 magazine article, is “a direct impression of life.” An Unknown Woman is probably the most personal novel I have written to date.

In 2013, I took the decision to cut back on paid work, which meant selling the car and ridding myself of a lot of material baggage. The book is in part an exploration of how material possessions inform our identities. I wanted to tackle the subjects that are relevant to the life I am living now, which bears little resemblance to the life I imagined for myself when I was a child, back when my father told me, “When you’re an adult, you can do exactly as you like.” I consider what it’s like to be childless when the majority of friends have children, even when childlessness is a positive choice; the extension of youth into what was previously thought of as middle age; the feeling of being cut off from adulthood.

The action begins with my main character, Anita, standing outside the house she and her partner have lived in for fifteen years and watching it burn to the ground. It is very recognisably my house.  My partner and I joked about how I might be tempting fate. But it was just a joke. We are not terribly superstitious – although I must admit that we’ve had more near misses in the last year than I’m comfortable with. (There may be some truth in the saying, “You attract what you think most about”.)
Author Jane Davis

Then in February 2014, three months after I finished chapter one, my sister and her husband lost their house and practically everything they owned to the winter floods. She lived on the island on the Thames that you can see in the first photograph in this article:
Over a year after the event they are stuck in limbo, living in a rented house with what little they managed to salvage, still waiting the planning permission to start rebuilding their home - and with it their lives. This shattering event made me question if I should abandon the project. I was writing about an imagined scenario that had become a reality for someone very close to me.

Of course, the same could be said of any book I have written - or may write in the future. My favourite description of fiction is that it is ‘made-up truth’. But the shape of the book I was writing had to change. The other day, I stumbled across this quote: “The writer’s job is to get the main character up the tree, and once they are there, to throw rocks at them.” While Anita finds one hell of a lot of rocks flying in her direction, I chose my ammunition more carefully than I would have done otherwise, replacing a few sharp flints with smooth pebbles.

This certainly wasn’t the first time I have substantially altered the focus of a book during the course of its writing. I’m afraid that anyone who imagines that words show up in the eventual order that they appear on the page of any novel is, in the majority of cases, mistaken. In some ways, the novel in its final form is an illusion. The rabbit pulled out of the hat – or in this case, the few things rescued from the burning house.

Since I don’t plot, my process tends to be very organic. The pivotal moment of a novel may not actually reveal itself until several edits in, or until an editor comments, ‘I see the point that you were trying to make.’ As author Roz Morris says, sometimes it takes a reader to hold the mirror up to your work.
Novels by Jane Davis
With my historical novel, I Stopped Time, I introduced a present-day strand when I realised that I would be unable to say everything that I wanted to in the voice of my main character, model turned photographer, Lottie Pye. And so, the revised premise became the story of how the reclusive Sir James Hastings discovers the mother who abandoned him when she leaves him her photographic work in her will.

With A Funeral for an Owl, it was while I was ironing out flaws highlighted by a structural editor   that I discovered another major issue: I had failed to take account of the fact that it was thirty years since I left school. The behaviour of two of my main characters, both of them teachers, would have been illegal under current Child Protection laws. The stupid thing was that all of the information I needed was available on the local government website, had I realised. Then it struck me that there was a huge opportunity to be had. I could change the focus of the novel: what kind of boy would it take to make two teachers put their jobs on the line? And it gave the plot a new momentum.
In the case of An Unknown Woman, the fire quickly becomes the least of Anita’s problems. It is the psychological fall-out and what happens when she is stripped of her armour that drives the narrative forwards. She has to find the answer to the question, ‘If we are what we own, who are we when we own nothing?’  And the answer is that we are not the same. But, as with the altered plot of a novel, there can be positives. 

Over to you: Have you ever substantially altered a novel during its writing? Or have you ever written about a subject, only to have something similar happen in your own life?

Author Biography

Jane Davis lives in Carshalton, Surrey with her Formula 1 obsessed, star-gazing, beer-brewing partner, surrounded by growing piles of paperbacks, CDs and general chaos. She spent her twenties and the first part of her thirties chasing promotions at work, but when Jane achieved what she’d set out to do, she discovered that it wasn’t what she had wanted after all. In search of a creative outlet, she turned to writing fiction, but cites the disciplines learnt in the business world as what helps her finish her first 120,000-word novel.
Her first, Half-truths and White Lies, won the Daily Mail First Novel Award and was described by Joanne Harris as ‘A story of secrets, lies, grief and, ultimately, redemption, charmingly handled by this very promising new writer.’ She was hailed by The Bookseller as ‘One to Watch.’ Five self-published novels have followed: I Stopped Time, These Fragile Things, A Funeral for an Owl, An Unchoreographed Life and now her latest release, An Unknown Woman.

Twitter @janedavisauthor
Buy ebook from Amazon

By paperback from Amazon:

Jane is also one of the 7 authors included in Women Writing Women:  Outside the Box, available from Amazon and all good e-book retailers. 

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Tuesday Poem - Tomas Transtromer: Midwinter - from The Sad Gondola

A blue light streams
from my clothes
at the heart of winter
with its clinking tambourines
of ice.
I close my eyes.
And now the world
is soundless.
And through a crevice
the dead
are smuggled across the border.

Tomas Transtromer
from 'La Lugubre Gondola'

[Trans. © Kathleen Jones]

Funeral gondola in Venice

Original Swedish:


Ett blått sken
strommär ut från mina klädder.
Klirande tamburiner av is.
Jag sluter ögonen.
Det finns en ljudlös värld
det finns en spricka
där döda
smugglas över gränsen.

Transtromer: an innate joy

This poem is from Tomas Tranströmer's collection 'La Lugubre Gondola' [the sad gondola or the sorrow gondola, Sorgegondolen in Swedish] - a title taken from a piece of music by Franz Liszt.  It refers to the black funerary gondolas of Venice, transporting the dead out to the island cemetery - they slip across the water like illegal immigrants slipping across from one world to another.  Tranströmer wrote these sorrowful, elegiac poems after he had a stroke at the age of 66 and lost the power of speech.  He became very much aware of his own mortality, though he was to live for seventeen more years and be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2011.  He died last week, March 26th, aged 83.

The Tuesday Poets are an international group, based in New Zealand, who try to post a new poem every Tuesday and take it in turns to edit the main website. If you'd like to see what the other Tuesday Poets are posting, please take a moment to click over to the hub.  

Anyone doing NaPoWriMo?  Write a poem a day for 30 days.  Quite a challenge!

Friday, 27 March 2015

Emily Carr: Between the Forest and the Sea

Skidegate in the Haida Gwaii islands painted by Emily Carr
One of the highlights, for me, this winter, has been an exhibition of paintings and drawings at the Dulwich Gallery in London.  They were the work of Canadian artist Emily Carr, who was born in the 19th century into a conventional Victorian colonial family and grew up to defy female expectations and become a painter.  She was fascinated by the decaying civilisation of the First Nation people of the Haida Gwaii islands and is famous for her depictions of their villages and artefacts.

Emily in the white lace collar
Emily was one of 5 sisters, orphaned while still quite young and brought up by her older siblings. Although Emily's father had encouraged her to paint, sending her to drawing classes as an adolescent, her sisters weren't too sure about her unconventional inclinations and felt that they couldn't spare the money for further training after he died. But Emily did manage to get to San Francisco where she studied for a while and then to England where she contracted TB and spent time in a sanatorium.  She declined marriage and returned to Canada to pursue a career in art.
War Canoes: Alert Bay
Emily paid Haida people to take her to their islands, by canoe, where she camped out in ruined villages, drawing and painting, even in the rain.  It was touching to see the rain drops on her water-colours. It was an unusual life for a young woman.  She often suffered from depression - feeling very alone.  'I don't fit anywhere, so I'm out of everything and I ache and ache.'

She was fascinated by the carved poles still standing outside the houses, tilting in rows along the shoreline. Sometimes she despaired of capturing them as she wanted.  'Every creative individual despairs . . . No matter how fine the things are, there are always finer things to be done.'

She loved the forests of giant redwood which were gradually being plundered for timber by colonial corporations. '[the forest's] bigness and stark reality baffled my white man's understanding. I had been trained to see outsides only, not struggle to pierce.'
The mysterious redwood forests of the Haida Gwaii
One of Emily's most famous paintings is 'Scorned for timber; beloved of the sky' - a single slender sapling stretching upwards in a clearing.  It could have been a metaphor for her own life. 'Trees don't make a mess of things as we do,' she wrote.  'They are themselves, growing for one purpose.'   The rape of the forests by logging companies was a subject Emily often painted.

Susan Vreeland wrote a novel around Emily's life called 'The Forest Lover' based partly on Emily's journals - the fragments of autobiography she wrote in old age and published.  I managed to find these online as part of the Gutenberg Project. The texts are beautifully written and quite poetic. They show that Emily was not only a painter, but also a gifted writer. There's one description of a wooden landing stage 'its crooked legs stockinged in barnacles' that has stayed with me, and the account of her meeting with the carving of D'Sonoqua - the totemic wild woman of the forest, 'Horror tumbled from the shadows of her eyes'. There are wonderful descriptions of the rotting carvings of the Raven perched outside the villages.

The exhibition also had some of Emily's notebooks - tiny detailed sketches - as well as illustrated books she made of excursions with one of her sisters.  The cartoons of some of the funnier things that happened to them were fantastic.  Emily obviously had a very well developed sense of humour.  This is her account of a Sunday sermon:

Beneath Parson Leakey's so sorrowful eyes
     We sit in a row while the soft daylight dies,
And list to a sermon so woeful and sad
     We feel that we never again can be glad.
With tear drops besprinkling our sunfreckled cheeks
     We feel we daren't smile for many long weeks.
Oh Leakey, the morbid, why are you so sad?
     Do you mourn for the good times you ought to have had?

One of Emily's hand-made journals
Emily had to struggle with money, because her paintings weren't initially very saleable.  She ran a B&B and gave up painting for about 15 years before being encouraged to begin again. In later life she was exhibiting and selling quite well, but her health was poor.  She loved dogs and also had a pet monkey.  In order to paint outdoors, she often camped  in the forest during the summer in a wooden caravan she called The Elephant.
Emily with her dogs at The Elephant
One of the most poignant passages in her autobiography is an account of the life of Susie, her Haida friend, who was extremely poor, but very proud.  Susie had given birth to, and buried, more than twenty children.  Few of them lived more than a few months.  But Susie had managed to give each one a proper Christian funeral, marking the graves with a little white cross. She was very distressed that the priests wouldn't bury the stillborn babies in the graveyard.

Susie's life was an example of how European diseases, such as smallpox and TB, ravaged the Haida community, reducing the population by more than 80% in a couple of decades. Emily's remarkable work, both written and painted, records a very important period in Canadian history and provides a written and visual record of the vanishing culture of the Haida people.  Emily felt a spiritual link with the islands and their people that was almost unique.  She was a very special person and this comes over both in her paintings and her journals.

Emily with one of her dogs in old age.