Wednesday, 31 March 2010

The Berlusconi Factor


Italy had elections at the beginning of the week and every Italian we know was hoping that Berlusconi’s party would be voted out. This time ..... everyone said, surely? But no. His party have been voted in again.
To outsiders, it’s all incomprehensible. This is a man who, anywhere else in Europe, would be regarded as a joke. He’s over 70, has improbably luxurious and suspiciously black hair, and is rumoured to wear make up. He has the manners of an arriviste (snubbing Angela Merkel, being rude to the Queen), and the private life of a pop star (including the girls). Elsewhere in Europe he probably wouldn’t be allowed to be in government, since he owns most of the media, television, radio and newspapers (which he used to saturate election coverage for his party), and a king-size portion of the industrial sector. In the recent court case involving the British lawyer, David Mills, where there were allegations that someone somewhere had been bribed to do or not to do something, Berlusconi dealt with it by altering the Statute of Limitation, so that the case was ruled out of time. The government also passed a law making him personally immune from prosecution.
All is not well in Italian political life. Poke a stick in shallow soil and all sorts of unpleasant things come wriggling out. Friends tell us that any stick poking risks being rewarded by a visit from the Guardia di Finanza - who are a kind of tax inspector with guns and far-reaching Orwellian powers. As most of Italy operates ‘on the black side’ of the economy, this is a pretty serious event and the Guardia di Finanza are more dreaded than the Carabinieri. It’s difficult here to keep on the straight and narrow, with tax at 50% or more even for poorly paid workers, and an impenetrable bureaucracy that can take months (or even years) to implement something simple like opening a bank account. Posting a letter to England at the Post Office involves queuing for an hour and then watching the cashier fill in three pieces of paper before issuing you with the stamp. 70% of the population still have no access to the internet.
But having said all that, I love the country - its craziness, its landscape, its fantastic people, not forgetting the food and the wine. You end up keeping your head down, like everyone else, and just getting on with your life, leaving the politics to someone else. And that’s why we’re left with Berlusconi.
And now .... I must go and make a pot of Italian coffee for those lovely gentlemen of the Guardia di Finanza, who are probably about to arrive at any moment.....

Monday, 29 March 2010

Sunday Times Short Story Award

Congratulations to New Zealand poet and writer C K Stead, who was announced as the winner of the Sunday Times short story award on Sunday. It is richly deserved, and will also give some comfort to the older generation of writers - Karl Stead is 77. Five years ago he suffered a severe stroke and believed that he would never be able to write again, but he did and is now almost as prolific as ever.

His story was described as ‘haunting and beautifully crafted’. It is set in Croatia and tells the story of a young writer who criticises a much older one in print, damaging both their reputations. Hanif Kureishi - one of the judges - said that it was ‘a wry, perceptive look at rivalry and love. It was a pleasure to read, and is a fine example of how a short story should be constructed and written.’
Anyone who would like to hear an extract, beautifully read, just follow this link.

I once met Karl Stead at a literary event we were both involved in. He is one of the leading Mansfield scholars - someone I needed to talk to when working on the biography. Finding myself next to him at the buffet table, I managed to pluck up the courage to tell him how much I’d enjoyed his novel on Katherine Mansfield, hoping that this might be the conversation opener I needed. But he answered curtly, ‘I’ve never written a novel about Katherine Mansfield’, leaving me red-faced with embarrassment and doubt. Had I spoken to the wrong man? Had he ever, in fact, written a novel about KM? Or was it just a figment of my imagination? I couldn’t think of anything intelligent to say, just stammered apologies and went to stare at the sandwiches. When I got home I went straight to my bookshelves. There it was, the novel ‘Mansfield’, by C.K. Stead. I re-read a few pages and yes, it was ‘about’ Katherine Mansfield. And the man I had spoken to was definitely Karl Stead. It’s a mystery I’ve never solved. Perhaps he just didn’t want to talk to anyone. It’s one of those embarrassing moments that stay with you for life and make your skin prickle every time you think of them.....

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Home Thoughts from Abroad


I’m back in Italy, where the weather is a warm 20 degrees and the blossom is breaking on the almond trees. Cold England, still creeping reluctantly out of winter, is a thousand miles north. To spend April in Italy is a dream for many people. Only this morning I read a review on one of the book blogs of ‘Enchanted April’, a novel written in the 1920s by Katherine Mansfield’s cousin, Elizabeth von Arnim, and now re-issued because it’s been made into a film (fearfully romantic and Merchant Ivory). Elizabeth spent a month at Portofino (not far from here) with her daughter, in a castle on the headland looking out over the Mediterranean, and this idyllic holiday inspired the book. She made it sound so idyllic that the book-blogger sighed for the opportunity to be in Italy for April - "there is nothing I would like to do more than spend April in Italy right now!" and I guess most other people would echo the sentiment.
So I feel like an ungrateful criminal to confess that I’m homesick. But if so, I’m not the first to think nostalgically about England while living the Italian dream. My mother was of the generation that learnt poetry by heart at school and one of the poems she loved was Robert Browning’s ‘Home thoughts from Abroad’. The Brownings lived in Florence (about two hour’s drive) and so I think there must be something about the contrast between the Italian spring and its English cousin that makes us suddenly sentimental.
Oh to be in England
Now that April's there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England - now!

But it isn’t really England that I’m homesick for - after all, I’ve just spent a month in London with my daughter and her beautiful baby Isabela. No, it’s my own home that I’m beginning to pine for - my familiar rooms, which probably resemble Miss Haversham's after five months of dust and neglect, and my garden where the weeds will be growing faster than the flowers. I haven’t seen my home since I left at the end of October. Like Bilbo Baggins, I long for homely things - rooting around in my own cupboards and drinking tea out of my own mugs. The irony is that, if I could magic the house here to the Tuscan landscape, I would be perfectly happy. It’s not the country - it’s that little womb-like space I call Home.

For those of you longing for Italy - here’s the trailer for Enchanted April.



As for me, I’m going to enjoy my Italian spring, even though I keep thinking of something else my mother used to recite - John Masefield’s poem of longing for the native country - one that seems very like the north-west lake district with it’s brown hills and daffodils. It's called 'The West Wind', and it's completely over-the-top slushily romantic.

It's a warm wind, the west wind, full of birds' cries;
I never hear the west wind but tears are in my eyes.
For it comes from the west lands, the old brown hills.
And April's in the west wind, and daffodils.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

The Orange Longlist

When the Orange Longlist was announced a few days ago, I realised that I was already reading my way through it. I’d already read The Little Stranger and liked it very much, but I don’t think it’s Sarah Waters’ best book by a long way, so I’m not voting for this title. Wolf Hall is the Big One, but maybe has already had lots and lots of publicity. Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna I found very disappointing indeed and think that if she actually wins the award, it will probably be for her complete works rather than this book.
I’ve just finished The Way Things Look to Me, by Roopa Farooki - which I think is wonderful, but maybe just a little commercial and ‘straight’ to appeal to the judges. Now I’m reading Andrea Levy’s The Long Song, which is everything that Andrea Levy is capable of and more. Lovely, lovely book with a strong, quirky, narrative voice.

Still got quite a few books to go - but I can’t wait to get my X3 reading glasses focussed on The Still Point by Amy Sackville. After a quick scan in the bookshop and a few sample pages, I think she is definitely the one to watch - if not this year, then certainly in the future. She’s very young, born in 1981, and has lots of Time in front of her to write some more amazing books.

Also interesting, is the number of books on the list published by small independent publishers - Amy Sackville is with Portobello Books. They have a very attractive, author friendly, profile. Maybe this is the way things are now going to go.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Bored with Books?


Bored with books? Writing them that is. Fancy a change of career? Apparently the not-so-secret services advertise on the tube these days! Could you describe the last person to get off the train? How good is your observation? Are you inventive and resourceful? Now, I think that a writer would be the perfect fit for this kind of job. We’re observant, we sit on the tube memorising people to turn into characters for stories, and we might just suit the unconventional profile it seems to require.
I looked at MI6's website, as instructed by the ad, and they’re currently recruiting for ‘operational’ staff. Apparently it helps if (apart from having a memory for faces) you speak Arabic, Urdu, Pashtun, Farsi and any other kind of Taliban-speak. No guessing where they’re expected to operate then! But the other language requirement was a bit of a surprise. They also need fluent Chinese speakers. So we’re spying on the Chinese now?
One of my daughter’s friends used to go out with someone who worked for MI6, ostensibly as ‘technical support’ staff. His job was to dream up weird and wonderful ways of getting weapons and fake bombs through airport security and then try them out. When oiled with Guinness he would even tell you how often he succeeded. The statistics were not reassuring. But what an amazing occupation.
And think of the material for the books you might write afterwards! Lots of authors started out as spies. Ian Fleming, John le Carre, T.E. Lawrence, Graham Greene, Rudyard Kipling. Not many women on the list, but someone’s got to be first!

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Romano Cagnoni at Blacks Club, London

I’ve rarely been to a Gentleman’s Club, being the wrong gender for membership. Blacks has its own particular atmosphere - undulating wooden floors covered by woven Persian rugs, kilim covered sofas and cushions, foxed antique mirrors, dim lighting, small rooms you can squeeze half a dozen people into, gin and tonic drunk out of porcelain cups, poured from a Prohibition coffee pot. The entrance to the Private View was through the basement bar, crammed with men, drinking in a frankly pub ambience. A strange place for a feminist.

The reason for my visit is that one of Italy’s best photographers (we’re talking Italy’s equivalent of Cartier Bresson and Robert Capa here) is exhibiting at Blacks. Romano Cagnoni is one of that generation of photographers who covered the social revolutions of the sixties, the Vietnam war, Biafra and, more recently, the conflict in Croatia. He is one of those whose iconic images were seen by millions on the covers of Time, Life, Vogue, and Paris Match, without any of us knowing who exactly had clicked the shutter.

Two collections of black and white photographs are on the wall - images of London and Italy. There is a very young Mary Quant measuring a hem, a policeman arresting a barefoot girl wrapped in a sheet in Hyde Park, side by side with images of sheep in the ruins of a Tuscan hill village, and old women on church steps in Romano’s native Pietrasanta. One of his most striking images is the one above, of the Chelsea twins with their matching hats and frilly dresses.

By coincidence, I’ve just been reading Roland Barthes ‘Camera Lucida’, and that has made me think very hard about photographic images and how we read them. Barthes poses a number of philosophical questions about photographs - do they actually exist? Apparently not - without a subject there is no photograph, only a blank sheet of emulsion. So, of themselves, they don’t exist. And then there is what he calls the ‘punctum’ - a detail or section of the image not deliberately intended by the photographer (so not engineered), and probably different for everyone. It is the part of the image that makes the photograph sing for each of us individually.
For me, it was the black sole of the girl’s bare foot as she stood in a ballet pose, wrapped in a white sheet like a blonde angel on the tail gate of the Black Maria in Hyde Park. Or perhaps it was the no 19 bus passing by and caught in the upper segment of the photograph like a surreal score card.
But, having so recently come back from Asia, my favourite photograph has to be this one, which catches the precarious beauty of the region so perfectly.


Anyone interested in knowing more about Romano's work or viewing the exhibition should contact Sandra Higgins - sandra@sandrahiggins.com

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

The end of Publishing?

Penguin/Dorling Kindersley have two views of the publishing apocalypse!

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Glimpsed in the Eurostar Terminal

While I'm trying to work out what the poster is trying to say about Us, (is London really famous for Wierd Hair and Whacky Glasses?) I'm distracted by a family arriving for 'Enregistrement'.
The couple, from the middle east, are arguing with each other in arabic. The man is waving tickets in the air. The father has close cropped hair, a broad, dark face and is significantly overweight. The two heavy, gold rings on the fingers of his left hand sink into his flesh.
The woman is in her thirties, unsmiling, and appears to be overwhelmed by the two small boys - a hyperactive toddler of about three and a shrieking baby.
With them is a young black girl, slim and pretty, who looks hardly more than sixteen. She is already wheeling a double buggy larger than herself, but the woman dumps the squirming baby in her arms and walks off towards the shopping mall. The little boy, tugging at the girl’s jacket is screaming ‘I want chocolate. Get me chocolate!’ He turns and runs down the concourse after his mother. The girl abandons the buggy and runs after him, clutching the baby. When she returns, dragging the toddler behind her, she looks exhausted. The parents walk slowly back, still arguing. I hope they pay her well, but I doubt if she’s enjoying the job.
I was a nanny once, for a couple of months. Desperate to get to London as a teenager, I answered an advert in the Lady for a mother’s help. My employers lived in Kensington and, although they paid super-tax, they weren’t rich enough to employ the Norland Nanny they coveted. So they had a series of girls like me (I was number four), and they dressed us in uniform as pretend nannies. I was barely eighteen, with no experience of children at all, but I found myself in sole charge of a one year old girl. She was delightful, but I had no aptitude for domestic drudgery. One day off a week and one evening (with a curfew) were no use to a dreamy girl from a hill farm in the north of England, desperate to taste the delights of the Big City! I got the sack when a boy I knew thoughtlessly rang the house telephone to talk to me at two in the morning and my employer - charging into my bedroom to shout at me - discovered I still hadn’t come home from the party I’d gone out to! Being sacked was mortifying, but also a great relief. I found a bedsit and a proper job and began to enjoy my new independence. I often wonder what happened to the little girl and how many unsuitable nannies she had to endure before she grew up.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Starving in Brussels


I’m in Brussels to tutor an all-day creative writing workshop for the Open University. This is the second time I’ve been here for this and the first time I came I had a lovely time. I was staying in the old part of the town with little shops - like the cheese shop above - and wine bars and tiny restaurants that smelled of mussels and garlic. This time the experience isn’t so good. The Eurostar I boarded broke down before it got out of St Pancras (but at least not in the tunnel!). We were eventually transferred to another train and arrived at the Gare du Midi late and in darkness. The seminar is being held in a hotel meeting room, so I thought it would be a good idea to book into the same hotel to make things easier. But the hotel is in the business district of Brussels and is deserted at weekends. Worse still, the bistro/bar is closed from Friday morning to Sunday evening. No hope of a nice glass of wine then! Or dinner for that matter. I didn’t feel comfortable enough to go out alone into the dark, empty streets and wander around in search of anything. So it’s Marks and Spencers sandwiches (bought for the journey but mercifully uneaten) and a bottle of flavoured mineral water. However, things have suddenly cheered up. Half way through the evening, hard at work on preparation, I noticed a small white cupboard in a corner of the room, which I had thought was the TV stand, but turned out to be a very well stocked mini-bar! I hope no-one is getting the idea that writers are alcoholics, but a glass of wine does make the work go down and when in Belgium .......

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Pub Jazz in London


One of the delights of staying in London is the variety of entertainment, including pub jazz. I love modern jazz, the kind where musicians have to improvise live in front of an audience, taking spine-chilling risks that sometimes result in sublime music. The thought of doing that kind of improvisation as a writer in front of an audience fills me with horror! Yet jazz musicians do it at every gig. We’re lucky enough in Britain to have some of the very best musicians in the world. The sad thing is that they’re not always very popular over here and often more famous in America, or in Europe than in their native country.
We went down to the local pub here in west London - entrance free - and found ourselves listening to four of the best around. The luscious Andy Cleyndert on bass - last seen on Jonathon Ross backing Barbara Streisand - the ebullient saxophonist Alan Barnes, who can also be heard on Radio 4's jazz programmes - and trumpeter Bruce Adams, who won Opportunity Knocks at the age of 14 and can play two trumpets at the same time. The pianist was John Chritchinson who played with the legendary Ronnie Scott until the latter died a few years ago. Quite a line-up. It’s the kind of music you can get high on - complicated, risky - you’re listening to people pushing their talents right to the edge, and what you’re hearing is completely original.
Sadly, there was hardly anyone in the audience under fifty. What will happen to the music when we’re all too old to get to the pub?

Below is a link to one of Britain’s most under-rated musicians - the great Don Weller.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Cover Story!

This week has become even more exciting - not only do we have a new baby in the house, but my very own creative infant 'The Storyteller' has become just a little more real. The cover design has arrived and for once I'm very happy with the result. It's rather sombre; but then the story is serious and even tragic in places. What pleases me most is that the cover is elegant, in a lovely blue with a design taken from the embroidery on one of Katherine Mansfield's surviving garments. Penguin have also done a beautiful job with the interior of the book with small details from the embroidery decorating the pages.

Unfortunately the proof-reading came with the cover! Lots and lots of hours going through almost 500 pages of text line by line. There are no shortcuts. And it's frustrating when all you want to do is get on writing the next project.

Thursday, 4 March 2010


Michael Foot died yesterday and I feel quite sad. The old cliche ‘the end of an era’ went through my mind as I watched the banner roll across the bottom of the news screen. Michael was old-style politics - substance without the spin. I was lucky enough to be taken out to lunch by him once, when I was a young writer. I’d just written the Passionate Sisterhood book about the women of the Wordsworth and Coleridge households and I hadn't realised that Michael was passionate about the romantic poets - particularly Coleridge. As a cradle socialist (my mother’s father came from North Sheilds) Michael Foot had been one of my political heroes when I was growing up. So I was utterly awed to be facing him across the table. His elderly dog was allowed to be in the dining room with us and none of the staff batted an eyelid when it did a large puddle in a corner of the restaurant!
That lunch was one of the high points of my life, and probably I was too shy to make the most of it. He turned out to be as honest and direct in person as he appeared in the media - erudite and with utter integrity. You can’t say that about many politicians. The very definition of the word implies moral sleight of hand. Michael Foot was something else. He wrote books, was a ferocious editor, politician and fearless campaigner. He was also deliriously eccentric and I’m very sorry that he’s gone.