Tuesday, 27 April 2010

A Floating Vote


One moment you’re up to your ankles in compost and the next you’re staring out at the river Thames and London Bridge from the Glaziers’ Hall where the Worshipful Company of Glaziers usually hang out. The building is relatively new since the original was burned down in the Great Fire of London, but the Company was established around 1328 and has its historic charters displayed on the walls - beautiful calligraphy with wax seals the size of dinner plates. There’s a great sense of history here. The tower of London is visible (just) from the bridge if you know where to look, almost swamped by high rise buildings housing financial institutions.
The occasion is the 90th birthday party of one of Britain’s leading Communist party members - Tony Farsky, a contributor to the Morning Star, and a leading peace campaigner, still active in his 10th decade, campaigning for better education, and social equality. He is currently chair of the Southwark Pensioners Committee, lobbying vigorously for pensioners rights and an end to ageism.
Tony is also a great lover of Jazz and his sponsorship has helped a lot of small promoters. The birthday bash had a fantastic line-up of British Jazz musicians, including the great Don Weller, Alan Barnes and David Newton. Several of Tony’s contemporaries put us all to shame jiving and Lindy-hopping - I hope I can do the same if I ever become a nonogenarian.
Among the guests were people from the Jazz world, various peace movements, C.N.D., the communist party, and other political groups. Lib Dem Simon Hughes, fresh from News Night, was one of those who made a speech and caught my attention when he began to talk about the all party committee he chairs on ‘Conflict Issues’. This parliamentary group seeks to reverse political thinking - by focussing on identifying areas of conflict and trying to defuse situations by non combative means.
Having sworn not to vote Labour again after Tony Blair dragged us into the Iraq War, I’ve been very cynical about the state of politics in Britain. But the closer the Big Three get to each other in the polls, the more interesting it becomes. After listening to Simon Hughes, I’m seriously considering voting Liberal Democrat. I liked it when he asked ‘Why are we selling arms to countries who can’t afford to feed their own people?’ I’m aching for a blast of common sense in politics - straight talking, real convictions rather than politic-speak.
I was very impressed by Nick Clegg’s intelligent stand on the Trident missile system during the leaders’ debate. Civilised countries such as Sweden and Denmark don’t feel the need for a nuclear submarine, yet they seem perfectly safe in the world. In Europe, France has enough nuclear weapons - and submarines - for all of us! The billions that Trident will cost would buy an awful lot of much needed health care and education. We are no longer a super-power - we are part of Europe whether we like it or not - a small country, whose national debt is frightening. Do the government seriously, honestly, believe we can go on competing with the USA, Russia and China?
We’ve interfered in the world too much and for all the wrong reasons. Not humanitarian (we stood back and watched the slaughter in Rwanda) but economic reasons. If you’ve got oil or valuable commodities, we’ll send the troops, if not, sorry mate, there’s nothing we can do.
I can’t describe myself as a pacifist because there are things I would probably fight for if there was no other way, but I am a peace lover and a socialist believing passionately that everyone is born equal and has the right to live and bring up their children in peace with a roof over their heads and enough food to keep them from starvation and someone to pick up the pieces when things go wrong.
I won’t be voting Communist, Labour or Conservative next week, but I just might think about voting Lib Dem.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Earth Day


Spring is a month late in Italy this year, but even later in Cumbria. The magnolias have already wilted in Tuscany, but my beautiful Magnolia Stellata has only just begun to open its star-shaped, fragrant petals. Yesterday was Earth Day and, appropriately, I spent as much time as I could in the garden which is suffering from six months of neglect and the ravages of winter. Because the river bank floods so frequently during the winter months, it isn’t possible to do anything to the garden between October and March. If the soil’s disturbed it gets washed away when the water levels rise taking plants and nutrients with it. So I’ve learned to leave the flower beds alone while they’re dormant and plant only things that are water resistant. This year it’s the garden fence that has been demolished and will have to be replaced.
The river also brings gifts - most of them unwanted; plastic bags and bottles, and a plethora of weeds. Every year there are miles and miles of ground elder roots to tease out of the ground. It’s the Genghis Khan of weeds, choking everything in its path, and immune to every attempt to exterminate this ubiquitous Green Strangler. Digging it up is the only way to get rid of it.
There’s something totally satisfying about getting your hands into soil. I feel absolutely right with my wellington boots in the mud and my fingers round the roots of a plant. It also frees my mind to think and whatever I’m working on keeps on running inside my head while I dig.
But I also wonder if this compulsion to grow and nurture things is genetic. A primal urge to connect with my ancestors.
My father’s family were the children of small farmers, horse dealers and cattle drovers, who came over from Ireland to settle in the city and try to make a better life. My grandparents were delighted when Dad won a scholarship to the grammar school (you had to pay in the nineteen thirties) and hoped that he would become a teacher or a civil servant - something respectable to eradicate every trace of the Irish Tinker.
Unfortunately Dad hated the city and was crazy about horses. He used to get up at 4am to cycle out to a farm and help the owners with their milk round before he went to school. When he was fourteen the farmer offered him a job as a hired lad but my grandparents were scandalised and refused to allow him to leave school. So, one day, he simply got up at 4am, put his belongings in a backpack and cycled out to the farm leaving a note for his parents. He used to tell people, with a laugh, that he had run away with the milk-man!
The land was in his blood, and I think it’s in mine. I loved being brought up on a farm and if I’d been a boy I suspect I would never have left. I often wonder how different my life would have been but for that accident of gender.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

A love affair with books

One of the great joys of being home again is being reunited with my books - I have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them. They fill whole walls of bookcases, litter the tables and chairs in the living room, pile up beside the bed, clutter the staircase and get rather soggy in the bathroom. They are like friends. Every now and then I vow to have a ruthless cull in order to make room for new ones. I weed out the tatty paperbacks, the pulp fiction and the old encyclopaedias, drive around for three weeks with the box in the boot of the car, somehow never make it to Oxfam and eventually bring them back home again.
When I was in London I found a children's book that describes just how I feel about books - it's called 'Dog Loves Books' and it's by a new children's author and illustrator (she's just 26) called Louise Yates. Like Dog, I love the smell and feel of books - in fact everything about them. I've been addicted since I was big enough to carry them around - as this old photograph shows.

This is one addiction I never want to be cured of!

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Coming Back

Coming back to my home in the north of England has been an odd experience. I’ve been gone for more than 5 months. Although the house was familiar, it felt like someone else’s home. I went to make a cup of tea in my kitchen and stood there like a stranger, not knowing where anything was. My tired, jet-lagged brain couldn’t even remember which cupboard I kept the mugs in!

The quiet rooms smelled damp and musty - there’s a tidemark on the wall downstairs where the winter floods came in and a lot of mud and plant debris on the flag stones. Judging by the smell, a rodent seems to have died in some secret nook or crevice. Upstairs the rooms had a Marie Celeste feeling to them. A magazine lay open on a coffee table where I must have been reading it before we left in October. Gardening shoes had been kicked into a corner of the hall with their socks curled up beside them and there was a half drunk mug of coffee mouldering on the table. Someone else’s abandoned life I was walking back into. The feelings of disconnection were very disturbing. I am certainly not the same person who left last autumn. I’m seeing my life here from a different perspective and part of me is still in Italy.
This morning, waking in my own comfortable bed, looking out of the window at the early light on the river, it all feels better. I’ve actually managed to sort through the stacks of mail that were sitting, a foot deep, on the dining table. The sun is shining outside and the fields are full of baby lambs. Very different to the Italy I left yesterday, but pretty good all the same.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

The Six Hour Clocks of Italy

Although I’ve been coming to Italy for more than ten years, I didn’t know about 6 hour clocks until we found one yesterday. They were apparently common between the 15th and 17th centuries, but very few survive. There is only one hand and the numerals go from one to six, dividing the day into four parts to regulate the monastic ‘hours’ of prayer.
Spring has suddenly arrived in Tuscany - rather later than usual. The sun has real warmth now and the cool wind from eastern Europe has stopped competing with it. This seems very unfair when I’m packing up to leave. I hate packing and this time it’s an impossible task - there’s so little you can take on a Ryan Air luggage allowance. So I have to decide what I need immediately, and what can be stored to bring back in the car in a couple of months time. Then there’s the house to clean and restore to its original pristine state before the summer visitors arrive ....
So yesterday afternoon, with temperatures of 24 degrees, we played truant. The nearby Lucchese Pass, which goes through the Alpi Apuane to the Garfagnana, has been closed since 2001 because of landslides. But recently, after a lot of work by the Commune, it’s been opened again and we decided to go exploring.
As the crow flies the distances aren’t great - we probably travelled no more than 15 miles or so inland - but the roads wind up and down the hills in endless hairpin bends and it seems to take forever to reach the other side.
We found a little hillside village called Convalle - a typical mountain settlement in the chestnut forest. You have to park your car outside the village and walk. Inside the original cobbled pathways lead you around a maze of alleyways and courtyards, always upwards, to the church at the top.

Many of the houses are empty and shuttered. They are summer retreats for wealthy owners in Florence or Rome. Recently they’ve been bought up by Germans, Swiss, and people from eastern europe. Most of the permanent residents we met were elderly. Young people don’t want to live so far out. There’s no shop here and no bar. The residents are ‘contadini’ - country people who live by harvesting the chestnuts and cultivating the narrow hillside terraces with the help of study mountain ponies.
On the way back we stopped at Pescaglia, only three miles further on, and found the six hour clock on a very old bell tower. Then we went to the little bar for a much needed prosecco - which probably explains the photograph below!

Friday, 9 April 2010

Tiger Woods and the New Morality


I turned on the BBC world news this morning - the only English news we can get here - and there was a sombre man in a grey suit, Billy Payne, the chairman of Augusta National golf club, making a speech about the ‘egregious’ moral harm that Tiger Woods has done to the world - to us and to our children and to our children’s children.
So, is TW a paedophile? A serial killer? A disseminator of racial hatred? Guilty of genocide? A member of Al Qaeda? No, apparently none of these things. He has simply been playing away from home - but not with his golf clubs.
From my experience of sportsmen (spectator, not personal!) all that testosterone and adrenaline does seem to get them into trouble now and again. Footballers, rugby players (the famous Princess Di affair) tennis players, snooker professionals - too numerous to count, they have all been discovered making love to women other than their wives or girlfriends. It may be sad, bad and dangerous for their relationships, but it does seem to be normal human behaviour.

So what is so ‘egregious’ about Tiger woods’ adultery? According to Billy Payne, he has ‘disappointed us . . . . Our hero did not live up to the role model we sought for our children’. From now on, apparently, Tiger should not be ‘measured by his success’ on the golf course, but on the amount of penance and self-flagellation he is willing to do to atone for his crimes against humanity.
All this was delivered in such a grim self-righteous tone, I felt a blazing rage and had to turn off the TV. Has this whiter than white Mr Payne never transgressed? Not once?
And why are our sports stars from now on to be measured, not by how good they are at what they do, but by their morality? This is dangerous ground and I have instant visions of living in an Orwellian world where you have to get a licence in order to do anything, and you can’t get the licence unless you can prove you are ‘pure’ measured against some code of rules drawn up by those in authority.
And supposing this new moral standard were to be applied to writers? What we write has always been seen to pose a risk to the minds of the human beings who read us, their children and their children’s children. How much more then, should the morality of our lives have a bearing on whether we deserve to be read? Not just censorship of what we write, but of our lives? Supposing the only writers who were allowed to publish were those whose private lives were deemed to be completely clean. That would rule out most of the great writers of the past. And what on earth would all those prim, morally correct, contemporary writers find to write about?
This sounds suspiciously like the kind of totalitarian society I wouldn’t want to belong to.
I’m sorry, but I will accept my sports’ heroes human fallibility as long as they excel on the field - that way I’ll feel a lot safer putting pen to paper, being a fallible human myself. And in a free society my children and their children are at least free to decide who they want to emulate. I want their role models to be as diverse as possible, and not selected by the chairman of a committee.
My apologies for the rant - I can feel the soapbox creaking under my feet, so I’d better get off. There’s something about the word ‘morality’ when used by public figures, that always has me reaching for the fire extinguisher! Am I just cynical? Or am I right to worry?

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Easter in Italy

Today is Easter Sunday morning and I can hear all the bells tolling in the valley to signal the resurrection. Soon every Italian family will be sitting down to a sumptuous meal, either at home or in a restaurant. We are eating with friends, munching leg of lamb roasted in a wood fired oven.
Easter in Italy is primarily a religious festival and a family feast. The shops do have Easter eggs, of course, but they aren’t so prominent as they are in England, and there’s no sign of the population stampeding to airports and train stations to escape to foreign climates.
In the week before Easter, graves are visited and cleaned, fresh flowers put on them. On Maundy Thursday the devout go to mass, and on Friday there is a festival of light, the celebration of Gesu Morto (the dead Jesus). It’s very macabre and thoroughly pagan.
Every building in the town is lit by candles or improvised lamps. Glasses are wired to the wall, half filled with water and then topped up with olive oil. A handmade wick is floated in them. They are made by the women - an art form, one elderly lady told me - and it’s called something that sounds like ‘cincingerello’, though I couldn’t find it in the dictionary. It sounds very like the Italian word for ‘girdle’.
At dusk, all the lamps and candles are lit. On a wooden altar with wheels, is a statue of Jesus Christ, taken down from the cross and lying at the feet of three women - the three Marys; his mother Mary, with 7 swords piercing her heart; Mary Magdalene with her hair to her waist; and Mary the mother of his disciple John. This huge float is paraded through the streets accompanied by the Mayor and town council, the chiefs of police, fire brigade, priests - all in full regalia - the choir and the town band playing a doleful requiem. There are thousands of people crammed into the narrow streets and alleyways and as the procession passes they all turn and follow it through the town.
I’m always very much aware of the pagan origins of the festival. It is the feast of Eostre - the pagan goddess of fertility and renewal, the goddess of light - worshipped at the spring equinox.
She was well known to the Venerable Bede, born in the 6th Century, who was proud of the fact that Christian tradition had taken the place of her festival, though it hadn’t managed to obliterate the name.
"Eosturmonath (April) has a name which is now translated "Paschal month", and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance."
She was known in Germany as Ostara or Austra - the spirit of light, and her effigy was paraded across the fields with beating drums and music, to wake the earth from its winter sleep and celebrate the return of the sun. They probably also scattered the blood of the sacrificial lamb, but best not to think of that just before lunch!!