Friday, 29 June 2012

Slovakia - a literary landscape

Our first day at Ruzomberok - a very bright, modern university in a small rural town.
Ruzomberok is surrounded by hills and forests and is a ski resort in the winter.  It has a lovely collection of art deco buildings lining colourful streets.  There's not much money here and it was quite interesting browsing the fashion shops - not a Benetton in sight! 

The bars are very colourful too!  Being a Leo I couldn’t resist this one.  The beer is cheaper than anywhere else in Europe.

At the Katherine Mansfield Conference there were some very enjoyable talks.  It’s called ‘Katherine Mansfield and Continental Europe’ and focuses on her European context.  KM lived in Germany, Italy, Switzerland and France at various times, had a love affair with a Pole, and even began to learn his language in order to translate his literary idols.  One of her best friends, Samuel Koteliansky was a Russian and she collaborated on translations of Russian writers with him. 
Elizabeth von Arnim (Countess Russell)

KM’s cousin was the Countess Elizabeth von Arnim, best selling author of ‘Elizabeth and her German Garden’, and a novel still available called 'Enchanted April'. We had an interesting talk by Jennifer Walker, who’s writing a new biography.  Elizabeth later become the Countess Russell, Bertrand Russell’s sister-in-law and was at the centre of literary life in Europe.  She and Katherine had an uneasy relationship.
Jean Rhys
The scholar Angela Smith (all the way from Stirling in Scotland) talked about Katherine Mansfield and Jean Rhys - their similarities and correspondences.  I’ve always loved ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ and ‘Good Morning Midnight’, but never thought of those books with such close reference to Mansfield.   Rhys and Mansfield were both exiles, expatriates living in France, both had problems of identity, were sexually adventurous.  But they were very different characters and Katherine’s fatal illness gave her writing a darker undertow.

That’s the wonderful thing about events like this, discovering the links between writers, the subtle cross-referencing and borrowing we all indulge in.  An interesting talk by American scholar Sydney Janet Kaplan, proposed links between a KM story ‘The Escape’ and TS Eliot’s first wife Vivienne.  TSE may even have borrowed his title ‘The Hollow Man’ from Katherine’s story.  Her portrayal of his neurotic wife may well have caused the rift between them - causing TSE to refer to KM as ‘a dangerous woman’.
One of the beautiful churches here
We’ve been beautifully fed all day - Virginia Woolf said that the mind doesn’t function well unless there is good food and wine to feed the flame at the base of the spine.  Slovakian hospitality is unbelievably generous.  We have also been introduced to Slovakian Pear Bandy - Kruski - which is dangerously delicious!

We finished the day in front of the world cup on TV - a great antidote to too much thinking!  Tomorrow we're being taken to a spectacular castle.  I'm exhausted and excited at the same time.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Three Countries in One Day

Breakfast in Italy, lunch in Poland, dinner in Slovakia - it sounds like an entry from Rebekah Brooks' diary!  But she flits about in a private jet, while we have to make do with Ryan Air.  The challenge of  packing one's hand luggage is of Olympian proportions, with room only for a change of underwear and a lap top - having to decide between a fancy pair of shoes or a book.  I made it, but only just, and minus the shoes. 
Cracow centre

We drove up to Milan in the early hours of the morning and flew Ryan Air to Cracow.  Bit of a shock to find the temperature at 15 degrees, windy and damp!   We just had time to take the shuttle train into town for lunch.  Neil and I both ordered something in Polish (of which we understand not a word) and enough pork and pickled cabbage arrived to feed a small third world country.  Incredibly cheap, but it was not a sight for vegetarians!  From the menu and the amount of meat and beer being consumed around us, I'm amazed there's a single Polish male still alive over the age of 54. My cholesterol doubled just looking at it.  Unfortunately the photos came out blurred (camera jetlag?).

We avoided the secret services,

and just had time to have a quick peek inside St Marys, at the beautiful and gigantic medieval altar screen carved by Veit Stoss, before heading back to the airport to pick up the coach over the border into Slovakia.

This was a three hour trip through the Tetra mountains (photo courtesy of Polish tourism) to Ruzomberok, 1500 feet up in the air, surrounded by hills and pine forests.  It was very dark by the time we arrived. We're staying in a ski lodge (a bit like a big youth hostel for grown ups) in the middle of a spooky wood that would be perfect for the setting of a Dracula movie.  Arrived too late for dinner, so had to make do with crisps, a sticky chocolate and honey cake, wine and beer, which was all that was behind the counter at reception.   Delegates from almost every country you can mention - America, New Zealand, Poland, Germany, Russia, Italy, France, Ireland, Japan - we're a fantastic mixture.   This is going to be fun!

Monday, 25 June 2012

Tuesday Poem: 60 Years in 60 Poems

photo copyright John Heseltine

Jo Shapcott: The Great Storm  - 1987
We rode it all night. We were not ourselves then.

Through the window everything was horizontal.
In cars and ships and woods, folk died.
Small trees scattered like matchsticks
and a whole shed flew by. The world roared.
A branch broke into the kitchen,
strewed twigs into the banging cupboard,
filled broken crocks with leaves. I heard
a tricycle roll up and down the attic as
the firmament streamed through smashed tiles.

I loved you but I loved the wind more,
wanted to be as horizontal as the tree tops,
to cling to the planet by my last fingernail,
singing into the rush, into the dark.
I didn't know then I would watch
my beloveds peel off the earth

each side of me, flying among tiles, bins,
caravans, car doors and chimney pots,
watch them turn themselves into flotsam
and disappear as wholly as the pier
the next morning, a Friday, mid-
October. Gone, split, vamoosed
like the fifteen million trees.

Carol Ann Duffy invited 60 poets to contribute a poem celebrating one year of the Queen’s sixty on the throne.  It’s an amazing collection by some of the UK’s best poets.   I chose 1987 because I remember the big storm very well - I was living in a roof-top flat in Bristol and stayed awake all night listening to horrific noises and expecting at any moment to be looking at the sky through the rafters.  In the morning I discovered the roof tiles stacked in piles in the gutters and the lead on the dormer windows rolled up neatly as if by experts.  I liked Jo Shapcott’s poem because she captures the exhilaration of it, the adrenaline rush of the experience.

The collection can be read on-line at the Poetry Book Society, or on the Guardian’s web site or here at Jubilee Lines dot com.

For more Tuesday Poems check out the web site and find out what Tuesday Poets are posting from around the world.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Off to Poland and Slovakia with Katherine Mansfield

Life here is never dull.  Just cramming a few items of clothing into Ryan Air sized hand-baggage and getting ready for the long drive to Milan airport to fly to Krakow early on Tuesday.  The Slovakian university of Ruzomberok is hosting a Katherine Mansfield conference, with special reference to her eastern european adventure in the form of writer/lover/chancer  Floryan Sobienovski, who had an affair with her at the spa in Germany where she lost her first baby, seems to have got her pregnant again, pursued her across Europe, turned up on her doorstep when she least wanted to see him and eventually blackmailed her over indiscreet letters she's written to him in the first flush of passion. 

Florayan also introduced her to the Polish language and a writer called Stanislav Wyspianski whose work she was helping him translate.  She wrote a lovely poem to Wyspianski too, in the style of Walt Whitman, which is a hymn to both Wyspianski and her homeland in NZ.

From the other side of the world,
From a little island cradled in the giant sea bosom,
From a little land with no history,
(Making its own history, slowly and clumsily
Piecing together this and that, finding the pattern, solving the problem,
Like a child with a box of bricks),
I, a woman, with the taint of the pioneer in my blood,
Full of a youthful strength that wars with itself and is lawless,
I sing your praises, Magnificent warrior; I proclaim your triumphant battle.

I've never been to Slovakia, or to Krakow, so really looking forward to this visit, as well as the company of other Katherine Mansfield fanatics!

Friday, 22 June 2012

Planning a Writers' Retreat

Need space to write?  A friendly source of feedback on the WIP?  We usually run a writers' retreat/writing course at Peralta in the spring.  But this year, because of the economic downturn, we're running it at the end of September so that participants can take advantage of  the cheaper off-peak flights. 

For anyone who hasn't already come across it, Peralta - high on the slopes of the Alpi Apuane looking out over the Mediterranean - is an idyllic place.  It's an area once settled by the Etruscans and just further north is the ancient and mysterious kingdom of Luni.  

Peralta was left to fall into ruin after WWII, but was discovered by the Italian sculptor Fiore de Henriquez, who fell in love with the hamlet, traced the owners of each ruined house one by one and rebuilt them.  She wanted to create an artistic community, renting out to tourists in the summer to pay its way, but filled with artists and writers in the winter.  Dinah, who runs Peralta now, tries to do so in the same spirit.  It is a beautiful place with a very special atmosphere and a good place to write.

Laura  - who has cooked for Peralta since she was a girl - still provides us all with wonderful Tuscan home cooking.  There's local wine and prosecco by the gallon and the guarantee of convivial company.

This time my partner at Peralta is the novelist and memoirist Caitlin Davies who is a very impressive writer (and the daughter of Margaret Forster and Hunter Davies)  and we make ourselves available for  one to one consultations as well as running workshops for anyone who wants to participate.

All details are on the internet here,  special rates can also be provided for anyone who only wants to come for a few days retreat rather than the full week.   Come and join us in September and watch the sun set in the Mediterranean!

Thursday, 21 June 2012

The Last Kitten

This morning Neil said goodbye to his favourite kitten - the last of Batcat's brood. 

We put her in a box and took her down to the charity stall in Pietrasanta market.
She was much admired, but four other kittens turned up - two fluffy black ones and two fluffy white.  When I went back at one o'clock as instructed only our kitten remained unwanted.  Not fluffy enough I suppose.  So, I guess it's fate.  Another mouth to feed!  Neil will be pleased.  And we'll now have to think of a name.......

Monday, 18 June 2012

The Midnight Cactus

I've just had a punishing week in England, with high winds, monsoon rain and winter temperatures. There were people to see, events to attend, friends and family to catch up with, and tax returns to be done (a 2am headache!) before I could come back to Italy.  No time for blogging - there were days when I didn't even manage email.   But an unexpected bonus was being there when the cactus in my rooftop study finally flowered.   It hasn't flowered for more than 12 years - and has only flowered once before, though I've had the cactus for about 25 years.  Obviously the English climate doesn't suit it!

When it does flower, it's spectacular - each flower is about 9 inches high and they are about 6 inches across at the top, with deep throats smelling strongly of vanilla.

This time, the buds opened at about 11.30pm, and - because I was burning the midnight oil - I was there to see it.   I presume, in the wild, they're fertilised by some kind of moth, because by the following day they're beginning to droop and after only one more night they die.

It could be another 12 years before I see them again.

Now, I'm back in Italy where temperatures are up in the thirties (it was 10 degrees when I left UK) and I can't get used to the hot nights - no need for the goose down quilt here!   But the sun is very welcome and it was good to see the Batcat and her kitten  - which has grown a lot bigger since I left. 

She's very playful and won't stay still long enough to be photographed - quite a headache for her vigilant mother! Sadly, we've got to part with her on Thursday and send her to a good home.  We will both be shedding a few tears.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

In England, in the rain, with Catherine Cookson

If I've been very quiet, it's because I've been travelling to England where the skies are grey and rain seems to be dripping from every orifice!

The schedule is frantic - no time for blogging, or poetry, but I hope to report back at the end of the week when things slow down a little.  Today I waved Neil off to Italy to take over kitten duties, and tomorrow I'm going to Newcastle to talk about Catherine Cookson.  

It's the launch of a book called 'Catherine Cookson Country:  on the borders of legitimacy, fiction and history',  published by US academic publisher Ashgate.  It's a collection of essays on Catherine Cookson's life and work and is the first (I think) to give her books the recognition they deserve.  There's a contribution from her biographer (me!) - very complimented to be asked to write the foreword.  It's a lovely book.

Anyone in the Newcastle area tomorrow afternoon, the launch, with talks and wine will be from 2pm to about 6pm at Northumbria University,  Sandyford Road, Room 020A, Squires Building.  It's free and all are welcome.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

And then there was only one .........

Sadly today I took the two biggest kittens - the black and white brother and sister - down to Pietrasanta market to be re-homed by a charity called Nati Liberi (Born Wild).  They have a stall in the market and exhibit kittens in baskets for people willing to give them a home.   Six weeks is far too early to part a kitten from its mother, though both were also eating solid food heartily.  But I was told that organisations that take in wild kittens to be domesticated like to have them at this age because apparently, after that, the mother teaches them to avoid humans and it's almost impossible to tame them.  I'd already noticed, in the last few days, a tendency to run away from me, even at feeding time.
Breakfast for four

But it felt terrible, enticing them  indoors with a saucer of food and then popping them into a cat carrier, out of sight of their mother, and sneaking them off through the olive grove to the car.  At least we've left Batcat with one kitten - the smallest of the three, who isn't eating properly yet.  She's also the tamest and hopefully we can still rehome her in the next couple of weeks.  Then, with the help of this wonderful organisation, we hope to be able to sterilise the Batcat so that there are no more unwanted kittens to add to the flock of feral cats out in the woods.
Kitten in the Hi-Fi!
 It's been lovely having the kittens though.  It was great fun watching them using my furniture as a playground.  And hopefully they'll be going to a loving home.

Setting an ambush
Ambush foiled!

Friday, 1 June 2012

Earthquakes in Italy

Regulars on my blog may remember that in April Neil and I went on a day trip to Emilia Romagna, the region just north of us.  It hasn't been hitting the international news much, but Emilia Romagna has been badly hit by a series of earthquakes.  Two of around magnitude 6 have hit the region in the last two weeks and there are continuous aftershocks (more than 80) of magnitude 5 or more.   Some of these have been felt by people living in Pietrasanta - but up here in the hills we don't feel anything at all - thankfully.  My memories of the Christchurch earthquakes in New Zealand still give me nightmares. Waking up in the dark feeling the house shaking itself apart around you isn't a good feeling.  This 'seismic event' isn't over yet - there was another big shock last night bringing more buildings down and sending terrified people out into the streets.  We have been watching the tragedy unfold on our television screens and our hearts go out to the people whose lives are being - literally - torn apart.

There are more than 30 dead, hundreds wounded and thousands homeless. 
Several factories collapsed.  This is the industrial heartland of Italy, the engine that drives the economy, and the damage caused by the quakes will hit an already struggling economy very hard.  One quirky positive - it's now possible to buy some very cheap Parmesan cheese on the internet.   The racks where the cheeses are stacked were brought down in the quakes.   When you realise that Parmesan retails for at least 24 euros per kilo (and that's the cheapest), there is literally a fortune in cheese to be salvaged.

Apart from the loss of life, injury and destruction of people's homes, the area has lost some of its most important historical buildings.  Bologna, Padua, Modena were all affected, and Ferrara and the inappropriately named San Felice also lost buildings of great historical significance.   Ferrara lost the Castle Estense, which used to look like this; 

but now looks like this and the rest is either badly cracked or reduced to rubble.

This beautiful clock tower was shattered.  

As the photographer was filming, there was another aftershock and the rest came crumbling down.

The fault line went right across the landscape.

It's a sobering reminder that for all our 'advanced' technology, we live on a violent and unpredictable planet that can alter our lives at any second.