Thursday, 28 August 2014

Postcards from Italy

Shine On......


Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun.

Caro amico ti scrivo.....


Just a line or two from Italy.  We are staying more or less where we used to live, on the lip of a volcanic caldera, some fifty kilometres north of Rome.  The light is diamond cool, and only the chattering of magpies and baying of hounds disturbs the morning.



Occhiali da sole - reflecting the day


Later we may need sunglasses, though the weather is variable.  We may swim with the swans in Lake Bracciano......





Or drive over to the sea at Santa Severa, where plastic dolphins frolic close by the castle.....






We check out the latest in fringed bikinis....






We've been here a few days, mixing sun with wine, pasta with perch, peaches with figs..... One day we made a trip to some of the Etruscan sites near here (there are plenty of them!) At Tarquinia Hannah posed as the missing head on a sarcophagus (so immature!)






And we visited painted tombs.  This one portrays entertainment (juggling, music) for the deceased (who is seated) while over his head a lion and a panther face each other.  This chamber was discovered in 1961, and these pictures had not seen the light of day for almost 2,500 years - in fact, they have never seen the light of day, as they were painted by lamplight and are now illuminated on demand behind a thick glass door.  The red here is exaggerated to clarify the images - in reality it is a much subtler hue.



Tarquinia, Tomba dei Giocolieri (550 - 500 BC)

Then we went to Cerveteri, where the tombs are open, but generally empty (though in this one I found Sarah posing as an enchanted priestess, framed by the tufo door).....





In this area it is hard to avoid the Etruscans.  At Veio (only twenty kilometres from Rome, once the greatest of Etruscan cities) one of the tombs is now a hang out for the local youth......





Invited for a drink with friends, we are shown a piece of bucchero, pottery from five, six or even seven centuries BC, made when earthenware was fired in a closed kiln (which apparently caused carbon monoxide to blacken the red iron oxides in the clay). Artefacts like these were so common when the Prince of Canino, Lucien Bonaparte, who owned the land around Vulci, started excavating tombs in 1828, that when George Dennis was there some twenty years later, the labourers were under orders to destroy such pieces to maintain the value of finer ware.  Nowadays they are priceless, rather than worthless, and it is extraordinary to handle something thrown and fired by human hands so many centuries ago.....





When it is hot, it really is hot here, and you need to rest in the shade, like these two decorators in Tarquinia.....





But, as I said, the weather has been changeable, and on some days the clouds build up.....




And it goes dark, and the water seems to be beaten pewter as rain drops the size of broad beans pelt down.....



Monte Venere and Lago di Vico



Then it cools, and we visit Bracciano to shop, and to admire the castle as it towers above the houses of the humble clustering round its skirts.  This fifteenth century fortress was once the home of the Orsini family (and featured in Webster's play The White Devil) though now it belongs to the Odescalchi family (and featured in tragedies such as Tom Cruise's marriage to Katie Holmes).





And then it warms again, and we drive on round the lake to the village of Anguillara Sabazia, where the evening sun warms the roof tiles and exaggerates the auburn (and violet) tints of the beauty on the beach....







We meet up with old friends, novelist Simon Mawer and his wife Connie, and dine at Harvey's, a Pizzeria below the old town.  Amanda chooses pizza with apple and gorgonzola; mine is more robust with chunks of sausage and strands of cicoria (bitter wild greens).  Simon has the proofs of his new novel, Tightrope, sequel to The Girl Who Fell From The Sky, to deal with and is enthusiastic about next year's production of his Booker shortlisted The Glass Room (in Czech) in Brno, but he is also anxious about an operation he is about to undergo. So fingers are crossed, and glasses are raised.....





On another evening we meet up with an even older friend....  Truman Peebles, 102 today, joins us for a pre-prandial shot of Jack Daniel's at Ermete's Bar before we eat at La Grotta Azzurra, one of the oldest (and the best) restaurants in Trevignano Romano.  Truman has known Nazzareno, the proprietor (who grew up on the premises when he could fish from his bedroom window), for many years, and we are treated regally. At his age a lot of people are recumbent in their tombs, but Truman is no Etruscan, and he converses with diamond precision (though I wonder if Red Bull is sponsoring him for infinity?)


May I take your picture?
You can if you give me five bucks!



Evenings are wind-down time. The sun draws energy from the earth and quiet descends.





But then, sparkling with prosecco.....




The girls dance with their mother in an impromptu disco, with Cameron and me as sparring smart-phone DJs.....





Vedi caro amico cosa ti scrivo e ti dico,

And the time comes to take our leave (again).  There is too little time; the holiday begins to end.....  We slip into the village to salute our friends, though mancano alcuni (Loreta, Mimmo, Pietro, Vi saluto....)

Here is Alberto, my annual hairdresser.....




And here are Amanda and the girls with Sandro, whose ice creams contributed so much to what they are today (?)




e come sono contento

di essere qui in questo momento,
vedi, vedi, vedi, vedi,
vedi caro amico cosa si deve inventare
per poterci ridere sopra,
per continuare a sperare


And we drive to Fiumicino, my Ford C Max almost parched after 713 kilometres on one tank (thank you Avis, your deal of €89 if I brought the car back empty tempted me to risk it!) and wait for the flight, silhouetted against the window.....





And soon we are on our way home, gazing through the thick glass at a dreamworks fragment of our lives....


Pianosa - fictional base for Catch-22, and until 1998 maximum security prison for mafiosi




Shine on you crazy diamond.


L'anno che sta arrivando tra un anno passerà
io mi sto preparando è questa la novità


Sunday, 17 August 2014

London 12 - Hampstead Village

The Veil of Health


Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
To thy high requiem become a sod.



Although Hampstead Village is little more than three miles from King's Cross, it's another world.  London has spread itself across the land, but surfacing from the 181 foot deep lift shaft (the deepest on the tube network - as deep as the Stone Gallery of St Paul's Cathedral is high) into the centre of Hampstead, you could be forgiven for thinking you had landed on another continent.  For a start, compared with the 84.87 million exits and entrances recorded for the King's Cross St Pancras International tube station in 2013, a mere 4.9 million passed through the turnstiles at Hampstead in the same year.


A lesson in apostrophising!

Property prices may have something to do with this, (a two bedroom terraced house will cost you over a million; a three bedroom flat in Mount Vernon recently sold for £2.5m).  


A snip.....

Supposedly Hampstead has more millionaires per square foot than anywhere else in the UK, though, that said, there is a pleasantly normal feel to crossing the road, or extracting £50 from a cash machine.


In the shadow of The Express Dairy - ordinary people, ordinary lives

The reason Hampstead is Hampstead, however, is quite simple, and quite recent.  Apart from the Heath (which you can read about at http://www.richardpgibbs.org/2011/08/hampstead-heath.html) the opening of a well of chalybeate (spring water rich in iron salts) water in the seventeenth century brought the Londoners out in their droves.  

View from Holly Mount - miles from anywhere!

People had moved here to escape the plague, and on December 20th 1698 the 3rd Earl of Gainsborough and his mother, the Honourable Susanna Noel, donated a well and six acres of swampy land for the use and benefit of the poor of Hampstead.  Soon a Spa, with pump house and assembly room was opened to rival those of Tonbridge Wells, and other fashionable resorts.


The Chalybeate Well, all that remains of the Spa (demolished 1882)

Drink Traveller and with strength renewed
Let a kind thought be given
To Her [Susanna Noel] who has thy thirst subdued
The render thanks to Heaven

These waters, combined with the open spaces of the Heath, and the raised elevation of the village (Holly Mount is over 300 feet above sea level) brought the wealthy out from the city.  Also in this mix were two other factors - the lack of landed aristocracy favoured the nouveau riche; protestant dissenters had moved here when they were forbidden to preach within five miles of Charing Cross.  Hampstead as a haven for free thinkers was born.

One of your five-a-day - American Cherrys!  -  Not even an apostrophe!

Health was at the heart of Hampstead; health which goes hand in hand with wealth.  It is one of the ambiguities of the Welfare State that if you live in Tower Hamlets, or Hull, or some parts of Glasgow, you are likely to live less well, and for fewer years than if you reside in Fitzrovia, Rickmansworth, or Cheadle Hulme.  But then another irony is that the Royal Free Hospital (the combination of Royal and Free being a nice touch) is not only the biggest employer in Hampstead, but a slice of that welfare state that we all can benefit from.  As I noted before, my mother was once hospitalised in the Royal Free (following a nasty fall and a serious loss of blood) and it was to spend a few hours with a specialist the other day that I returned to sample the healthy delights of the Village.

Smoking can seriously damage your health......

So I appreciate the salubrious environs, the quiet shambles, the fresh(ish) airs, and the views.  I appreciate the fact that the state makes provision to examine, and treat, those who may not be 100% fit and well, and long may it continue.

Spiritual Health - The Parish Church of Saint John-at-Hampstead

But I am also struck by how many plaques, from various organisations, there are on the walls, fixing where the well-to-do made their marks:  George Romney, R L Stevenson, 


Marie Stopes, John Galsworthy, 

Nice one, John

Arthur Bliss, Ian Fleming, William Empson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Walter Gropius, Chris Bonington and Thierry Henri, amongst a number of other celebrities, lived, shopped and aired their views here. Though not all at the same time.  Wikipedia has an entry entitled: List of People from Hampstead, which is a slightly coy way of indicating the 250 people it reckons are famous enough to elicit some interest.  It stars those who were born there, though they are few, and does not state which of them lie buried in the parish graveyard, of whom John Constable, 

John and Wain.

John Harrison (longitude),

You can't turn the clock back, John

and Hugh Gaitskell are probably the most notable.....


What Wikipedia does not tell us is who has lived longer here because they were here.  The Vale of Health, where the Village meets the Heath, was probably so named to disguise its unhealthy origins, but became fashionable after Leigh Hunt lived there (until 1819) entertaining the likes of Byron and Shelley, neither of whom grew to old age.  Roughly a hundred years later D H Lawrence, possibly in the company of John Middleton Murry and the also tubercular Katherine Mansfield, coughed a little here, before taking off for sunnier climes.


Personally I wouldn't mind a pied a terre nearby.  Handy for the Heath and its convivial bathing (so long as you get the right pond); easy for a wander up to The Holly Bush for a sausage roll, 


or down to The Flask for a pint; 

One of the more particular barmaids at The Flask

within reach of the Royal Free for a defibrillator, and only 181 feet down to the Northern Line and access to Soho and beyond.  I could spend my days listening to harpsichords in the gardens of Fenton House

Fenton House, now owned by the National Trust

or spill coffee downstairs in Burgh House

Burgh House (1704) - once home to Rudyard Kipling's daughter, but now seat of the Hampstead Museum

celebrate psychology at the Freud Museum or watch an art film at the Everyman.  If all else seemed dull I could even sit under a plum tree in the garden of the Keats House and wait for a nightingale to fall on me....

Quaint - or so they say....

It's the health of my wallet that grieves me.  Nothing short of a pair of millions would make this accessible, so, purtroppo, it ain't going to happen.  We will draw a veil over this.....

Nightmare on Elm Row

As signor Keats once wrote:

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam'd to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now 'tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?

(Though to tell the truth he wasn't very well at the time.....)


Is there a Bishop of Wells and Baths?

Doctor doctor tell me the time of day....


Roll on John!



Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Cornish Nasties

The Wind Cries Mary

A broom is drearily sweeping
up the broken pieces of yesterday's life.
Somewhere a Queen is weeping,
somewhere a King has no wife.

And the wind it cries Mary.


There be some odd goings on down there.  Her is far away, and when you get there, if you get there, given the bottle necks on the A30, there's no going back, nor's there any where else to go.  The cul-de-sac that is Cornwall (Kernow) is a strange and different world.  Deceptively delightful, with sun, and sand, and sea, and close-huddled villages, deep green vales and high, light hills, but at the same time contorted and steep, unapproachable and unforgiving.


In The Ballad of Charlotte Dymond[1], Charles Causley, a Launceston man, commemorated the lives and deaths of an eighteen year old girl and her twenty-two year old admirer, Matthew Weeks, who was hanged on August 12th, 1844, in Bodmin Jail:

They took him off to Bodmin,
They pulled the prison bell,
They sent him smartly up to heaven
And dropped him down to hell.

In April of that year Matthew, who was not blessed with good looks, took Charlotte, who also worked on Lower Penhale Farm, near Bodmin, for a walk up the slopes of Rough Tor, on the way to Camelford:

Out beyond the marshes
Where the cattle stand,
With her crippled lover
Limping at her hand.

Upset by her flirtatious chatter about other young men he slashed her throat, twice, with his knife:

Charlotte she was gentle
But they found her in the flood
Her Sunday beads among the reeds
Beaming with her blood.

Jealousy, and murder are not the preserves of Cornwall alone, but the story fits the landscape well, and Causley's words pick out the tale with a rusty needle's thread:

All through the granite kingdom
And on its travelling airs
Ask which of these two lovers
The most deserves your prayers.

And your steel heart search, Stranger,
That you may pause and pray
For lovers who come not to bed
Upon their wedding day,

But lie upon the moorland
Where stands the sacred snow
Above the breathing river,
And the salt sea-winds go.


The straightforward geophysical words and their emotive qualifiers take us well away, as D H Lawrence said when settling near Padstow, outside the England of London.  With about half a million people in some 1.3 thousand square miles (a population density of about 373 per square mile - compared with the London Metropolitan Region at 3,900 per square mile, or 11,760 per square mile in Greater London).  

The traffic lights they turn blue tomorrow
And shine their emptiness down on my bed,
The tiny island sags downstream
'Cos the life that they lived is dead.

And the wind screams Mary.

With the sea on three sides (and 422 miles of coastline) and rugged hills and the Tamar valley slicing it from Devon, Cornwall makes a contained Kingdom.  Small wonder that Arthur made his fortress here (at Tintagel) and that Excalibur was returned to the Lady of the Lake at Dozmary Pool, one of the sources of the river Fowey.

Portrait of a Landlord - there'll always be a welcome.....

A story that is roughly contemporary with that of Charlotte Dymond's, is that of Mary Yellan, the niece by marriage of Joss Merlyn, the landlord of one of the most spectacularly uninviting inns on these islands. 

A stunningly life-like recreation of what might have been witnessed by a traveller in 1820

Daphne du Maurier, daughter of fashionable actor manager Gerald (for whom the cigarettes were named), was a well-connected and imaginative woman who found fame through her stories, and Alfred Hitchcock (among others)'s films.  


She wrote Jamaica Inn in 1935, following a riding excursion which brought her to the hopelessly ill-managed Inn[2] high on Bodmin Moor (exactly as it is today.....)  



Her story is a well-crafted page-turner, containing traces of the Brontes and R L Stevenson, but spiced with sex and violence in good measure for the day.  Films don't do it justice, 


as so often with creative prose, as the linear drive of the cinema rarely allows either for three-dimensional thought or for characters who doubt or falter.

Mary shook her head.  'I've only seen the evil,' she said.

In a way Mary Yellan is a modern heroine (or should that be hero?), though she is surrounded by melodramatic villains (he was a great husk of a man, nearly seven feet high, with a creased brow.....) and wreathed in weak dialogue (He's a bully and a brute, and many worse things besides.  He's turned my aunt from a laughing, happy woman into a miserable drudge, and I'll never forgive him for that as long as I live.....)  

Mary and Uncle Joss blissfully unaware that Francis Davey is at the window....

There is a certain fascination in the grotesque violence described (She cried out to me to help her, Mary, and I smashed her face in with a stone) but the real strength is that Jamaica Inn is as terrible a place now as it was then, 

Museum of Smuggling and du Maurier

so the fascinated visitor can really be horrified by the ghosts of smugglers and murderers, while waiting to be served in fusty and lifeless surroundings, unnerved by bizarrely unconvincing waxworks and barely living bearers of tattoos no self-respecting pirate would be seen dead wearing.....


I digress.  My umbilical ring just rang.

The carriage had been abandoned in a narrow gully-way with high banks on either side, and the horse had been taken from the traces.....

From the toy village of Altarnun, and the current vicar (if she exists) to Jamaica Inn, where bags of ganja


Smugglers' Joy

could be piled with the frozen pasties in the back room for all the current staff would seem to care, is but a traffic jam these days, but no one rises to Brown Willy (at 420 metres the highest point in Cornwall) and the moors are silent.  The throngs fight their way to the rocky bays where Joss drowned other people's sorrows.  

They fell one by one into the white tongues of the sea, little black dots without life or substance....

Now, despite rusting notices warning of evil currents, the carefree and the careless chance with watery devils, trusting in suntanned immortality and the superiority of homo erectus (deficiens).  Wreckers stand by the nibbling tidal edge, where Joss gagged his niece, and the rocks aggravate the waves just as they did two hundred years ago.  

They waited, all of them, standing upon the shingle with the waves breaking beyond their feet, spread out in a thin line they were, like crows, their black forms outlined against the white beach....

It's a grand, stark landscape, and even now the crowds make little impression.  Horse thieves and disillusioned prelates probably still roam the uplands, while sharks thrash the shallows.....


Nat Hocken, because of a war-time disability, had a pension and did not work full-time at the farm..... at midday, he would pause and eat the pasty that his wife had baked for him, and sitting on the cliff's edge would watch the birds.....  Alfred Hitchcock took The Birds and relocated it in California, but Daphne du Maurier's imagination grew in the Cornwall, where great flocks of [birds] came to the peninsula, restless, uneasy, spending themselves in motion.....


And just outside the tiny village of Dando Monachorum, George Magruder, an American academic, struggled, in the 1969 novel The Siege of Trencher's Farm by Gordon Williams, with his definitive study of Branksheer (the late eighteenth century diarist.....)  A couple of years later, under the title Straw Dogs, Sam Peckinpah ventured into the darkness of a small rural community.  As Harry Ware, landlord of the Dando Inn, muses on his regular clients, if you came from anywhere else in England, these thick-necked, round-faced West Countrymen were regarded almost as clowns.....  Yet beneath this stolid, almost bovine exterior, he knew there were dark twists in their minds....

After all the jacks are in their boxes,

and the clowns have all gone to bed,

you can hear happiness staggering on down the street,
footprints dress in red.

And the wind whispers Mary.

Sam Peckinpah, like Alfred Hitchcock before him, used the text only as a starting point, and with subtle invention (sic) allowed for Susan George to steal the show, but that notwithstanding this book, like Jamaica Inn, and The Ballad of Charlotte Dymond, describes a world where the unlikely becomes possible.  It is remarkable, also, how Jamaica Inn, The Birds and The Siege of Trencher's Farm portray a menacing claustrophobia, with doors and windows battened down, breaking glass and a mounting sense of fear of intrusion. .....he cursed aloud, and, reaching forward, smashed the pane of glass with his fist, careless of the splitting sound of the glass and the blood that spouted immediately from his hand.... (JI). The tapping began at the windows, at the door. The rustling, the jostling, the pushing for positions on the sills. The first thud of the suicide gulls upon the step.... (TB) The breaking glass they'd heard was the man clearing the jagged pieces from the framework.... (TSoTF). 


There was an old magic in these moors that made them inaccessible, spacing them to eternity.....

Cornwall is different.  You leave the cosy behind when you cross the Tamar.  Bodmin Moor erases the comfort zone.  And this is, perversely perhaps, a major attraction.



Will the wind ever remember
The names it has blown in the past,
And with this crutch, its old age and its wisdom
It whispers, "No, this will be the last."

And The Wind Cries Mary.

Jimi Hendrix, 1967

Patience:  Knock, knock!
Joss:  Who's there?
Patience:  My niece is coming to stay with us at the Inn!
Joss:  Jamaica?
Patience:  No, dear.  It was my sister's dying wish......

Boom!  Boom!






[1] August 12th
12/8/1844
Matthew Weekes – Bodmin 

Charlotte Dymond was the belle of Bodmin. Buxom and pretty, the 18-year-old milkmaid at Lower Penhale Farm flirted outrageously with all the young men of the village, and they all fell in love with her. One of them, Matthew Weekes, 22, who was a labourer on the same farm, had dreamed of marrying her for six years, but his chances were next to nothing. He had few teeth, a pronounced limp, and his face was hideously pockmarked.
Charlotte’s playful antics with the other village men incensed Weekes. On Sunday, April 14th, 1844, he plucked up courage to ask her to go for a walk with him, and somewhat to his surprise she accepted. They took the path to Lanlavery Rock, on the far slopes of Rough Tor, and then along the road to Camelford. As they walked, Charlotte talked coquettishly about all the young men she liked, and the wretched Weekes felt the fires of jealousy searing his flesh.
They came to a gate leading into a field. Weekes later described what happened next.
“I told her I had seen her in a situation with some young men that was disgraceful to her. She then said, ‘I shall do as I like. I shall have nothing more to do with you.’
“I took out my knife and then replaced it. But on her repeating the phrase, I made a cut at her throat from behind. She immediately fell backwards, the blood gushing out in a large stream, and exclaimed while falling, ‘Lord have mercy on me!’
“While she was on the ground I made a second but much larger cut, although she was almost dead at that time. After standing over her body for about four or five minutes, I lifted up one of her arms and it fell to the ground as if she were dead. I pushed her body a little further down a bank. I took her bonnet, shawl and shoes and covered them up in a turf pit. I put her gloves and bag in my pocket and threw away the knife.”
Charlotte’s body was found two weeks later. Weekes was tried for her murder and hanged on Monday, August 12th, 1844, outside Bodmin Prison.
Later, the villagers paid for a monument to be erected on the spot where Charlotte died. Legend has it that she haunts the murder scene, and that her ghost is often seen, too, at Lower Penhale Farm.

[2] The Inn is now under the new ownership of Allen Jackson, who is already making improvements to Jamaica Inn including providing Sky Sports in a side bar and from Easter Wi-Fi and Sky television including sports and movie channels in all rooms.