16 November 2020

Among my souvenirs

Bella Italia!


Masks....  If only it were that simple; that beautiful.  

Anyway, as we suffer this purgatorial lock-in, it's perhaps only natural that we sift through pleasant memories of past freedoms.... And I cannot help but think of Italy, my home for twenty years, and, up until this pandemic, where Amanda and I have kept visiting several times a year.

In the last half century or so I have travelled throughout Italy, marvelling at the light, the art, the variety, the scenery.  I will never tire of it, though, I cannot deny, it isn't perfect.  Rubbish is a problem.  Politics is a problem.  Progress is a problem (?)

But here are a few of my snapshots from years ago. These are an almost random sample of colour slides I took on various jaunts when all of us were younger, and the future was bright.  Great art they are not, but if for a moment you can join me on an armchair tour of Italy, then sit back and relax.....

The Dolomites.  Stunning mountains and wonderful villages.  I remember beds of eider down, frosty walks with myrtle grappa breath.  Still waters and passing clouds.  Heaven....


The islands. Perhaps everyone knows something of Sicily, and maybe Sardinia. But there are many more Italian islands. The Tremiti islands in the Adriatic, for example, sparkle with a deceptive beauty, even though the waters may be swarming with stingers......

Tremiti Islands 

Amanda and I used to take short breaks on Ponza, a relatively short journey south from Rome.  Once across the water from Anzio on the Hydrofoil, or bobbing across from Formia on a ferryboat, you entered a different world, where wild flowers, seafood and exotic bird life blended into a fantasy I could now die for....


And possibly my favourite, Giglio, where my memories confuse nightly jazz on the stepped streets of Il Castello, with snorkelling amongst rainbows of little fish and gleaming bream deep amongst the off shore rocks....

Porto, Isola del Giglio 

The mountains of central Italy. The Abruzzi National Park, with its wolves and hilltop villages, its fungi, the lamb cutlets that burn your fingers, and its dark red wine....

Opi, The Abruzzi National Park 

Or the unstable hollow that shelters Norcia, birthplace of St Benedict, and, thanks to the genius of monks centuries ago (who devised a way of keeping irrigation water from freezing so they could raise three crops of rice a year, and so had plenty to feed their pigs....) home of the most wonderful hams and sausages.....


And the hidden, wild places, like this frozen lake in central southern Italy - Il Lago di Matese.  Just beautiful.....

There are so many wonderful places.  Incessant travelling has not exhausted the treasures of this country.  Urbino, for example, with its vast Palazzo Ducale, is one of hundreds, if not thousands, of extraordinary towns.....

Less well known, and far less rich, is Montescaglioso, in Basilicata, in the south.  But no less fascinating for that....

And then there is the infamous, and now trendy, Matera, with its 'Sassi' - once miserable dug out hovels, now bijou apartholtels.  This is how it looked in 1990, not so very different from when Christ stopped at Eboli....

That is about all for now, as a whistle stop tour from top to toe of my beloved Italy, but it would be wrong to finish without a mention of the people. Everywhere has its idiots - we have Johnson and Gove et al; Italy has Berlusconi, and Matteo Salvini..... But my experience of Italians has been something to treasure.  I have always found people welcoming and open. Whether this man and his monkey by the canal at Fiumicino (July 1981)....

Or memorable nights in Rome, here atop the Janiculum Hill in Trastevere, a short walk from where I lived.  High on his horse is Garibaldi, a symbol, perhaps, of an aspect of Italy which outshines the myths and jokes, the failures and the mistakes.  There is something splendid to be found, if you take the trouble to look for it....

I just wish I could be there now.

6 November 2020

I had a dream.....

Darkness Visible…..


Paradise Lost 


Him the Almighty Power

Hurled headlong flaming from th' ethereal sky 

With hideous ruin and combustion down 

To bottomless perdition, there to dwell 

In adamantine chains and penal fire, 

Who durst defy th' Omnipotent to arms.


Book 1: Lines 44-49


Sometime early on Wednesday morning, November 4th 2020, I woke with a start, frightened.  I had been dreaming, which for me is rare, or, at least, to remember my dreams is rare.  And I woke suddenly breaking off a three dimensional, vivid but very short dream.


It went like this:  I was looking up to a platform, high atop a steel structure.  On the platform stood a man, dressed in light tan trousers, a pale green sort of puffer jacket, like American flyers sometimes wear. His back was toward me, but I could see longish fair hair falling from under his dozer cap.  The platform was reached by a vertical ladder, and it must have been about thirty metres high.  There was no safety net, and the man was alone.  In front of him, sloping up at around ten degrees, was a wire, maybe about four metres long.  He seemed confident, and started to walk up the wire, his small hands outstretched in balance.  As he gained height, however, he began to falter, and his feet, close in front of each other, trembled a little, then switched several times from side to side, while his body remained upright, but his head looked down.  He grabbed out for a long horizontal pole in front of him, which was cradled at the end of the wire, but it slipped from his hands, and fell away.  His feet and the wire went quickly to the right, and he slipped, catching the wire under his arms as his red hat disappeared.  He seemed to shout, but I couldn’t hear.  He swung awkwardly with his head just above the wire, then slipped down towards the platform, his legs flailing under him above the void.  Somehow, he managed to bring his feet onto the edge of the platform and to hoist his body up, then he was lying flat on his back, his head off the end of the plank, his face toward me, upside down, his mouth open, his hair flopping in the air, his arms flung out on each side, his palms open.  He was barely balanced, the plank seemed narrow, and I knew he was about to roll and fall.


It was a scary dream, and I had no idea where it sprang from.  I woke disturbed, frightened of the fall, puzzled by this strangely vivid image of a man on his back about to slip off a very tall steel structure with no safety harness, no net, no guides, no friends.


I carried this dream around all Wednesday, and all Thursday, without seeing the blindingly obvious. 


Then, this morning, Friday, 6 November 2020, we went for a walk near Redbourn.  It was a misty, cold, autumn morning, and we walked along a muddy path, under oaks, and under a strangely cloudy sky.  Then, as we followed a lane near a place called Nirvana, I heard a faint hissing, crackling sound, or perhaps a sort of buzz, like a hive of bees in the distance.  Looking up, I saw power lines and a great steel pylon, the cables rising up to the peak at an angle of about ten degrees.  This was the high wire, the tall structure.  This was the height of power.  


And the man had achieved greatness, and dominance, and then, as he approached the zenith, with the possibility of sliding down the other side into the future, he fell back, like Lucifer, or Satan….


Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven…..


Or Macbeth, whose vaulting ambition…. o'erleaps itself and falls on th' other


Or perhaps like many others, too numerous to name, where ambition and pride precede an ignominious fall.  Politicians, warriors, businessmen and businesswomen, CEOs, tribal leaders and stars, brought down by some tragic flaw.


And life, as we know it, goes on, without a blip.  Careless of the flailing legs that momentarily stick out from the sea as the body sinks.  While the ship sails on, and the ploughman continues his daily toil.


Him the Almighty Power

Hurled headlong flaming from th' ethereal sky,

With hideous ruin and combustion, down

To bottomless perdition, there to dwell

In adamantine chains and penal fire,

Who durst defy th' Omnipotent to arms.

Nine times the space that measures day and night

To mortal men, he, with his horrid crew,

Lay vanquished, rolling in the fiery gulf,

Confounded, though immortal. But his doom

Reserved him to more wrath; for now the thought

Both of lost happiness and lasting pain

Torments him: round he throws his baleful eyes,

That witnessed huge affliction and dismay,

Mixed with obdurate pride and steadfast hate.

At once, as far as Angels ken, he views

The dismal situation waste and wild.


John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 1

Thank you.  You have a lovely, happy time.....


Dream on......

26 October 2020

Fax of Life

 Always Look on the Bright Side......

I was never a huge fan of Eric Idle, but I did spend many an evening in the '70s with my friend Duncan and a bottle of 140 proof Polish Pure Spirit, laughing carelessly at Monty Python's Flying Circus.....

I also cannot confess to being abducted by the charms of The Life of Brian, but I will say that Idle's concluding song as he is crucified remains with me, if only for its catchy refrain.  The lyrics may not be up there with the greatest poets, but the cheeky, whistle-along, upturned sentiments provide something of a fillip....

And we need catchy refrains and fillips these days.....

[Duncan, by the way, worked, in a pin stripe suit, for the local authority in Preston; he once recounted to me a day when he had had to appraise a policeman's accommodation.  He sat on a sofa between the copper and his wife, while the former rolled a sizeable joint.  I don't know why? the rozzer lamented, but we don't seem to have many friends....

Duncan later moved to Finland, where, he reported, nothing happened during the week.  At the weekends, I heard, people endeavoured to become as drunk as possible and to make as much love as was available....  

I haven't heard from him since.]

Finland, Finland, Finland
The country where I quite want to be
Your mountains so lofty
Your treetops so tall
Finland, Finland, Finland
Finland has it all, Finland has it all

Michael Palin

Amanita Muscaria (Fly Agaric) is in season. A fungus associated with elves and fairy tales.  It has a long history of use in religious ceremonies, particularly in Asia. For over 4,000 years it was the ingredient in a sacred and hallucinogenic ritual drink called soma in India and Iran; while the Siberian shamans would give it out as a gift, sometimes via their own urine, in northern winter..... 

One year I collected a grand crop of these attractive mushrooms, and baked them in the oven.  They sort of melted into a confection of brown sludge.  Despite an inclination to sample such, I decided it was better medicine to bin them all....

But then poppies, late flowering specimens here anticipating the armistice, also have their secrets.....

But then, narcotic or hallucinogen, you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing....

Hey!  These are the fax of life.....

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

Some things in life are bad
They can really make you mad
Other things just make you swear and curse
When you're chewing on life's gristle
Don't grumble, give a whistle
And this'll help things turn out for the best

Always look on the bright side of life
Always look on the light side of life

These are dark days, and for many they are darker than for me, or you. I worry about some of our leaders, whose busy lives and limited incomes must make them so unhappy.....

Amanda and I walk in the bright autumnal woods. Nothing is what it seems. The turning leaves lunge at us, or speed past as if there was no tomorrow....

I note a holly tree, the bright berries symbolic of a famous sacrifice some generations ago. They whistle past me, like shot from a 12 gauge tearing life from limb....

One of my favourite trees won't stand still.  Life is alive, bright, quick and sparkling. It's not how I think I feel, but as I watch this tree dancing its lonely one-step, I wonder....

Beech leaves similarly dazzle me.....

And a silver birch rushes past me, glad to be alive.....

If life seems jolly rotten
There's something you've forgotten
And that's to laugh and smile and dance and sing

You know the old chestnuts are the best....

Though, yes, there may always be a sting somewhere.....

Life's a laugh and death's a joke, it's true
You'll see it's all a show
Keep 'em laughin' as you go
Just remember that the last laugh is on you

I take some solace in the colours of nature, the vibrance of life as it turns.  The seasons work their magic, touches of hope at the end of every tunnel.  

All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.

I take some solace in that billions have died - all those that went before, have gone and none complain.  And I take solace in that within another few decades all - Trump, Johnson, Cummings, Gove, Patel, Corbyn, Putin, Jimmy Carr, and me - will be dust.... And few will care - least of all us.....

You know, you come from nothing
You're going back to nothing
What have you lost? Nothing

Always look on the right side of life

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die......

11 October 2020

A Hard Rain

I heard 10,000 whispering as no one was listening

A hard rain is coming - it's going to fall.  We've all had enough of everything, whether it's SPADs or viruses... Lock downs, masks, and closures....

I heard one person dying, I heard many people laughing....

The woods are calling.  The selva oscura beckons, with all the attractions of darkness and tangle.... The sinewy ranks of hornbeam welcome me....

But....  it's not time, it's not time.  Whatever the lure, responsibility hauls us back.  The web is sticky....

The comforts of home.  The glass that is more than half full.  There are things to be thankful for....

I cut Amanda's toe nails this evening.  After supper.  Watching tv.  We've been married some 36 years, and I think this is the first time I've done that.  I was thinking, the other morning, after I had clipped her finger nails.....  I wonder if her toe nails need attention?  Then, I realised, when I was bathing her earlier, that they needed cutting.  Never occurred to me before.  Like I only started washing her hair some months ago.  After the swimming pool closed.

Funny how time plays tricks like that.

Funny how roles change.  Life changes.  Life kinda runs out.....

Or maybe it's not funny.

I'm not laughing.

We're all caught in the web.....

Or perhaps we aren't?

Today I read The Observer.  John Lydon (aka Johnnie Rotten of the Sex Pistols) is the sole carer for his partner, Nora, who has dementia.  He is quoted as saying, I understand that there are instances where people just can't cope, they don't have the capability.  But at the moment, I do, and I'm doing the best I can with that.  I'm actually quite happy.....

This is love, the hard years, the big test?....  Everything is a test.  You've got to solve these problems. You can't just run away and hide.  You've got to meet it head-on, get on with it.  Sorry, there it is.  These are the cards handed to you and you'd better play the game....

He has reason.  As is said in Italy.  You can't just run and hide.

He also says, when asked if he has lost his life partner.  I haven't lost her, no, no, no.  She's going through some traumas.  Bits of memories are fading, slowly but surely, and will probably all be gone eventually.  But I'm making sure it's a happy journey and not a sad one.....

Good for you, Johnnie.

Someone who works for the Alzheimer's Society once told me that they have a saying. When you've met one person with dementia......  You've met one person with dementia.

We are all pretty vacant.

Or perhaps not?

Amanda is 66.  She first saw a doctor about her memory difficulties about ten years ago.  Various people asked her numerous questions and eventually she was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's disease.  She was 'treated' with Donepezil for a year, but 'we' were not satisfied with the diagnosis, and eventually the doctor agreed to refer her to a neurologist.  So, after various people had asked her numerous questions, and her brain had been scanned, etc, her diagnosis was changed to Fronto-temporal dementia, semantic variant, and put under the supervision of the National Hospital For Neurology and Neurosurgery, Queen Square, London.

It is possible that her dementia was triggered by an auto-immune infection, but it is now too late to test for this.  

It is also possible that Donepezil made her condition worse.

But all that is in the long lost past.

It is possible that she will have another ten years deteriorating.....

As with John Lydon and Nora, we have to be grateful that things could be worse.  Others with similar conditions to Amanda spend their days running up and down stairs, or binge eating, or making noises.  

Amanda likes walking, and dancing. She is a sweet natured girl. When we see others out walking, she says, Oh you have a nice, happy time, thank you....  Yes you have a nice happy time....

To everyone we meet.

And the other thing she says, is: Those little things over there - not too bad.  Not too bad.

And that's it.  Pretty much the whole range of her speech these days.  

There's no point in asking
You'll get no reply
Oh just remember I don't decide
I got no reason it's all too much
You'll always find us
Out to lunch

Oh we're so pretty
Oh so pretty
We're vacant
Oh we're so pretty
Oh so pretty
- vacant

Glen Matlock / Paul Spencer Cook / Steve Jones / John Lydon

Get thee glass eyes, and like a scurvy politician, seem to see the things thou dost not.

William Shakespeare
King Lear, Act 4, Scene 6