29 March 2013

Siena, Tuscany

The Best of Italy

Monte Paschi Media Chief David Rossi Found Dead, Police Say [March 7th 2013]

All is not well in Siena.  For 541 years the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena SpA has been Siena's largest employer and biggest patron.  It has sponsored the medieval costumes for the Palio - the bareback horse race in the central Campo twice every summer - for fifteen years (at €11m a year) and supported charities and civic works.  But now it has had to be bailed out to the tune of €4.2 billion.  In February it announced that its assets would be reduced by €730 million.  Then on March 5th prosecutors opened an investigation into insider trading.  The troubles may have begun with the acquisition of the Banca Antonveneta, in which it was assisted by JPMorgan which helped Monte dei Paschi raise about €1 billion with securities which were good as long as the bank was profitable.

David Rossi, aged 51, was the communications chief of the Bank and was found dead at 9.00pm on March 6th having apparently fallen from his office window.

Dealings with the Deutsche Bank and Nomura are now being investigated, as is the Chairman, Alessandro Profumo, who was brought in last year to restore confidence.  Unfortunately Profumo had to announce its third straight quarterly loss (of €1.5 billion) yesterday.  Profumo was previously, for thirteen years, head of Italy's largest bank, Unicredit, but resigned after clashing with shareholders over Libyan investments.

Until this I always felt that Siena was the perfect city....  It is thirty-five years since I first visited, and stood high above the Campo on a friend's terrazza to watch the violent excitement of the Palio, and through the years I have loved every visit, getting to know the canyon-like streets that curve and fall towards the centre.  

The architecture, predominantly created in ochre brickwork, but adorned with gleaming marble, is thrilling in its gothic bravura, especially around the central Campo with the Palazzo Pubblico and the Torre del Mangia.

The art, from the giant frescoes inside the Palazzo Pubblico by Ambrogio Lorenzetti and Simone Martini, to the more delicate works by Pinturicchio in the Libreria Piccolomini, to the wonderful Madonna of the Franciscans by Duccio di Buoninsegna in the Pinacoteca Nazionale is as impressive as anywhere in Italy - at least to my taste.

The Cathedral, or Duomo Santa Maria, is a candy-striped feast of light, which literally crowns the city at 346 metres above sea level, and with the remnants of even greater design (building was curtailed by the Black Death at the beginning of the fourteenth century, or it would have been at least twice the size) allowing visitors magnificent views across the roof tops to the Tuscan countryside.

Inside it is cool, and tastes of peppermint.  The Pisano brothers were responsible for much of the finish, with Giovanni completing the facade in 1297 and Nicola providing the superb pulpit which stands on imperious lions in the nave.

For me Siena was perfect.  The food, especially in trattorie that think of themselves as on the periphery, is superb - meaty and robust, accompanied by great vegetables and finished off by tangy cheeses or honeyed cakes.  Local wine is great as well, tending towards the darkest red with a purple stain, but Siena also holds a special treat for the oenophile. Deep in the old powder stores of the Medici fortress lies the Enoteca Italiana, where you can savour a glass or bottle of any Italian wine you choose.  

Siena can be cold, when the blasts of winter drive you into bars begging for grappa. In summer it can be baking, and you have to smother yourself in lemon and pistacchio ice cream to survive. In spring it is at its brightest and best, with flowers singing to the sounds of violins from high windows in the academia musicale. In autumn the sharp sting of woodsmoke rouses your appetite and you crave porcini mushrooms and fennel sausages.

I thought Siena was perfect.  I have slept in Palazzi (such as the Pensione Palazzo Ravizza) but also in the open air on the roof of a modest pensione near the cathedral, dreaming of bells clanging in my head.  I have seen the horses for the Palio blessed in the contrada churches and the flag wavers practising in their courtyards.  The people are open and straightforward, striking looking and looking to strike if need be.  It is a place of study, both academic and musical, and there are students around who would not have been out of place in Paris in '68.  And there are ordinary workers as well. On one trip not so long ago I got caught up in a march along the main street.  

Not all is perfect in Siena.  The Monte dei Paschi bank has had to be bailed out; its communications director has fallen to his death.  Alessandro Profumo is cutting costs and purging political connections from the management.  Hundreds of branches of the bank throughout Italy are to be closed and about 4,000 jobs will be lost.  He has said that he cannot rule out the possibility that the bank itself may be sold.

Times are hard.  Money, the love of which is the root of all evil, is in short supply and one of the oldest and most revered banks in the world is closing its doors.  But Siena, wonderful Siena, home of San Bernardino the benevolent preacher and Santa Caterina, martyred on the wheel, will survive this shock and it will continue to be, for me at least, the very best of Italy.

22 March 2013

London 4 - Whitechapel

Whitechapel, "not a wery nice neighbourhood....." (Sam Weller in "The Pickwick Papers.")

"The shade of my tree is offered to those who come and go fleetingly."From a poem by Rabindranath Tagore

Altab Ali Park, pictured above, was so named in 1998 in memory of a 25-year-old Bangladeshi clothing worker, who was murdered in adjacent Adler Street on his way home from work in 1978 by three teenagers. Previously the park was St. Mary's Park, the site of the 14th Century white chapel, St Mary Matfelon, from which the area of Whitechapel gets its name. The chapel, which became the Parish Church of Whitechapel, was destroyed in the Blitz.

Some time ago a colleague told me about her first teaching post, which was in East London.  On Fridays, after school some of the staff would go for a drink in their local pub, The Blind Beggar.  This was also one of the haunts (aka the place that Ronnie shot George Cornell of the Richardson gang on March 9th 1966) of the Kray brothers, and my friend got to know the twins a little.  She recalled being told one day that, "If any of them kids bother you, Missie, just let us know.  We'll sort them out!"

How reassuring.  Who needs private medical insurance when you have protection like that?  They cared for people, the Krays.  In a way they were just like the National Health Service.....

I was reminded of this the other day when I dropped into the Blind Beggar myself, and found that memorabilia of these famous local boys were on sale in the pub. 

Double Vision:  The Blind Beggar capitalises on the Kray Twins,
blurring the divide between heroes and villains

Anyway, my reason to be there was not idle curiosity.....  I was visiting my mother, a guest of the National Health Service, following a serious fall and a tour of various hospitals, including Moorfields, where an emergency operation saved her right eye, though not the sight in it.  I mused on the sad irony of this in The Blind Beggar, before approaching the hospital.

Disconcertingly, the building itself was blind, with windows boarded up and painted plyboard prohibiting access.  Was this a bad dream?  A cruel trick played by the NHS?  Was my mother rattling round in there, a lone patient in an empty ward?

This grand building, still sporting the Royal name granted it in 1990 on its 250th anniversary, has in fact been replaced by a vast structure in blue glass that rises behind it.  This is not complete yet, but planning started in 2005 and £1bn was set aside to fund the redevelopment.  The Queen visited on February 27th this year to unveil an official opening plaque (I hope this wasn't where she caught her tummy bug - dangerous places hospitals!)

So the face of Whitechapel continues to change, as does the London skyline itself.  My mother, at first on the 11th floor, had a vertiginous view down a glass canyon to unfathomable depths.

Subsequently moved to the 8th floor she had a different aspect, one that had some familiar sights towards the city.

Which, when expanded, includes the Shard, 30 St Mary Axe and between the two of them the Walkie Talkie, under construction.

As a building the new hospital is, once you have found your way through the corridors and up the highly confusing lift system (don't expect any lift to take you to any floor - oh no!  You need to find the right shaft and then programme the lift from the floor you are on to take you to the one you want.  And woe betide you if you happen to be colour blind!)  Sorry, as a building it is impressive, with spacious wards and state of the art facilities.  How sad then to find that the National Health Service itself has not kept up with progress.  While the standard of care and the quality of nursing is generally wonderful, the lack of communication between floors or departments is extraordinary.  Copious handwritten notes in files seem to be compiled in each of the three wards hosting my mother, but in each case these seem to start from scratch, so that in one ward they have no idea she has had a fall, despite the bruises on her face and the damage to her eye.  And when it comes to discharge, none of the notes follow her to her respite destination, so that the recipient nursing staff there have no idea about her medication.  Sorry, I don't wish to criticise the service which, since 1948 has been one of the wonders of civilisation.  But systems and controls are simply not good enough.  This was exemplified, perhaps, by one consultant telling me over the phone, "I am only a Consultant!" as if that explained everything.

Anyway, moving away from the Hospital, and its 40,000 annual admissions, there's more to Whitechapel than this. In Dickensian times, Sam Weller, In "The Pickwick Papers," declared that it was "not a wery nice neighbourhood," as, being outside the city walls, it was a sprawling area of narrow alleys, slums and stews, unregulated and unplanned.  In the 1880s it was associated with the Jack the Ripper murders, which still inspire guided tours and whispered theories, despite (or perhaps because of?) being terminally unsolved.

Whitechapel High Street is the road to Colchester, and in itself is broad and functional.  On either side there are traces of older establishments and new developments.  The chrysalis of the old Hospital and its emerging butterfly symbolise the state of change.  The old Church Bell Foundry, established in 1570, still stands and still works (it produced Big Ben, thirteen and a half tons or history, cast in 1858).  

Not far away are the East London Mosque (completed in 1985) and the London Muslim Centre (completed 2004) is one of the largest mosques in the UK, capable of accommodating 5,000 worshippers at prayer.

Then back along the road towards Aldgate is the Whitechapel Art Gallery, which was originally opened in 1901 but which underwent a £13.5m refurbishment recently and reopened in 2009, with a tapestry of Picasso's "Guernica" as a key exhibit.  It has been one of the most influential galleries in London over the last century, and continues to be a prime location for international contemporary art.

It is probably not surprising that there are also venues of the performing arts. Though the theatres of Dickens's time have long since disappeared, there is the Nags (sic) Head, at 17 - 19 Whitechapel Road, which is, "one of London's oldest lap dance establishments where you can enjoy exotic performances from dancers from around the globe." As its website informs us, you can, "Unwind in the welcoming bar atmosphere and watch seductive pole dancing on-stage all day." It is a small venue, but according to one blogger, "you will find a mix of local residents, tradesmen and City workers all of who know each other and have done for years," and it has recently been tastefully refurbished. One of its clients, Martin Askins, had this to say in 2012, "I spent a marvellous afternoon there. The main attraction may be the enormous tiddlywinks table downstairs - ask at the bar if you wish to have a game." If you are really interested "Private dances in secluded booths are available from £10," and,  "a private VIP room is also available where you can relax and enjoy champagne with the girls in a more intimate setting." 

The Nags Head was closed, as I think the photo demonstrates, when I passed by.....

The ghosts of the Krays and the Richardsons live on, perhaps..... and even my bruised and battered mum nods in direction of their memory by posing, high above the seedy streets, as Jack 'The Hat' McVitie, a "lovely man," according to 'Mad' Frankie Fraser.  

But in walking down the Whitechapel Road it is not the Krays who are commemorated.    It is George Bernard Shaw and the Fabian Society who met regularly in the area.  It is Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, who lived here during his exile from Russia.  It is the "Elephant Man," Joseph Carrey Merrick, who died in the Royal London Hospital.  It is Monica Ali, whose novel "Brick Lane" brings to life the world of a Bangaldeshi woman in Whitechapel.  And it is Altab Ali, who died by the site of the chapel.

In thinking about this excursion into Whitechapel, it seems fit to quote the final lines of Rabindranath Tagore's poem, "Fireflies," a verse of which is embedded in the path within the Altab Ali Park:

"Before the end of my journey
may I reach within myself
the one which is the all,
leaving the outer shell
to float away with the drifting multitude
upon the current of chance and change."

Brothers in the Clouds

17 March 2013


A horse by any other name....

In fair Verona, where we lay our scene...  Piazza delle Erbe

Pastissada de caval is a speciality of la cucina Veronese - the cooking of Verona. Apparently it originated on September 30th AD 489 after a furious battle between the Italian King Odoacre and the Ostrogoth Theodoric, after which there were so many dead horses that the starving local people chopped them all up and stewed them in wine. In essence it is a little like a strong goulash though in Verona it is usually served with polenta and made with Amarone wine, which gives it a particularly robust flavour. I can recommend this dish and I especially recommend eating it at L'Antica Trattoria Tipica Al Bersagliere which you can find in the old heart of Verona in via Dietro Pallone, 1, which is in the Filippini district.

The river Adige

In these days of mixed meat dishes on supermarket shelves and worries about the drug content of substances which may not be beef, I find it heartening to think of our continental cousins who specialise in knowing what they eat. 

The 14th century Fontana di Madonna Verona, topped by a Roman Statue

"I had been half afraid to go to Verona, lest it should at all put me out of conceit with Romeo and Juliet. But, I was no sooner come into the old market-place, than the misgiving vanished. It is so fanciful, quaint, and picturesque a place, formed by such an extraordinary and rich variety of fantastic buildings, that there could be nothing better at the core of even this romantic town: scene of one of the most romantic and beautiful of stories." Charles Dickens, 'Pictures from Italy.'

Torre dei Lamberti, 368 steps to heaven

"Pleasant Verona! With its beautiful old palaces, and charming country in the distance, seen from terrace walks, and stately, balustraded galleries. With its Roman gates, still spanning the fair street, and casting, on the sunlight of to-day, the shade of fifteen hundred years ago. With its marble-fitted churches, lofty towers, rich architecture, and quaint old quiet thoroughfares, where shouts of Montagues and Capulets once resounded, 

'And made Verona's ancient citizens
Cast by their grave, beseeming ornaments,
To wield old partizans.'

With its fast-rushing river, picturesque old bridge, great castle, waving cypresses, and prospect so delightful, and so cheerful! Pleasant Verona!"

The river Adige, with San Giorgio in Braida

"But anywhere: in the churches, among the palaces, in the streets, on the bridge, or down beside the river: it was always pleasant Verona, and in my remembrance always will be."

The Ponte Scaligero and the Castel Vecchio

I love Verona. The city is elegant without being fussy or too smart, and it holds its history well. You may not sense the Romans so much when enjoying opera in the amphitheatre, but it's not so different from the physical experience the public had when being entertained two thousand years ago. The stones you sit on have not moved. The sky is your ceiling.

The river curves around and through the city, like a cat's tail wrapping snugly about itself. The bustle of citizens and visitors could be medieval in the combination of purpose and leisure. The heat that glows from the medieval bricks in the evening lulls you into comfort after the hard sun of the day. 

The market in Piazza delle Erbe

If you wander into the Basilica of San Zeno, the patron saint of Verona, you can admire the twelfth century bronze doors, the thirteenth century rose window called "La Ruota della Fortuna" [the wheel of fortune], the Romanesque cloisters, and the fifteenth century triptych of the Madonna and Saints, by Mantegna, over the high altar. Outside there are two towers: the campanile of the Basilica which was completed in 1178 and a ninth century battlemented tower which is the only part to survive from the original Benedictine monastery.

The cloisters of San Zeno Maggiore

In the centre of Verona, above the market place, are buildings with faded frescoes such as Juliet would have recognised. The rustic tiles and modest windows do not overbear with grandeur, but carry a rich sense of homeliness and slightly racy humour that decorates without overbalancing the effect. Meanwhile, emerging from the antique rooftops more modern walls do not clash with or detract from the scene, and creepers trailing from iron railings complement the colour scheme, relating the middle ground to the cypresses in the distance.

The 14th - 16th century Case Mazzanti

There are reminders of the medieval in the market place itself as well. Chains hang from pillars where unfortunate miscreants were detained to be pelted with whatever was to hand. The iron collar is lifeless now, but it does not take too much imagination to step back a few centuries in time here.

From Baz Luhrmann to Franco Zeffirelli, through Prokofiev to Gounod, Berlioz and Bellini, to Shakespeare, to Bandello, Salernitano and Dante, the story of warring families and teenage love has inspired creative artists to bring the drama to life. And whatever the historical accuracy the setting of Verona is a perfect cyclorama against which to throw the shadows of the young lovers and their squabbling relatives.

La Casa di Giulietta

Whether any Capulets actually lived within the massive walls that masquerade as Juliet's home, or whether a young man ever scrambled up to the balcony which purports to be that of Juliet, is quite immaterial to most of the tourists who come here. It's good enough. It will do. The poor girl comes alive on her deathbed again and again as the prologue repeats itself and the "pair of star-cross'd lovers" entwine in our romantic imaginations.

But, soft!  What light through yonder window breaks?

The story in Shakespeare's version is still extremely popular, and apart from the celluloid versions, there have been at least 24 operas, as well as Peter Ustinov's "Romanoff and Juliet" and Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's "West Side Story."  There's no escaping the enduring appeal.

For I will raise her statue in pure gold,
That whiles Verona by that name is known,
There shall no figure at such rate be set
As that of true and faithful Juliet

The one thing that is missing is the sparking clip of hooves. There is not much traffic in the centre of Verona these days, but so there are few horses, if any. No sparks fly from iron shod feet, and no crossing sweepers clear the muck. The smells of the medieval days, (though of course they were modern times then!) do not offend our senses, even though there may be less salubrious corners, and Charles Dickens's observations are not necessarily so remote: "An equestrian troop had been there, a short time before..... and had scooped out a little ring at one end of the arena; where their performances had taken place, and where the marks of their horses' feet were still fresh....."

I cannot help but feel there should be horses.  Perhaps the medieval feel to the streets makes me expect to hear the clatter and neigh.  Perhaps remembering the days of the Grand Tour, and Dickens's crazy gallivanting back to London or down to Rome?  Perhaps the preponderance of performances of "Aida" in the amphitheatre with casts of thousands including circuses of elephants and camels?

Or is it the rich savour of "Pastissada de Caval" which brings them to mind?  I am not sure.  But I know one thing, I do relish the difference, and although I may offend vegetarians and all horse-loving British folk here, it is part of the enriching experience of travel to find people who are not afraid to call a horse a horse!  Better that than a lifetime of eating burgers and sausages whose unspeakable contents could be just about anything?

Anyway, just like Charles Dickens, "I read Romeo and Juliet in my own room at my inn that night - of course, no Englishman had ever read it there, before......"

The Roman Theatre, Archaeological Museum 
and the Castel San Pietro

Charles Dickens:  "Pictures from Italy."

7 March 2013

St Albans

Eyes Wide Shut


8th  - 10th  MARCH 2013

A Film Festival in  St Albans? But it doesn't even have a cinema!  (Well not at the moment anyway!)

Yes, but....

Stanley Kubrick lived, from 1978 until his death in 1999, just outside the city of St Albans in Hertfordshire, in Childwickbury Manor, where his widow Christiane still lives (and holds an annual Arts Fair - July 5th, 6th and 7th this year!)

And before him, Arthur Melbourne-Cooper was born here in 1874.


Well, apparently, he was a (or perhaps the) Pioneer of the British Film Industry. The son of local photographer Thomas Cooper and, although he is pretty well forgotten today, he was said to be responsible for several initiatives in film history, such as 'animation movies, the interpolated close-up, parallel action shots, cinemas with a raked floor, uniformed usherettes, and the isolated projection booth.' (I also blame him for Kiora and the choc-ice.... though I cannot be quite sure.) In 1908 he opened one of the first modern cinemas, the Alpha Picture Palace in St Albans, where free teas were offered during intervals, and the cheap seats were in the front rows!

Unfortunately this cinema burned down in 1927, but it rose again in December 1931 as The Capitol, sometime later called The Poly and later still The Regent.  In 1945 it was bought up by the Odeon group, and continued thus until its closure in 1995, when the Multiplex opened at Jarman Park, Hemel Hempstead (though Melbourne-Cooper had died in 1961).

At its peak the cinema had 1,728 seats on two levels (you entered at balcony level and went down to the stalls) a twenty-foot stage, three dressing rooms, a cafe and a 'Compton two manual six rank theatre organ.'  Wow!

James Hannaway, Odyssey Open Day September 2010 (used with permission)

After closure it slipped into dereliction and was about to be demolished for commercial "development" of the site when, in November 2009, the Odeon was purchased by James Hannaway, who restored the Rex Cinema in Berkhamsted (where I spent many a happy afternoon watching Edgar Lustgarten and Elvis Presley in my yoof.....). He managed to raise a million pounds, and work to revive the building began in 2011.  

The Odyssey - finally open, December 2014

A competition in November 2010 gave it its new name of ‘Odyssey’ with a nod to Stanley Kubrick and now it is estimated that it may open in 2014 as a splendid single screen cinema with five hundred seats, a cafe and a bar, though further funds are still needed.

"The St Albans Film Festival now aims to be an annual event for both local people and visitors.  Filmmakers will be able to display their talent and have the opportunity to win awards and to gain recognition. Film-lovers will have a chance to see some unique and fantastic films and to celebrate the superb film making history of St Albans."  [Adapted from the Film Festival website.]

Thing is, St Albans has been a centre of the visual arts since Boadicea invented the twin pigtail. Enchanted by the valley of the river Ver (and the proximity to Londinium for commuting Roman Bankers charioting down Watling Street to their clubs in town) a settlement became a city became an arts centre with the 0BC equivalent of David Lloyd and Jarman Park.  If they had had films they would most certainly have screened them!  As it was they had to content themselves with lounging on mosaics warmed by hypocausts....  But it's all much the same thing.

And then, in the fullness of time, came the medieval period.  As night follows day, the floors became the ceilings, and the Abbey Church grew tall, using roman bricks and with a painted wooden crossing not so unlike the tesserae of villa pavements.

It's not really a celebrity birthmark, but the Abbey is actually the highest cathedral above sea level in the UK.  It was also a  source of controversy in the late 19th century when William Morris and his pals became very upset by the renovation of the church roof which introduced the pitch we see today (as opposed to the medieval flat roof you experience inside.)  "Though the Committee for the restoration of St Albans Cathedral have determined to alter that church by putting a high-pitched roof on the nave in the place of the present flat one, the Committee of our Society cannot give up all hope that the public in general may yet interest itself in the matter, and refuse to support a scheme regarded by so many archaeologists as rash and destructive....."  [William Morris, unpublished letter to 'The Times,' August 26th 1878]

Later artists would embellish the space, with the North Transept Rose Window being designed by Alan Younger and given by Laporte Industries in 1989.  This is a glorious, almost cinematic, piece of work, with kaleidoscopic colours streaming through circles within circles.

Decorative was not the only watchword for the artistry of St Albans, however, as Charles Dickens also blessed the city with a powerful link when he modelled Bleak House on a  fine house which was then on the outskirts of the conurbation.  [Dickens probably visited St Albans when staying with the Bulwer Lyttons at Knebworth though he wrote the novel when staying at Broadstairs in a house that has since been named after the novel.]

Bleak House, the home of John Jarndyce and his ward Esther Summerson,
as it is today

St Albans is currently a muddle of different styles and tendencies. It is not difficult to envisage the Roman order of the settlement, as roads dissect each other and the touches of Roman walls and bricks do not seem out of place. The market place, with its thriving stalls stretching up the main street twice a week, still carries that flavour of trade that markets must always have had, with bowls of fruit or vegetables all for a pound, or three sea-bream for a tenner, and so on. It's a busy thoroughfare and is the commercial focus of a town that has seen good years and bad.

At the heart of St Albans is the Clock Tower, marking the passing of time and overseeing the busy streets below. This tower, the oldest of its kind in England, was built between 1403 and 1412, and stands 19.6m (64ft) high with walls up to 1.22m (4ft).  The original bell, cast at Aldgate by William and Robert Burford (who worked from 1371 to 1418) is still there, poised on its scissor brace oak frame, weighing in at one ton....

The shrine of St Alban

St Alban has the distinction of being the island of Britain's first martyr.  He was a resident of Verulamium who, apparently, worshipped all the prescribed Roman deities including the emperor, but who slipped up when he gave shelter to a Christan priest, by the name of Amphibalus.....

Alban was punished (by execution in 209) for his kindness, and the great Norman Abbey, of which the church is a surviving part from 1077, replacing a Saxon building, remains to honour him.

A familiar cry round here is, "What have the Romans ever done for us?" and it is quite understandable that the average St Albanite might question the benefits of the heritage of a foreign power.  But was it not fate that the Romans chose to settle in a pleasant and convenient part of Anglia?  Yes, there might have been an awkward clash with a young woman in a sprightly coupe.  And the disagreement about religious freedom was unfortunate.  But the legacy of all that creativity attracted not only school parties in their mega-cohorts, but also artists such as the unquestionably magnificent Stanley Kubrick, who, surely, held the world in the palm of his hand when he chose the gentle countryside surrounding St Albans as his place to shine.  

And don't forget Arthur Melbourne-Cooper....

It is not surprising, after all, that St Albans is a fine place to hold a film festival.....

Arthur Melbourne-Cooper's 'Matches: An Appeal' - allegedly the oldest animated film in the world (1899) - on Youtube: