Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Old Lovers, Young Things and Winter Mischief

I drove through the hills with an old lover the other afternoon. I know we were both thinking of summer nights under the grapevines, the smell of summer air, summer skin. That day it was foggy and cold and we drove swiftly, but there was mischief and memory in the air.

I love stories. What happens to people, how their lives unfold and what steers them through their both their bold and minor choices. I love plot lines, unexpected turns, stunning outcomes. I love the reduction of a big tale to a few simply driven lines.

The other week I read a film brief about a new film starring Naomi Watts,set in Australia, and taken from a Doris Lessing novella. Interesting. I saw the stills and cringed a little. It's called 'Two Mothers' and tells the story of two utterly best mates who have love affairs with each other's sons. There are glittery sea shots, clasped bodies in beds with gentle tans and rude biceps.

Of course the hook is: Could You? Would You? Would you ever dream of bedding your best mate's kid? A boy you've seen at every stage of growth. Baby, toddler, skinny kid, pimply teen, cheeky thing, young spruced-up sexually awakening man?

And then of course you're meant to run through the offspring of your best mates. That one - well, he is cute. That one - never! While alternately thinking of your own sons in bed - whaat! - stroking one of your 40+ girlfriends.

The few film reviews I read state that these affairs were lengthy - spanning years - until they were terminated by the mothers in 'respectable' old age. 'Respectable'? It's not that I'm a prude or shy from age-gap relationships, and everyone knows that love is chemical and grabs you by the throat...

But ladies. Naomi. Please.

I haven't read Doris Lessing's book of four novellas - 'The Grandmothers' - from which the novella is taken. But I will be ordering it when I finish this post. Like many of us I read 'The Grass is Singing' and 'The Golden Notebook' as a young woman but haven't read much Lessing since. Now I want to bypass what Hollywood has squeezed from this story (which will doubtlessly be elegantly produced, and probably quite a turn-on) and go back to the source. Doris Lessing's words. The compulsions of these people. The context. 

Already an old review of the story from The Guardian calls the set-up a 'cankerous self-indulgence rather than a daring liberation' and I wonder if Hollywood will pick up upon these degrees of self-delusion. Or what Lessing herself - an eighty-year-old master - writes,

'These lives were easy. Not many people in the world have lives so pleasant, unproblematical, unreflecting; no one in these blessed coasts lay awake and wept for their sins, or for money, let alone for food.'

Far more intriguing this, no? Than the illicit being given such grace.

Friday, 14 December 2012

The Origins of Prejudice

A fairly small thing happened this week. Plus another one the week before. Now as the snow has knitted a thick coat over the fields out the window and I read that 76-year-old Silvio Berlusconi has a new 27-year-old squeeze (founder of the Silvio, We Miss You group, as in Silvio, Buy Me A Rack and Put Me in the Newspapers!), I have been thinking it over.

I remember reading in a junk magazine that Heidi Klum, mother of mixed-race kids, hated her family being called something like a rainbow tribe. I can feel that. What is so intimate - your family life, your squabbles at the table, queues for the bathroom - being labelled in such external and political terms. It's something that feels so invasive, it smacks of tokenism, and I don't like it. Kids don't need that type of baggage and the thinking that goes with it.

That's not exactly what this post is meant to be about. But it is about baggage. My mixed-race fourth child has always been as cute as they come but now is becoming gangly and pimply and adolescent. As a kid, he hated people touching his crimped hair (why do people think they can reach across and touch a child's head? Is that not a type of violation?) and this has been shaped by a couple of incidents (comments by kids who perhaps hear this type of talk at the kitchen table??) into a form of acute awareness, a sixth sense that sometimes verges on anger. He gets pissed off. A kid who joked 'Shut up, you're black' was almost punched. My view has always been to sit him down and tell him to be above it. Not to lash out - and yet I understand lashing out too as I have a temper. But this level of discrimination. Needing to lash out once a week, once a day. What does that make one become?

While the PC way of thinking has toned down or removed many innately racist expressions and helped to make people think about the words that come out of their mouths, in Italy you can still call a black person 'negro' and not be shaken down. It's amazing. While 'negro' is close to the word for black 'nero' it is still a jolt to hear.

In Italy migration from Africa is quite recent and has been happening in a haphazard way, Italy providing a softer border than many other European countries. I had to sit my driving exam in our village with a bunch of Senegalese and Chinese who took the piss out of each other's accents. Mind Your Language, Veneto-style. While we are not immigrants as such (though I have met guys who have survived that atrocious boat trip across the Mediterranean), people's views are conditioned by seeing the poor black guys huddled in plastic sheets on those vessels, by the guys begging outside supermarkets, by the petty theft that goes on. And of course by the xenophobic parties that whip up the fervour.

Immigrants take our jobs, our women, our houses.
Immigrants are all drug dealers.
Immigrants are dirty.

This brings me back to my original point, about the baggage we all carry. My kid. You. Me. We hardly even know it's there, soft and pressing against our views. This is where my kid's baggage starts:

It's easy being black on the bus, he said the other day. Nobody wants to sit next to you.

Or, Today an old lady sat next to me. Then as soon as there was another seat, she moved away.

Both throwaway comments spoken with a half-laugh in the car on the way home. So maddening, such a burden for this young man to carry ahead.



Thursday, 6 December 2012

The Next Big Thing

Last week Alison Lock invited me to take part in The Next Big Thing. Alison is a poet and short story writer whose collection 'Above the Parapet' is coming out with Indigo Dreams Publishing in 2013. Do take a look at Alison's site.

The Next Big Thing is a great way to network with fellow writers and to find out a bit more about what they're working on. The idea is fairly simple. You, the writer, answer a standard(ish) set of 10 questions on your blog one week then ask up to five other authors (whose work you like and you think might be The Next Big Thing) to answer the same questions the next week.

What is the title of your next book?
'Pelt and Other Stories'

Where did the idea for the book come from?
I have always wanted to publish a book of short stories. I love the form and have been writing and publishing stories for years. Some of the stories in 'Pelt' are interlinked and this happened because I felt my characters had more to say and experience. The idea behind the book is to explore shifting cultural boundaries, the effects of colonialism and the clash of the developed and underdeveloped worlds. There are also some quirky pieces set in Europe involving the lingering power of our abused environment, and relationships in upheaval or decline.

I have also lived nearly all of my adult life as an exile so this state of being is often examined in my work. And, as for location, I studied African and Asian modern history and lived in Ghana for nearly ten years, and Somalia before that, so my interest in migration, history and a truthful representation of this continent runs very deep.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Everybody loves this question. And as I've had film interest in the stories I've allowed myself to think along these lines. Isabelle Huppert and Bruno Ganz for 'At the Malga' and 'Veronique in the Dark'. Colin Farrell and Marion Cotillard for 'Young British Man Drowns in Alpine Lake'. That would be so much fun!

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
Lust and dirt from a world of places

Will your book be self-published or published by an agency?
'Pelt and Other Stories' will be published by Indigo Dreams Publishing, who also published my erotic comedy set in Italy, 'The Divorced Lady's Companion to Living in Italy'. Many people assume that working with an independent press means you are self-publishing but this is not the case with Indigo Dreams Publishing, who are keen to publish alternatives to the market-driven Big Six. I'm very glad I submitted to them!

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
Most of the stories have been published in English or Australian literary reviews, so some were completed several years ago. This collection has been changing shape over the last five years, and was interrupted by the editing and publication of my first novel. I could probably have continued with the same themes and have written more stories, but it was time to stop and consolidate.

What other books would you compare 'Pelt and Other Stories' within the genres?
That's an uneasy question because I don't want to put myself up there with someone who's had massive success and a huge print run. Instead, I'd rather mention the books that have influenced the collection. Recently: Nam Le's 'The Boat', Sarah Hall's 'The Beautiful Indifference'. Both great story collections. Chika Unigwe's 'On Black Sisters' Street' for her subject matter. Also Joseph Conrad's short stories set in south-east Asia are never far from my mind.

Who or what inspired you to write the book?
I love to tell stories. I love words, characters and twisted tales. I love hooking the reader and then bringing in the big catch - a crisp and elusive ending.

What else about the book might pique a reader's interest?
The first story 'Pelt' is an arresting piece about a pregnant Ghanaian girl whose German lover is being reeled back in by his ex-wife. The story is funny, but not so much, as you watch the original couple crumbling and the young woman fighting for her man. Many of the stories involve the consequences of lust; they also speak of sex in terms of incest, AIDS and gay love. There are also siblings who have had to stop and make a reckoning, unions that have soured and, finally, a deep consideration of cultural migration - all the misplaced people. I have had enthusiastic comments from editors and test readers and think the stories will surprise and interest.

Now it is time to pass the baton and introduce a few writer friends (and great bloggers) who will take part in The Next Big Thing on Wednesday 12th December.

Let me introduce:
Lane Ashfeldt
Rachel Fenton
Claude Nougat
Kimberly Sullivan
Laura Maylene Walter

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Driving With My Uterus

It is possible, in Italy, to drive with one's uterus.

I have been told so by an angry old man - in dialetto Vicentino - who didn't approve of my parking efforts (I didn't want to sit in front of the school in a double line of cranky mothers and was trying to fit into a spot). The man, probably a beloved grandfather who likes those veline (dancing girls) on Berlusconi's busty TV shows, rolled down his window and shouted at me,


Whoahhh. This was thrown at me at a time when I had four kids under twelve, in four different schools in four different parts of town (with different timetables so sometimes I would find myself alone, parked in front of a closed school gate - shite it's Tuesday). PLUS I was living 25kms out of town, packing the kids into my crappy Lancia before dawn, listening to Hey Yah at full volume to drown out the fighting. (And bear in mind that I started driving at seventeen and have driven all over Europe and nearly all the way to Timbuctu in Mali, and clock up 400+kms a week...And my name is McNamara and I am a redhead.)

Povero nonno. Poor Grandfather. While I controlled myself and didn't get out of the car, (recently, I actually opened the car door of a woman whose bumper touched my leg on a crossing, see below*) I lost it. You know when you are truly incensed? When something has snapped and there is no one to stop you and that b*****d has pushed you too far when your life was addled enough as it is??

What would you reply - if you have one - if someone told you you were driving with your uterus? (And this raises the inevitable question, Do men drive with their penises?? Perhaps Audi drivers do, yes? I fear we have another post here.)

Well, my end of the shouting match included:

Do you even have a penis or has it fallen off?
Do you even remember what a hard-on is?
I bet you couldn't even get it up to have your own kids.
I bet you have cancer of the penis!

I mean, gosh, I feel so low even to think of it. It sounds as though I have penis-hatred or something but I swear I don't - it just came out as a Uterus VS Penis match I guess. All in front of my kid's school.

Oh Lord. Oh Mummy. But I swear it was a stellar performance.

After that I collected my son and drove off to my mother-in-law's where we had caffè corretto and laughed ourselves off our feet.

* This cow - I was in heels on cobbles in the rain - comes hurtling straight at me in the middle of a crossing and I freeze, not knowing whether to leap, lurch or put out the magic hand. She just touches my leg. I stand there, incredulous. I wanted to smash her car but had a micro-flash of intelligent thought, No, I can't damage my piano hands. And, Maybe I'll get arrested. So I hobbled around, opened her door (I swear I didn't swear) and said 'What do you think you are doing?' And then, 'I am the mother of four children! Are you going to finish bringing them up?'

Che idiota. I welcome your road rage comments. Help me to feel normal.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Sport Italian Style PLUS 10 Exercise Tips for Divorced Ladies

My Italian girlfriends don't understand me. One of them even said, 'Haven't you finished with that swimming thing yet?' And another, 'But why do you have to go skiing every weekend?'

It's genuine incomprehension. In Italy - so different from Australia where ladies in their eighties still play competition tennis in pleated skirts - exercise is like a dirty word. Why get wet in a pool, mess your hair, swim endless laps (oh but swimming is so boring), without even working on your tan? What's it all for? I've even had a Nazi pool attendent - at the dizzy height of summer, three bodies stroking down the pool, the rest roasting on loungers - say, 'But your lunch ticket finishes in a hour!' Meaning, Don't think you can hang around tanning for free!

(To which I reply, 'I've come here to swim, mate. I'd rather die than sunbake.' Astonished look. The real meaty stuff of culture clash.)

So sport. Whaat? Sometimes my girlfriends have been known to paddle at the pool. Or on our Corsica trip, they cool off after the sunbathing. It doesn't seem a natural thing. Few can hold a tennis racket, or throw a ball hard, netball-style. Many used to ski in childhood but don't anymore because, you know, it's so expensive, so far and.. you know, far. Some hike in the summertime, but it's a punctuation mark, an adventure. I remember the best holidays of my younger years of parenthood were the Dolomite hiking trips - kids in backpacks and scarves on burnt necks, Austrian food in the evenings and the kids getting a projectile vomit bug, one by one, with Mum here being the shifting target.

I'm talking about regular exercise, the type where your heart beat gallops and your sweat brinks and your lungs turn inside out. I love it. I'm no prize-winning athlete, nor ever have been. But it's there, this marvellous animal fix, almost as greasy and delightful as sex. Here are this non-Italian woman's tips for a muscly winter season:

1. Never entertain the idea of practising sport with your sixteen-year-old daughter. It is certain to make you feel unfit, inelegant, improper and INVISIBLE. Don't think you will ever exist next to her flowing golden hair and fresh curves. You won't even be lucky enough to be labelled a MILF, because they don't know what MILFs are in Italy.

2. If you seriously start exercising, empty out your cupboards and fridge. No more processed foods. Buy stuff that you actually have to cook. Lean steak, cabbage for salads and a good chopping board. A friend of a friend once asked me how I keep slim and I replied, I swim a hundred laps and eat cabbage salad every night. MEL I WAS ONLY JOKING

3. Eat protein after running/swimming/rowing/skiing. Eat carbs two hours before. Drink water, not coffee. I know, it hurts.

4. If you swim, give in to ugliness. I mean, embrace your lumps and gorilla legs, wear that nuns' costume with pride. What I love about turning up at the pool is being a mess - turn up in your worstest clothes and shock them mothers with their terracotta foundation and blonde highlights. Delight in your smeared mascara afterwards and stride out with a beanie over your wet hair (cardinal sin).

5. Don't greet fellow joggers. Unless they are over eighty. They will follow you, ask your Facebook details, crop up every time you round a corner at the supermarket, the vet's, the bank. Be aloof. Wear ear muffs. Speak a foreign language (Albanian? Finnish? not English, which many people are convinced they are able to speak, unless of course you need a new batch of English students.)

6. If you are fortunate enough to ski - meaning there is snow rather than grass on the slopes as the snowline rises, and rises - enjoy the oxygen high, there is nothing like it after the grimy cityscapes below. If you are a beginner, get lessons, ski teachers have great thighs. If you are an expert, get more lessons, ski instructors have even better thighs.

7. Just in case you think I am not being serious try this: exercise when you feel worst. When you feel a sore throat coming on, or flu, or a headache, or a bad evil mood. The seratonin fix is better than a glass of wine or an offloading conversation. You will crash head-on into your immune system's whininess, sleep it off, and probably drive away osteoporosis to boot.

8. If you HATE exercise just concentrate on how good you will feel afterwards. DO NOT reward yourself with chocolate - it's a brief sugar high and your body is crying out for wads of spinach, your favourite meat or meat substitute. Ever cooked a fantastic quiche with spinach and feta cheese?

9. If you hear a distant thumping as I did the other day - relax. It's not a daytime disco some idiot has set up along the bike track. It's your blood - your wiring - thudding through you. Hit it, sister! We Are Family!

10. If you ever end up with biceps like Madonna forget exercise and go back to sex! You've made your point. Don't get stringy.

* * * *
PS Anyone who takes sporting advice from me - Italian or otherwise - you are crazy. MEL I AM SO SORRY. YOU CAN STOP NOW. PLEASE STOP

PPS Grazie mille to friends and fellow bloggers who left a comment on my page on I think we should go out for a virtual mulled wine together in some lodge above the snow line...

Thursday, 15 November 2012

On Sistabitches and Giving Liz Jones a Hug

I'm not a very huggy person. My kids have been brought up on 'tough love' more than wet kisses so I was surprised when I felt the urge to reach out and give panel journalist Liz Jones a big hug. It's difficult not to write about this bitter, entrapped lady. Poor Liz! Prisoner of her own hunt for good copy, who admitted she once found herself typing copy during an argument, Liz provided an alarming contrast to what was really going on that day. Reading her post-blogfest article, I feel she misread the Mumsnet agenda or - as many have said already - came with her own stereotyped critiques in her Prada handbag. Poor Liz! We don't care for your womb-based comments, and whoever defines themself by their womb? Sending hugs.

It wasn't hard to make a lot of sense out of last Saturday's brilliantly organised Mumsnet Blogfest. I'll admit I was daunted by the mass of women inside the breakfast foyer. Mummy Bloggers - so regularly slammed - were all sipping coffee and making a ladies' racket. I sneaked in, gulped my coffee, tried to get into mingling mode.

Inside the first speakers revealed just what a diverse bunch women can be. Justine Roberts, Mumsnet co-founder, spoke of the democratic nature of blogging - a 'calibration of voices' - and we were reminded that this booming site has three million visitors a month, with two thousand bloggers enlisted. Next spoke the eloquent Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, a 'politician's wife' who refuses to be defined as such, who runs a household and a law firm. We were then joined by Gaby Woods from The Telegraph, Zoe Williams from The Guardian, the author Rachel Cusk and - in pyjamas 4am Texas time - the entertaining best-seller Jenny Lawson (aka The Bloggess) on the big screen. Talk topics ranged from exploiting home intimacies to dealing with internet trolls. Try following The Bloggess' advice: she simply changes a comment such as 'You should be hung' to 'I want to be in your skin'. Not bad!

I thought the many guises of female fragility often came to the fore. Not wanting to expose your children, while finding relief in shared experiences. Rachel Cusk noted that 'the same candour that enables you to write also ensures you are the most lacerated', having recently produced a book tracing her separation, while Zoe Williams talked about the scariness of the public domain, where trolls are a many-headed and namesless monster. Ideas differed about what to aim for when blogging: ignore sexist labels, write to someone you know, be authentic, practise. Sadly, the discussion touched upon the prevailing misogny that sees much prejudice thrown towards mothers-who-blog - sadly confirmed by (you guessed it) Liz Jones later in the day.

But in the lifts upstairs to the coffee lounge the mood was buoyant and enthusiastic. Views were spectacular and the muffins were divine.

Later, after masses of technical advice from mindshare guru Paul Armstrong (who many would also like to hug) I settled into a series of handpicked talks. I was interested in hearing about bloggers who have gone on to book forms (Cari Rosen and Mme Guillotine) and feature writing (Louise France-The Times). I came away asking myself Why blog? What am I blogging about? and promising myself regular six-month check-ups on blog functionality and blog purpose - instead of just toddling along, snatching topics from my (small) daily universe. Very good to ask oneself these questions, given the resounding reality is that there are so many of us. And what truly makes a great, compelling blog you always have time for?

More ideas from the wonderful Paul Armstrong: Don't write down the first idea - everyone will have thought of that - nor the second, because the smart people will have too. Start with your third idea, there is a chance it might be slightly original.. I loved this tip, don't you?

Lunch anyone? Sumptuous veggies, great talk, not enough divans (cutlery clanging to the wooden floor) and divine lemon cake. I felt the lovely sensation of women treating women - something we domesticated creatures appreciate no end.

Private Lives was the penultimate talk that filled the lecture hall. I wrote a jumbled live post from my seat on the far right, where I was unable to properly see Liz Jones' glowing tan. Don't mistake my tone for bitchiness - I don't have time for sistabitches - I was genuinely curious to see what this woman whose 'gut-spilling' column I sometimes read was all about. I was also keen to hear Zoe Margolis speak - years back I read her explicit girlwithaonetrackmind blog, enjoying her go-get-em attitude to guys, but on Saturday I wanted to see where all this personal revelation had taken her. Writers are all prone to recounting their lives, but Margolis must have made every date either quaver - or get off - in his shoes.

None of the speakers disappointed, and what I took away was the sense that if you probe your own life for material, you will have to pay. Kids don't like it. Partners will be dismayed, parents will be shocked. Tellingly, moderator Geraldine Bedell asked the tortured Liz Jones, 'Was it worth it?' And hard-working Liz, who has told us of her facelift, her tattoo, her shot letterbox and her randy ex-husband, replied: 'No, none of it.'

Lesson learned. Hugs in the post.

The final image I'll be taking home is of wunderkind Caitlin Moran (How To Be A Woman) taking the microphone into her mouth and offering saucy sex to a fan. In that moment I think we were all joined together in hilarious laughter - a bunch of delighted, invigorated women. I loved her advice on how to end an article (or even a book!): Take out your second paragraph, which usually explains all of your ideas, and stick it in! Useful? Next time I'm stuck I might consider it.

And then it was over. A great day organised by chic and savvy women, a day that wasn't self-congratulory, or smug, or selective, or elitist. And how better to celebrate this wordfest than with cocktails along the riverbank with prosecco and shards of tasty cheese from the excellent British Cheese Board?

Hats off ladies! I'm up for next year.

* * *
The lovely people at have put up an interview with me do have a look!

Saturday, 10 November 2012

LIVE at the Mumsnet Blogalong, Millbank Tower London

I'm sitting in the plush lecture theatre of the Millbank Tower in central London, waiting for a talk about Private Lives - how much one should or shouldn't let fall onto the blog screen. From Daily Mail columnist Liz Jones about whose love life (and new facelift) I could tell you a thing or two, to Zoe Margolis, unmasked blogger of the cheeky and explicit blog I used to religiously read, girlwithaonetrackmind. Also present are Tim Dowling (strange to see a bloke up there) and anonymous blogger/journalist 'Eliza Gray'.

I'm curious. Natter natter. Lights are on and after a stunning lunch it's time to talk of misogyny, gut spilling and boundaries.

Amazing. I've just learned that original sex blogger Zoe Margolis had 8 million views and was placed as the 24th most powerful blog by The Observer. She talks about sex as 'squelchy', and doesn't agree that talking graphicslly about the subject destroys its intimacy. Brave thoughts. But she also speaks of being followed, slammed, outed and embarrassed - for her parents! Moderator Geraldine Bedell asks, 'Are you the blogging equivalent of the flasher in the park?' Poor Zoe is insulted.

She claims she had masses of comments for a post about men faking orgasms !!
Interestingly - and tellingly? - Margolis also announces that all writers are neurotic narcissists.

On to Liz Jones, who has written extensively about her ex-boyfriend, her body, lack of love. Does she have regrets?
'Yeah, all of it. Whenever I press Send, I literally have a nervous breakdown. You know you're going to set off a bomb...'
Geraldine: 'Are you affected?'
'..It makes you into a heartless, nastier person.. I've been typing during an argument, just to get some good copy out of it.

Freaky? Necessary? Liz uses her life to the max!

Columnist Tim Dowling also uses real life instances and is asked how close he is to his public persona. He mentions caution around his kids, his neighbours - and his (sometimes) enraged wife.

Anonymous blogger 'Eliza Gray' is the writer behind 'Fifty is the New Black', describing herself as a menopausal Bridget Jones. She hits the nail on the head when she says,'If you can't hack it don't blog it!'

Now off for goodbye drinks on the 29th floor over the city.. And my goodie bag!!!

# # #
Hmmm. Now dodge this, journalist Liz Jones' ungracious view of proceedings!

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Whores or Madonnas?

I don't usually like being identified firstly as a mother. In Italy being a mother entitles one to an almost saintly status. You can be treated as a holy madre or, well, the opposite. Whores or Madonnas? The Virgin Mary or Mary Magdalene? Which team are you on?

So I wasn't sure about chasing down the big British web site I was worried it would be a forum for late fussy mothers, eco-warrior mums, mums-with-views. I've been ad hoc in the twenty-three years I've been doing it. And far from saintly most of the time.

But Mumsnet found me. A while back I stumbled upon this huge organisation, signed up and forgot about it. Then just before the book came out they sent an encouraging email saying, We see you have a book coming out! We love it when our bloggers publish books! How lovely was that?

Every so often one of my posts makes it to the bloggers' home page, and I confess I could spend half the day reading interesting women's blogs and have hooked up with some venerable ladies. (There are also some blokes, though I haven't really chased any down.)

And let's face it: we all blog these days. Everyone is writing one. They are as natural and ongoing as conversations over the fence, on the phone, at the bar. Most blogs are written by women, read by women. But what makes one blog count more than another, last longer than another, notch a little higher and become relevant? (I think of planktonlife, a brilliant blog I follow when I remember, now a Times column). What is it about this explosion of words and presences and identities that has us all tapping at our screens?

In September I signed up for the inaugural Mumsnet Blogfest, thinking it would be a great excuse to pop over to London and hawk my book, but also a tangible way to learn more about the art of blogging. Some tricks of the trade, and perhaps a hook up with some other bloggers.

Last week I received the programme. Apart from a series of fabulous speakers and a spectacular location, take a look:

Registration opens at 9am, and the first session starts at 9.30am. There will be tea, coffee & pastries, as well as yummy smoothies provided by our friends at Innocent drinks & a copy of the Times for each of you...

Lunch - There will be a hot buffet lunch, from 12.20-1.30, and this will be served in the fantastic Skyloft space, with amazing views across the city. Over lunch, and coffee breaks, do take the opportunity to drop into our Blog Clinic for some expert advice, and check out the activities that our select group of sponsors have developed for you..

Reception - At 5.15 we’ll decamp to the River Room for a drinks reception fuelled with prosecco & wine from our friends at Pizza Express, juices from Innocent Drinks and splendid platters of cheese courtesy of the British Cheese Board.

Going home with goodies - The day will wrap up about 6.30ish, and before you head off into the night, don’t forget to collect your goody bag which is crammed full of goodies from Boden, Green & Blacks, Nails Inc & much more..

I'm feeling really chuffed! This messy writer has been counting the tractors pass on that yonder field for the past few restless weeks. Or ferrying the troops in and out of town and enjoying sports such as watching a new gas tank bolted onto the cement. What to wear? The beloved (and frayed) Paul Smith skirt with red Russian embroidery and my towering blue secretary heels? Or my 1euro secondhand jeans and coffee-coloured plastic boots for the expected showers?

Mary Magdalene or Virgin Mary?

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Before and After - Fifty Shades of Loving Italy

As my blog post last week moaned and moaned about the disturbing state of contemporary Italian politics, I wanted to write something positive about La Dolce Vita in this blessed environment. Sometimes, I really need to convince myself that there are unwavering reasons why I should remain here. I shall think up a few.

Before: Ciao Bella!

The first time I came to Italy I was a prim Aussie uni student on a Eurailpass who fed her eyes on shoes (more later on that) and museums and architecture. Coming from a country with a dodgy colonial history of convicts and oppression - a history more whispered by the land than announced by architecture, I gazed over facades and domes and marble and fountains and sculpted gardens, giddy with delight.

After: La Dolce Vita

But I remember finding Italy overwhelming. The ornamentation, the fancy dressing, the flirty guys on vespas. I suppose you could say my first reactions were like those of my character Marilyn, who was shocked by the constant 'checking out' by both men and women sweeping along beside her. Now I'm pretty bad at it myself. In fact, in the bar the other day when I treated myself to some non-driving time, I told GG to get out of the way so I could check out the midday dude swarms in the piazza. There are aeons of them swanning around the piazzas in Armani and sunlamp tans, RayBans hooked around their faces. Oh dear, I am lapsing! I have accepted that vanity is a national trait. Is this the trade-off for the pitch-perfect wine in a divine setting?

Heavenly heels.

I make no excuses for grounding my patchy love of Italy firmly upon my passion for well-crafted shoes. No excuses. It would kill me to leave what I love with such searing ardour. I would have to wed a shoemaker, have him trained by Gucci, supervise leather acquisition and the dosage of dyes. Nah! I'll just wait for sales time again. I do wish I could pretend to be less shallow.

50 Shades of Espresso.

Ones of the marketing straplines for my book has been about the 'transition by espresso' that Marilyn undergoes. I didn't grow up on coffee and was strictly anti-coffee while a young adult. Then I went to Ethiopia. Discovered buna. Oh Lord! Went through the whole coffee bean selection/roast with frankincense/boiling and filtering - until that wonderful moment when taste and aroma joined forces at your lips. I fell hard for coffee. In Italy too, the right beans send me into ecstasy, making me crave the smoky slow Ethiopian ritual, but hell it can be good! (I also blame an older local relative for introducing me to the local poison caffè corretto - a blast of coffee injected with a shot of grappa. Poor Marilyn is introduced to this by a cheeky Australian friend, let no names be mentioned.)

The Loveheart Terrace

Apart from the orgasmic dimensions of architectural and foodie and musical delights, Italy is also stunningly diverse in its natural features. I confess I'm more into roaring fires and funny beanies than string bikinis on the beach. My favourite winter hide-out starts here.

Fifty Shades of the Purest White.

* * *
P.S. I'd be very grateful if any of you who enjoy the blog would like to jot down a comment on the site, where I'm in the running for an award this December. Mille grazie!

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Privilege, big breasts and love songs

Last week I spent an uncomfortable few moments listening to ex-PM Silvio Berlusconi orchestrating his own defence in a Milanese court. Berlusconi is being charged with paying for sex with a minor, Karima el-Mahroug, known as Ruby Rubacuore (Ruby the Heart Stealer). Seventeen at the time, curvy and pumped-up, Ruby was apparently present at one of the PM’s many gatherings at his sumptuous villa at Arcore, outside Milan. Looking tired but tweaked, the gaffe-prone 76-year-old sounded as though he were talking about a family picnic, mentioning Neapolitan love songs and visits by his children.

For the past two years, as the country has been hurtling towards economic meltdown, Italians have been hearing about what the ex-PM’s ‘bunga bunga’ parties may have entailed. We have been told that the ‘bunga bunga’ is everything from a sex position to a post-dinner erotic dance by women procured by sleazy ‘talent scout’ Lele Mora (fresh out of gaol for fraud). Selection by the Prime Minister during the ‘bunga bunga’ dance entitled women to everything from sex with the septuagenarian to gifts and money, for which the Amazonian women queued and probably bitched with one another. One can only imagine the conversations.

In the unreliable words of Ruby the Heart Stealer, (who also denies she had intimate relations with the ageing politician,) the ‘bunga bunga’ concept was a formula copied from Silvio’s ex-best mate Muammar Kaddafi and simply involved being surrounded by twenty naked women. Harem-style. It has been said that Silvio added his own twist with the women-on-women also dressing as nuns or police officers.

Berlusconi and his cronies have long complained that the press has no right to violate the private life of an individual and here they have a point. However, given that Veronica Lario, Berlusconi’s now ex-wife, chose to write a public letter of protest printed in a major Italian newspaper following a scandal from a few years back (lamenting the lack of respect the flirtatious PM gave to his wife and offspring), the country could be justified in seeking to understand what is going on. Never mind the abuse of power and conflict of interests on a political level.

For Berlusconi has also been accused of tampering with the law by calling up the Milan central police office when the unreliable Ruby was arrested on an unrelated theft charge. The media billionaire told police that Karim el-Mahroug was grand-daughter of Egyptian ex-President Hosni Mubarak, and that her detention would cause a diplomatic scandal. He sent Nicole Minetti, a booby-dental-hygienist-turned-local-politician and now under investigation for ‘procuring young women’, to collect the naughty teen. Currently, Berlusca’s angle is that the shifty telephone call was purely ‘seeking information’ and, nagged by the national press he constantly claims is stridently left wing and in league against him, he has continuously claimed that he is a ‘generous’ man who in voluptuous Ruby saw an underprivileged girl in trouble (the girl’s own father has said she is a fame-seeking scallywag).

Berlusconi also admitted giving nearly 80.000 euros to the young woman to open a beauty salon. (Plus 5.000 euros for the night in question.)

Interestingly, Berlusconi’s tentacles have reached out to include George Clooney, who the unreliable Ruby claims she saw with ex-girlfriend Elisabetta Canalis at one of the ‘bunga bunga’ events. Clooney denies he was ever present, but recalls that an evening spent at the ex-PM’s Rome residence was ‘one of the more astonishing evenings of my life’.

Explain ‘astonishing’ please George.

* * *

N.B. Some of us were happily astonished to hear that Berlusconi was charged with tax evasion last week, but already the three year sentence has been reduced to one year, and he will be able to launch two appeals - so as with most of his trials, the statute limitations may expire. Despite his loud cries of injustice, the ex-PM is slowly sinking in national esteem. Era ora!

P.S. I have a great interview up on the lovely (creative, accomplished and funny) Kimberly Sullivan's blog kimberlysullivan.wordpress. Kimberly and I met at the Matera Women's Fiction Festival and I plan on gatecrashing her writing group in Rome next month!

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Having My Cake.

Yesterday I baked a cake. I also ate a slice of it. A small one as you see.

How many of us have our cakes and may nibble on them?

Years ago I was a young married wife with a nappy-changing habit. I mean, I was always at it. I dragged my baby around with us everywhere. My husband’s colleagues were often single women busy with their careers, as modern liberated women are. They grimaced at me trotting off to the bathroom with a screaming toddler. Went Ewww when I plonked dirty nappies into their gleaming waste bins. It was clear I was doing something they didn’t wish for, for goodness' sakes.

Much has been made of the divide between career women and stay-at-home mums. I belong to the stay-at-home or partially-working team, and yet I've always had grand admiration for (and many friendships with) women who choose to leave their biology aside and make something other than motherhood the centre of their lives. Do we all have to reproduce? I don't think we do. I know that having kids made me into a better person - less rigid, more real, less self-absorbed. I realised I was no longer at the centre of a world I could not control - accidents that might happen, illnesses that might trespass. But that's just me. I've always viewed motherhood less as drudgery than a privileged, almost animal state. A sort of constant readiness and permeation.

Although it is a state I will also be glad to emerge from with my brain intact. Currently going through my fourth teenager-hood, there are only so many hip music movements my poor little kitchen can stand. This year it's dubstep. Save me Scarlatti!

I remember reading one sour article that attempted to pour oil into the fire. The journalist formulated: At the end of the day, they all leave home. Sure. They do leave home. And no judgement should be passed by either party. There are those of us who burn to work, to earn our place, to jostle in society. I know women who bring home the bacon, guilty as hell because they are missing on birthday parties, carefree outings to the park, and yet who are tapped on the shoulder by mothers-in-the-know. One was reprimanded because her daughters were spotted wearing the same shirts two days running! And yet at the local pool I see mothers who plonk themselves on plastic chairs during their kids' swimming lessons, children so cardinally obese and unable to dress themselves without said mothers' scolding and quick hands.

It's not worth the fight. Yes, they do leave (not that any of mine officially have). And while some of us suffer from Empty Nest Syndrome, others are itchy to dust down their career itineraries, and find a different path to self-evaluation, economic independence, moving on.

It can be so exciting. As my wiser-than-me seventeen-year-old daughter told me recently: You've had your marriages, You've had your babies. Now it's time for you, Mum. Your career. Your writing.

My cake.

P.S. Anyone coming to the mumsnet blogfest on 10th November in London I would love to meet up! Send me a line.

P.S. The Barack Obama tablecloth was produced in Ghana for the President’s visit to the African nation in 2009. It was intended to be sewn into a special dress for the occasion, but it was way too beautiful to cut up so I'm afraid we use it as a tablecloth.

Monday, 1 October 2012

When Women Come Together

When women come together things happen. Big things. Significant things. To paraphrase an expression shared by a writer colleague over the weekend, in turn paraphrased from Mrs. Margaret Thatcher at the height of her powers: When something has to be talked about, call a man. When something has to be done, call a woman.

Last week I took part in the ninth edition of the Women's Fiction Festival in Matera, in Basilicata in southern Italy. Founded by international translator, writing powerhouse and successful author Elizabeth Jennings, the Festival must first of all be described as the only one of its kind in Europe.

Most internationals will have seen stunning glimpses of the Unesco Heritage site borrowed by Mel Gibson in 'The Passion of Christ', but for Liz and many of the other people involved in the extensive organisation of the event, the dramatic setting has been casa dolce casa for decades. Add to this a keen understanding of the isolation of most writers, the current leaps and bounds of the publishing industry, and an ardent wish to bring experts face-to-face with both dilettantes and authors with numerous novels under their belts, and you have the ingredients that have spurred on Liz, Mariateresa, Maria Paola and Giovanni in their orchestration of this year's enriching experience.

Matera Centrale, Piazza Moro. I step out of the train station into a regular modern Italian square. Apartment blocks, bus stops, parking lots. I know my way as I was here two years ago. The flight down from Venice to Bari was bumpy so I am glad to have my feet on the ground. I begin dragging my trolley down a normal street until at the end of it the centuries fall away. Carved out of a porous local stone called tufo, tiers of houses and villas and arched terraces and knotted stony paths cling to a wide crevice in the land. No modern constructions, no traffic. Just a wide sky, cascading music practice from the central music conservatorium, and this warm stone panorama. Bliss!

By some quirk of the internet I have booked myself a huge apartment where I had expected a vaulted cave as most bed-and-breakfasts provide. I realise I will be living large. Marble, leather, gilt. A breakfast that ranges from potato foccacia to ricotta and chocolate cake. Bring it on! This porridge-eater with an empty family-ravaged fridge is not afraid!

Leggo di Gusto. A taste for reading - is perhaps one way of translating the Festival strapline for 2012. Food and wine experts are providing extra courses this year, and I know there are also pasta-making classes with a local expert. But the main event - Publishing is a Button - is what many writers are here to learn about. Digital publishing, digital rights, maximising Twitter, crowdsourcing, the importance of having an agent, self-publishing. Liz has assembled an impressive range of American, English and European speakers who keep the audience taking notes. Talks are in English and Italian, and offer glances at the publishing climate in different countries. Liz's expert translating colleagues also provide simultaneous translations from both languages - so that the vaulted ex-convent sala looks like something of a UN session!

The afternoon programme involves one-on-one appointments with international industry 'gatekeepers' - agents and publishers - to whom authors may pitch their projects. That means: ten minutes of trying not to ramble or shove your synopsis into a publisher's face or sweat too hard or go hoarse or lose your silly straw hat. I'm interested in finding European publishers for DLC before she flits off to the Frankfurt Book Fair. So many people have wailed Why isn't it published in Italian yet?.

On Saturday night I join a panel of two Italian authors (Paola Calvetti, 'Olivia' and Patrizia Violi 'Affari d'amore') and journalist Cinzia Leone in the stunning central piazza. Nervous, trying to hide behind my rich ruby Chanel lipstick, I gulp down some wonderful red wine beforehand. I wonder if Toni Morrison ever had to do that? Somehow, I manage to raise a few laughs in italiano. Did I really talk about whips and linguistics in the countryside? It's scary, what can happen between your brain tickling and that fuzzy-topped microphone. Fortunately, the town is dotted with bars to celebrate afterwards.

But python heels on cobbles, crooked steps and semi-darkness, and several more wonderful drinks... I think an angel took me home that night.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012


You have sex. You conceive a child, a new life inside of you. You throw up. You eat mushroom pizza for weeks, then die when your man brings the smell of mushrooms through the door. Not mushrooms!

You have a prawn in there, they point. Then a frog, then a fish. A wriggling fish. Two hearts within your skin. Two brains ticking. Two souls? That's tricky.

You are glowing. It feels so good. You are horny as hell. Sexy to boot. Then you get big, that's troublesome. No Guinness for nine months. Humph!

You give birth, over and over. It gets easier. It does, yes. There's a good reason why it's called labour.

You are skinny again. Other ladies broaden but you are whippet thin, wishing you were more womanly. You know, curves. It's not your fault.

Your children grow up around you. Now they have their own points of view, their temperaments, different tones of voice for other people, private things. Sometimes you see them in their tinier incarnations - jumping off jetties, asleep in a plate of spaghetti, wearing a bow tie at a birthday party. Other times the years feel so long, so long, and so many of them. The moving houses, the flights, the trees planted, the new snow, a bag of small ski suits to give away. So many many years.

You hear your daughter singing Handel from where you are parked in the street. You pray her singing exam will go well. You've seen her go from The Little Mermaid to Mozart. Her singing just makes you weep.

On audition day you both have dry-mouth.

You park well and are dressed in mother-mode in a slim skirt grazing your knees. Not too hip, your daughter says, Otherwise what will they think. She is so keen she wants to sing first.

But her name hasn't been added to the list. The adjudicators send her off for the paperwork. They won't let her sing.

You go to the office people. The people behind thick glass who say We can't help you. Whose eyes say, Get lost. Whose explanations are obtuse and heartless.

You step back from the glass telling yourself Don't swear, don't lose it. Don't erupt into the flaming foreigner slamming Italy. Explore all avenues. Be dignified.

You make an appointment with the Director, whose book you translated years ago.

You hold her sobbing in the street. Big wracking sobs. You are so freaking mad you can save your tears till last.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Literary Giants

Lately I've been in good company. Inspiring company. Daunting company. For the first time in the nine kid-muddled years that I've been in Italy I managed to drive to Mantova's September Literary Festival, a mere 100kms from this house, where a hive of local and international literary luminaries speak to enthralled audiences. I booked tickets. Toni Morrison. Aimee Bender. Nathan Englander. I warned teenagers there would be no taxi-service, few meals and zero rave parties at the house. They were warned. (That didn't stop me receiving random phone calls - Are you picking me up from singing? Do you have the email of that woman I'm working for next week?)

I escaped. Drove into the fields. Past Verona. Over Mantova's seedy lake along the spit towards the tapestry of Gonzaga castles, turrets and cupolas.

I parked. I rushed. I hobbled over cobbles the size of oranges. First, in front of Alberti's famous Renaissance cathedral, I saw the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o sitting in a bar. My heart began to thump. Three of my insolent teenagers studied this man's 'Devil on the Cross' for their IB exams, bringing scribbled-on copies to the table, talking about how the imprisoned author wrote his novel on scraps of paper - toilet paper! - while persecuted for his words.

I wanted to rush up. Sit down and talk. I've had a story accepted by a British review that has Ngugi on the Editorial Board, a story that took two years to go through their channels. I thought of the six degrees of separation theory from that film. Now there were none - between me and a world-famous writer!

** (Read my post Abuse, over on my short story blog)

Many years ago I went to Rome to visit a friend. She was huge with her first child. I was running circles around my toddler. It was so hot in Rome. She wore pigtails and we drank coffee.

She said to me some time later, when our boys were pre-teens and not too fond of each other. But how can you write? How can you write when you read the brilliant things that real authors write? The big ones? Doesn't that put you off?

It paralyses me,
she said. She said she severed her writing dream because she knew she would never write like the writers she admired. Gave up. After that, I felt phoney and third-rate.

This week I remembered my friend's words. Her paralysis. Perhaps this is the risk you run when you are made tiny in a crowd swooning to Toni Morrison's words. You cannot help but think, Me? Call myself a writer? What on earth could I possibly have to say when there is this? These books? Already written and to be savoured?

I listened to Toni Morrison who is luminous and wise and I wanted to rush up and give her a hug. I listened to Aimee Bender with her views on craft swimming alongside the flux of magic on the page. I listened to Italian writer Ermanno Cavazzoni who said that a short story is 'qualcosa che meriti' - something that you deserve because you have put yourself in a position where you will be delivered a voice, a miracle. I listened to Nathan Englander and his stringent views on revisions.

Ah! It was almost too much. My paltry efforts, compared to their weighty words. I watched the Italians push up to have their translated copies signed, I watched beaming Ms. Morrison look out from beneath her hat rim at all the faces, all the hands, all the feathery open books.

How do you write? she had been asked earlier.

To write you must find out what you need. Do you need a sandwich? Do you need music? I find I need solitude. I don't like beautiful views, I don't want to be distracted.

All I need is a pencil and a yellow legal pad.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Glowing Reviews

Catherine McNamara's 'The Divorced Lady's Companion to Living in Italy' is the best thing since sliced bread. It has changed my life. It thrilled me from the first kinky words and I walked into elevators and doors gripping my copy. In bed I laughed like an insane woman – I just couldn’t get enough; I didn’t want it to end.

Catherine's book resounded with meaning for me: it has made me love prosecco and the Dolomites and the Italian language. It has improved my relationship with my children. Now, when I look at the High Gothic Duomo of Milan, I whimper. Thanks to Catherine's saucy characters and liberating vision of older women, I have realised that - if I really want to - I can wear purple and wield a whip.

Buy this divine book and you will find love, culture and prosecco in dizzying amounts...

Whaat? Where on earth did I find this review?

The truth is I wrote it ten minutes ago and think I could improve a few things.

This morning, having my Daily Mail hit, I read that crime writer R.J. Ellory has been caught out writing glowing Amazon reviews for his novel. Not only that, he has been mean and nasty about books written by his other authors in his field.

Catherine McNamara’s book is a sleazy, entirely non-feminist rant that leaves me wishing she would just shut up. I didn’t laugh once. Her ideas are disturbed, her dialogue sucks, she should be arrested for her syntax and lack of understanding of Italian culture. Not only that, she must be an irresponsible person who couldn’t cook to save herself, and probably slaps her children around and has a drinking problem. Definitely has a drinking problem. I would pay you not to read this book.

Mr. Ellory! Shame on you!

His reply: Everybody does it. Do they? Is this something I am not in on? Sure, I have asked friends and readers in a nice voice, And if you wouldn’t mind popping something up on Amazon or Goodreads, even if you hated it.. And one friend did reply, Well, write me a review and I’ll post it..

But naahh! I know there is huge competition out there. That writers can be slimey and buyers just show no good sense (50 Shades of WTF – thanks Downith!). But is this where it’s at these days?

Have you ever written yourself up in a review? Or tried to pull the others down a peg? Huh??

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

On Zadie

I don't have a lot in common with Zadie Smith. Zadie finished her university education while I am a drop-out who ran off to au pair in Paris. Zadie published her first novel to great acclaim while mine is still sitting in a cupboard, typed up on yellow paper and smelling of moldy house. Zadie has acquired a broad-based and supportive readership, some nitpicking detractors, and has won awards for her work, allowing her to build a career in teaching writing at a university level. She also writes delicate articles with a punch in reviews no less glorious than 'The New Yorker', dealing with issues dear to her heart. She is doubtless a hard worker with much talent, and has just published her fourth novel, already receiving glowing reviews.

Phew! Just taking a breath as there is so much to admire here.

And here's an even bigger difference. Zadie had her daughter in her thirties, while I started reproducing in my mid-twenties while I was a young diplomat's wife in Mogadishu, and then, ahem, continued my output over the next twelve years. Much has been said about having a career versus being a stay-at-home home. (Whose children are more intelligent and well-adjusted? Whose bunions are bigger?) But how does mothering affect creativity, that daunting endeavour?

In this week's 'Guardian' (which I feel less and less like reading for various reasons, not least of all the fact that they haven't reviewed my novel there!) I read an article accompanying a review of Zadie Smith's new novel 'NW', which struck a very familiar chord.

According to the newspaper, Smith said that 'motherhood had changed her in an extreme way', especially by nibbling away at her time and concentration. She says: 'I wasn't interested in 80-page chapters any more - I couldn't stay in that mindset for that period of time.'

And even more tellingly, she spoke about being shoved off the writing cliff into the freefall of childcare: '..there's no down time. I would stop writing and would have no chance to think about the book at all, nothing. Then in the morning, it was as if someone else had written it.'

Has anyone else ever felt this? After the school run, the escaped dog, the tipped-over rubbish, the maths homework lies, more washing, a missed train, stolen wallet, unpaid telephone bill, broken dishwater, nagging ex, unwatered plants, the odd fever... YOU THINK I CAN SIT DOWN AND WRITE ANYTHING MEANINGFUL NOW?

It's all about brain twisting, if you like. Gymnastics. Focusing. Not always easy, not ever easy.

What is interesting is that Smith then spins this brutal detachment into an advantage, saying that it also gives the writer essential distance, a crucial objectivity that is difficult to achieve when one is bathed in the work.

I do like this one. I am clinging to it.

* * *

I have an interview about my publishing experience up with Brit Writers!

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Une Femme en Corse

Every morning you swim out to the farthest buoy. A little afraid of sharks, having watched way too many documentaries with great whites exposing their gnashing teeth. The water is green-blue and barely tossed, although on some days grey and glassy like milk. You swim thinking of other bodies of water, stuff you should be doing for work, ideas for lunch, naughty things you'd like to do and have done to you. You backstroke in to shore then head out again, over and over. Every morning you nearly collide with the guy in checked boardshorts on that stand-up canoe. Every morning you hear the old cranky man cleaning the wooden planks of the cafe with a leaf-blower.

Then, before the crowds come with their tumbling kids and teensy bikinis and umbrellas and tribal tattoos and suncream, you sit awhile in the sand, invisible, contemplating coffee, hoping to dodge last night's dishes. The wind comes up.

Before lunch there will be pastis most days. (For those who haven't tried one yet - a cloudy aniseed aperitif, you keep on adding water until your jug is dry.) On a bright red table in a village. Or in the piazza at the nearby town, a hot clifftop hike away (involving naked swims on the way back).

Or in a cafe high up above the coast in a village with lavender shutters and winding paths and massive agave with bent blue arms.

Then in the afternoons you might have a nap, read a novel, or tickle your revisions; set out to a faraway and breathtaking beach.

Or a mountain village you never, ever want to leave.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

A Divorced Lady in Cornwall

Now that I am typing with a fan on my back and it is 40 degrees outside, my trip to the Penzance Literary Festival seems to have happened in another universe. A cooler, windier one where where socks were worn and a trench coat was contemplated.

I set out from Victoria Station in London on - my friend couldn't believe this Euro-punishment choice - a National Express coach. It was long, 10 hours long. Are these the sacrifices poor writers have to make? That thought niggled as I bobbed sleeplessly in my seat.

Dawn came sweetly however, over postcard villages of stone houses and boats dozing in rivers. Cornwall, I had been told, doesn't like to call itself a part of England. I know that feeling, coming from a dusty hinterland of the empire. I wondered how early I could ask for a pint without seeming, well, indecent.

First up on Day One was Festival Patron Patrick Gale, whose most recent novel, 'A Perfectly Good Man' had been tucked in my handbag over the previous week. Patrick read beautifully from his elegant work, although the more I looked at the crowd around me, the way all faces were turned up and expectant, and the more I studied Patrick himself, a seasoned performer I saw, but still sweating slightly under the yellowy lights, the more I wanted to run away and catch the next bus back to London.

I haven't done a lot of public speaking in the years since I was a debating nerd in school. I've also developed blushing into an art form. A friend called it charming once. I wanted to slog her. Since the book has come out I've had to speak at the launch and do a few readings and book club meetings, phone interviews with journalists and a radio interview in Italian. I've had to Man Up. A strategic drink can help, and I confess I've done one telephone interview in a my pyjamas sitting on a bench outside, stroking my cat. Not so chic, hey?

Last week I was given some essential advice from a friend at the receiving end of my deranged texts. She reminded me that I am the person who knows my book the most, and that I should own these public speaking moments because I have worked so hard to produce and publish this silly book. Doesn't that already make you feel lighter, hardier?

On Day Three at 2pm in the Acorn Theatre I met Sarah Duncan ('Kissing Mr. Wrong') and Liz Fenwick ('The Cornish House'). Both lovely ladies who immediately set me at ease. We moved onto the stage. The lights were turned on. Jugs of water appeared. We all crossed our legs in the most lady-like way.

The session went swimmingly. Not a full hall, but a warm one. Our topic was 'How Did I Get Here?'. Liz was billed as 'a much travelled mother who divides her time between Dubai and Cornwall'. And I was 'an Australian who ran away to Paris at the age of 21'. I managed to not talk too much about silly things such as food-in-Italy, men-in-Italy, shoes-in-Italy. I think. And we also touched upon vital subjects such as method, inspiration and of course '50 Shades of Grey' and the E-book phenomenon. Sarah was a wonderful host and Liz a great speaker. I can honestly say I enjoyed myself more than I could ever have imagined!

And I didn't blush, trip or splutter!

I could indeed write a lot more about the thoroughly inspiring series of events organised by the charming Peter Levin. The theme of the festival being Journeys, there were authors whose work is set all over the world; there were technical sessions about the business of writing; poetry readings and appearances by young adult writers. And in the evening the Acorn Theatre became alive with music - such as the original and talented Bookshop Band who write haunting songs recounting characters and book themes.

Though I confess I never tried a Cornish pasty, I think I've fallen for Penzance. I hope my publisher doesn't mind me playing around with my cover. This was an unscripted Iphone photo that was too kooky to let go.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Subtle Flavours at the Crispy Duck

This is not a food blog. I am almost the most non-foodie person I know. And yet. When in London I am always on a hungry high, waiting for the next plate of something I can't eat in Italy. Dim sum. Persian. Excellent Lebanese. A bottomless glass of ale. Not-too-bad coffee with an exciting view.

The last few days have been spent in London in the lead-up to my appearance at the Penzance Literary Festival, taking place this week. I have lazed in parks, had a beetroot margarita, bought more books and finally - in overheated agony - succumbed to a pair of flattish Campers on sale, which I tried on and my feet refused to allow me to remove. Bliss. No more elegant Italian heels but a pair of cutaway rose-coloured all-leather sandals. Feels like I am walking on cushions.

And Penzance. My first literary festival, where there will be some big names and some debut authors like myself. Flutter flutter! I've read books written by several of the other authors, two of which have given me a feel for a place I never imagined I would visit. Liz Fenwick's The Cornish House and Patrick Gale's A Perfectly Good Man. Great, enticing reads from a magical place I look forward to discovering.

Wish me luck! I'll be speaking with Liz Fenwick on Friday 25th at 2pm, the discussion will be moderated by author Sarah Duncan. I'll be the red-headed one staggering across the stage in a pair of python pumps..

Monday, 16 July 2012

Paris fix

We went to Paris. We were chic. Our dreams were sweet. Our meals were of the most nourishing calibre. At night we met old friends outside metro stops and wandered along footpaths bumping shoulders. We stole a taxi from an angry man. We had long baths. We walked out of a restaurant with too many guidebook stickers, too many foreigners talking about their European trips. We walked along the gutters. This was the city where we were once young, once so full of dreams we were blinded to most truths.

It was work of course. I was more of a mascot than anything else. The champagne tray gal. The gal who modelled the shoes. The chic skinny thing wearing Ale's dresses while buyers from Japan frowned and sketched and bowed. Many languages were spoken. There were stunning hats. And horses. The theme outside each pavillion was Hicksville and, coming from a country village where the hay lies strapped in massive bales on the clipped gold fields, this was odd, very odd.

We watched Italy lose the European Cup. Badly. We drank more champagne the day after. In the evenings as the light drew away people had picnic rugs in the parks and we saw bulls in the sky.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Fifty Shades of Red

While grey is the colour of the season's bondage bestseller, the colour of the hot sexy Italian summer has to be RED.

RED for my favourite Campari Spritz aperitivo (enjoyed with the lovely Sherry in Venice last week!)

RED is the colour of fresh tomato sauce for linguine, eaten in the shade of the portico in the afternoon.


 RED are the flowers in my favourite hidden villa garden.


RED is the colour of hot summer lips and a pair of savage Dolce e Gabbana stilettos that sink into the grass at steamy summer parties.

RED are flowers on Rosi's window sill, beneath stormy Monte Civetta.


ENJOY your summer days and nights! Here's what I've been doing: a day in Venice with American writer Sherry, with a stop at my favourite bar Il Cavatappo.

**PS. I have a new interview up at
for those of you interested in living in Italy, cat-style.