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.