Wednesday, 5 November 2014

The End of Love: What if Anais Nin and Henry Miller had Skyped?

I had a thought. Young Diva Daughter (who doesn’t read this) spends much time with her Beloved on Skype. They are bewitched. Captivated. If not Skyping, they are furiously typing on whatsapp. Everything is short and furious and oh-so-immediate. No chafing at the postbox and ripping open envelopes with foreign stamps. No scribbled-on sheets of paper to clutch to the heart.
It makes me think of love letters. I mean Love Letters.
Did you ever write reams and scrolls and reams to your Beloved? Hell yeah. (And I didn’t pick up any of them online either.) Ahh, it’s going to sound very old-fashioned to say this, but Weren't Those The Days…
I honestly remember twenty-page intercontinental letters (the girl was verbose; and I couldn’t blog!) and I’m talking about twice a week. I remember notes scribbled after making love, when another Beloved had fallen asleep. The first thing he would read when he got up to go to work! Written with – yes! – a biro on paper. Bits of poems copied out (not copied and pasted). Queasy declarations in bad French or Italian. Collages of dumb photos.. metro tickets.. 
But mostly words words words. Written words where you had to get a flow going and edit yourself as you flew along (no auto-correct or spell-check or any form of self-editing). These words were raw and full of flight, they were scrawled high or crinkled in the corner, cramped along the sides of the page.
Do you remember? Do you remember word love?

And now imagine this. Some of last century’s great lovers (or the most show-offy ones, probably) have just spent an amorous afternoon together. The man – the sexy/sleazy Henry Miller – rushes home to his poor digs and he logs on, and here is Henry looking worse for wear filling up Anais’ screen with his crooked bookshelves on the wall behind. Would we ever have been handed down words such as these to savour if Nin and Miller had skyped??

Don’t expect me to be sane any more. Don’t let’s be sensible. It was a marriage at Louveciennes – you can’t dispute it. I came away with pieces of you sticking to me; I am walking about, swimming, in an ocean of blood, your Andalusian blood, distilled and poisonous… You became a woman with me. I was almost terrified by it. You are not just thirty years old – you are a thousand years old… I read the paper about suicides and murders and I understand it all thoroughly. I feel murderous, suicidal. I feel somehow that it is a disgrace to do nothing, to just bide one’s time, to take it philosophically, to be sensible..

Quelle fever!
Now do yourself – and the Beloved – a favour. Get out your pen. Find some beautiful paper.

And write a Love Letter.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Women and Rage

There is a lot of sh** in the air lately. I mean that seriously. The farmers in our area are fertilising vacant and weedy fields before ploughing and sowing their winter crop. Up and down the poplar-lined roads you smell the cowshit they spray over these fields. Close all windows please. Do not inhale.

You know, the problem with smartphones and the whole system of texting and whatsapping that has been become our staple, is this: we just can't shut up. Screen diarrhoea, I would say. There is always a text to send, or one to reply to, add to, copy to another friend. When your loved ones are far away, it's wonderful to send or receive a warm thought, isn't it? But when it comes to the big emotions - Love, Anger, Sadness, Throbbing Good News - don't you think that texting is the most unreliable way to convey important stuff?

Let's take Anger. Now. Anger is best delivered in the heat of the moment, face to face, hopefully without plates thrown. No? And then once the angry party expels his or her sentiments, the other party responds/justifies/or just yells back. Doors might be slammed. There could be some rash declarations. If all goes well there might be a cooling off period and perhaps - in time - an apology and renewed understanding.

Agreed? Now let's think about what happens when the angry party uses a smartphone message to convey his or her sentiments. What might have been yelled in the heat of the moment is now recorded within a little machine (I realise that sounds a little Fred Flintstone), before it flies out to another little machine, and it texted out further like a virus to the insulted party's friends.

It exists forever, just about.

Over the past few weeks (yes finally I am getting to my point) I have had a couple of seriously angry text messages out of the blue from a couple of seriously angry ladies. At first you think: oh gawd, hormones! (Truly, you could have knocked me down with a feather.) How nasty! How silly! How petty! What Was She Thinking? The thing is, you realise that people who vent their anger in this way usually have other darker issues they can't address, and you end up feeling sorry for their plight. And worst of all, unlike words cast into the air whose edge will fade, these words are able to be reread, shown to others, even laughed at. Out of context, anger becomes pitiable, and an angry faceless message must be the pinnacle of weakness. (Cheeky grin: story material!!!)

Sigh. Get nastiness out of your life. Please. Bad energy is not a trifling thing and it will send colonies all through your body and your life. Ladies, by all means express your anger, spit it out on the plate.

But don't be silly enough to write it down. Or if you do, send it to a trusted friend who squeezes your hand and makes you cancel it!

Friday, 19 September 2014

Love Song with Cello

Faces in places: Marais girl, Paris
I caught a plane home the other day. Just a short, cheap flight. Which means a long wait and a long, unruly queue. As I stuffed and restuffed and pounded and squeezed my bag closed, I realised that my book (Alison MacLeod's 'Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction' which will give you a jolt and a buzz) was deep in the bottomless depths and I would just have to sit down and people-watch. Which I did.

But departures are never as dramatic as the great, stirring fanfare of lovers reunited, or families made whole; young children clinging to fathers or women wrapped in lovers' arms with shaky smitten smiles. The departure lounge is different. Emotions are low-key. People are tired and anxious to be at home. There will always be a chatty Italian who will soon have a crowd of listeners with flying hands. Or kids sticking their heads under tired Dad's T-shirt; African grandmothers who wished they hadn't even come. Or the Hell's Angel guy staring at you. Or the ancient twins from Greece with Nefertiti eyeliner. Or the young things baring just about all as though the airport were an extension of yet another beach party at the ratty end of summer..

I call myself a writer. Many of us do. And as writers supposedly we look for stories everywhere. We see an interesting face and imagine an entire life.We imagine love stories and stories of loss and gain and hope and voyage. (Do we? Hmmm. Well, I must be the laziest writer about because I rarely do this. I mean, I am looking and borrowing - even stealing - but goodness knows where my stories come from!) And then just when I had spent several hours deciding that the whole of Europe (including myself) was hooked on phone screens and iPads and there was not an interesting face or couple or family among them, what do I see?

I saw the most touching scene I think I have seen in ages, maybe years.

Sweet chords and rabbits
Two wheelchairs. Two old folk. One cello in a case. They are taken to the head of the queue by two young men with ID tags who chat above them, these guys are wearing twin navy sweaters.

The old lady's face is gentle. Her lips are full and she has a wide round face and eyes that are deep brown and placed wide apart on her head. She has rings on her fingers that dig into the flesh. A cello rests against her legs and it is clear this shape is a part of her life, her body, her sound, her dreams. It is the oldest part of her. She is still strong, she bears a flashing life force, she has shared this with others; she is generous, when she is alone she is never alone.

Next to her is the man I imagine is her partner, the man she has loved for decades. Perhaps he stood tall once, without the kink in his neck that makes his head droop low, makes his eyelids seem half-open, makes him seem beaten, overcome. He is a large stable man, though he looks around like a small boy; he has an expression of vacant happiness. His eyes are small and rubbed with emotion.

There are two things that I notice. Two things that I take home with me on that cheap flight.

1) The old man's hair has been cropped recently. There is an unwavering line of hair above his ear. He has a pretty good head of hair and somebody has made sure that line was straight. 

2) The old lady leans across her hand which is thick with rings and she grasps his yellowy, finer fingers within hers. He doesn't look at her, he is a bit doddery. But still this lady looks across at him with so much smooth and binding love that I am warmed and astounded.

Travel safe. The voyage is neverending.

* * * *
My short story 'Enfolded' is a shortlisted finalist in the Love on the Road Short Story Competition and will appear in next year's anthology, coming out with feisty independent Malinki Press of Dublin.

Friday, 29 August 2014

I don't wanna go home

It happens every time I go away. Not just away like for work even if it is in a cool place. It's not that. It happens each time I go on my annual camping trip to Corsica. You see, once I get into the rhythm of it, I really don't want to go home. I want to stay on there in my shorts and bikini with my bag of books and my beer bottle. I don't care about writing about work about the house, about school about the rest of my summer plans I just don't care.

It's not even an easy thing to explain. I mean, the place is nothing really that special. There are other more glamorous islands in the Mediterranean, and we stay in an extremely non-sophisticated camping ground which can be crowded and noisy. Plus it's a long haul across Italy, on the car ferry then across the top of Corsica. So what is it then?

Could it be the early morning swims out to the last buoy when the small beach is empty?

Could it be making a strong coffee after said swim on your camp stove?

Could it be wearing the same thing every day, feeling so sandy and salty in your bare feet?

Or drinking local chestnut beer in the wooden shed bar on the beach?

Or wandering along the rocky coast and finding a spot your umbrella, having a few nude dips?
Could it reading for hours each afternoon, book after blessed book, salty swim after salty swim?

Could it be the endless pebbles and crashing waves of Nonza beach?

Could it the computer-ipad-screenlessness of your days?

Could it be the smells of summer as you hike through villages inland?

Could it be drinking Pastis in bars along the coast?

Could it be the sultry, star-fringed nights and not knowing what day it was?

I dunno, I'm clueless. What do you think?

* * * * *

Now back on the ranch I received an intriguing Twitter feed email inviting me to follow Pope (Papa) Francesco. It seems that Papa Francesco has a gazillion followers but how many people does the Pope follow? How many would you say?

Well, it's just 8.

Doesn't that make you crawl in your seat wondering who those eight people might be? His cousin in Argentina? Obama? Shirley Bassey? Who??

Saturday, 12 July 2014

The Best Things in Life

Spot the cat!
After a van breakdown on the perilous A4, a twelve-hour driving stretch including burrowing under the scary Mont Blanc tunnel and charging through central France, your bed-and-breakfast falling through, a night-time unloading of an entire summer collection and staggering about with boxes/racks/hats, the discovery that your hotel is like a tiny pre-fab caravan and the downstairs McDonalds - you are too tired to take one step further - closes its doors in your face and you go to bed foodless...well... that's when you tend to look at the good things around you.

YOU ARE IN PARIS, something that excites you every time.
There is free champagne for exhibitors for four days.
There is a great Turkish thing going on outside on the main strip.
You get to wear great clothes and shoes for four days.
You eat wonderful food after work and tear across central Paris in a taxi yawning after midnight.

Bliss. Even that rainy walk to work every morning. Such a change from story submissions and revisions and disappointments piling up. And trying to keep the wisteria in check which is more fruitful than your imagination.

Blue Mosque - polaroid-style
You all know I work at fashion week in Paris twice a year and it is a blast. Not that I see a single clothes shop or museum or view of the Seine or trendy nightclub... We go to bed like tired chickens each night, fighting off the alarm and dragging ourselves to the shower. Matchsticks keeping apart eyelids at breakfast.

What do I wear today??
I don't care! Wear anything!
Whose idea was it to drink five glasses of champagne?? 

Turkish tea bags
The Bubble Card!!!
And the next day in between taking orders you are back again, an addict queueing up, sticking out your pink bubble card, listening to conversations behind and in front of you, watching an old French perv chat up a sweet young thing with glorious eyes, watching the super-tanned gay guy selling ripped dresses in his Ray Bans and bandana, watching the Indians eating food from home and the Japanese in sharp clusters, watching the giraffe-like models glide about in flowing gowns leaving men and women gobsmacked in their wake.

Fashion, baby. I'll take six glasses..

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

The Constant Gardener

Photos : Mariarosaria Valente
There are two constants in the summertime here. Shoe sales and gardening. Now that might appear to make for a very brainless summer but let me inform you that this writer is heading off to two short story conferences this summer - with barely an inch of time to work on her tan or check out the shoe sales. 

Just joking. Tanning is the last thing that happens in my life. By chance it might occur when I am mowing in a big hat and my bikini. Or on the famous Corsican camping holiday when I swim out to the buoys at 8am.

In the meantime there is gardening, drinks under the willow and walnut trees, summer parties, pruning roses, reading in the hammock, good friends and concerts. To tell the truth I have just ordered The Constant Gardener, having seen Fernando Meirelles’ brilliant film several times (one of my favourites) without having read the book. Summer is a huge endless part of the year in Italy. After months of fog and heating problems and beanies and frozen hands, the temperature is in the high aching twenties and the sky is still haze-free and the sun is blazing. I was at the market yesterday looking at my cheap clothes stand and the ladies were saying, But this would look good with a tan, Oh but think of this once I get my tan!

Of course for an Australian with pre-skin cancers being cut out of her back and shoulders on a regular basis, I’ll be buying long-sleeved floaty kaftan tops thanks very much. Or my beloved heels..

On Sunday I was driving along the Riviera Brenta which is where the Venetians built lovely airy Palladian villas to escape the stifling heat of the lagoon. They used to retire there for the summer surrounded by sumptuous gardens with roses and labyrinths and secret paths and the cool breezes after summer storms over the surrounding fields. The villas are startling, one beauty after another, topped with writhing naked sculptures in stone. Of course the son I was picking up had done an all-nighter at one of these. I entered to find Signor and Signora of the manor working a floor shiner on the terrazzo floor, and a bunch of bleary-eyed boys about to roll out the Persian mats. The garden swept down to the river where on the next bend was the massive palace – Villa Pisani – built for the Venetian Doge Alvise Pisani elected in 1735, once owned by Napoleon I, and used by Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler in 1934 for their first uncomfortable meeting (supposedly Adolf raved on and on about Mein Kampf, Benito whose German was crap grew bored. Gawd, if someone had taken them both to the bottom of the river that day…)

All too much history for this weary mother on a Sunday morning. On the way home I spotted another site I know I’m coming back to scout. It was the Fratelli Rossi Space. You’ve got me – the best heels there are to be had.

And here are some more shots taken by an enthusiastic friend around this humble pile and jardin.. No treaties signed here. Perhaps a plate thrown in my old pre-divorcĂ©e days…

Thursday, 29 May 2014

A Cherry Saga

It has been neverending. Cherry after cherry after cherry. I'm not complaining. Substitute breakfast snack with: Cherry Snack. Substitute coffee break with: Cherry Break. Substitute lunchtime fruit with: Lunch Cherries. Substitute afternoon tea with: Cherry O'Clock...

Get out your ladder girl, and get some Cherry Belly.

Nature is really stupendissima. We are given these gifts every spring, year after year, despite doing not a thing. No pesticides, no pruning. And they stand so helplessly bare all winter, bereft. The fog is so thick here that you can just make out the one furthest from the house in a blur of cotton wool. Then, come March, you have blossoms. Beautiful white blossoms shimmering in the air. And in May, in time for your spring appetite, these red treasures.

Living in the country is hard work - yes! Try getting teens to push a lawnmower or help prune the pines. Or clear the side fence of grapevines scooting every which way. But isn't it good for a child to see a tree grow, to know the journey of a tiny piece of fruit? I remember an American teacher of friend of mine taught horticulture to rich American kids sejouring in Florence. She asked them, Where does lettuce come from? They looked at her blankly. They did not know.

Ahh I love my cherry trees. I've become such a cherry snob I look at cherries at the fruit stand and wrinkle my nose. Bah! Old wares! Give me something I can sink my teeth into and swivel around in my mouth. Let me choose between the top branches with dark burgundy fruit, or the lower ones with red rich cherries - still a little tart but give them a few days... Then let's do jam for breakfast, jam for cherry summer flans, cherry vodka, cherry grappa for when next winter rolls around.

Does anyone else have a cherry fixation?

In other local news two different men on bicycles tried to pick up this jogging writer who was actually THINKING UP HER NEW STORY LINE AS SHE JOGGED. How could they not see I was still 'working'? Why oh why did I throw on a pair of shorty-shorts instead of my baggy cut-offs that were in the wash?

Salve Signorina, You have a good pace going there. You know you are fast.
Yes the supermarket is about to close.
Will you be here again tomorrow night? I live just by here.
Yes. With my three sons !

Next time I will be jogging in a tent.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Lemon Loving in Italy

I have a weakness for lemons. Perhaps it is because we never had a lemon tree, but used to pinch them from the neighbour's tree. While I adore lemons in pots and look after mine like children (wrapped in scarves in the old chicken shed through winter), lemon trees in the ground send me into ecstasy. Imagine my daily thrill when I recently went to southern Italy, south of Sorrento in fact, and walked through lemon orchards to the sea, saw them bobbing over every fence, fraying delicately in every garden. Bliss for moi.

I took the night train down from Verona, cruised through Rome at dawn, and arrived in boisterous Naples mid-morning. Not my first time. As a young au pair I was dragged off by a rich Milanese family to their holiday home on Stromboli.. just as the story goes in Peltand Other Stories. Before catching the ferry I slept in the station with my cropped hair and knapsack: the NZ guy next to me had his wallet sliced out of his jeans. 

But last month I was heading out of Naples towards Sorrento, then up to a village high above the coastline with the swish island of Capri plonked in front. Seafood was enjoyed, everybody’s favourite bitter green cima di rapa was devoured, the coffee was divine, much wine was thrown back and the company was very, very good. 

Funny, it seemed that everything we ate or were offered was to be washed down with the local drop limoncello, which you may or may not have tried. Imagine a smooth lemon juice going down like a sweet sunkissed syrup. It perks you up quick smart. I can’t believe I gave my bottles away and will face the hot summer without them! It seemed there was a lemony idea for every moment of the day: fresh lemon juice for breakfast, tangy lemon biscuits; and lemon drizzled over your squid, your octopus and your grilled fish thanks. 

And of course limoncello at any hour... 

Every morning skeins of cloud would fade away to reveal Capri on her silver platter of sea. Most of the time I was dumbfounded. I confess I didn’t manage to go there, preferring a lazy day on the beach and not so keen to mingle with the tourists. Lots of big pebbles and a long walk. It wasn’t even warm, but this Australian decided to have her first Mediterranean swim of the season. Picture this skinny writer in a borrowed costume working up her strokes out to the moored boats – and half-dying of hypothermia afterwards. Limoncello required.

I wanna go back!
We also savoured Sorrento from her most marvellous vantage point. The bar on the jetty under the cliff. Far away from the tourist throng. Close to the lapping of the water. Seafood to die for. An afternoon I didn’t want to end. I would do almost anything to be back there..

Lastly, for all you lemon-lovers out there, this is from Pablo Neruda's A Lemon. It is sublime.

So, while the hand
holds the cut of the lemon,
half a world
on a trencher,
the gold of the universe
to your touch:
a cup yellow
with miracles,
a breast and a nipple
perfuming the earth;
a flashing made fruitage,
the diminutive fire of a planet.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Am I Real Enough?

After an involuntarily blog hiatus caused by internet inexistence, computer downfall, travel escape and cherry-picking, I am back with you. It has been a long long break. But still every so often a reader crops up or writes to say they have enjoyed reading DLC and I am thrilled to the back teeth, to my back bone and to the very weedy end of my back yard. In the meantime I have escaped to Sorrento and London and will do the appropriate rambling in due course. Other blog posts will follow concerning my recent experiences with Pink Floyd, Simon and Garfunkel and Rod Stewart - in cosy Mediterranean Italy! But first, a reflection about author truths and lies following an article written by cleverchops Tim Parks, fellow latino expat who takes the cake.

Tim has written a thoughtful piece called 'Stupid Questions' in the New York  Review of Books that had me chuckling. The savvy writer laments the stupid questions people ask at the end of author presentations at book festivals. Ever been to one and timidly raised your hand?

Tim Parks = cool writer
He writes: One arrives in a tent with a hundred-odd seats, of which half are occupied. a presenter who many or may not have really read your book offers a potted version of your life that mainly amounts to age, bibliography, and accolades. The novel you are presenting is sketched out: a few items of plot, the suggestion of some kind of theme or message. Listening to this you are overwhelmed by the enormous gap between the density and complexity, the sheer volume of what you have written and this drastic reduction...Meantime, among the audience, a small group have already read the book, so anything they hear about it is infinitely less than what they already know. Another group have never read anything you've written, so they are hardly the wiser from these few formulaic crumbs... 

It reminded me of the time I spoke about DLC in Italian the Women's Festival in Matera. The journo approached me twenty minutes before we were on, told me she hadn't read the book, suggested we speak about the 'stallone italiano' (the Italian stud) and 'la crisi economica' (the economic crisis) to grab the audience's attention. As it happens there is an Italian lover in Marilyn's story - in the form of crazy Federico, lapsed agronomist and lapsed lover of Marilyn's cheeky Australian friend Fiona. Not exactly Stud Material. And as for the economic crisis that has hit Italy so hard.. our gal Marilyn stole away her husband's credit card, found a part-time job modelling erotica and taught English! So, err, she was still able to buy her designer clothes.

That interview was a tussle really, with me trying to be entertaining, raise a laugh out of a very serious audience, leap through language hoops, and catch the tail-end of the journo's ten-minute-long questions.

Parks has a point. Those in attendance don't really want to hear about the way you sit down in your pyjamas and ugg boots and do a deal with the devil not to check your post. They don't want to hear about how you took a trip to the moon between chapters 11 and 12, or that your goldfish died and made you think up that weird part, or you saw this cute guy in the bus, or that you were actually taken to a club where a man was led around on a dog leash. Or perhaps only smidgens of this. Yes, they do want to hear smidgens.

For your part you know perfectly well that there is an absolute continuity between this book and your life. You will talk about the book as if your were in control of its creation, and perhaps you are to a degree, but behind and before that is a vast hinterland of experience and events over which you had no control. Only you could have written this particular book, not because you are better or more imaginative than anyone else, but because you are you.. Who could it come from but you?

'Do you think your move to Italy altered the way you think and write?'
'Does your wife read your books and if so what does she think of them?'

Parks goes nuts over the 'shots in the dark' of the audience's questions and he has a point. The gulf between creation and its intention, and the sunhats and rows of plastic chairs under a tent, must be rather disorienting, even trying. I remember seeing Ngugi wa Thion'go speak in Mantova - whose breakthrough book was written in a prison cell on loo paper! My son and I sat in hallowed silence as the great man spoke, and were almost ashamed to have him sign our dog-chewed copy. Or the time that Toni Morrison spoke there too. Before she had finished her eloquent reflections that were a joy to hear - the autograph seekers were already forming a queue up to her chair!

Been to any cracking litfests lately? Or are you planning to this summer/winter? What would you ask the author of your favourite recent read? 

And - go on then - what would you ask this crazy author about DLC??

.. They are groping for some kind of connection between the figure on the stage and the particular atmosphere of the novels they have read.. Yet even as you try and inevitably fail to answer their questions you are probably telling them more, in your perplexity and frustration, or your wryiness and charm, than you ever could have by explaining your book.

* * *
Tim Parks' books Italian Neighbours and An Italian Education are as close to the bone as you will get to living in contemporary Italy.