Saturday, 10 August 2019

Peak Rome

or why you should have to write an essay explaining why you need to visit the Sistine Chapel.

I'm not sure I was taken to Rome as a child. I might have been. But in any event, here I am queueing outside the Vatican Museum on a rainy May Saturday with all the other visitors from all over the world, all 30,000 of them who will enter the building today and every other day, all year long. My neighbours in the queue are good natured: the Poles who explained that they are used to Communism and know how to queue; the Brits like me who will join a queue even if they are not quite sure what it is for; and all the other patient souls. Two hours of slow shuffling and wave after wave of torrential rain for which my umbrella is totally unsuitable and my leather jacket is soaked right through and the ends of my hair are wet. My only entertainment is say 'no thanks' to all the touts tempting me to cut the line and buy an exorbitant tour of the museum.

Finally I am through the security checks and in. Now for the next hour or so of pain. There is a one way system through the museum, no backtracking, no chance to take a photo without it being bombed, no information on all the wondrous art works on display, in fact no chance to enjoy it unless you like being swept along by literally hoards of chattering people who show precious little interest in the place or its contents, and don't get me started on the tour guides with their bloody umbrellas. It's worse than the Louvre on the busiest busy day. Don't say you haven't been warned. You will suffer to see this art.
Eventually I make it to the Chapel where there are three options: stand in the middle and look up and around, wait for a seat at the side and grab it pronto; or walk on through. You can guess which I chose. I sat for an hour and more taking in every single part of Michael Angelo's wonderful ceiling, the altar piece and the amazing murals. Oh look, there's a Boticelli. It is a wonder of the world. Truly. And I was actually moved to tears. A very rare thing for me. Very rare indeed. But...

Why, oh why, do people come here if they just want to tick it off a list of sights? The number of people who spend no more than three minutes walking through the Chapel following an umbrella or, and this is worse, not even looking at it in preference to their phones is astonishing. Talk about pearls before swine. It is totally wasted on them. In fact they shouldn't be allowed. And more - why do people feel it necessary to talk so loudly? The guards have to shout out 'Silencio' every few minutes, which is pretty shocking - one is in church after all.

I tired not to let any of this poor behaviour bother me - no photos and you get shouted at if you take one (hence these are all from elsewhere in the museum) - , but in the end it was too much and I could feel my gore rising. I turned to the nice Indian couple next to me and asked them what they thought. They were in agreement: crazy people. They explained that they trying to follow the story depicted on the ceiling; their phone being used to this effect. Not having any Biblical knowledge from their Hindu upbringing, they were struggling a bit. I tired to help, but I'm not sure I was that useful to them. 

Yes, I know I should not be too snooty about this, and that everyone has the right to be here, but honestly, I do think you ought to have to explain why, and if you cannot come up with a good reason, beyond it being on your tour list, then perhaps you should leave it to those who really want to savour this treasure in all its quiet and magnificent glory.

Friday, 9 August 2019

Keats Part Two

Back in May I spent a week in the Italian capital. I wanted to sit in the sun and enjoy a glass of chilled wine, but it rained. A lot. The climate is so worryingly unpredictable these days. Actually the real reason for my trip was one of pilgrimage; not with the obvious destination of St. Peter's, which I did visit, even climbing to the top of the huge dome, no I was on Keats part two. Having laid a wreath at his memorial in Westminster Abbey back in the autumn, I thought it was about time I visited his actual grave. The bonus was the rest of Rome thrown in for free.

Keats is buried in the Protestant Cemetery, but before visiting that, there was another place I just had to go At the bottom of the Spanish Steps, on the right as you look up at them,  there is a tall town house - now the Keats-Shelley House museum - , one apartment in which Keats lived during his last desperate sojourn in Rome. He had been sent to Italy for the sake of his health. He was dying from tuberculosis. No amount of clean, fresh, dry air was going to cure that, but there we are. A disease that consumed so many, it is/was the nastiest of ways to go; coughing up blood and not been able to breathe. I know some of that. We think it is largely cured in the West, and so it is, but not so in other parts of the world. I had to have a chest Xray for my South African work visa, for example.

So it was here in a now buzzing location that lovely Johnny Keats at just twenty five years old breathed his last on 23 February 1821. His bedroom is kitted out with period furniture, and has its original painted ceiling; the one he stared up at. On the day I visited the museum, there were so few people there I had this special place to myself for almost half an hour. We had nice chat about poetry and finding the perfect image, while the crowds swarmed the Steps outside. I wandered the rest of the museum pleased to see treasures like an all too familiar painting of Shelley, and Oscar Wilde's manuscript of his sonnet on visiting Keats' grave. It's a quiet treasure trove for the literary-minded. Linger over the death mask and first editions of Keats' and Shelley's work.

Too far away to go the same day on foot, I waited until the next morning to find the cemetery. Just behind the Pyramid of Cestius at Porta San Paolo is the green oasis, more garden than cemetery really. Keats' grave is easy to find, there being a helpful sign and charming guardiennes of welcome. Famously un-named - here lies one whose name is writ on water - , it is only clear that it is his because his friend, the artist, Joseph Severn is buried beside him and his grave notes the friendship and Keats' name. Later an appalling poem was put on a plaque on a nearby wall.

I sat for a while on a convenient bench and we had another early morning discussion about poetry and London. Or rather I talked and Johnny listened again.

I left him to find Shelley. Drowned in the Gulf of Spezia the following summer and cremated on the nearest beach, as witnessed by Bryon, Shelley's ashes are buried here. The spot is marked by a large horizontal stone near the far wall of the cemetery. Not exactly easy to find and not as beautiful a memorial as he deserves. He clearly needs more friends.


Sunday, 4 August 2019

Review of The Filthy Quiet

Delighted to have a review from DA Prince at London Grip

Monday, 10 June 2019

Water, water everywhere


and not a drop to drink. So runs the old song. And in New Orleans there is water everywhere. One of the first things my friends told me was not to drink it. The tap water is of dubious quality, and those who can afford to do so buy gallons of drinking water for their in home water fountains. That was a surprise. I didn't realise parts of the US were unreliable in this regard - Flint, Michigan being the notable exception, but then I've never been to the south, except the odd business trip to Miami and Atlanta. It reminded me of holidays in Italy in the '70s when we had to do the same.

But what of those who cannot afford a safe supply of this most basic of needs? Well, along with the homeless guy I saw using the front yard tap of a nearby house for an impromptu shower, they have to risk what comes out of the tap and hope that the water companies are on the ball as regards quality monitoring and alerting the public when it is unfit. Does that sound second or third world to you? Welcome to the US in 2019. Great.

Ironically enough in NOLA there is water everywhere, so if one is not trying to find the clean stuff, one is trying to get away from it. The mighty Mississippi rushing its way out into the Gulf via a series of spectacular meanders was in full spate this spring and at such height up the levees that the chance of flooding looked rather high to me.  I was aware of sheer force of water every time I looked out at it. And it was a menacing presence even when hidden by thick fog. A huge river at this point, it makes the Thames look rather small. Of course, I reminded myself, it drains practically the whole eastern half of the continent.

NOLA is surrounded by water: the river, the industrial canal that bisects the city, and lakes Pontchartrain and Borgne to the north. All full, almost to over-brimming. Such was the volume of water that the spillway was opened during my visit. About an hour's drive up-river out of town as we crossed one of the elevated sections of freeway on our way to a lovely catfish supper in the bayou, we passed the point where millions of gallons of freshwater are diverted into the cypress swamps. Absent the city's development, these are the natural habitat here. One glance at a map from two hundred years so so ago, not long after the city's founding, and you will see a neat grid pattern in a, pardon the pun, sea of half-land labelled thusly.

If the river isn't adding to the volumes of water, then the sky is doing its best. Rain in NOLA does not take any prisoners. With weather systems that come north from the Caribbean, the city can easily be swamped with water. Indeed it was hit by a major storm a couple of months after I returned home and a large part of the city was badly flooded. I can attest to the rain: one evening we were busy dodging a storm with inadequate umbrellas, and were badly dressed for the huge puddles as we went from dive bar to dive bar. It was a scene straight out of Bladerunner. Come in another season and the air is heavy with hair-curling humidity as well. It is no surprise then, that the smell of damp and mould lingers, although on the upside one's skin feels fabulously hydrated.

If not the river and the sky, then the sea is doing its best to overwhelm the city. The National Park Service estimates that a football pitch sized parcel of land is lost to climate change induced coastal erosion in Louisiana every forty five minutes. Just let that sink in (sic).

Not long then till there's nothing left of the Gulf coast states, so enjoy them while you can. Particularly worthy of attention is a little disaster tourism. I was genuinely interested in seeing the Lower Ninth Ward, where the canal wall was rammed by a barge that came loose from its moorings during the post-Katrina storm surge in 2005. The subsequent deluge over the largely black working class neighbourhood, most of which is below sea level, caused the greatest suffering and loss of life.

This is well documented, but I haven't seen much on what has happened there since. I'm happy to report that there has been a good deal of rebuilding, but not as much as you might expect. About a third of the plots are in current occupation. Many people, uninsured or refused their claims - that's another scandal - chose not to return. The result is that nearly fifteen years on it is an oasis of green with maturing trees and boggy ground, and a haven for bird life. Cycling around one steamy afternoon, I was accompanied by more birdsong that it is reasonable to expect in a major city. That was truly joyful.















Friday, 7 June 2019

Chihuly at Kew Gardens

 I first took note of the spectacular glass work of American, Dale Chihuly when I lived in San Jose. He had made three chandeliers for the San Jose Museum of Art. These are similar to the one in the entrance hall of the V&A. In 2002 or 2003 there was an amazing exhibition of his sea forms at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which paired with their live jellyfish was an astonishment of beauty.

There are few words to describe his glass sculptural assemblances. Photographs do the work some justice, but these are no substitute for seeing them in person at this summer's unmissable display at Kew. Pick a sunny day to pop along and don't bypass the important though long film, which shows the creating/making process in some depth.

Ten out of ten. Kew have shown his well-sited work before and I missed it. No wonder it's come back for a repeat performance. Oh, and there's some outstanding plants to enjoy as well.

Thursday, 6 June 2019

Cultural appropriation - some thoughts


Hitherto I have been dismissive of the censorship that the criticism 'cultural appropriation' demands of writers. After all one should be free to write whatever one likes. And if I want to use my imagination to write in the voice of, or from the point of view of, someone from another culture, ethnicity, sex etc. to my own, who is to say that I cannot?

The logical result otherwise would be that I am left only to write autobiographically - literally what I know from my milieu. That might make for rather dull reading, and the degree of introspection required does not necessarily interest me that much as a constant way of working. I live in a world full of any number of people and things. I have travelled to any number of places. Why can I not write about and from them? Must I be forced only to use the literal first person, me, in such work?

The obvious answer is, no.

But then, I was brought up short recently by what seems like the tiniest of things. The current Places of Poetry project from the Poetry Society invites poets to pin place-specific poems onto a digital map of England and Wales. It was introduced to me by a poet friend and was something I was interested in being part of. She mentioned her contribution was about the Welsh mines. My immediate reaction was - what? that's not your subject? I speak as a Welsh person and the granddaughter of a collier. Very quickly I chastised myself. I don't own this subject at all, and certainly not any more than my English friend. I have no more rights over it than she or anyone else has. I am interested in and sympathetic to the subject given my family background, of course, but I have no unique insights. What a foolish response, I told myself.

Yet I started thinking - you know how you only begin to really understand something when it happens to you? In this small, but quickly and roundly dismissed way, I had an inkling of what others might be getting at when they object so vehemently to a writer's work as having appropriated someone else's culture. Not that I will ever agree that the said writer does not have the right to do so. Never.

The question then is, with an increased sensitivity in mind, how does the writer proceed. I think the answers here start with respect for the subject, involve research; book, place and talking to people; trying to be as authentic as possible to it, but always bearing in mind that writers make fictions; and growing a tough hide. There will always be someone ready to throw a brick bat - how can you set a story in a country you've never visited? how can you speak in man's voice? etc. Easy, I have an imagination. What is really meant is: how dare you? Answer again, easy - because I am a writer in a free country. But what I will try to do is be more consciously aware of the way I am proceeding and try not tread too hard or unnecessarily on other people's toes.

Lionel Shriver's lecture on this subject is well worth your time. She gives a number of examples of writing that would not exist if writers had indulged in over-zealous self-censorship. And I am with her when she says: "I am hopeful that the concept of “cultural appropriation” is a passing fad: people with different backgrounds rubbing up against each other and exchanging ideas and practices is self-evidently one of the most productive, fascinating aspects of modern urban life."

Thursday, 18 April 2019

People's Vote March Two

The unbelievable mess that is Brexit rumbles on, now until Hallowe'en. The EU might have a sense of humour, but no-one can plan anything. No-one knows what is going on, not even the zombie PM and her undead government who are supposed to be in charge of this show.

One thing we do want, though, is the chance to say Remain, again. And hope this time that it works, now that folk understand that job losses are real and happening. It's heartbreaking to see and no amount of 'you get what you vote for' is any kind of salve.

Did a million people march on 23rd March, or was it 2 million? Who knows? But I can tell you that the streets were absolutely rammed with charming, happy, kind people from all over the country and who just want their say. Such a contrast to the tiny pro-Brexit rallies the following week, fuelled as they were by hate and intolerance.

I was proud to be marching, well, shuffling, again, even if compared to my compatriots, I look completely bonkers. That hat was great fun to make and attracted a deal of attention from photographers and TV crews. I hope I have the chance to wear it again on Referendum Two day. My German dog, Bru, is getting used to crowds. The kids' sign was outstanding. Quality glitter was their reward.