Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Back to the Land of the Great Grey Cloud

From Menton we said goodbye to Madame and 'Spike' the dog and set off very early. It's quite a contrast to drive up from the hot south of rocky outcrops and maritime pine trees, to the flat prairies of central France with their massive grain silos like agricultural cathedrals.

And then up into the wooded farmlands of northern France, through a recitation of names in the Book of Human Misery. Amiens, Arras, Crecy, the Forests of Roland, the Field of the Cloth of Gold, Picardy, Ypres, Somme, Vimy Ridge, Calais. The landscape is scattered with war memorials that commemorate the ancient battles of Charlemagne, Joan of Arc, Henry Vth - to name only a few, as well as the graveyards of both First and Second world war victims. When you see how closely packed they are, you get the impression that the fields here must be soaked with the blood of over a thousand years of conflict.

The old car was doing very well and we were just congratulating ourselves when, just short of Reims, heading for the Calais ferry, one of the back tyres suddenly deflated and the rear end of the car began to dance across two lanes of the - fortunately quiet - autoroute before I could bring it to a halt on the Bande d'Urgence. Neil managed to keep his cool with great fortitude in the passenger seat! We had barely opened the boot to look for the jack when a breakdown patrol pulled up behind us with flashing orange lights and the mechanic had us back on the road again within twenty minutes. But by then we were both tired and not up for more adventures so we stopped at Reims.

It was a beautiful, lively place, though it was too late when we arrived to see much of it. We got up early the following morning to explore the cathedral. But typically (this always happens to me) the exterior was shrouded in cling-wrap for restoration! Inside, the stained glass windows are almost too big to take in. Very few of the originals survive - having been blown up in the 1914-18 conflict, but there are four huge rose windows in glorious medieval glass. The whole effect when they were all intact must have been incredible - though very dark.

The cathedral originally had a labyrinth like Chartres, Amiens, St Quentin and several others in this part of France, though it was destroyed in the 18th century.

Like these other cathedrals Reims is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and no one seems to know what the significance of it was, though some of the others also have Black Madonnas. Reims feels very female orientated and has chapels dedicated to Joan of Arc and to St Therese.

Taking photographs was difficult because of the light levels, but I managed one of the nave with its glorious stained glass as well as the modern windows of Marc Chagall.

On the ferry approaching England there was a long line of smoky haze overhanging the white cliffs of Dover. As we drove further north the haze deepened and by the time we reached Cambridge a line of darker cloud appeared on the horizon, growing wider and wider until the sun disappeared and the sky was uniformly grey. Welcome back to England!

Monday, 28 September 2009

In the Sunny South

I left a cold, grey Liverpool on Ryan Air, but when I arrived in Menton it was sizzling in over 30 degrees of heat. For the next few days I had clear skies, sunny days and balmy nights. This is the second time I've been there and, except for the fact that it is very expensive, I'm beginning to like it a lot. Menton sits on a narrow coastal strip at the foot of steep grey rocks - Monaco is a five minute drive in one direction and on the other side Menton strays casually in and out of Italy.

Just over the border, so technically Italian, are the Balzi Caves - originally a neolithic settlement with carvings.

In the town itself there is a cathedral on the summit of the rocky promontory, reached by a succession of stairways, a bay with a pretty marina and further up the coast a larger dock where the boats of the super-rich wait for their owners to turn up. Each one is worth more than the GDP of a small third world country. They're owned by people like Roman Abramovitch, Mohammed Al Fayed, a couple of Greek shipowners, a pop star or two, and the odd banker - so no doubt there will be a few boats up for sale shortly!

We stayed in a little pension up in the hills where Madame vented her fury over it all. 'Bankers are nothing but thieves - they have stolen our granchildren's future. I am afraid for us all!'. Her husband seeemed frail and rather gaunt, but it would have been impolite to ask why, and there was an elderly boxer dog with a spiked collar straight out of a cartoon. The room was tiny, but clean, and the bed had froggy bed linen!

The conference dinner was being held at one of Menton's nicest hotels, with a restaurant on the beach. We ate grilled sea bass and drank New Zealand champagne (courtesy of the ambassador) and listened to the sea lapping on the shingle a few feet away. The illuminated spire of the cathedral was beginning to strike up a relationship with a large crescent moon, just hovering over the bay and everything felt perfect. I even dared to go paddling.

The following day began at 8.30 and was tightly packed with events. There were several authors among the assembled scholars - well known in New Zealand and European circles perhaps rather than the UK. Vincent O'Sullivan - one of New Zealand's foremost novelists and poets gave an eloquent and thoughtful view of Katherine Mansfield's work. C.K. Stead, author of the novel 'Mansfield', whose poem 'Nine Ways of Looking at a Fantail' is in the current London Review of Books, talked about fictionalising real lives. The German poet Dieter Riemenschneider was there with his wife, New Zealand poet Jan Kemp, and novelist Kirsty Gunn opened the conference with a short story 'This Place you Return to is Home', written during a writer in residence post near the place where KM was brought up.

I also met, for the first time, Janine Renshaw Beauchamp, KM's great neice, who was brought up by Katherine's sister and who was able to give me a real sense of how Katherine's family worked as a unit - an inside view of the family politics.

When you write a biography you worry that you will have got some small but important fact horribly wrong, or that there is something you have missed - however hard you try, something always slips through. I listened avidly to every talk, every reading, mentally editing and checking - and was totally exhausted by the time it finished. After a formal ambassador's reception (more champagne) and a concert by the Menton children's choir, we slipped off to have dinner - more modestly this time! - at a French Chinese cantina. We resisted the sweet and sour frog's legs (the bedlinen engraved in our memories) and settled for scallops in sweet chili sauce with noodles. And mineral water. There is only just so much champagne one can take!

We slipped quietly into the pension very late, and were aware of Madame's husband and the dog peering at us round the edge of a door in the dark recesses of the hallway.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Mansfield-ing in Menton

For the next few days I'm going to be at a Katherine Mansfield conference in Menton, southern France - a few hundred yards from the Italian border. The event is being held at one of the beautiful villas built for the rich who used to migrate here in droves during the cold, northern winters.

I'm looking forward to French wine, French food, French coffee as well as sunshine and the delight of talking to lots of other Mansfield enthusiasts. The American novelist Linda Lappin is going to be there, promoting her novel 'Katherine's Wish' , which is about Katherine Mansfield's last days at Fontainebleau, and a young Australian playwright, Amelia McBride, is going to be performing her two man play 'Something Childish but Very Natural' (the other 'man' is going to be Julie Fryman). Unfortunately, internet access is uncertain - none at the venue and I'm staying in a tiny family owned Pension which doesn't have internet either, so I may not be able to write anything on the blog until I get back.

Afterwards we are driving back across France in Neil's ancient old banger. Who knows if it will make it?

The photos are, of course, just to make you all jealous!

Monday, 21 September 2009

Heathcliff - A Literary Cat

My imminent re-location to Italy has forced some very difficult decisions. At the top of the list, what would happen to our cat? Heathcliff (what else could Kathy's cat be called?) has been my companion for almost ten years. He sits on one of the oak beams when I'm working, just to make sure that I'm not snoozing instead. Given the chance, he will tap out his own messages on the keyboard and has been known to crash the whole computer. I've tried to be a responsible owner (does one ever 'own' a cat?) and parting with him has always been unthinkable.

Before Heathcliff condescended to live with me, he belonged to another writer - William Scammell - an excellent poet and good friend, well known for his savagely truthful reviews in the Spectator, Literary Review and the Independent on Sunday. Friends were never spared, which could be something of an ordeal, but Bill's judgement was always sound and fair. You could rely on him to tell you exactly what didn't work as well as what did. Bill died in November 2000 and I still miss him a lot.

Heathcliff was his cat - a stray who walked through his front door one day and decided to take up residence. Being a companionable cat who loves comfortable places and good conversation, Heathcliff spent the next few months curled up on Bill's duvet, as he lay in bed facing the grim realities of lung cancer. Bill wrote a poem about Heathcliff, which appeared in the Independent after he died (and more recently in a new anthology of Bill's poetry).

We have been adopted by a black cat
with a white bib and paws.
Almost a designer cat,

who pushes his affections

into your stomach as though

he was making bread.
He's come from nowhere,

the exact spot you yourself are headed for.

When Bill died we agreed to give Heathcliff a temporary home which gradually became permanent - or so we thought.

However, recently my life has changed in a way I never envisaged, one that is totally unfair to our beloved animal. During the last twelve months, as I commuted to a fellowship at one of the North eastern universities, spent weeks doing research for the book in New Zealand and tried to see something of Neil in Italy, our friends have heroically fed him for me, though he made his feelings very plain when I returned! This situation obviously couldn't go on, especially as I'm going to be away for even longer periods in the near future. So, with two months of international travel in front of me, and unable to take him with us to the house we are borrowing in Italy, we have tried for weeks to find someone willing to look after him (bribed with a year's supply of a certain famous cat-food).

Fortunately one of our neighbours has agreed to foster Heathcliff for us, and - after some sleepless nights, I have breathed a sigh of relief at the thought of him being properly cared for - and we still have visiting rights. It's not a long term solution, but I know he will be well looked after in the immediate future.

Now, it's off to France for a Katherine Mansfield conference in Menton, and then after a few days of frantic packing, off to Cambodia and all things strange and wonderful!

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Words and Memes

I was recently nominated for the Kreativ Blogger Award by two people on my network of blogs - best-selling novelist Wendy Robertson at Life Twice Tasted and about-to-be-published novelist Al at Publish or Perish, and have to say I was very flattered that they liked my blog enough to want to give it a KBA. But it got me thinking about what this award was and where it originated (given the Kreativ spelling - probably America!). Then I was nominated again for a Splash Award, for alluring, amusing, bewitching, impressive, and inspiring blogs.

The rules are that you have to thank the person who nominated you (thank you both), link to their blog, then nominate seven (nine in the case of Splash) other bloggers you like and create a link to them - and they in turn have to thank you, link to your blog and then nominate seven/nine other bloggers ......... A bit like a circular letter - which I always bin if I ever receive them. So, being a bit of an information junkie, I got on the internet and started looking around.

It seems that these are Memes. Memes have a pretty impressive CV - they are originally 'a postulated unit or element of cultural ideas, symbols or practices, and are transmitted from one mind to another through speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena. The etymology of the term relates to the Greek word mimema (mimesis, mimetics) for "something imitated".' Richard Dawkins used the term scientifically in The Selfish Gene to refer to 'evolutionary principles in explaining the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena' - these could include all the elements of popular culture tunes, catch-phrases, beliefs, and fashion as well as developments in technology.

Blogs use Memes a lot because they create millions of links. If Al nominated seven people and they all nominated seven people - that's 50 blogs all linked together. Maths has never been my strong point (I'm congenitally innumerate) but if those other 49 people all nominate 7 people .......... You can see that within a very short space of time a large portion of the blogosphere will be magically connected. I find it utterly mind-blowing to think of having connections with so many people I've never met and probably never will meet, out there in that fourth dimension we all inhabit so casually - cyberspace. In fact, I'm not sure I can cope with it!

Seven Interesting Things

Another, less attractive, feature of the KBA is that you have to mention 7 interesting things about yourself. Now that is HARD! But I have travelled to some interesting places, so maybe people might be interested in some of the bizarre things that have happened to me ......
  1. As I mentioned earlier I'm innumerate. Not sure whether that's interesting, but it's one of the things I have to live with about myself and would love to change. I look at a number and it shrinks back into the paper it's written on and begins to assume alien dimensions. Numbers hate me.
  2. Despite being born in the second half of the 20th century I was brought up in a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, without electricity or running water. A bit Dickensian.
  3. I lived in the middle east for eight years (and loved it), sometimes in half-built hotel rooms, sometimes in cardboard houses (Swedish) in the middle of sand dunes, and sometimes in ramshackle villas with wonky air-conditioning (the Dickensian childhood was useful practice). While I was in Qatar I got involved with English broadcasting, writing and presenting programmes for the Qatar Broadcasting service - now perhaps better known as Al Jazeerah.
  4. I visited Iran - one of the most beautiful countries I've ever been to and also one of the most friendly.
  5. I once bribed my way onto an aeroplane, at a moment's notice, during a coup in an African country. My little daughter (she was 2) still remembers that she had no knickers on when we arrived at our destination at a safer location in the far north.
  6. During a previous coup I hid under a bed with my children and a machete and listened to soldiers running round the outside of the house rattling their guns on the window bars. Which explains my behaviour in No 5. Unfortunately we had to stay there until we could get exit visas - which took nearly a year (and more bribery!).
  7. In the same African country I enrolled at university (the only white student) and read law, just to stop myself from going completely mad.
Seven/Nine Interesting Blogs

There are some wonderful blogs out there and I'm deliberately not nominating some of the ones that I follow and love - being true to the Meme, I'm going to name some new ones I've just found that I think deserve a second glance. But, sorry to disappoint my nominees, I won't be passing on the responsibilities, because of my strong feelings about circular letters and the feelings of obligation they impose. If anyone wants to join in for fun - they can!

1. First 'The Crabbit Old Bat's complete guide to getting published' - an essential site for new authors whose content will also resonate for the not-so-new. I particularly liked Nicola Morgan's covering letter to a publisher!

2. Emma Darwin's blog 'This Itch of Writing' at

3. 'Icebus' a blog by a poet - Jonathan Wonham - who has moved to Norway - some beautiful writing, scenery and poetry at

4. Judy Darley gets a vote because she's trying very hard to get a website 'Essential Writers' off the ground - a network of blogs and helpful sites for writers just starting out. She's discovering that there are lots of pitfalls with such an enterprise and needs all the support she can get. Her own blog is at www.judy.essentialwriters.com

5. Then there's Tim Jones at 'Books in the Trees', down under in New Zealand. He's a poet and author and his site is dedicated to new magazines and publishing outlets (international) as well as reviews and news on the publishing scene down under. There's also poetry and some good links.

6. Then there's the adventures of author Candy Gourlay, called 'Notes from the Slushpile' at

7. And then there's Jodie Baker's book-feast at

Hopefully everyone will find something that they like here!

Happy networking.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

The Story Twins

Like most writers, I have two people inside my head. One is The Writer, who is always scribbling - mostly garbage - and the other is The Editor, whose task in life is to keep their talkative twin under control. The Writer is incorrigible, even in conversation, twisting everything into a narrative, being cavalier with Facts and ruthless with Truth when it gets in the way of The Story. The sensible Editor purports to deplore such reckless conduct, but can't resist doing a bit of tweaking - deleting this, substituting that, altering a word here and a word there - in order to make a Better Story. The two quarrel incessantly. Truth is absolutely disregarded.

But they are absolutely inseparable - what would one do without the other?

Image - Etruscan Museum in Volterra
They are supposed to be dancing, but at first glance it looks as if they are fighting.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Italian Lessons

It already seems a long time since I left Italy and I've been very busy trying to revise for my Italian exams this week, and getting side-tracked by things I'd much rather be doing than learning Italian verbs! One of my displacement activities has been putting all my photos on the computer. This time, rather than landscape, I seem to have a lot of art exhibitions. I suppose that, living with a visual artist, I probably go to more than most people and they always make me feel very envious. I've never been able to draw - not even a cartoon cat. How wonderful to be able to create a visual image that doesn't require you to speak the language before you can read it. That's the biggest drawback of being a writer - it's culture specific. Nothing is ever the same in translation.

When I look at a painting or a sculpture I instinctively want to start creating a story round them, but this isn't always possible with abstract art. This, Neil explains, has a secret language of its own which, like most people, I don't fully understand - though I love the rhythms of shape and colour. It was Neil who taught me to look at abstract art suppressing my narrative instincts. He taught me about flowing lines, intersecting planes of light and dark, relationships of mass and space, explained that - like listening to music - you can look at something and enjoy it without understanding exactly how it's structured.

One of the highlights of my trip to Italy was an exhibition of the work of Rosario Murabito. It was being held in a nineteenth century palazzo, originally built for an Austrian princess, but now owned by the local commune who find it too expensive to maintain. So it is rarely used. You get the feeling that the whole of Italy is full of historic buildings that no one can really afford.

Murabito was one of a group of artists living in the area during the post war period, dividing their time between Tuscany and New York. He did his best work in the fifties and sixties - much of it on display here. As we walked through the grand reception rooms, footsteps echoing on the marble floors, there were paintings, collages and sculptures that took your breath away when you stood in front of them - like hearing an authentic voice in poetry - that prickle at the back of the neck that says 'yes, this is something extraordinary'.

He experimented widely, like Picasso, with different mediums and techniques, migrating from figurative to abstract and back again. There were strange, androngynous figures out of mythology, a wonderful, almost abstract bull that could have leapt out of a cave painting and some collages in coloured leather that I would happily have taken home with me.

Murabito's work is now rather unfashionable and on the two evenings we visited the exhibition, we were the only people there. He died in 1972 and left his own house and some of his work to the local commune. They've never had enough money to do the necessary repairs to the building so that it could be used as he wished - as a museum to display his work - so exhibitions like this are rare and not to be missed.

Saturday, 12 September 2009


I suppose there was hardly a person on the planet who didn't - at some point yesterday - remember what happened on the 11th September 2001. And people are still asking Why? I spent almost a decade living in the middle east - working for an arab broadcasting network at one point - and was always saddened by its troubled politics. The roots of the conflict that led to 9/11 go a long way back - some of them feeding on the genocide that led to the terrible injustice perpetrated by western colonialism. Until this conflict is resolved, I don't think anything will change. But I think the poets say it best. I'd like to put up two poems, one by Israeli poet Yehuda Amicai and the other by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and I've lit a candle (amnesty international) for peace.

Half the people in the world love the
other half, half the people hate the
other half . Must I, because of those
and the others, go and wander and
endlessly change, like rain in its cycle,
and sleep among rocks, and be rugged
like the trunks of olive trees, and hear
the moon bark at me and camouflage
my love with worries, and grow like the
timorous grass in between railway
tracks, and live in the ground like a
mole, and be with roots and not with
branches, and not rest my cheek upon
the cheeks of angels, and make love in
the first cave, and marry my wife under
the canopy of beams which support the
earth, and act out my death, always to
the last breath and the last words,
without ever understanding, and put
flagpoles on top of my house and a
shelter at the bottom. And set forth on
the roads made only for returning, and
go through all the terrifying stations -
cat, stick, fire, water, butcher, - between
the kid and the angel of death?

Yehuda Amicai

Earth Poem
A dull evening in a run-down village
Eyes half asleep
I recall thirty years
And five wars
I swear the future keeps
My ear of corn
And the singer croons
About a fire and some strangers
And the evening is just another evening
And the singer croons

And they asked him:
Why do you sing?
And he answered:
I sing because I sing
And they searched his chest
But could only find his heart
And they searched his heart
But could only find his people
And they searched his voice
But could only find his grief
And they searched his grief
But could only find his prison
And they searched his prison
But could only see themselves in chains.

Mahmoud Darwish

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Learning to be Astonished

I've recently taken up the poetry challenge - to read, thoroughly, a collection of poetry every month for a year. Normally I dip in and out of collections and anthologies in a lazy, pleasure-seeking kind of way. For this one I've got to be more thoughtful. And I have to seek out new voices I might not have read rather than being tempted by the poets whose work I know and love, so no Pablo Neruda or Yehuda Amichai. I also have to choose a wide geographical spread. So I've been trawling through bookshops and across the internet for new poetry - and that is how I found this poem, though I won't be adding the author to my list of twelve.

Mary Oliver lives in the USA and is one of its most distinguished older poets - influenced by Edna St Vincent Millay and Walt Whitman. Her work is intensely spiritual (too religious for me sometimes) and firmly anchored in the natural world. Too much of it cloys, because there's always a tussle going on inside me between the romantic girl and the sternly realistic woman. The former loves sunsets and cute kittens, the latter wants nature with tooth and claw. Mary Oliver's work is rather too cosy - I want something closer to the bone - but the Romantic Girl was attracted to the following extracts, in which Realistic Woman also found some truth. It's the same message as W.H. Davies 'What is life if, full of care,/We have no time to stand and stare'.

"Every day I walk out into the world / to be dazzled, then to be reflective."

"My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird —
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
Keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work

which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished."

—from "Messenger" in Thirst (2006)

Image copyright Rachel Giese Brown

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

The Party-goers of Peralta

A terrace looking out over the Mediterranean with a backdrop of Tuscan alps. Candlelight, a full moon, a warm early September evening. An Irish fiddle player and a banjo are rehearsing jigs and reels. Oceans of sparkling Prosecco are fizzing in our glasses and on the table rolled turkey breast stuffed with lemon, oregano and thyme, a wheat salad called Farro, Tuscan borlotti beans, and chargrilled aubergines marinated in olive oil and garlic.

A light breeze is ruffling the napkins and tossing the candle flames around in their glass jars. Wisps of cloud blow over the moon and a thunderstorm is flashing over distant mountains. It is the end of summer here - a return of cooler weather and hoped for rainfall to save the olive harvest.

Soon I'm going to be on my way back to England - this time with a lot of regret. I've had almost two weeks of sunshine and space to write - met some fantastic people - and fallen in love with Italy all over again. But hopefully I'll be coming back. Someone has very generously offered to lend us a house for a few months over the winter and, if I pay for a broadband connection, I can do my Open University creative writing tutoring on-line, coming back to England only to run dayschools and sort out the logistics of the new book. It all sounds too good to be true at the moment. Fingers crossed!

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Sun, Sea and Sand Sculpture

As you might anticipate, in Pietrasanta they don't build sandcastles at the beach, they do sand sculptures! And, of course, it's a competition. Neil was asked to take part, but couldn't fit it in this year because of a previous commitment, but we did go down during the afternoon to see what was going on. The beach at Pietrasanta Marina is an arc of volcanic Mediterranean sand with the marble mountains of the Alpe Apuane as a spectacular backdrop.

Near the edge of the sea, whole families were helping mothers and fathers to create works of art in the damp sand, just out of reach of the waves, to last as long as the tide allowed. One English sculptor had dug two long, diverging trenches which acted as an optical illusion when viewed through a hole in a piece of wood. Next to it there was a giant scarab beetle.

Further along a Polish/Danish bunch of grapes, a German abstract based on the internal structure of a shell, and an Italian sea-monster dragging its victim back into a hole.

Another abstract consisted of seven circles dug into an area of sand, which was patterned with a rake. A single set of child's footprints ran diagonally across - which looked good but was entirely accidental! One sculptor had dug down into the sand to create the interior of a basilica roof - very intricate and difficult.

It all looked great fun and I hope that next year I'll be there, bucket and spade in hand, as the sculptor's apprentice.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

The Poet's House

Not so much a house, more like a small shed. But it’s clean and dry. Rather like sleeping at the bottom of a well - windows high up in the wall, light filtering down.

It reminds me a little of the Katherine Mansfield memorial room at the Villa Isola Bella in Menton - small, viewless and without facilities. Holders of the KM fellowship were expected to work there during their tenure, but until recent improvements, that was impossible. KM’s companion Ida Baker, who had lived with her at the Villa, was heard to remark disparagingly, after its creation, that the room had been a gardener’s shed when they were there and that KM had never even been inside it at all. Now it is a shrine to Katherine Mansfield's memory.

The Poet’s House at Peralta has been, until this week, a store room. But with the hamlet filled to bursting with Irish guests for a sixtieth birthday party, every room has had to be pressed into service. The Poet’s House has been emptied of old furniture and I’ve just spent two days painting it out in the traditional white, blue and terracotta of Tuscany and then scrubbing the floor clean enough to take a mattress and a chair.

So here I am. It’s a bit of an expedition to the loo in the night and I’m borrowing a shower - just like camping! But there’s a tiny triangle of terrace at the back between the room and Neil’s workshop in the tower. I’ve put out a chair and table and it’s peaceful enough to write, with views down over the valley. No one knows why Fiore di Henriquez, who restored the ruined, abandoned, hamlet of Peralta, called this little shed the Poet’s House, but the least I can do for her is to write a poem in it and, if I can get it knocked into some sort of rough shape, I will put it up on the blog.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Vazha, Sculpture and the Misty Mountains of Pruno

I've just come back from the studio of Vazha Mikaberidze, who sculpts as 'Prasto'. Vazha is a Georgian, living and working in Italy. His work extends from the figurative to the abstract and even the conceptual and his studio is crowded with examples. Huge textured plaster sheets stand against the wall, with seductive tactile patterns. Vazha takes a rubber mould from the trunk of particularly interesting trees. He then cuts it lengthwise and opens it out flat to reveal the patterns of the bark, selecting sections to cast in plaster and then in bronze or nickel. In another corner a life-size man springs from the wall, arms spread out, his jacket flying on either side like wings. This is Sergei Parajanov - a Georgian film director whose work and personal
beliefs put him in a soviet gulag for more than six years. The plaster model, bursting with character, is the maquette for a bronze outside the opera house in Tblisi.

Around the floor are beautiful abstract forms - many of them referencing the natural world. Delicate figures form a circle around a pair of feet, like a corps de ballet - a sculpture that was actually made as a stage set for a ballet. It is part of a body of work that is a homage to the choreographer Balanchine which Vazha is currently working on though the project is on hold at the moment until the situation between Russia and Georgia is resolved.

Vazha's stories are a reminder that, whatever the problems of funding in Europe, the politics of art are much simpler and less dangerous here than elsewhere.

Afterwards we drove up into the Apuane to have lunch at a little hill village called Pruno, where you can have a plate of home-made pasta with wild-boar sauce for 6 euros and where the wine comes in earthenware jugs.

The weather is changing with the full moon. After two months of searing temperatures and no rain, clouds are gathering over the hills, and everyone is hoping for some wet weather. The trees are scorched to brown and the rivers are dry. Tonight it is so humid our clothes are sticking to our backs and the mosquitos are attacking every square inch of skin not coated with chemicals. Not quite paradise - but almost!

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Pietrasanta and the Anti-art Movement

The small town of Pietrasanta (the name means sainted or blessed stone) has been at the heart of the marble industry in Italy for more than two thousand years. The five thousand foot mountains that surround the town have been chiselled away by centuries of intrepid quarrymen and from a distance you can see glaciers of glittering marble waste slithering down gullies towards the valley floor. On the precipitous roads, marble lorries thunder past like mobile earthquakes, leaving a drifting fog of white dust behind them.

You can still climb up to the quarry where Michael Angelo found the block from which he carved David. You can still see the old building where he may or may not have stayed while he was here. Pietrasanta lives off the sculpture industry and there are also several foundries where sculptors from all over the world come to get their work cast into bronze.

Henry Moore had much of his work cast here, as did Noguchi, and now Barry Flanagan, Kan, Bottero and Mitoraj all have work standing in the yards. The infamous statue of Saddam Hussein started out here too.

Residents of Pietrasanta are descended from generation after generation of artigiani, skilled at realising the work of others and turning plaster or terracotta maquettes into life-size works of art. The Anti-Art Movement, which began with Dada, wants to leave the traditions of the past behind and deconstruct all our notions of art. It too, is alive and well in Pietrasanta.

I’ve just been to the opening of an exhibition of Antonio Luchinelli’s work. He is one of those who can trace their ancestry back through the artigiani and he is best known for making moulds for the world-famous Kan. Antonio is a skilled mould-maker - meticulously reproducing whatever he’s given. This exhibition of his own work - a statement of his personal espousal of ‘Anti Art’ - is a series of pieces linked by a play on words, though I have to confess that I couldn’t engage with it at all, even when the linguistics were explained to me.

But then I’m on the side of art - with or without the capital letter - and I don’t believe it needs to be elitist - anyone can do it on any level, like writing. But I also believe that some people can do it better than others. I know I’m making a qualitative judgement when I say that; I know that everyone is entitled to read or look at whatever gives them pleasure, but - in my opinion - there is a lot of crap out there fetching huge sums of money. And there are an awful lot of people, in art and anti-art, who share the Emperor’s tailor.