Monday, 30 September 2013

The end of the creative writing retreat at Peralta

It's over again for another year - a week with eleven enthusiastic writers from all over the world - this time from Bangkok, Singapore, Canada, Scotland, England and the USA. The weather was wonderful.  We worked together . . ..

watched the sunset together

and had dinner together by candlelight. And Peralta worked its magic on us all as it usually does.  For me there were added treats.  Remember Batcat's last kitten?

Well, he now looks like this ...  Quite a beast!

The course next year will be in the middle of September, 2014, dates to be arranged.

Creative Writing Retreats, painting courses and holidays at Peralta, Tuscany. 

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Bach in Pisa Cathedral

A glorious way to end the week. It doesn't get much better than this - Bach's Mass in B Minor, sung by the Monteverdi choir, conducted by John Eliot Gardner.  This is the Anima Mundi Festival in Pisa, and we had to queue for hours to get the tickets!  But at least they were free, so we didn't mind. That's me in glasses at the bottom left.  Notice the Italian queue which is about thirty people wide!

When we arrived, musicians were playing up on the Leaning Tower - lovely strains of Bach and Vivaldi floating out over the lawns.

The floodlit Duomo is quite awe-inspiring at night.

Inside, it was utterly beautiful - every corner lit for us to look at without having to pay the big ticket fees tourists have to buy.

And the choir and baroque musicians got a standing ovation at the end that lasted for 15 minutes.

Today, I'm back at Capezzano Monte after the end of the creative writing retreat, watching the thunder and lightning outside the windows.  The rain is torrential.  A good excuse to curl up with a book or catch up on all the emails I haven't answered this week!

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Playing Truant in Pisa

I’ve been playing truant again - this time in Pisa.  I left ‘Norman’ as a pile of pdf proofs on the dining table and caught the train into town.

Pisa is a lovely city, arranged on either side of the river Arno - medieval and baroque buildings sitting side by side in complete harmony, painted in those ochre colours the Italians use so that the street looks like a sunset. Pisa is much more peaceful than Florence, and you can slip down flights of stone steps to sit beside the river and quietly read a book in the sun.

One of my favourite places is the Museo Communale - an old Benedictine Monastery fronting onto the Arno.  Hardly anyone seems to find it - the man in the ticket office was fast asleep at his desk as I tiptoed past. As usual, I had the museum all to myself.  It was founded as a monastery for women in 1017 and has a very quiet, sun-filled cloister.

Everywhere you look there are women clutching books.  This is a marble tomb lid from 1384.

St Eulalia da Barcelona, with stars on her gown, by Bicci da Lorenzo.

The museum is famous for its collection of 13th and 14th century gilded icons.  This isn’t a very good photograph because of the low lighting and the need to take pictures without flash, but it gives some idea of what's there.

In a darkened room at the back, is a collection of very special wooden figures - annunciation scenes –  carved back in the 14th century - some of them by Andrea Pisano.  They are very simple.  Here, Mary is just an ordinary girl in a cotton dress with her hair down her back, modelled from one of the local girls.

The nuns seem to have had a good time, in spite of their seclusion - this is one of the wine vats in the courtyard!

If you ever get to Pisa, do try to get to this Museum - it's a hidden treasure.

Now, I'm off to Peralta to lead a creative writing retreat with American novelist Mary-Rose Hayes.  We have a full house, so it's going to be an intense week. 

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Up the River Without any Water

I've not been very active on here recently, mainly because Neil and I have been doing a marathon to get the Norman Nicholson biography out of the house and into the Printer's hands.  Proof-reading is a tedious and time-consuming business, reading word by word, line by line, checking every comma and stop.  We're trying to get it as perfect as we can.  And Neil has been tweaking the type-setting in InDesign, finding all kinds of glitches.  But we're almost there and felt able to give ourselves a day off.

We decided to go up the big river that flows down from the marble mountains, where there are several waterfalls and swimming pools where you can cool off on a hot afternoon.  Neil also wanted to look for some big marble cobbles to carve into small pieces of sculpture.  When we got to the river, we got quite a shock - no shortage of pebbles, but a definite absence of water!

And this is the river further up - some muddy streaks, presumably from the thunderstorms we had a week ago, but not even damp.

The waterfalls are high and dry.

But at the base of the falls, there's a pool of turquoise water where the river has gone underground and is trickling out at the bottom.  Enough to paddle!

Italy is very much in need of rain, but it's coming - summer has broken and we're getting thunderstorms and cloudy days.  Just as I'm posting this, I can hear rain pattering down on the terrace outside.  Hopefully the river will be back in full flow in a couple of months.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

'The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold . . . .'

I've always remembered this line from Byron's poem 'The Destruction of Sennacherib' - it's the description of a siege and a miraculous deliverance. Assyrian history claims that they won without significant losses; the Bible claims that 18,000 Assyrians were wiped out by the Angel of Death. No one knows which account is true, all we know is that there was a battle.  The Middle East has been an arena of conflict for thousands of years.

Italy is a relatively peaceful place, but every time I look out over the Mediterranean from our terrace I'm reminded that just across the water, things are very different.  The tragedy that Syria has become, is constantly on my mind, and almost every news item reports another bomb in Iraq.  Syria, Iraq and Iran hold some of the most ancient and significant archaeological sites in the 'modern' world. These early civilisations are thought to be where our ancestors learned how to live together in cities and move from a nurturing, land-based culture to an urban, more stratified society.  This society was not peaceful. The Assyrians in particular were ferocious conquerors.  Their kings had the ambition to rule a great empire stretching across the middle-east.

Whenever I go to London I try to get into the British Museum, and one of the sections I head for is the one containing the Assyrian rooms.  Here, the palaces and temples of Nimrud (roughly situated in what is now Iraq) have been reconstructed so that you can walk through.  Nimrud, which dates from roughly 800-860 BC) was plundered by archaeologists - a theft I feel rather bad about - but that has to be balanced by the knowledge that if the artefacts were still in Iraq I wouldn't be seeing them. They also record violent events and a bloodthirsty code of honour and that knowledge is always in conflict with my appreciation of Assyrian art.  These reliefs and sculptures are some of the most beautiful works of art I've ever seen.

These are the Winged Sphinxes guarding the gates of Nimrud.  The original bronze hinges and decorations are on display beside the re-construction.

One of the Winged Sphinxes

The Lion was a potent symbol of Assyria.

The Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal  -  he is pointing up to the symbols of the Assyrian gods - Assur, Shamash, Sin, Adad and Ishtar.  Ishtar was not a peaceful, nurturing female goddess, but one of war.

This is King Ashurnasirpal with the Assyrian god of agriculture, Nisroch.  (Apparently King Sennacherib was assassinated by his sons in the temple of Nisroch.)

Around Ashurnasirpal's palace, on every wall, runs the inscription:  'I am important, I am magnificent . . .the great king, the mighty king, king of the world, king of Assyria . . . I am the king who has brought into submission at his feet the lands from beyond the Tigris to Mount Lebanon and the Great Sea . . . who by his lordly attack has forced fierce and merciless kings  . . . with their blood I dyed the mountains red as red wool, while the ravines and torrents of the mountain swallowed the rest of them'.  Hundreds of thousands were slaughtered in Ashurnasirpal's quest for absolute domination.  The numbers mentioned refer only to the menfolk - who knows how many women and children were obliterated as villages and towns were razed to the ground.

When they weren't hunting down people, they were killing animals for fun.  This is a lion hunt.

Normal life had to go on somehow - the Nimrud reliefs also celebrate ordinary people's lives.  This is a camel herd.

And domestic animals.

This case always fascinates me - it contains the tablets buried in the floor of the temple of Manu, God of Dreams.

So, nothing has changed in the Middle East in 3,000 years.  Tragic.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Ash Cameron talks about 'Undercover Cop' and being published by the Friday Project

I'm blogging over at Authors Electric today - an interview with Ash Cameron, author of the soon-to-be-published 'Undercover Cop'.  She was one of my most talented creative writing students and has been sending out her short stories and winning competitions for a few years now, until a chance meeting on Twitter led to the book contract. . . .  Read how it happened here.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

New Poetry Magazine: Reliquiae

This has recently landed in my post-box.  A very unusual, and enjoyable, mix of art-work, poetry, non-fiction and fiction, both new and old.  It has a particular remit - 'landscape, ecology, folklore, esoteric philosophy and animism'.  There's a piece by Richard Jefferies on watching hawks circling in the thermals, a re-telling of an Irish myth by W.B. Yeats, new poetry by Richard Harms, Inuit songs collected by Knud Rasmussen and some interesting pieces from Scandinavia and north America.

Reliquiae is edited by Autumn Richardson and Richard Skelton and published by Corbel Stone Press, based in Cumbria.