Tuesday, 12 August 2014

August 7th

Disclaimer: There is nothing about Venice, or Italy, in this entry. You may find the contents upsetting, and the last thing I want to do is upset anybody. But, quite simply, this is something I had to write...

The cars have arrived, says Caroline. We won't be leaving for another ten minutes, but maybe we should go outside and take a look. Maybe it'd be less of a shock.

Mum and Dad have already left for the church. I'm glad of this. There will be friends there waiting for them, they'll be looked after.

I go outside. I'm feeling ok, shaky, but in control.

There are floral tributes from the family. A wreath in the shape of the Welsh flag. I spot ours, with our card attached. I'd initially thought of a few lines from John Donne, but Caroline's suggestion was better : they shall have stars at elbow and foot. Dylan Thomas' "And Death shall have no Dominion." And then, the coffin. Covered in a Welsh flag.

My sister.

I go back inside. I'm still ok. Just about. Not much time for more than a few deep breaths, and to splash my face with cold water. Then it's time to go.

The church is lovely. Her husband, somehow, reads the eulogy. More than that, he does it brilliantly. And then it's my turn. Ecclesiastes chapter 3, verses 1:6. To everything there is a season. The verses, so familiar, can easily sound like a banal shopping list of the obvious. I dig deep into the words, trying to wrest the meaning from them. Because they aren't banal at all, but perhaps the most beautifully concise expression of our journey through life ever expressed.

More readings, more poetry, more personal memories. Everywhere I look faces are etched with pain.
The final hymn, "Guide me oh thou Great Redeemer".

Then to the cemetery for the interment. A beautiful spot. In an adjacent field a man is racing a pony and gig. The coffin, still covered in its flag, is lowered in. It looks so small. Surely she was taller than this? I pick up a handful of earth, kiss the back of my hand, and cast it in. I think I say something, but can't remember exactly what. Then brush the dust from my hands and walk away.

The wake is easier. All those friends and relatives to speak to and lots of happy memories. There are people I haven't seen since our wedding. Fourteen years, and it took this to bring us all together again...

I knew her for 45 of my 47 years. There has never been a period in my life in which I was not aware of her being. Yet I have to admit that I did not know her as well as her friends and new family. They knew her better than I ever did. For the last 25 years we had lived hundreds, sometime thousands of miles apart. She knew almost everything of interest about me yet there were sides of her that I knew nothing about. I should have made those calls, written those letters, sent those texts...

I expect the next morning to be easier. Instead I pass an uneasy night; music and words from the funeral echoing through my head all night long. I drive Caroline to Luton airport. I still feel raw, bruised, fragile. I'm going off to meet some old friends in Wales for the weekend, but it doesn't seem right. We should be going home together. She gives me a hug.  You need to do this. This will do you good. Hugs and kisses and I drive off.

I'm tired, so tired, so I take it carefully. Hours of driving along anonymous motorways. I channel surf between Radios 3 and 4, but nothing is really engaging me. And then something wonderful happens. At the precise moment of crossing into Wales, Vaughan Williams' beautiful, spectral Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis begins. The sky clears, and the hilly landscape of Powys unfolds before me. So lovely. Equal to anything back home. I wipe away another tear. In 30 minutes there will be the company of friends and laughter. And at this moment, at this perfect moment, it feels good to be alive.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Tourists behaving badly

I try not to moan about tourists. It's not nice and it can sound snobbish. If someone has come all the way from Japan to spend 36 hours here, is it really so intolerable that they can't speak Italian and don't know that they should keep to the right? We're not tourists any more, but neither are we Venetians. We're in a sort of halfway state of "people who've lived here for a bit". So I try not to give visitors a hard time. We were in their shoes once, and we probably got things wrong and annoyed the locals as well.

Nevertheless, there are those moments when you look at the newspaper and think...what did I just read?

If there is an award for "We're on holiday, we can do what the hell we like" it has to go to the couple who were filmed having sex on the Scalzi bridge. In broad daylight. Behaviour which is (a) undignified, (b) uncomfortable and (c) likely to result (for one party at least)  in a sunburnt bottom. For those of you who don't know, the Scalzi is not hidden away in a romantic, unknown part of town. It's next to the railway station, and one of the busiest parts of town. You might as well whip your trousers off in the middle of St Mark's Basilica.

But pride of place for genuinely stupid (if, it has to be said, amusing) behaviour goes to the Kosovan guy who - upon discovering he'd missed his boat back to the Lido - decided he could make his own way home by stealing a vaporetto from the depot and heading off into uncharted waters. He was stopped before getting too far, but - even though this is obviously reprehensible and anti-social behaviour - part of me almost admires the mad ambition of his slightly-the-worse-for wear mind. Can't get home? Why, I'll just borrow a boat. And not just any boat but one the size of a bus! It's a shame he was stopped before hitting the open seas, sailing into an uncertain future to become the stuff of Darwin Awards and Urban Legends.

As I said, I try not to moan about "those people". But as a wise man (let's call him "Pete") once said..."the trouble with those people...is that once you stop being one them...they become a pain in the neck."

Wednesday, 30 July 2014


Caroline arrives back from the butcher's having spent more there than I would have thought possible. She usually comes away with sufficient meaty products to get us through the week and change from ten euros. But this time proper money has been spent. We have a rabbit (which will make us a roast dinner, a pasta sauce and stock) and two pieces of beef. This is where it gets a bit difficult. We can't really identify what type of cut it is. It looks a bit like a rib of beef which has been cut into two steaks. Now, this is a bit of a shame, as - had it been kept in one piece - a roast rib of beef would have been a great treat; but, given what we have, I don't think that's going to be feasible without overcooking them.

The butcher said they could be cooked in the same way as a Florentine steak. Now, strictly speaking, these are not the same thing at all; but, after having trimmed away the bone and some of the excess fat (so they lie flat in the pan), I am still left with two fine-looking steaks, perhaps 3/4" thick.  If I had a rolling pin to hand, I would flatten them to a uniform thickness, but the rolling pin is still lost in a random box somewhere, and a look around the kitchen reveals a shortage of suitable battering implements. Oh well, they'll be fine as they are.

Now then, I have two lovely lilac-and-white striped aubergines (or melanzane if you prefer) to play with and some almost-past-it tomatoes (victims, perhaps, of the spectacularly harsh weather over the past few days). Nigel Slater has a recipe for aubergine slices topped with tomato sauce and parmesan. This sounds nice, but harder work than it needs to be. The Nige recommends cutting the aubergines into rounds, and then topping them all individually. This is going to be (a) time-consuming, as there's no space in the oven to bake all the slices in one go and (b) fiddly to plate up, especially if I've got two steaks that need precision timing.

So I decide just to cut the aubergines in half, drizzle them with olive oil, and stick them in the oven at 180 degrees. Whilst these are baking away, I sizzle some chopped garlic in oil, and add the chopped almost-past-it tomatoes. I add a healthy grinding of salt and pepper, and leave them to simmer away into a sauce. Nige recommends adding a chilli to the mix : now, I firmly believe that the chilli is the noblest of God's vegetables, but I really think there's enough going on in this dish already. It doesn't need anything else adding.

After thirty minutes, the aubergines are just cooked enough. They'll yield to the point of a knife, but they're not so well-cooked that they'll lose their shape and collapse. I take them out of the oven, and layer on the tomato sauce (trying to get complete coverage on every one), followed by a hefty sprinkling of parmesan.

Back in the oven they go. I have a glass of wine and a sit down for 20 mins or so.

When the parmesan is starting to form a crust, I start work on the steaks. Just the thinnest sliver of oil wiped on the surface of the frying pan. I heat the pan until it's just about starting to smoke, and throw the steaks on. 90 seconds each side. I then remove them and leave them to rest for a minute or two as I distribute more glasses of wine and dish up the aubergines.

The steaks are just about right : beautifully rare and red in the centre, and cooked on the outside. I failed on getting a nice blackened crust on the outside, perhaps because the steaks weren't quite of a uniform thickness. Or perhaps I should have had the courage to heat the pan even more. Oh well. They're still good. The aubergines are a bit of a revelation, the tomatoes are delicious, and the whole dish is full of flavour. One half each might have been enough as a side dish, but we have no problems with a whole one. Besides, an entire aubergine each probably counts as 7 of your 5-a-day.

A result, then, and "Baked Aubergine with Parmesan and Not-Quite-Past-It Tomatoes" goes on to the list of future dishes.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The 3 second rule

The spritz is perhaps the perfect drink. On a hot day, the first half of a beer can seem like the best thing in the world. The second half of the same beer, however, can seem stale and warm (this is a general rule, obviously, and doesn't apply to those "didn't even touch the sides" moments). A prosecco is fine, but not a drink that can really be lingered over. But uno spritz al Campari is is bitter and refreshing to the last drop. And for me, it has to be with Campari. I find Aperol too sweet and akin to alcoholic Irn-Bru. I like Cynar as much as I like most artichoke-based drinks. The slightly medicinal Select, said by some to be the most authentic, is today mainly the preserve of old men; and whilst 2014 may have been the year in which I finally embraced the cardigan, I don't think there's need to hurry things along any more than necessary.

I observed the swiftest of spritz-making masterclasses the other day, in the bar at the foot of the Accademia Bridge, where the ancient knowledge was being passed on to a young apprentice. I admired its almost Zen-like simplicity :-

Put ice cubes in glass
Apply three second burst from white wine tap
Hold bottle of Campari upside down. Keep it there for three seconds
Fill up remaining space with three seconds worth of sparkling water
Plop slice of lemon in

The three second rule seemed almost perfect so I gave it a go at home. Sadly, it doesn't really work without proper bar equipment to control the flow. Or maybe I just needed a bigger glass. Nevertheless, whenever I see one being made in the future, I shall look for the count of three as a sign of quality control.

Monday, 30 June 2014

A walk through Milan

I get up at early o'clock on Thursday morning. We're supposed to be going back to the UK for a short break, and my passport is not going to be renewed in time. Which means getting an emergency travel document, and a visit to the British Consulate in Milan.

A lot of people - mainly Italians - give the train service here a hard time; but to a Brit it seems comfortable, efficient, and - above all - cheap. A return to Milan - a journey of 2.5 hours - costs me 19 euros. Next week, we'll pay not far short of twenty quid to go from Edinburgh to Glasgow, a distance of little more than forty miles.

I snooze the whole way, disembark sleepily, take a look around my surroundings and...wow...

I've been to Grand Central, New York. Port Talbot Parkway has its discreet charms. But Milan Central is something else. Compromised as it is by the profusion of advertising hoardings and shops, it's impossible not to be overwhelmed. The architectural style is a mixture of Art Deco, mock-classical and just a little bit fascist. If the Romans, at the height of the Empire, had invented rail travel, they would have built stations like this.

My appointment at the Consulate is quick, efficient and friendly. I have to say it's possibly the best customer service I've received anywhere. So it leaves me with rather a lot of time to kill. A whole day to pass in Milan, and I've not really thought about what to do...

I start with the cathedral. Well, you know what it looks like; this incredible statue-laden gothic structure. What you might not know is that it took over five centuries to complete. And what I certainly didn't know is that its completion is down to none other than - Napoleon Bonaparte! That's right, the very same fellow responsible for disestablishing and demolishing so many historic churches in Venice, who swore he would be "an Attila to the Venetians",  was responsible for the final completion of this extraordinary building. Possibly due to the fact that he wanted to be crowned King of Italy there, but still. As to the building itself..well, it would be silly to say it's underwhelming, although perhaps the fact that it is just so well known tends to make one a bit blase. I take a little time to wander around inside. The interior is dimly lit which makes it a bit difficult to get a proper look at the art. The stained glass is lovely, although comparatively new, but there's also a lot of restoration work going on at the moment. The presence of fork-lift trucks and cranes is intrusive, and doesn't make me want to linger. I light a candle for Helen, and take my leave.

I walk back across the piazza. Turning back to look at the building, I notice this :-

- Samsung are contributing to the restoration, and it seems this entitles them to stick not just a big advertising hoarding but a giant video screen onto the side of the building. Venetians have been complaining about maxipubblicita for years now : they don't know how lucky they are.

From Piazza del Duomo, I start my walk through the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Restoration work is going on, but it's still an impressive environment although the effect of the light is perhaps lost on a grey day like today.

This leads me to Piazza della Scala. The exterior of the theatre is actually surprisingly plain - this isn't a building like La Fenice, constructed to look like a great temple of art. Still, it's nice to see it. One of these days I aspire to make it in through the front door as well.

I have a reasonably-priced lunch at the Caffe Verdi opposite, before making my way through the elegant district of Brera. The crowds thin out, so does the traffic, and I feel cheerful and well-disposed to this city as I stroll up to the Pinacoteca.

There's the core of a great, great collection here. The problem, perhaps, is that the great works are a bit diluted by the lesser ones that surround them. Still, the major works are impressive : Caravaggio's The Supper at Emmaus; Tintoretto's The discovery of the body of St Mark an altarpiece by Piero della Francesca. An unexpected treat in the penultimate room is an early version of Pellizza da Volpedo's iconic socialist work The Fourth Estate. But best of all, as far as I was concerned, was the discovery of a painting by Sodoma, almost hidden away. His haunting Christ Mocked is a study of an all-too-human Redeemer. He stares out at the viewer, not with serenity or pity or mercy but simply with fear. Because he knows his tormentors haven't even started yet...

Time for a drink and a sit down. The bar opposite has a decent selection of foreign beers, and I decide I'll treat myself to a Franziskaner. For some reason, this scrambles my ability to speak Italian, as I walk up to the cash desk and ask for "Ein weizenbier, bitte?". I suppose it could have been worse : perhaps if I'd decided on a Fuller's London Pride I'd have asked for "a pint of your finest nut-brown ale, stout yeoman of the bar!".

I make my way through Brera, and head to the Cimitero Monumentale.  I get a bit lost on the way, which turns out to be a stroke of luck as I come across this :-

- a plaque to the memory of none other than Ho Chi Minh who, it seems, spent some time working in a restaurant here during the 1930s.

The cemetery itself is a beautiful place.

I have about one hour to spare before closing, and stroll around. It's a quiet, meditative space. In the famedio (the "hall of the heroes") lies the tomb of Manzoni, author of I Promessi Sposi, a work of huge influence on the modern Italian language :-

Many of the tombs are the work of some of the great archictects and sculptors of the 19th/20th centuries. I stumbled across some works by Medardo Rosso almost by accident. There's far too much to see in the short time available to me, but, before I leave, there's just time to find what I really came to see :-

- the family tomb of the great conductor, Arturo Toscanini.

I still have about two hours before my train leaves. I decide to walk back to the station. There's plenty of time, the weather is slightly humid but not unpleasantly so and perhaps it'll be a nice walk. This turns out to be a mistake. Central Milan is no place for pedestrians, and it's a grim trudge along characterless streets choked with traffic. After 30 minutes I give up and take the Metro. This leaves me time for another wide-eyed walk around the station and its environs (even at this hour, the area outside is full of bagmen, drunks and tossicodipendenti which makes me think that walking to the station after dark must verge on the terrifying). Time for a beer from one of the many bars, and then a long snooze on the train back to Venice, the ETD safely in my pocket. It's been a good day and, more importantly, a successful one.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Cinquanta sfumature di Dylan Dog

"I can read the Bible, Homer or Dylan Dog for days on end." - Umberto Eco.

I had always wanted to read Dylan Dog.

I first heard about the Indagatore dell'Incubo back in 1994. I was working in Frascati, and my only contact with the English-speaking world was a weekly paper called The European  (which sank as fast as its owner, the late and unlamented Robert Maxwell). One week I read a review of an Italian movie called Dellamorte Dellamore. In truth, the movie didn't sound all that great. What sounded more interesting was the source material, a comic strip (un fumetto) called Dylan Dog. A London-based private investigator who deals in the stuff of nightmares. A clarinet-playing, model galleon-building don Giovanni (the spitting image of Rupert Everett circa 1987), who works with the Robert Morley-lookalike Inspector Bloch; and an assistant who may or may not be Groucho Marx.

Oh yes, this was something I wanted to read. Comic strips are actually a very good way of learning a language : they're told almost entirely in dialogue, the pictures give context to unfamiliar language, and they're very good for idiomatic expressions (I can still remember the German for "My Spider-Sense is tingling" even if - regrettably - I've not yet had occasion to use it). But I didn't need any excuses. I just wanted to read about "The Nightmare Investigator".

Then, wonderfully, La Repubblica announced that they were reprinting the first 150 stories in 50 volumes. Beautifully presented and bound, in full colour, and with scholarly explanatory notes.

Dylan was created by the writer Tiziano Sclavi. Sclavi has a forensic knowledge of horror, and - more importantly - of its tropes. He loves to play intertextual games with the reader, and he did so long before Wes Craven's Scream. Just as one thinks that a particular episode is just a bit too close to David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone for comfort, he has a character break the fourth wall and say exactly the same thing. His scripts are full of references to music, art, literature and popular culture.

Sclavi and Dylan eventually became victims of their own success. The early episodes, whilst brilliant in many ways, have an absolutely staggering level of gore and violence (inevitable, perhaps, given the source material - the horror movies of George A Romero, Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci). Kids - I thought, at the end of the first volume - should really, really not be reading this. Of course, they were, and in great numbers. Questions were asked, Sclavi was told to turn the gore down, and the nature of the strip changed. Possibly for the better. What had been lost in terms of sheer visceral impact was more than made up for in terms of characterisation, humour, and intelligence

The Italians love their fumetti, from the cowboy Tex Willer to master criminal Diabolik. But Dylan was different. For the first time, here was a comic strip hero (to be honest, a slightly rubbish hero - he rarely demonstrates much deductive ability) who had the respect of the intelligentsia. The philosopher Giulio Giorello's La filosofia di Dylan Dog can be found on Youtube; whilst the great semiologist Umberto Eco made an appearance in the series as the thinly disguised "Humbert Coe".

Dylan, Groucho and Bloch occupy a slightly never-never London. In the early strips, Dylan even drove his VW Beetle on the wrong side of the road, until the mistake was pointed out. In Sclavi's world, Scotland is a fantastic Dunsany-inspired neverland, albeit one with an unhealthy number of zombies; whilst Wales...ah, Wales...

Sclavi's Wales is one influenced more, perhaps, by HP Lovecraft than Arthur Machen. In his hands, yr hen wlad is akin to Lovercraft's Miskatonic County; whilst Harlech becomes an equivalent of Arkham. Jokes are made about everybody being called Jones, and the seemingly endless stream of placenames beginning with Llan. Dylan, of course, takes his name from Dylan Thomas. One episode is even loosely based around The Mabinogion, spoilt, slightly, by the fact that the Welsh language used is actually Irish.

Sclavi also tried to deal with politics. Animal rights, the environment, press freedom, nationalism, violence against women. He didn't always get the contexts right - Britiain hasn't had a Communist MP since the 1950s, and the the notorious H-block was not in the south of England - but his heart was in the right place.

The reprints came to an end after fifty editions. Never more would Groucho shout Capo, la pistola! before throwing Dylan said weapon with unerring inaccuracy. I could, I suppose, read the continuing monthly strip but the cramped, black and white nature of the regular edition doesn't do justice to the artwork (much of which - from the quasi-cinematic realism of Montanari and Grassani, to the stunning noir-ish work of Corrado Roi - is fantastic). More importantly, there'd be a huge gap in my collection, which doesn't appeal to the completist in me. Oh well, maybe Repubblica will carry on with another 50 volumes at some point.

In the meantime, they are all now lovingly filed away on the shelves. "Are you actually going to read them again?", asked Caroline; to whom my weekly journey to the edicola to buy a comic book was best explained away as being part of my quirky, boyish charm.

Giuda Ballerino! Of course I'm going to read them again!

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Presents, Perfect

I never got presents when I worked in IT. Oh yes, you might get a free meal and a boozy night out at the end of a project, but that's not the same as a present. But teaching is different. This year I've received : a magnum of prosecco, a small green nodding turtle, a packet of "Violetta" paper handkerchiefs (well it's the thought that counts), a photocopy of a book on Buddhist philosophy, a bag of chocolate Easter eggs, and a handmade card that read "I love Inglish" (a present that delighted and yet disappointed in equal measure). I think I like the turtle best. Nobody at the bank ever bought me a turtle.

Kids' classes wound down for the year, as the schools finished. The last lesson of each class was given over to a party. Crisps, games, chocolates, and shiny certificates to take home and show Mum and Dad. The Tuesday class, as they have been all year, were just so incredibly nice : all wrappings and packets were put in the bin, and any mess was cleared away immediately. By contrast, the aftermath of the Thursday class resembled an explosion in a crisp factory. The Friday class, who I refer to in my lighter moments as "The Awkward Squad" and in my grimmer ones as "The Army of Darkness", were not to be trusted at all so I lied and told them we'd run out of everything. Yes, I could go down to Billa and buy more. No, I'm not going to.

My adult elementary class very kindly decided to take me out for a meal after the last lesson. They've been a lovely class, and one of the high points of the year. Everybody gets on well, people have a laugh, and even the weaker ones have really come on. Just a two-hour lesson then, a bit of fun for everyone, no need for any prep surely...

And then I open the book, and realise I've made a terrible mistake. The last lesson, and it's on the bloody Present Perfect. The Present Perfect is a sod of a thing to teach. It has no equivalent in Italian so you can't just directly translate from one language to the other. What the hell is this doing here, tucked away at the end of the book? And why didn't I spend more time on prep so I could have swapped in something else. As it is I'll just have to plough through it and hope it doesn't scar them too much...

Giovanni looks beaten at the end of the lesson. 'Ci hai ucciso stasera', he says. 'You have killed us this evening'. I'm a bit worried that the offer of dinner is going to be withdrawn; but then he smiles. 'From now on, everything in Italian. Vendetta!!'

So we drive out into the country. Quite a way, if truth be told, and I'm starting to wonder if maybe I pushed them too far and any moment now the car is going to pull over and they'll start digging a shallow grave. And then I see an elderly lady crossing the road ahead of us. The driver hasn't noticed.

Time stops.

I want to scream something but I can't think of the word "Stop!" in Italian. Then I realise I can't even think of it in English. We are going to take the life of an old woman because I can't think of the word "Stop" in any language at all. All I can come up with is a strangulated "NGARRGHHH!!!" as I flap helplessly at the dashboard. And somehow this works. Brakes are slammed on and we screech to a halt. She doesn't even break her stride...

As for the meal itself, well, I was expecting a beer and a pizza. I'd have been more than happy with a beer and a pizza. But what we actually have is a four-course meal of truly exceptional quality, with not a few glasses of wine, and coffee and grappa to follow. Everyone says they'll be back in the autumn. "Will you still be our teacher, Philip?" Of course I will. I'm not letting anyone else pinch this lot...

Later that evening, as I walk - reasonably steadily - over the Calatrava bridge, I reflect on the past couple of weeks. I earn next to nothing. But I have students who buy me nice meals, packets of handkerchiefs, and small nodding turtles. I am a lucky man.