Monday, 21 December 2015

That was the year that was...

The year, I suppose, revolved around two books. One is by Karl Marx. The other is mine.

   There was going to be a "Venice Project 2". The first one sold quite well, people seemed to like it and I felt I had sufficient material for a second volume. Indeed, by the summer of 2014 I'd put down about 30,000 words. But I wasn't enjoying it. I had a vague idea for a novel in the back of my mind, and I was more excited by the prospect of getting started on that.

   And then I got lucky. Very, very lucky. I was contacted by an agent who'd enjoyed the first book and wanted to know what I was working on next. We discussed the fragments of ideas that I had, and he suggested I send him three chapters.

   I spent the next month trying to write the best 10,000 words of my life. He liked them. He liked them so much he asked if I could add another 70,000 or so, and send him a complete novel. And so, 1000 words a day, every day, for three months, I put it together. Caroline proofread it for me (we'll never agree on the Oxford comma), suggested it might be a little bit sweary (I disagree, so I cheerfully ignored this) and - crucially - pointed out I'd got a major character's name wrong in the penultimate chapter; a mistake that made a complete nonsense of the ending! Phew...

   In short, My Brilliant Agent (as I shall refer to him) liked it; and began the process of trying to find a publisher. It all seemed like a bit of a dream. At times I wondered if some of my friends were actually playing the greatest ever practical joke in the world on me. It should have been nerve-wracking, but those first four months of the year were intensely busy ones for work, and there wasn't much time for much other than teaching and sleeping.

   School broke up at the end of June, and a strange-yet-brilliant job appeared out of nowhere. We'd first come to Venice for the Biennale, and now we had a chance to be a part of it. Isaac Julien's "Das Kapital Oratorio" project would keep us busy for most of the summer, and several times a week we would head off to the Giardini to read Karl Marx. It was tiring at times, and sometimes frustrating (reading some of Marx's most impassioned passages to an empty theatre, or seeing the audience thin away to nothing during the interminable economic formulae of Volume 2). Still, it was a worthwhile experience and we met some great people with whom we hope to keep in touch. It would have been nice to see it through to the end, but my involvement finished in September, with the advent of the new school year.

   Being part of the Biennale did make it difficult to actually see it all. Nevertheless, we saw perhaps 90% of it this time around. Among the home nations, Bedwyr Williams 2013 "The Starry Messenger" was always going to be a difficult act for Wales to follow, but Helen Sear's "...the rest is smoke" was still a beautiful piece of work. Scotland - after a lamentably poor 2013 - redeemed themselves with an excellent exhibition from Graham Fagen. As for the UK pavilion itself, well perhaps the best that can be said is that it might have seemed more impressive in 1995.

   Then, on Friday September 25th, at about 13:20 Italian time, I got The Email from My Brilliant Agent.

   It began with the words "Get the Prosecco out."

   He'd done it. He'd placed the book with Little, Brown for release in early 2017; with a sequel in 2018. We went out to celebrate with our Brilliant Australian Friends (and yes, I am aware that I am overusing the word 'Brilliant'). It's kind of hard to describe how I felt, so I'll just say that everyone deserves a day like that once in their lives.

   Caroline semi-retired this year, something that suits us both. No more bored teenagers, no more screamy infants. Just nice, motivated students. She still seems to find herself with a bafflingly large amount of work though.

   Next year is going to be a busy one. I've made the same mistake as last time, the one I promised myself I wouldn't repeat, and taken on too much teaching work. This means the first few months of next year are going to be a bit grim, but those three months will pay for us to have a good summer again. Then there'll be work to be done on the first book, and another one to be written from scratch.

So Christmas is nearly upon us. I've done quite well for presents, again : a bottle of prosecco from a teaching colleague, a splendid meal with my Intermediate students, an origami swan; and some of the kids made me cards. OK, one of them says "Merry Christmas by you" but (a) prepositions are always difficult and (b) they're only seven. A reminder, at the end of the year, that this is often a lovely job.

Merry Christmas everyone, e Dio ci benedica, tutti!

Sunday, 20 December 2015


Fog lies heavy on the city, and - cold but happy - we arrive back from pre-Christmas drinks with friends. Just a couple of days more work and then the schools will break up and - assuming we can find our passports in the chaos of the spare room - we'll be heading back to the UK for a week.

   We need to be using things up, so dinner tonight is designed to start clearing out the fridge/freezer and the vegetable rack in the magazzino : potato and celeriac mash, roasted radicchio and some defrosted beef and radicchio burgers from the freezer.

   I peel the spuds, rescue as much as I can from the rather sad-looking celeriac, and put them on to steam. I chop the radicchio in half, give them a generous drizzle with some olive oil, and stick them in the oven.

   I put some Bach on the stereo, and pour a glass of wine.

   I go back to the kitchen and unwrap the burgers.

   I blink.

   The packet does not contain any burgers.

   It contains a spleen.

   I think back to two weeks ago. Roberto, at the farmer's market, is a very nice man. So much so that - after buying our usual provisions - he had given us a free spleen. There is, I'm sure you will agree, no greater mark of a gentleman than that. It went into the freezer, in a packet pretty much identical in size and shape to the beef and radicchio burgers.

   Back to the present. The radicchio is roasting away happily, and the potatoes/celeriac will be done in about 15 minutes. Defrosting the burgers is not an option. I need an emergency spleen recipe, and I need one now.

   There is nothing in The Silver Spoon, so I check Fergus Henderson's Nose to Tail Eating volumes. There is nothing to be found. And if Fergus cannot help us, then no-one can.

   In desperation, I turn to the internet. There are a few recipes there, but mainly along the lines of "first, boil your spleen for sixty minutes" and there's no time for that. There's a rolled spleen and bacon recipe, and yet I have no bacon. "Rolled spleen with no bacon" doesn't sound as if it will quite hit the spot.

   What to do? I've only ever had spleen once in my life, at a market in Palermo, served in a bun with a squeeze of lemon. I can't remember much about it beyond the fact that it tasted a bit like liver.

   That'll have to do. I fry up some onions, trim the spleen and slice it into thinnish chunks and - as soon as the onions have caramelised, into the pan they go. A good shaking of balsamic vinegar, I let everything reduce down, and we're ready to go.

   And...well, it's not too bad at all. The radicchio has been roasting for quite a while now, but that just means the outer leaves have gone crispy and that's not a bad thing at all. As for the spleen - well, the flavour is slightly milder than liver, although the slightly spongy texture isn't as nice. Maybe that why the Sicilians serve it in a bun.

   Not too bad at all though for what was basically a free dinner. I was quite pleased with my emergency recovery.

   The burgers are now defrosting for tomorrow night.

Thursday, 3 December 2015


It's Friday evening, and work has finished for the week. Which means beers over the road.

The weather is getting colder now, properly cold, but we sit outside nonetheless. Hats on, coats wrapped around us. At some point in the next few months the weather will drive us inside, but for now it's Friday night, it's cold, dark and foggy and we're sitting outside a bar on the main street in Mestre. We're living the dream.

   Not for us the warming vin brule or hot spritz. No, tonight - as per every Friday night - we sit with cold beers in pint glasses. Sometimes I think we're the only people who use pint glasses, and the bar keeps them just for us. They're never actually filled to pint level, but I don't think that matters. It's the thought that counts.

   We're on the second round when a street vendor appears. He's selling belts, bracelets, necklaces - the usual things. He's from Senegal, he says. He's polite and friendly and - to be fair - the belts don't look too bad. But none of us are really in the market for anything.

   He smiles. That's no problem. Good wishes are exchanged. Fists are bumped. And then he reaches into his bag, withdraws three small elephants and places them in front of us. A present. He smiles again. Well, this is splendid!

   There's just one thing. He's very hungry. Could we perhaps just spare a few euros...

   We look at each other. We look at our elephants. And, for a moment, the only sound is of three liberal white guys wondering what to do. And, of course, there is only one thing to do. We reach for our change.

      He thanks us and goes along his way; heavier of pocket, if lighter of elephants. We call for more beers and proudly regard our new purchases. No more Christmas Shopping for us this year!

   We wonder if we should leave them all on the table. I think they might act as a talisman against future vendors who - seeing we've already bought - will pass us by. Or is it more likely that they'll look at us and think, 'ah, the elephant trick still works'?

   In the end, we decide to pack them away. I finish my beer and make my way home to Venice. Where I will explain to Caroline that, yes, I may be a little bit later than expected but at least I have bought her an elephant.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015


It's late Friday morning. It's a beautiful, sunny autumn day, I've got no classes until 5.00 and life is good. I've had a few chores to do around the town, and I find myself in Campo San Luca with a bit of time to kill. A coffee seems like a good idea, but where to go?

   BlackJack is a decent bar that we've made use of a couple of times (good spritz, good snacks), and Marchini is a splendid pasticceria. And then I think, Bar Torino. I've never been to Bar Torino. I've walked past it any number of times, sometimes late at night when there's been a band on, but never actually gone in. I'll give it a go.
   I seem to remember that it was once regarded as being quite hip, but it feels a bit shabby and run-down, and the Jack Vettriano prints on the wall give it a slightly sleazy feel. An American tourist is trying to gently prod a wandering pigeon back outside. I ask for a coffee. The barista smiles.

- Espresso?

   I nod. Si si. But this is a bad start. Nobody ever asks you if you want an espresso. He thinks I'm a tourist.

   My coffee arrives, a sad little brown puddle that cools instantly at the bottom of an outsized cappuccino cup. It's rare to get a cup of coffee over here that's actually bad, but this is about as poor as it gets.

   I've not brought a newspaper or anything to read, and I'm in no mood to linger anyway. I take some change from my pocket. I know that I'm about to get ripped off. The only question is by how much.

- One euro fifty.

I almost laugh. That's 50% more than almost every other bar in town. And given that the price of a coffee al banco is fixed by law, I suspect it's probably illegal as well.

- One euro fifty? For a coffee al banco?

He shrugs.

- It's the price in Venice.

- No, it's not. I've lived here for four years and I've never paid one euro fifty. I don't even pay that at Quadri.

We stare at each other in silence. I could, I suppose, make a scene but it's not worth it for fifty cents. In fact the sheer bare-faced, we-don't-give-a-!$£* attitude is almost funny. Although I suspect I'd find it less so if I were a tourist being scammed ridiculous sums of money for some dismal-looking food.

I slide the money over the counter.

- This is the tourist price, isn't it?

He shrugs again and turns away.

Whatever. I console myself with the thought that a cappuccino and brioche might have necessitated the use of a credit card. I walk back outside, into the sun, and check my watch. Still a few minutes left. Just time for a coffee at Marchini.

Saturday, 7 November 2015


We sit in the cafe in the Arsenale, and talk about buying a brick. But not just any old brick.

   We've just seen a work by the Argentinian artist Rirkrit Tiravanija. It's a collection of hand-made bricks. 14,086 of them which is, apparently, the number of bricks used in the construction of the average Chinese house. Each one is stamped with Chinese characters which translate as "Do not work." A laudable sentiment to be sure, and one to be encouraged. And for just ten euros you can have a brick of your very own to take away, with the proceeds going towards an organisation for workers' rights in China.

   A limited edition work of art for just ten euros does seem like an unmissable opportunity, even if that limited edition is of 14,086. We're not quite sure exactly what we'd do with it, but Caroline suggests we could use it to wedge the balcony door open to let Mimi come and go.

   There's one problem, however. If we buy it now someone - let's call him "Philip" - is going to have to carry it around all afternoon. If we buy it at the end of the day we'll have to trog back through the entire length of the Arsenale in order to pick it up. And then someone - again, let's call him "Philip" - is going to have to carry it home.

   Caroline thinks it would be easier to buy it now. It'll save us the long walk back.

   I'm not convinced. I fold my arms and do my best to set my jaw in a firm line. I am not carrying a brick around all afternoon. No way. I'm not going to do it. And there is nothing - nothing - that is going to change my mind.

   Thirty minutes later, I find myself walking through the Arsenale. Carrying a brick.


The news of our acquisition starts to spread, and a number of friends express an interest in acquiring a brick of their own. Caroline wonders if she could go back to the Arsenale with a shopping trolley. Why, this might enable us to do all our Christmas shopping in one go!.

And then a week later, Peter and Lou, our Brilliant Australian Friends, come for dinner. We talk about our new work of art. They both agree that it is a very fine brick indeed.

- There's just one thing, says Pete. It's not fired is it?
- Eh?
- It's not fired. It'll slowly dissolve. Although that kind of makes it an interesting work of art in its own right.

We look at it more closely. There is, indeed, a fine layer of brick dust on the floor.

We've bought a brick. But it is not just a brick. It's a very special brick. A dissolving brick.

All in all it's just another brick in our hall...

Sunday, 20 September 2015

La Terra dei Malavoglia

"...di rompersi la braccia e la schiena tutto il giorno, e arrischiare la pelle, e morir di fame e non aver mai un giorno da sdraiarsi al sole....un ladro di mestiere che si mangiava l'anima" ( break your arms and back all day, to risk your skin, to die of hunger, to never have a day to lie in the sun...this thief of a trade, that ate the soul).

- Giovanni Verga, "I Malavoglia"

To English-speaking readers, Verga might be most famous as the author of Cavelleria Rusticana; later, of course, the subject of Mascagni's opera. However, I Malavoglia (in English, 'The House by the Medlar Tree') -  recounting the struggles of a family of fishermen in 19th century Aci Trezza, a small village near Catania in Sicily - is generally reckoned to be his masterpiece,

   Indeed, on entering Aci Trezza one is greeted by a sign stating "La Terra dei Malavoglia" which - given the unrelenting misery of the book - I would have thought akin to the Siberian tourist board deciding to publicise their country as "The Land of the Gulag Archipelago".

   Because there is misery aplenty in I Malavoglia. It's a brilliantly written novel, and - if you have an interest in Italian literature - you should certainly read it, but be aware that even Thomas Hardy would probably have thought it too depressing. And, with its emphasis on the rural landscape (not to mention occasionally making one want to bang the characters heads together), it frequently reminded me of Hardy. The difference being that - unlike Jude Fawley and Sue Bridehead -the Malavoglia  aren't brought down by the constraints of the social, political and class boundaries of the day. They're brought down by the innate capacity of people to be horrible to each other. Visconti filmed a loose (and more overtly political) adaptation, La Terra Trema, in 1948; and he too, is remembered with a piazza and bar (with splendid negronis!) named after him.

Now I may have made Aci Trezza sound rather grim, but that would be unfair. It's a lovely place. So lovely we asked our landlord, upon leaving, if we could make a booking for next year. We were even polite about his dad's home-made almond wine (not actually bad, but we did wonder if perhaps it was supposed to be used as a salad dressing instead of drinking it).

   This was our first visit to Sicily since 2002, and it was good to be back. We did a lot of swimming. We did a lot of lying in the sun. We ate a lot of fish. We ate a lot of granite. We ate a lot of arancini. Actually, now I think about it, we did quite a lot of eating. We also drank quite a few negronis. Indeed, I thought about compiling a list of 'great bars for negronis in Aci Trezza' but maybe that will have to wait.

Anyway, here are some photos.

This is the basalt Norman castle in nearby Aci Castello. Note the beach club in the foreground and the slightly ramshackle wooden scaffolding that is holding it up. There are many such clubs in the area, entrance fees are very reasonable (possibly varying in direct proportion to the solidity of the underlying structure).

Here's a view of Aci Trezza from Aci Castello.

And here's an image from the festival of St John the Baptist, patron saint of Aci Trezza, which took place on our last night.

It was a good week. We'd forgotten how much we loved Sicily. I'd forgotten that I was actually capable of enjoying a holiday on the beach, with the result that it took me the best part of the week to acclimatise; a week that I spent immersed in the miseries of the Malavoglia. 

Until next year! There is still, after all, that list of bars to compile...

Friday, 21 August 2015

Lazzaretto Vecchio

The Dutch Pavilion, hosting the veteran artist herman de vries, (and yes, that is how you write it...he's a lower-case kind of guy) is one of the better ones in this year's Biennale. And beyond the pavilion itself, de vries has also created a number of works on two islands in the lagoon.

Madonna del Monte lies between San Giacomo in Paludo and Mazzorbo and was originally the site of a Benedictine monastery, and, later, a church dedicated to Santa Maria del Rosario. Now in private hands, it seems impossible to visit without the use of a private boat. There may well be some art to be seen there but - passing by on the vaporetto to Torcello - we failed to spot any.

His other works are on Lazzaretto Vecchio. From 1468, it served as a quarantine station. And then, during the great plague of 1576/77, it served as the house of last resort. If you were diagnosed with the plague, you would be brought here in order to isolate you. This island would be the last thing you would ever see; and you would - as likely as not - be dead within a week. Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate...

Death might be the great leveller, but money could still buy you a few privileges in the run-up. There was an, if you like, executive wing reserved for those with the wherewithal :-

Graffiti still survives from the earliest residents. Here, you can just about make out the figure of an angel.

There are other examples of a less exalted nature, at least one of which is spectacularly rude. No, I'm not posting it, you'll have to go and look yourself.

Over the years, it was used as a leprosarium, gunpowder magazine, military base and stray dogs' home (not all at the same time) and gradually fell into disuse and ruin, until restoration work began in 2004; during which the skeletons of over 1500 plague victims, in individual and mass graves, were recovered.

The island is now being maintained by the Archeoclub di Venezia. Trees and foliage have been cut back, a basic supply of running water has been restored  and there are hopes of making it more easily accessible by linking it to the Lido via a short bridge. The ultimate aim is for the island to become a museum.

de vries' interventions are subtle ones. The fields have been seeded with herbs, a reference to the plague doctors who wore masks stuffed with aromatics in the hope of some protection against the contagion. And a number of text-based pieces have been place throughout the island. No better way, really, than to finish with this...