Happy in the Hinterland

Last Friday, we drove the grey of the N3 into the wind and rain of the Irish Hinterland. Spires and ancient round towers arose out of Kell’s magical mists and I soon found myself installed in a front row pew in the church of Ireland, seeking adventures along a silk road.

Peter Frankopan took his place at the altar in a stylish blue (silk?) suit, and transported me East to the magic lands of Iran, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Tibet. Waving his hands, his undulating Notting Hill/Oxford tones created a wonderful discourse, flowing with passion and interest. It seems my history has been mired in Western war fare, in crusades, in squalid sallies, in colonial battles, world wars, and King Henry’s wives instead of in the rise and fall of Mesopotamia, of Byzantine culture, of Persia, the truly great civilisations of our world, arising from the glitter and glory of the trading routes of the Silk Roads.   Compared to the glory of Sultans, Pharoahs, Ayatollahs, the people of Western Europe were little more than slaves (apparently the only thing of trading value). We had no riches, no spices, little in the line of the black stuff, not much in the way of sought after natural resources; somehow, though, we managed to convince ourselves, and others, that we were the centrifugal force of  history (obviously we had the gift of the gab, and those spears and poleaxes probably helped) while actually the original power and glory was invested in the riches of the East, now on the rise again. Note China’s new ports, gas pipes, and its railways being laid across Africa.  So, after 500 years, the balance is finally being redressed and the current conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine, Iraq, Pakistan are mere birthing pains for a new era (unless the West has a tantrum and starts throwing its upgraded boy toys around in pique).

It was, truly, an invigorating presentation, providing a different perspective, sparkling with brilliance. Peter Frankopan was wonderful to watch (you can see why from the photo below), and his sales pitch was fabulous. He must have been practising on those Silk Roads. I bought the book.

In contrast, the historian, Turtle Bunbury stumbled about the church  while he told us how ‘1847’ had presented itself to him as ‘the year’ to write about. It had been the year the plans for his ancestral home castle were drawn up, the year the famine had got going (he didn’t comment on the structural relationship between the two), the year the Bronte sisters had been published, the year the USA conquered California. This was reason enough for an hour of stories about Black Ben Forbes (?) and Tom Thumb who apparently graced 1847 with their presence. Interesting? No. The historian, John Bowen was much more sober and erudite in his presentation of the ‘Autobiography of Ireland’ which is a collection of original sources: amusing letters, articles reflecting the hundred years after the Rising.

I was looking forward to the Brexit Debate on Saturday morning – Chris Mullins, David Murphy and Mairead McGuinness and was very, very disappointed. It was lack-lustre, un-engaged, uninformed, smug, and comprised an indifferent discussion. Chris Mullins performed like an oil painted portrait with a withering smile, (like one of those spectral portraits in Hogwarts, just not as interesting); Mairead McGuinness glittered with EU self-adoration, and David Murphy manufactured the statistics to suit himself. They bored me, and I felt sad at their lack of spirit, humour and passion.

Thank God, passion was not lacking thereafter. Ed Thomas, director of The Hinterland (a Welsh detective series on Netflix) was fascinating. He was a friendly, bubbly character, but clearly with a dark side. Hinterland is a slow, beautiful but rather grim portrayal of the Welsh countryside. It reflects isolation and is very bleak. He was well interviewed by Georgina Godwin who also later did a great interview with Stephen Frears. The first thing Ed Thomas said was that most of his work was autobiographical and that Wales was a ‘laughing stock’ and a country that didn’t really exist.  He described how being Welsh in the late eighties and nineties was akin to being invisible. He left, changed his accent, pretended to be Irish, or a loud South London lout. I was taken aback. My mother is from a South Wales mining town. In my mind, Wales was a small, beautiful country, the home of a strong, vibrant people who sang, worked and evolved a strong chartist, social spirit. It is clear that in the late 70s and 80s, the closure of the mines, the shutting down of a community, the abandonment of a people laid waste to a wonderful country. Ed recently had to sell his home place of a 130 years. He told us his daughter didn’t know what a miner was. What a sad indictment of a British Government that cruelly turned its back on its working people. An excellent interview which was followed by a second excellent interview with Stephen Frears (photo below)

At first, I thought Georgina Godwin (photo below) was going to have a difficult interview. Frears (who has directed The Snapper, The Van, My Beautiful Laundrette, Philomena, The Queen amongst others) answered her questions in short sentences with brevity. He faced out to the audience and seemed to find it hard to turn his head to look at her when she asked her questions. But she handled him very well. She always had another question ready when he didn’t seem disposed to answer the previous one. She was well prepared, incisive and confident.

Frears was laconic, dry and humorous. Classic Brit. He reminded me of a dragon, lurking in his lair, watching with glittering eyes, a grim smile and high intellect. He told us how fortunate he was. He was a child of a time. He had a golden letter box through which, over the years, amazing scripts were posted. He was self-deprecating in a humorous way which showed us how brilliant he was. The 1960s to 1990s were certainly the golden era for film and theatre. Shane Connaughton whom we had seen in The Town Hall, in Cavan the previous Thursday (interviewed by Philip Doherty) had said something similar. Shane had been in the right place at the right time. I asked both Shane Connaughton and Stephen Frears how much politics had contributed to their success. Both responded positively. The hope and optimism, the belief in humanity, the resources, the investment in the arts, and people had helped them create and become great artists. This is the reason the Brits need a new Government. Oh, Jeremy Corbyn!

 

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Happy in the Hinterland Last Weekend

Last Friday, we drove the grey of the N3 into the wind and rain of the Irish Hinterland. Spires and ancient round towers arose out of Kell’s magical mists and I soon found myself installed in a front row pew in the church of Ireland, seeking adventures along a silk road.

Peter Frankopan took his place at the altar in a stylish blue (silk?) suit, and transported me East to the magic lands of Iran, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Tibet. Waving his hands, his undulating Notting Hill/Oxford tones created a wonderful discourse, flowing with passion and interest. It seems my history has been mired in Western war fare, in crusades, in squalid sallies, in colonial battles, world wars, and King Henry’s wives instead of in the rise and fall of Mesopotamia, of Byzantine culture, of Persia, the truly great civilisations of our world, arising from the glitter and glory of the trading routes of the Silk Roads.   Compared to the glory of Sultans, Pharoahs, Ayatollahs, the people of Western Europe were little more than slaves (apparently the only thing of trading value). We had no riches, no spices, little in the line of the black stuff, not much in the way of sought after natural resources; somehow, though, we managed to convince ourselves, and others, that we were the centrifugal force of  history (obviously we had the gift of the gab, and those spears and poleaxes probably helped) while actually the original power and glory was invested in the riches of the East, now on the rise again. Note China’s new ports, gas pipes, and its railways being laid across Africa.  So, after 500 years, the balance is finally being redressed and the current conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine, Iraq, Pakistan are mere birthing pains for a new era (unless the West has a tantrum and starts throwing its upgraded boy toys around in pique).

It was, truly, an invigorating presentation, providing a different perspective, sparkling with brilliance. Peter Frankopan was wonderful to watch (you can see why from the photo below), and his sales pitch was fabulous. He must have been practising on those Silk Roads. I bought the book.

In contrast, the historian, Turtle Bunbury stumbled about the church  while he told us how ‘1847’ had presented itself to him as ‘the year’ to write about. It had been the year the plans for his ancestral home castle were drawn up, the year the famine had got going (he didn’t comment on the structural relationship between the two), the year the Bronte sisters had been published, the year the USA conquered California. This was reason enough for an hour of stories about Black Ben Forbes (?) and Tom Thumb who apparently graced 1847 with their presence. Interesting? No. The historian, John Bowen was much more sober and erudite in his presentation of the ‘Autobiography of Ireland’ which is a collection of original sources: amusing letters, articles reflecting the hundred years after the Rising.

I was looking forward to the Brexit Debate on Saturday morning – Chris Mullins, David Murphy and Mairead McGuinness and was very, very disappointed. It was lack-lustre, un-engaged, uninformed, smug, and comprised an indifferent discussion. Chris Mullins performed like an oil painted portrait with a withering smile, (like one of those spectral portraits in Hogwarts, just not as interesting); Mairead McGuinness glittered with EU self-adoration, and David Murphy manufactured the statistics to suit himself. They bored me, and I felt sad at their lack of spirit, humour and passion.

Thank God, passion was not lacking thereafter. Ed Thomas, director of The Hinterland (a Welsh detective series on Netflix) was fascinating. He was a friendly, bubbly character, but clearly with a dark side. Hinterland is a slow, beautiful but rather grim portrayal of the Welsh countryside. It reflects isolation and is very bleak. He was well interviewed by Georgina Godwin who also later did a great interview with Stephen Frears. The first thing Ed Thomas said was that most of his work was autobiographical and that Wales was a ‘laughing stock’ and a country that didn’t really exist.  He described how being Welsh in the late eighties and nineties was akin to being invisible. He left, changed his accent, pretended to be Irish, or a loud South London lout. I was taken aback. My mother is from a South Wales mining town. In my mind, Wales was a small, beautiful country, the home of a strong, vibrant people who sang, worked and evolved a strong chartist, social spirit. It is clear that in the late 70s and 80s, the closure of the mines, the shutting down of a community, the abandonment of a people laid waste to a wonderful country. Ed recently had to sell his home place of a 130 years. He told us his daughter didn’t know what a miner was. What a sad indictment of a British Government that cruelly turned its back on its working people. An excellent interview which was followed by a second excellent interview with Stephen Frears (photo below)

At first, I thought Georgina Godwin (photo below) was going to have a difficult interview. Frears (who has directed The Snapper, The Van, My Beautiful Laundrette, Philomena, The Queen amongst others) answered her questions in short sentences with brevity. He faced out to the audience and seemed to find it hard to turn his head to look at her when she asked her questions. But she handled him very well. She always had another question ready when he didn’t seem disposed to answer the previous one. She was well prepared, incisive and confident.

Frears was laconic, dry and humorous. Classic Brit. He reminded me of a dragon, lurking in his lair, watching with glittering eyes, a grim smile and high intellect. He told us how fortunate he was. He was a child of a time. He had a golden letter box through which, over the years, amazing scripts were posted. He was self-deprecating in a humorous way which showed us how brilliant he was. The 1960s to 1990s were certainly the golden era for film and theatre. Shane Connaughton whom we had seen in The Town Hall, in Cavan the previous Thursday (interviewed by Philip Doherty) had said something similar. Shane had been in the right place at the right time. I asked both Shane Connaughton and Stephen Frears how much politics had contributed to their success. Both responded positively. The hope and optimism, the belief in humanity, the resources, the investment in the arts, and people had helped them create and become great artists. This is the reason the Brits need a new Government. Oh, Jeremy Corbyn!

 

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Bordering on Insanity

I am reading ‘This is not a Border – Reportage and Reflections from the Palestinian Festival of Literature,’ edited by Ahdaf Soueif and Omar Robert Hamilton, published by Bloomsbury.

It is a brilliant collection of small anecdotal experiences of writers (of many different nationalities) who have taken part in the Palestinian Festival of Writing since 2008. They describe the raw brutality and power that Israeli soldiers wield at Israeli constructed checkpoints around Jerusalem, Bethlehem and the grim poverty and indignity enforced on the Palestinian people living in Gaza, and the West Bank towns of Ramallagh and Hebron.

As I read, my stomach sinks. I feel my intestine stiffen into tangles. My gut rises into my throat. My chest tightens, a rage rises. I try to read out loud and my voice thickens. My mouth contorts. My throat constricts. Angry, salt tears need to be wiped away.

These are not stories. They are simple accounts of what people experienced as they crossed border points, walked under nets that don’t protect Palestinians from the excrement and rubbish of the settlers living above. There is no running commentary, there is no purple prose, but there is embarrassment, shock and horror in the voices of these accounts.

I am so enraged. I feel so frustrated, so shocked, humiliated and dismayed by what I read. I can only read a few accounts at one time. Why, I wonder? Intellectually, I know all this, and more. I know about poverty. I know about war crimes. I know about concentration camps. I know about torture. My father worked for Amnesty International for 25 years. I know about cruelty. I know about abuse. I know about power. And yet this book about the brutality and cruelty of Israel leaves me shaking. I don’t understand why this is. These simple accounts describe life as lived every day by people in a way the news stories of rockets and wars don’t. They expose the raw and naked brutality of the human race. This dystopian life style is happening now and I worry that it will be the force of our future. This frightens me. I don’t know what to do. Please read this book and advise me.

I should say: I haven’t finished the book yet. I just needed to voice this.

 

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S’Truth! It All Happened in the Ballroom

The family began the Carlow Festival of Writing and Ideas in Dublin, at a noodle house (where my delicious sounding shredded beef turned out to be a mountain of mince) and continued in the Rag Trader pub expounding the delights of the British Election, Brexit, and block chain technology (after five pints I thought I had grasped the concept of block chain technology, but later discovered I hadn’t). It was only early Sunday morning before we got on the M9 to Borris House, the ancestral home of the McMorrows Kavanaghs (High Kings of Leinster, I’ll have you know). So, we arrived a day late in an Irish squall, a little the worse for wear, and found ourselves, rather under dressed,  in the grand grounds of a castle, complete with a chapel, granary,  ball room  standing among Anglo Saxon looking middle aged ladies and gentleman, wandering around clasping books and umbrellas.

We acclimatised ourselves in the bar (with a coffee) and retired to the ballroom to listen to Dominic West (McNulty in The Wire) talk to The Wire’s director and producer, David Simon. Dominic West’s open face and smile was an immediate winner (my daughter was extremely embarrassed at my gasp and drool) but their discussion and banter was amusing and endearing. It was fascinating to listen to how David Simon had planned the arc of The Wire over five years. Each series exposes how the life of an individual human being is shown to have less and less value and is considered more and more in terms of a unit of cost – whatever field you operate in; drugs, local government, education, politics. Both he and Dom (yes, Dom now, air kiss, cheeks, smile) were adorable and I wanted to marry both (for different reasons).

After a little more standing about in windswept rain, with paper coffee, feeling like drenched imposters, we went to listen to Fintan O’Toole talk to Margaret McMillan (historian) about the first world war. Sometimes I find Fintan O’Toole too erudite and other times too smug and arrogant, and I didn’t know Margaret McMillan’s work, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I emerged from The Granary fuming. After rather inane discussions as to when WW1 ended, internationalism, The Depression, betrayal, they moved on to discuss Brexit and the UK election. Ms McMillan declared she didn’t know how an allotment keeper (referring to Jeremy Corbyn) would handle Brexit negotiations! They discussed the lack of an ‘English’ identity which is odd since, in my experience of living here, I have found the Irish to have very strong views about the ‘English’ identity, and finally pronounced on their dislike of and limitations of popular protest groups. I thought she and Fintan were well suited. They could marry each other, I decided, and flounced off to the ballroom.

In the aforementioned ballroom,  Sebastian Barry was being interviewed by Max Porter. SB was wonderful. He wowed us all with a magnificent performance, reading one of the civil war battles as described by Thomas, his narrator in Days Without End. It was magnificent: hoarse, throaty, desperate, frantic. He captured the ‘lurching wild gallop of human creatures.’ SB described the book as a father’s book because it was written with the love of a father for his son; a son who is gay and who showed him how love for a person of the same gender was magic, delicate and encapsulating. The book is one of the best books I have ever read of Sebastian Barry’s and I have read them all. Indeed, it is one of the best books I have ever read. The language and breath belongs to the land and words belong to his characters. For me, the author was invisible. I could only hear Thomas. How brilliant is that? So, it was very embarrassing when I asked him about Birdsong, the only other book that has done that for me!! He laughed, and said he loved me…(why was he telling me that, I wondered), that it was a question he got asked a lot, and reminded me that Birdsong was written by Sebastian Faulkes! OMG! I knew that. I did! I have read all his books too. I blame the fifth pint! I got out of there quickly as I could, though I have to say, suddenly everyone wanted to talk with me, and people were patting my shoulder and smiling but, then I realised I had to turn around and push my way back in because ‘the giants’, as described in the brochure, Jeffrey Eugenides, Colm Tóibín and Richard Ford were back in the ballroom. But, SB said he loved me! I would marry him.

Gentle giants, they were, or maybe I felt that because I was still in recovery and couldn’t absorb their words. My notes show they talked about writing about the home place, how the words would come easier because they knew the hinterland and the weather (CT seemed a little hung up on the weather). There was a discussion about the difference between memoir and fiction.  My notes show that Richard Ford was saying that truth was told through the agency of fact. In fiction, the word becomes true. In memoir, the word needs to be true. JE talked about fictionalising fact, and CT talked, and talked about all sorts of things. I got a little confused but didn’t feel the need to pop any question.

Anyway, I it was a great festival, despite the rain, the hang over, the embarrassment and well worth the entry fee. Next year, I’ll try not to get sidelined by Dublin on the Saturday.

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A Pep in My Step

So, the British election merged with the visit of another two of my oldest friends (it’s the year for old friends). Back in the day, we used to have rollicking, alcohol fuelled rows about Arthur Scargill and the miner’s strike, me and Ellen in particular. As the years rolled on, and politics and passion faded, we found ourselves focusing our alcohol fuelled rows on more benign events: should you wrap tin foil around a roasting lamb. This time, the third member of our trio, Lesley, refused to come unless we promised not to row which we duly did (promise, that is). Anyway, it was pure luck that Teresa May snapped the election for 8th June when they were here. I emailed that it would be great to be together for such a momentous occasion, a Labour win. Ellen emailed back saying yes, there couldn’t possibly be any rows because we are both Labour supporters, and that a harmonious evening could be anticipated, though obviously Labour wouldn’t win. Lesley emailed back a warning. Anyway, we were very good and there were no rows though, just before Ellen left, I did say that I had found not rowing not hard at all, and that, obviously, all these years it must have been her who had provoked the arguments. Fortunately, Lesley had left.

So, no rows, but lots of clapping, and shouts as Labour candidates got elected. We were betting and wearing home made rosettes. The exit poll was a good start, and in my heart of hearts, I felt it could be good (but, in keeping with my promise, didn’t say anything). As a result, I haven’t laughed so much since…probably 1984. Tears came to my eyes, my head rolled back and my feet were kicking off as we split our sides laughing at…everything…mainly each other. And, on top of this, Labour party candidates kept winning. But now my old friends have gone, and the election is over, I feel a little anti climatic, but I am still holding on to the bubbling of joy in my stomach because it is the beginning of something new, led by Jeremy Corbyn.

During the campaign, the mask of Theresa May slipped. She reminded me of the emperor in his new clothes: course, vain, a revelation of ignorance and hubris. This morning she was struggling to get it back in place, with the help of pancake mix and the DUP. I give it three months, if that. I hope the Labour Party will use those summer months wisely: crossing the ‘I’s and ‘t’s of free university education, good social care, investing in public services and homes so that those Labour candidates who just fell short of majorities can parade in an autumn campaign and win. Jeremy Corbyn is a natural campaigner – let’s build to his strengths. Let’s allow him to lead us, as one, to a fair and just Labour British government, supported by real people.

Brexit will happen but at least it will no longer be Theresa May’s cooking pot alone. It will involve detailed and careful preparation of a range of dishes, hopefully from a range of chefs (though they don’t have to be in the kitchen at the same time). Brexit belongs to us. We should all be involved in the preparation.

Okay, it wasn’t a Labour win and Parliament may be hung. It may appear confused presently. But, if I have learned anything after years of growing up, a little time is a good thing. A great campaigner is a wonderful thing, coming together to create a future which works for everybody is the best thing of all…and, to use Lesley, Ellen and myself as an example, can be achieved through a little silence and a lot of laughter.

So, I feel a pep in my step. I’m looking forward to next Autumn and another campaign, led by Jeremy Corbyn. I’m already planning my election party. Everyone is welcome but come ready to roar and guffaw having already put in the foot work on the door steps, and made peace.

kate garden

 

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Faded Splendour – Ruth and Kate in Palermo

On my first afternoon, it sounded like a shoot out salute from the mafia: rifle fire, cannons or a firework show in broad daylight. It was followed by sirens and more politizi sirens. With some concern for my head, I peered over the balcony but all I could see was the Sunday afternoon footy match taking place in the Catholic Centre below. I was on our airbnb terrazza drinking tequila and orange having got the basics from Lidl (Tequila became a basic at only 5e a bottle). There were great views across the city to the Royal Palazzia, the Cathedral, and roof tops of red terracotta tiles, white walls, geraniums, TV arials (not satellite dishes) and cactuses. Sicilian chit chat wafted on the warm breeze…and clearly the tequila was going to my head.

The apartment was in the centre of historic old Palermo (as luck would have it). The maze of tiny lanes were strung with washing flapping in breezes and the piazzas were sunny and delightful, strung with cafes and markets. There were ornate churches, and most buildings were decorated on the outside with wonderful cornices, sculptures, ghouls, and on the inside with dark basements, kitchens and poverty. On the lane down to the cathedral, Ruth (the best friend) and I passed the family who had moved their armchairs and tables outside (along with their pile of ironing). Rather sensible, I thought. I think it is called charming poverty. I loved the huge wooden doors which had very shut tiny little wooden doors in them leading, I imagine, to beautiful courtyards and Alice in Wonderland world. It seems that it was only 25 years ago that this area got sewerage and running water. As a result, just before then the wealthy moved across town where the Mafia/bankers/developers built new Palermo and the immigrants and poor moved into Old Palermo.

On my way back from Lidl, I came across a Piazza where men and women were dressed up in 19th century gear (crinolins and all) They were waltzing to  Strauss around naked white marble statues of men and women. The story I was told later by my cook tour is that the nuns and priests used to meet in the tunnels below the Piazza for secret dalliances but were discovered and the nuns were ‘defrocked’ (unfortunate term) and in revenge broke the penises off the male statues. It all happens in Palermo.

So, Ruth arrived and we headed out for our first night. We came across loud music and dancing almost immediately. The football match in the local catholic centre was finished and replaced by a seven year old girl, dressed up in white, sitting with her parents on a long table, at her communion, stuffing her face, while colourful, traditionally dressed African men and woman danced in a line in front of her. Staring from the gate at the party longingly, we were invited in and so we too jigged and wiggled our hips in front of the girl, waving paper serviettes. It was fun. Later that evening, in our square (the nearest) there was more dancing and Ruth and I flung ourselves into the melee with abandon, sadly not understanding the instructions shouted out by the woman caller, but we enjoyed it and people seemed to stay out of our way!

The next day, Ruth and I found art, sculpture, decay, glory and succulents around every corner. Cars and scooters nudged our arses in the lanes. The market was a cornucopia of chilis, oddly shaped aubergines, red blood tomatoes, elongated courgettes (3 feet long), tiny artichokes that looked like they might graze your throat and hills of fava beans. Ruth and I walked down to see the sea (a sparkling vista at the end of a tiny lane). It was a modern prom, child’s park and a cruise liner that reminded me of the blocks of flats on the side of the Thames in London, a grey navy military ship, all framed by the oddly shaped, dark limestone mountains that shield the city. They are knobbly peaks, like erratics, dumped by the receding sea of the ice age. Palermo unravels itself across the plain at their feet, square, pink, cream and beige. You can understand why the pirates, Pheonicians, Normans, Romans would want to conquer this place. It demands to be conquered!

We turned back to re-enter the city walls guarded her by two giant gargoyles, stone birds of prey protecting the palace and go to visit the Royal Palace of Palermo. The Palace Royal is a mix of palace, church and turrets. Arabic splendour coagulated with plain Norman, gold mosaics and stone, intricate Chinese lacquer, fresco ceilings, marble, wood and 19th century pomp. The Palatine Chapel was magnificent.

So, throughout the week, Ruth and I wandered these conquered streets and alleys stuffed with people, produce and motorbikes, gold and ornate, and talked of our own faded splendour, discussing the  wisdom that comes with age, the disappointments, the loves and experiences, politics, value systems art and it feels very right.

One of the days we navigated ourselves on to a boat with two marine biologists who have found it more profitable to conduct ‘Mare and Terre’ tours. Mauro picked us up at 8.30am at the cathedral (a most beautiful edifice of Pheonician and Norman construction) and whisked us off to the sea giving us a breakdown of the social, political and environmental state of Palermo while skidding, halting and staccato-ing through the Sicilian traffic. I didn’t understand much as his Italian accent was thick as Marsala port. Within 30 minutes, Ruth and I found ourselves lying on white cushions on a boat, gazing at blue sky, trailing finger tips in clear green sea, staring at bottom white sands, sea grasses which Mauro told us were protected and worth thousands of euros. Throughout the trip he told us of nature reserves, molluscs, lagoons, pirates, protected sea grasses, Marello towers (like our Martello towers), caves, elephant skulls. He told us of fish, protected sea grasses, molluscs, nature reserves, pirates, fishermen…you get my drift and I was drifting until Eros (yes, Eros was the other marine biologist) threw anchor and suggested we swim. They gave us flippers and goggles and we flipped over backwards (I lie) into the blue green waters and swam with the shoals of fish through the sea grasses (well, that was the idea) but it was pretty wonderful…until I had to get back on the boat. I will leave that to your imagination.

We also went on a food tour. Six of us including a very irritating American woman who wanted to practice her Italian on our English speaking tour. Fabrizio and Antonio guided us through delightful markets and piazzas, providing tastes of traditional Sicilian food (you’ll have to come to dinner) told us many legends and myths (including the priest and nun story), and gave us advice as to where to go. It was fab.

We followed their advice that night and found ourselves seated in a cool bar, watching cool people. Well, I was watching because Ruth found herself a very miserable but cool looking Columbian (she used to live there) and was talking Spanish to him. It was all so cool, I wondered if the Palermo Tourist Board might not have set the whole thing up, employed students and the like to dress up in cool gear, and do cool drinking and smoking.

It was time to get out of town. The road to Trapani (on the North West tip of the island) travels the coast, then in-land through undulating hills of wheat, vines, olive trees. Traditional two storey brown stone farm houses stared across square fields of green and gold like an Impressionist painting. The centre of Traponi was beautiful. Wide streets lined with two storey buildings rather like a cowboy town. In the historic centre, it turned into New Orleans, elaborate stone, iron balconies, wide but cobbled stone streets and the blue, sparkling sea at every turn, calling to you. In the port was a Thompson liner twenty storeys high. It disgorged passengers across the town in a red double decker London bus. Ruth and I gorge on gelati and croissant in the sun and then board a boat for Favignara.

I had been hoping for a Cornish fishing village. It wasn’t. It was a Mexican fishing village: Plain wide tiled streets, white houses. I ate the most divine tuna and swam in a pure blue sea with lots of fishes. I lay on sand and corals, bathing in the sun and sea breezes. I came home with salt tight skin, a glow and cooked fava beans for supper. Happy.

Every morning the sea gulls woke me. I thought they sounded as if they were cackling with laughter at us poor humans. We are scurrying, wingless creatures, mindless, and self-absorbed. One morning, I got up and went up to the terrazza to see if it was a particular gull. The gull wasn’t laughing. It sounded snappy and cross. I found it squatting on the corner of the white sky, puffed up, strong and voluble. It sat on a red terracotta tile. I wondered if it was one of the soaring beauties I watched last night. White wings spiralling the ink blue, late evening sky, silent and graceful, flying between the stars. So un-sea gull like and very beautiful.

On our last day, we were invited into the neighbours. They happen to be the Fredericos – Conte Frederico, and live in a palace. The Conte gave us a tour but didn’t invite us for tea. The Palazzo was built in 1100s and rooms have modernised every two hundred years, in the 1400s, 1600s, 1800s so it has original hand painted wooden ceilings, painted frescos, beautiful tiled mosaic floors, ornate sculptures, wooden carvings, fabulous furnishings. There was so much light and glory. The current count’s father was a Formula One rally driver. His trophies are everywhere.

On our last day, we joined a political rally in ‘our’ square. We weren’t sure what the political party was (yellow shirts), but as far as we could work out, from discussions and reading its leaflet, it was a party that talked about the politics of participation, transparency. That used to be our language and still is but over the week we talked about how age has crept up upon us. How change seems so much more challenging and may soon have to take place without us. Funny, but I feel I have done it all before, and it is very sunny in Sicily, and the wine is rather nice. I think I have other things to do.  I can now leave ‘change’ to others.

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Mother

Last week, I tested out eating outside in the Bungalow’s back yard and sun bathing in its front garden and was very pleased with the results. The grass was comfortable, the bench table worked and the company was great so it was with heavy heart that I left the astonishing sunny climes of Cavan and touched down into the cold, clammy cloud of London to visit and take care of my mother for a few days.

I have been coming over regularly recently, and to date my mother has told me all about her daughter (i.e me, she thinks I am her grand-daughter), told me I look ‘very old’, and asked if I am ‘ok’ as an ‘old person’. I came down with her dinner yesterday to find ten cigarettes in her hand. She was trying to charge them in her mobile phone charger (she couldn’t get them to stand up). When I eventually convinced her that she didn’t need to charge them, she laughed at herself and said, ‘of course, I can charge them from the packet.”

In her basement flat, I sit on the broken, uncomfortable couch (the cat takes precedence and gets the only comfortable armchair other than hers) and listen to her repeat the cat’s daily routine, interspersed with moans about the horrors of incontinence and her bowel movements. After a few glasses of wine, I try to engage, but I have to repeat everything four or five times and eventually I lose heart and we sit in silence. This woman, who once was an academic with a sharp mind, seems happiest picking the cat hairs from the woolly cardigan she spreads across her nightie, itself already stained with food and cigarette burns. Except, in her lucid moments, I see the horror and fear in her face.

I have always had a feeling of never quite making the grade in my family, never doing it quite right, in fact, usually getting it wrong in some minor way. I am too slap dash, easy going, and am more like my father who enjoyed the ‘joie’ de vie. I defer to my older brother and mother who generally ‘know best’. But I have always been able to talk to my mother, happy to enjoy a drink and tell her my woes when the ‘joie’ is not so apparent. And she has always liked to give measured, rational, grown-up advice. So, we have been close. We talk. Without this this talking, it is hard to know what to do or what to be, and once again, I feel a failure, not up to the mark. I am letting her down. In our silence, watching her tendrils of cigarette smoke drift into the stifling air in the room, I wish I was in sunny Cavan – and immediately, guilt surges up inside and I try to stuff it back down my throat into my stomach where it turns and flaps like an unwieldy baby dragon.

In all this silence, it strikes me that I might be struggling with grief, even though my mother is still alive. I remember from when Dad died, how grief strikes; it taints everything. I had been thinking that I was depressed by Brexit, Trump, Teresa May, the attacks on Corbyn, the corruption of politicians, the world. But maybe my depression is also linked to my mother. Aha, something else I can blame on her! Typical, I think with some resentment (quickly followed by a surge of guilt), that she would cause me grief before she even dies.

If we were talking, and she was offering advice, she would say breathe deeply and slowly, it will pass. My mind quips, ‘not fast enough’. I have another guilt surge. I say here and now to my daughter (the one my mother thinks I am) beware this mother daughter thing as I get older. But my mother is right. Whatever happens, it will pass. I take a deep breath, I just hope quickly, preferably in good company, in the back garden in sunny Cavan.

kate 002

 

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