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.


Sunny Days of Labour, Old Friends and the Rise of Poets!

The gold edged green sycamore in my London bedroom window is tremendous in the early morning sun. I muse how it is that that such golden glory heralds decay. Next time I am here, it will be bare. I love the colours of Autumn and the descent into cosiness of winter and lights of Christmas.
I have just listened to a rather graceful speech from John McDonnell, Shadow Chancellor, introducing new Labour finance proposals and reviews. He is class! I used to work with John at the Association of London Authorities and it was always a pleasure. He is creative, determined, and ruthless. But he is also graceful, very intelligent and persuasive. There is no better person for this job.
The election of Jeremy Corbyn this month as Labour Leader has lightened my heart considerably. It has been a pretty amazing month: I launched my debut poetry book, AT The Edge, in both Cavan and Galway (and in London with my friends), I saw The Sound of Music on stage in Dublin with my daughter, we had a brilliant Poetry Slam in Cavan in the Town Hall, I loved the performances and exhibitions in Cavan on Culture Day, particularly the launch of the new Town Hall programme but my highlight, the event that makes my heart dance, is the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Leader and John McDonnell as Shadow Chancellor.
For so long now, I have felt betrayed by our political leaders. I have been dismayed at the spin and the political trudge down what seemed to be an inevitable path of big business and deregulation. I felt horrified and powerless. I could feel the icy fingers of cynicism inveigling their way into my blood stream. I was surprised at this because I am naturally a positive person who likes change, difference and passionately believe in people being able to mould and influence their own lives. But nonetheless I could feel myself folding inwards, turning away. I felt old and curmudgeonly. Maybe this is what led me to my poetry. If so, that is rather unfortunate because now I am so happy, relieved to hear and watch Jeremy Corbyn respond to the aggressive, oppositional media with charm, respect, directness and openness. Already, I hear, the murmurs of ‘naivety’ from those who think they know. But I don’t care. I am interested, engaged and hopeful. Can you have a happy poet? Well, let’s see! I hope so!
Now, I must get up and go into the London sunshine. I wish I was at the beach in Brighton! But actually, I would never have given up yesterday afternoon. I was with my daughter and oldest and best friends, reading my poems to them and their children over a champagne brunch. I guess that might make me a champagne socialist…but it was only two hours !testi coleslondon bruchreading


If Every You Go…Sensing Space

I have a two hour wait at Dublin airport when I travel to London due to bus connections from Cavan. Last week I whiled away the time very happily reading If You Ever Go, edited by Pat Boran and Gerard Smyth. It is a wonderful anthology of poems about Dublin by a range of poets over hundreds of years. I love reading poetry about places I know. If the poem works, I immediately feel as if I am peeking out from between its lines. It gives me a strong sense of belonging. I’m looking forward to the journey home, so I can once again have hours to immerse myself in Dublin while in no-man’s land.

I emerged out of Stockwell tube last Friday into the London streets and deeply inhaled a chest full of warm petrol and diesel fumes and apparently a desert full of Saharan sand. Home! It was heavier and more of it than usual. It seems there is a health warning. London! As I write I can hear a melee of birds combined with over head jets and sirens on the Clapham Road. But despite the air, London in spring time is a wonderful place to be. The pink blossom trees and white thorn quiver gently in the warm fumes. The magnolia in the garden is magnificent. It is just on the turn; blousy white flowers hang voluptuously. There is a sense of faded decadence.


Voluptuous and decadence were not words that came to mind at the ‘Sensing Spaces – Architecture Re-imagined’ exhibition at the Royal Academy gallery in Piccadilly. There were some interesting installations but Ruthie, my companion, and I had been walking in Green Park, around Constitution Hill and The Mall, enjoying the beautifully grand architecture of Clarence House and Whitehall. The installations paled into insignificance in comparison. However, it was fun to climb and explore them. I didn’t think they were well curated. I did like the straw house and the Chinese installation: wood, light and gravel being the central components.


Having said that, I’m glad to be coming home to Cavan where wood, gravel and light lie in abundance.