Sunday, 12 July 2015

Bits and pieces

Here are some articles I posted on my previous blog from 2012 till February 2015.

My Graduation, December 2012
MA in Creative Writing

I had a wonderful day last Wednesday on my graduation. I am now Master of Arts in Creative Writing, with a Merit. I feel very proud of it because English is my second language and because I worked very hard, and I got my reward. At the same time I enjoyed it thoroughly and wish to thank the tutors of Lancaster University, department of Creative Writing, for their invaluable teaching and fantastic support. I also want to thank all my friends in Spotlight in Lancaster who have always encouraged me (by the way I’ll read at Spotlight on Friday 21st December). Especial thanks to Sarah Hymas, Sue Seddon, Keith Lander, Ron Scowcroft, Elizabeth Burns and the Friend of the Stanza, and all my fellow students on the MA course who gave me helpful feedback on my work throughout. Here are some pics of the great day.

February half term trips, 2014
We had a lot of dental and hospital appointments during the February half term. We had to use our holiday week to catch up on what we had missed. My daughter was at home from Art College and my eldest son came back for one day from Manchester to celebrate my husband’s and Valentina’s birthdays. A very busy period, I must say, but happy as well. In spite of the hectic schedule, I found time to have two one-day trips with my daughter: Vettriano’s exhibition in Glasgow (Kelvingrove Museum) and the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere.

I found Jack Vettriano’s work terribly interesting and very well painted. He develops a world of illusions and dreams, totally artificial, referring to Hollywood glamour of the 1940s and 1950s. It is an escapist kind of painting (he said so in an interview I watched on TV), where clothes, hairstyle and poses are clearly affected. He uses models, clothing the men in high-waist trousers, white shirts, braces and trilby hats and the women in clinging dresses, stockings and garter belts, then takes photos and paints from the photos. This pretentious artificiality mirrors in a way contemporary reality. We actually live in a fake world, in some aspects, so why not create intentionally a fictitious reality for an art work? Isn’t it what all artists have always done?
Vettriano (real name Jack Hoggan: Vettriano is his Italian grandfather’s surname, adopted after changing his painting style) is a self-trained painter. He started copying great masters’ works: Caravaggio, the Impressionists, probably Flemish painters as well. In one of the videos at the exhibition he says he painted Monet’s Coquelicots so many times that he could reproduce it while sleeping. This is the way painters and artists practiced in the past: copying ancient art and old masters, training as apprentices in a workshop where they learned how to draw and use materials, copying from their master. I think his skill in using oil painting is superb, clearly influenced by Flemish art. His Portrait in Black and Pearl refers to Vermeer’s Girl with a pearl earring, and Sweet bird of youth evokes Woman bathing in a stream by Rembrandt. The accuracy of detail, the contrast of dark and light shade, called chiaroscuro, also recalls Caravaggio, and the smooth, sometimes sketchy brush strokes show the Impressionists’ influence. His work demonstrates a long, in-depth study of old painters’ techniques and a brilliant use of colours he developed in his training, thanks to an undoubtable talent.
Some features obsessionally recur: cigarettes (I spotted a figure in a picture holding a cigarette in his fingers and another one in his mouth), women in profile with abundant dark hair, red lipstick and red nail polish, barely black stockings and sleek dresses. But all the artists have recurring figures, or recurring themes, and an easily recognizable personal style (just think of the soft colours and round body shapes of Renoir, or the geometric fruits of Cézanne, the plastic wavering brush strokes of Van Gogh and the muscular bodies of Michelangelo).

At the Louvre in Paris I saw three or four reproductions of exactly the same naked model seen from the back by Ingres. Old masters used to have a well furnished sketch book with drawings and paintings they used and reused, e.g. Botticelli: recurring figures of servants holding a basket or a vessel on the head, and Dutch painters had drawings of flowers and plants from different seasons they used in the arrangements of their still lives.
Besides, Vettriano became famous overnight, literally. After his success at the Royal Scottish Academy in 1989, where he sold two pictures in the opening night, he received so many orders and commissions that it is no surprise if he repeats himself from time to time.
What I specially admired in Vettriano’s retrospective is the dream-like atmosphere in his work, his capacity to invent, create a world, a story, a fiction, that makes the viewer dream too. In common with other painters and artists, he conveys pleasure and his work is appealing.
I also find that his painting technique has improved through time. A work like Portrait in Black and Pearl (2010) shows great skill in rendering the fur collar and making us focus mainly on the pearl, very Flemish-like. I agree generally with what A.L. Kennedy, a critic and writer, says in one of the videos at the exhibition: Vettriano can draw and paint; nowadays some painters can’t.
We also visited the rest of the Gallery, focusing on Margaret McDonald Mackintosh, on the Glasgow Boys and the Scottish Colourists. I found all of them impressive, very much linked to French painters but also developing a personal style in the choice of subjects and use of techniques. We also greatly admired Christ of St John of the Cross by Salvador Dalì, which really enriches the art collection of the Gallery. Alas, the Italian Renaissance paintings were on tour.
Our next trip was to the Wordsworth Trust. I was there several times for poetry readings and workshops, but couldn’t properly explore it. Dove Cottage is so cosy and the rooms are so small you may feel you are visiting a doll’s house. So much reminds of Dorothy and William and their daily life, apparently modest and ordinary, but actually thriving on accurate observation, attentive reading and literary discussion. And bursting in creative work. A humble place, I must say, almost a retreat, where talent put deep roots and grew unceasingly. I bought Dorothy’s journals and made sketches.
Our final treat was a visit to the Heaton & Cooper studio, a Gallery and Art shop in Grasmere. My daughter and I couldn’t stop browsing through the rich display of art equipment, wanting to buy all the gorgeous pigments, expensive brushes and different papers and pens. We eventually left behind quite a lot of money and took away new colours and papers for our art work.

I am British!
Another great event during my Easter holidays was the ceremony for British citizenship. Well, yes, finally I’m British, and very proud of it.

It took more than two years. First we had to collect an incredible number of documents for permanent residency, not just bills and bank statements, but also letters from work, doctors, schools and university for the children, with birth and marriage certificates including translations. After a year we could then apply for British citizenship. We passed the Life in the UK test and also the English language test (in force from last October). We had to collect more documents, each fill in a form over twenty pages long, countersigned by two referees, and then we sent everything to the Home Office with the addition of a substantial cheque. Luckily all went well, our application was accepted and we swore our oath to the Queen and the UK government on 16th April at Preston County Hall (photos attached).
It was exciting and slightly moving. I feel I have finally achieved something important, something I was wanting for a long time. I really hope I will be able to contribute to the progress and well being of this country with my work and my skills.

St George and St Francis
Now that I have two nationalities, British and Italian, I also have two patron saints: St George and St Francis of Assisi. I was curious to understand why England and Italy chose such saints and not others as, of course, they did not happen by chance. I believe that they are linked in some way to the national character and expectations of the country they represent. They are an example set by the church and rulers for the people of a country and in time they have also become one of the symbols that represent the country itself.
We don’t have much information about St George as he was supposed to live in the early period of Christianity (4th century AD), when Christians were harshly persecuted and Christianity was repressed. Two questions come to mind. Did he ever exist? And, why did the English choose a saint from far away when they had so many good saints of their own?
A book about St George which I recommend is Saint George, a saint with three faces by David Scott Fox (Anchor Press, 1983), which in part answers the questions. The author says that St George was probably a soldier in the Roman army in the province of Cappadocia (central Asia Minor, today’s Turkey) persecuted and possibly martyred during the emperor Diocletian’s persecution of the Christian from 303 AD. His body was believed to be buried in Lydda (Palestine), which became a place of pilgrimage. Constantine built a basilica in Lydda in his honour, which was later destroyed and rebuilt (pretty similar to what happened in St Peter’s grave in Rome). The St George’s myth begins here. Miracles such as being cured from disease happened at his tomb and several churches were dedicated to him. He was one of the greatest of the ‘military saints’, who could assist soldiers during a battle. In the 5th century Pope Gelasius summoned a  Roman council which re-wrote many apocryphal legends.  Regarding St George, the council reduced his tortures to five, the miracles to three and omitted any resurrection.
St George’s fight with the dragon appeared in print for the first time in the Golden Legend by Jacopus de Voragine (13th century, from an original story dating back to the 10th century), which was a very popular book, a medieval best seller, as saints were the heroes of the Middle Ages. The dragon is symbolic of the devil. In Revelations St John refers to the dragon as ‘that old serpent called the devil’. St George’s fight is meant to be against evil forces and temptations. During the Crusades, the legend spread, St George becoming ‘the perfect knight who seemed to represent the very incarnation of the spirit of chivalry’. The George and the Dragon legend is also strikingly similar to the story of Beowulf and the myth of Perseus. All of them reflect the eternal struggle of good against evil in humanity's never-ending quest to rid the world of sin and injustice. The image portrays the ideal knight, or ‘propaganda knight’ (as stated in Holy Warriors, the religious ideology of chivalry by Richard W. Kaeuper, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009) and is far from reality. The knights in medieval times may have sometimes protected the weak, but most of the time were a dangerous element involved in crime and violence, often at a private level, caused by the lack of an effective political authority. The Crusade ideology claimed that the battle against the enemies of faith was redemptive: an idea unacceptable in today's Christianity. Christ was seen as a warrior who ‘laid down his life willingly’, as all valiant knights should do.
During the Crusades, the St George cult reached its peak. It is said that Richard the Lionheart had a miraculous vision of the saint in Palestine and as king he instigated the use of the red cross. Under King Edward, St George was chosen to be the patron saint of England. The king created the Order of the Garter (1348) where the saint stood spiritually at the top. St George and the English monarchy had been linked for a long, prosperous time, representing not only patriotism but also the constant effort to defend an autonomy and independence hard to uphold  in a pre-modern era. Maybe it is for this reason that more ‘spiritual’ or ‘ascetic’ saints would not be suitable for England. They might have inspired an accepting, surrendering attitude, which would have put the English people at the mercy of other conquerors.
The other important aspect in the relationship of myth with nationality is the rescue of the princess (representing people in danger: in this case it doesn’t really matter whether the legend is true or not). This reflects a very English ideal. Being an island, Britain is a place of refuge par excellence, and has held this role during religious and political persecution across the continent, to the present day. It is not by chance that refugees, escaping a threat to their human rights in their home countries, are welcomed here.
The cult of saints is very often linked to the mentality and social structure of their contemporary society (as Stephen Wilson clearly states in his book Saints and their Cults, Cambridge University Press, 1983). This is exactly the case of St Francis of Assisi.
He was born in Umbria (central Italy) at the end of the 12th century and lived during the first half of the 13th century. He died in 1226 and was proclaimed saint in 1228. Assisi was a thriving place at the time, like most parts of central Italy, producing fabrics and trading them all over Europe. A new capitalistic mentality and what we call today ‘middle class’, were rising. Merchants were the heart of this society, new rich whose capacity for accumulating money competed with both a lavish aristocracy and the Church. Their activities were considered immoral by the Church, merchants and their families having no possibility of salvation. At the same time a large group of  deprived people (what we call today ‘lower classes’), exploited or ill, or unable to work for different reasons, was developing. While in the countryside the poor could find shelter and food because of the solidarity of the community, or simply die forgotten. In the city the concentration of poor became more evident, as the rules of survival were ruthless. Religious charities supported them in part but it was not enough. They were often excluded, relegated to caves or shacks outside the town walls. This applied especially to lepers.
Francesco’s father, Pietro Bernardone, was a silk trader and probably a usurer too, a rich merchant who could offer a comfortable life to his family, a life that Francesco definitely enjoyed during his youth. When he was about twenty, he took part in the battle of Collestrada (1202) and was captured and put in prison for more than a year. On rejoining his family, he was still similar to the other rich young people of his home town. He liked spending and enjoyed life but he also had ideals: a romantic, almost aristocratic, wish to gain glory and better his position, to become a knight.  After a crisis, whose cause we don't know: maybe   illness or a disappointment, or perhaps he was bored of his rich, comfortable life, came his conversion. What profoundly changed his perspective on life was meeting the lepers, the excluded, who first provoked his horror but then acceptance and mercy, ‘a sweetness in my soul and body’. After a while he started to practice asceticism and repentance, considering his life before the conversion to have been sinful and vain.
As Raul Manselli points out in his famous and comprehensive bibliography of the saint (San Francesco, (English translation: St Francis of Assisi), it was not only the poverty of lepers and poor in general that attracted Francesco and caused his conversion, but rather the profound understanding of common human suffering, in the body and in the mind (soul, he’d have said), which gnaws human beings like leprosy.
At the time the Church of Rome was troubled by both internal contradiction and external threat. Firstly, the wish to inspire and live in devout adherence to Christ’s words from many in the Church conflicted with widespread corruption and the dissolute life of the Roman Curia and some high priests. Secondly, the Church as a whole was challenged by Muslim invasion of the Holy Land and the heretical movements in Europe. In this climate the idea of ‘holy war’ and ‘just war’ against Muslims and pagans, or heretics, emerged, as well as a forced conversion, in contrast with the previous idea of a slow and pacific conversion. Oppression and war, apart from being cruel and ruthless, were not completely successful. It kept Islam out of Europe temporarily, but the heretical movements flourished. It was clear to everybody that the poor, ascetic and ‘heretical’ preacher was nearer to Christ’s life and teaching than the rich and powerful priests and abbots. In the Middle Ages, religion and spirituality had a paramount importance in social, political and ordinary life, from kings to peasants.
In this historical context, Francesco and his poor friars were, simply by example, both parallel and antidote to heretical movements. St Francis was never ordained priest, challenging the rules of the time by shaving his head and preaching, crossing the strict divisions between lay people and clerics. He was more successful than any threat or persuasive sermon. Besides, Francesco was faithful to the Church, obedient to the Pope (Innocent III approved the order in 2010) and his life was impeccable: committed to poverty, pacifism, chastity and penitence and he shared his life with the poor and the sick. It was a real earthquake in the religious life of Italy and Europe. Was he understood? I am sure he was in great part, and still is, considering that he had a huge number of followers and today the Franciscan order is still strong and spreads all over the world. Still, he couldn’t really change the Church, but this is another matter.
Other important works on St Francis are: Vita di un uomo: Francesco d’Assisi by Chiara Frugoni, Fonti francescane (Franciscan sources), and two films: Brother sun, sister moon (1972) by Franco Zeffirelli, and Francesco (1989) by Liliana Cavani.
Compared to St George, we certainly know a lot about St Francis as he lived in a period when Christianity was widespread and people kept written records of what was happening. On the other hand, it is not so easy to understand why Italy chose St Francis as its patron saint (he was proclaimed patron saint of Italy together with St. Catherine of Siena in 1939 by Pope Pius XII). It seems a contradiction of, rather than a similarity to, what are commonly considered typical characteristics of an Italian lifestyle (his asceticism above all, his harsh life to the brim of madness, contrast with the easy-going, comfortable life of the average Italian). Nevertheless he was chosen instead of other important saints, like St. Antony of Padua,  to name just one.
I think the first reason is the fact that he was Italian and saved the Church from a probable schism. The other reason is his noble example of  humanity and open-mindedness that embraces, forgives and comprehends everybody, especially the poor and excluded, but also the violent, the criminal, the pagan. These qualities are borne out by the story of the wolf of Gubbio, probably a criminal, by his visit to Egypt in 1219, meeting the Muslim Sultan in an attempt to bring peace during the Crusade wars, by his immense humility and, I’d add, cleverness and freedom. This is a very high aim, an ideal almost impossible to reach but very much rooted in the Italian (or should I say Mediterranean) mentality. Mixing with, absorbing, comprehending others is not only the right thing to do, it is also the most convenient way to live a peaceful and rewarding life. This mentality is the consequence of the geographical position of the Italian peninsula stretching into the Mediterranean, where different populations travelled and mixed readily in the past centuries. But Italy is also linked to central and eastern Europe in the north, bringing in even more people to this day. Italian populations had to come to terms with ‘invaders’ all the time.
Certainly St Francis is also the symbol and ideal of a pure, poor Church, adhering to Jesus Christ’s teachings. And the Roman Church, together with the Roman empire, are the most important and powerful achievements in the history of the Italian peninsula, another reason in favour of his choice as patron saint.
So, long live St George and St Francis!

A day in Edinburgh
I spent a weekend in Edinburgh, with my daughter who is currently studying Fashion and Design at Edinburgh University, but we had only one day to go sightseeing. It wasn’t too cold, but very windy and definitely beautiful: the sun shining, the sky deep blue and the air invigorating.
My daughter lives near the castle, within easy reach of the Royal Mile. Of course we did a good deal of shopping. How could we resist the warm tartan scarves, shortbread and Celtic jewellery? I soon gave in, spoiled myself with some presents and started the Christmas shopping.
At Holyrood House I reminded my daughter that we had visited it a long time ago when she was only five or six years old. I remember the children enjoyed visiting the palace by themselves, listening to audio guides. They behaved so well during the whole visit that my husband and I had a well-deserved, relaxing tour for once.

At the Queen’s Gallery there was a massively interesting exhibition on poets laureate from John Dryden to Carol Ann Duffy. There were not only letters, poems and pictures of the poets, but also beautiful works of art by Stephen Raw, a textual artist who created his pictures from poems by Carol Ann Duffy. His elegant writing, reminiscent of Celtic calligraphy,  highlighted words, encircled letters, letting an ‘f’, a ‘g’ or an ‘r’ extend across the page. Around the letters, usually in white, a background of vivid watercolour shades added comment on the words. The books can be considered modern ‘illuminated’ art works in their own right. I couldn’t help but buy the printed version: Ritual Lighting, published by Picador.
Among the poems of the exhibition were The Crown, composed by C.A. Duffy for the 60th anniversary of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth I, Rings, for the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, and Dreams, a concertina art book a few metres long illustrating C.A. Duffy’s poem.
We visited the interior of the palace, following the audio guides and admiring the highly decorated plaster ceilings, the old tapestries and the portraits of sovereigns. The story of Mary Queen of Scots and her secretary, David Rizzio, was the most intriguing and mysterious one, a mixture of passion, politics and possibly adultery. Who knows?
The garden's impressive autumn colours stand out against the distant rocks of Salisbury Crags. On the north side of the palace are the charming ruins of Holyrood Abbey. Ancient history and tradition represented by the palace and the abbey are stunningly counterbalanced by the wild environment and harsh weather.
After this we went back to the Royal Mile and headed to the Scottish National Gallery. Italian painters are well represented (three of Raphael’s Madonna with child; Titian, Veronese, Salvator Rosa, Tiepolo and many minor interesting painters) as well as Flemish and Dutch art (two beautiful Rembrandt and a Frans Hals). There were some insightful portraits by Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Lawrence. Unfortunately we missed the Impressionists and the section of Scottish art because of distractions, running late and catching the train back to Lancaster. We’ll have more time on my next visit.
In the Gallery shop I bought some cards reproducing the C.R. Mackintosh sketches of flowers, great works I added to my collection.
I found my daughter well settled in Edinburgh and happy. She is enjoying the courses (besides fashion, she is also studying Japanese) and is having fun with her new Scottish friends. She is not eager to come back home. On the walls of her room and framed on her desk, she displays family photos including old picturess of great-grandmothers and a wide collection of artistic postcards testifying our visits to galleries and exhibitions. We quizzed each other on the names of their artists. On her pin board I hung a little woollen angel, found in a shop on the Royal Mile, to protect her.

Commuting, November 2014
Every time I leave Lancaster to travel south I feel a sense of adventure: my life is developing. I love the job I am doing there and the place where I am working (I teach Italian in an international school in Surrey). I thought from the beginning it was a great opportunity and I am trying to make the most of it. When I started at the end of August I drove for the first two weeks, but not every day. I always stay in a hotel for three nights. It should take four hours to reach Surrey but it normally takes five to six hours by car, mainly because of the traffic, especially around  the Birmingham area.
Travelling south alone by car gave me an unusual, exciting sensation. I had a sudden feeling of freedom mixed with curiosity, which oddly reminded me of a similar emotion experienced when I used to go on childhood holidays to the Alps with my parents and sister. I even felt I was breathing fresh Alpine air while driving! Proust syndrome? Just a coincidence, but it was breathtaking. Then I decided to travel by train, less tiring though more expensive. Sometimes there were delays or other disruptions such as the hotel forgotting my reservation and all the accommodation in the area being already taken. I ended up at Guilford Holiday Inn after midnight and was lucky they still had a room free. Another time there was a problem in the railway in Carlisle and my train was cancelled.
I always check the weather forecast two or three times before leaving. I pray it won’t snow this winter and floods will be moderate. Or I won’t fall and break a bone (this has never happened to me in my life yet) or sprain an ankle, or any other dreadful emergencies happen in my family. Please no, not this year. We are usually all pretty healthy and haven’t experienced any kind of serious accident in the past twenty to twenty-five years, so why now? I try not to have negative thoughts but just keep going and pay attention to what I do: climb downstairs carefully, check the train timetables, book seats and double check reservations, have enough food and drink. It’s all routine after a while which is why I need to pay attention.
Though I enjoy travelling and look forward to it every Monday, I also want to come back to my family every Thursday. Coming back north means home but also a lot of chores and looking after my autistic daughter Valentina. My husband is tired too, as he works full time and has Valentina. Hopefully next September we should all be together again down south. Maybe I am going to miss my commuting then, looking back with nostalgia to my free time in the hotel: no cooking, no cleaning, and to the hours spent in the train reading and snoozing...a wonderful time.

Buying a house in the south
As I am now working in the south, I am planning to move south too. I know property prices have been going up and up in the London area in the last year and a half, but now they are stagnating, probably going down slightly.
Finding a house I liked was not straightforward or easy. The properties I viewed at first had exorbitant prices and were rather old. They’d have looked sad even after massive refurbishing. I can’t honestly believe that the estate agency really expected to sell them at those figures.
After this shocking experience, I contacted more agencies and tried different kinds of property in different areas. At a certain point I decided I didn’t want to live in town but in a village, and booked one appointment after the other every free evening I had after school. After a month I still had no clue about where we could possibly live down there. Houses were too small or too big and impossibly expensive. Nothing seemed affordable for us except what we didn’t like.
Then one day I insisted on seeing three properties in villages around Woking. I liked two of them and asked my husband to dash south and have a look at them as well. He liked the houses so we decided to not waste time. The prices were negotiable and we made our offer. Negotiations went on for a few days...finally we had a deal. Now we look forward to signing the contract and have the keys, hopefully after Christmas.
My new house is beautiful. It has a modern kitchen, a lounge and dining room downstairs, four bedrooms upstairs and enough space for us all. Though it is smaller than the house we have in the north (my children are less and less at home now that they are at university), it is well built, doesn’t need refurbishing or decorating and there are even a conservatory and a Jacuzzi in the garden. On the whole, it’s a lovely place, well kept, clean and simple, with everything we need and more. A happy ending to my house hunting adventure.

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