Wonderful Italy!

Why is it that you can go anywhere in Italy at any time and get a good meal? This would be impossible in or home town. We are in Spoleto in Umbria. The sun is shining and all is well with the world. What seemed like a sleepy town has restaurants still open mid afternoon. Lots of pasta dishes we didnt recognise, great local wine, a dessert with coffee and all for about £15 per person. Granted the free licquer tasted like cough medecine. But it was free and three of us drank it!

Shelley is said to have described Spoleto as ‘the most romantic town I ever saw’. Well I dont know about that but it does seem to have its fair share of winding cobbled streets, antiquities and galleries. Tomorrow it’s Assisi and then Wednesday Loreto, before moving to the Marches. The holiday we never thought we would have.



Staying in other people’s houses

We’re in Copenhagan for the weekend, staying in a flat of someone whom we briefly met when she gave us the keys. She has vacated it for our stay and left it more or less as she uses it. But clean, tidy and accessible to us. It’s an odd experience as we look at personal belongings and mementoes to try to get a picture of the owner. This one is defintely shabby chic. A bohemian owner with a partner who looks like an older Brad Pitt. And she loves Marilyn Monroe, there are images everywhere. Scandanavian chic, bleached wood doors and floors and light neutral furnishings. There are some strange artefacts: a small snake in a jar; a condom machine; quirky bare lighting. Everything looks handmade or bought from flea markets. There are two beaded evening dresses hung on our bedroom wall. There’s a cute lion rocking horse, an Indian display cabinet full of silvery trinkets and a sewing area with adorments that could have come straight out of Pinterest. It’s provided some great ideas for Alex, Dave and Sooz in their new London flat.




Female book heroines

I love female heroines in books. My favourite of all time is Madame Bovary. In fact I loved it so much I named our first daughter Emma. Hopefully she won’t have the same life or fate though, as Emma Bovary takes arsenic and dies. When I studied it for A level set text our male teacher interpreted her as a silly fantasist who got what she deserved. And this said to an all female class. How passive we must have been in those days. When we studied it at uni my interpretation was different. I was much more sympathetic to Emma’s few opportunities for advancement and fulfilment in a stifling 18th century French society. She is ‘everywoman’ and just as relevant today.

I was reminded of this book when watching ‘Anna Karenina’ last night. I haven’t read the book. Shame on me! So again I was dependant upon a male (Tom Stoppard screenplay) interpretation. It’s an ambitious enactment of the book: magical and elaborate, played out as a piece of theatre and alternating with outdoor scenes which must be confusing for some audiences. The horse race scene that took place on a stage was clever and artful.

Anna came across as a selfish woman who abandoned her husband and children in the pursuit of love. Condensing a long book into two hours inevitably meant that some of the subtleties of the Tolstoy novel must have been lost. The parallels of the different love stories needed more words to be developed. And I felt that the story was let down by the characterisation. Keira Knightley makes an exquisitely beautiful Anna. But when I watch her I am aware of the artifice of the performance. The pouts, the dimpled smiles, the crestfallen looks. You remember where you have seen her do this before, say ‘Atonement’. Unlike Meryl Streep, or Kate Winslet, in any role, where you tend to forget her previous characters.

And the relationship between Anna and her lover (Russian name) forgotten was less than credible. Actor Aaron Johnstone was too unattractive, wearing a Shirley Temple wig, to match her charms. And probably hasn’t lived long enough to understand and act out the final traumas of their relationship. He seemed to give little in the final scenes. Unlike Jude Law, whom I didn’t recognise. He played Anna’s upright, uptight, moralising husband. Like Charles Bovary he is dull.

Some scenes reminded me of ‘Doctor Zhivago’. The snow, the harshness, the shallowness of Russian society (look out for Downton’s Lady Mary), the politics of Russia. There are great tableaux: the opera, the races, the meadow. But they were better brought out in the former. ‘Anna Karenina’ is more like a musical without the music, a show for the theatre. I imagine it lacks the complexity and moral messages of the book. I say ‘imagine’ for I should read it now!


She’s leaving home

Youngest daughter is leaving home tomorrow to live in London and it will be a sad day. Most of her possessions are here today but will be gone tomorrow. An empty bedroom and one less toothbrush in the bathroom. There is no rite of passage like marriage, university is over, she’ll just get on the train and that will be that. I understand of course. Who wants to stay in a Midlands market town with few attractions and poor employment prospects, of the kind she wants? If I was her age I would do the same. But that doesn’t make it any easier. It will be the first time for a long time that the house won’t be full of young people’s chatter. It will be tidy and there will always be plenty of hot water (why do they spend so long in the shower?). There will be no loose leads hanging from plug sockets. Nor odd trainers lurking under sofas. Or sleepy heads on the sofa, after a late night, covered in a throw mid-afternoon. But those are scant compensations for interesting conversations, volunteers to cook meals, constant smiley faces and weird films by unknown-to-us European directors to watch (ok I won’t miss those!). I can do without the unpredictability but will miss the spontaneity. I might have to take in lodgers (haven’t mentioned this to Stewart!)


I love Oldham

Driving into Oldham today reminded me of my teaching days when cheeky kids used to try to leave early by telling me they had to ‘go fert buzz’. As I believed it was my duty to teach them English before I could teach them French I made them repeat it correctly til they got it right. By which time the bell had rung (and they still hadn’t got it right.)

Oldham has always had ‘a buzz’ about it, even if you have to look hard to find it. I should know, as I lived there. In fact for a couple of years I was in the catchment area of the school where the paperboy, milk girl and local kids were in my classes. The disadvantage of being so invisible was compensated by a short journey time. My friend Patrick has just returned to Oldham after living in London (Notting Hill and Holland Park actually). We were talking about the differences. You can still buy a house in Oldham for £45,000; you wouldn’t get a garage in London for that. There’s a theatre in Oldham, but not in Notting Hill. Vintage shops in London are called charity shops in Oldham. Oldham has a real baker (not a supermarket fake baker) who bakes bread on the premises and sells onion bread, foccaccia. and other delights. They even sell pie n mash (What’s all that about? says Peter Kay). It’s not exactly The Hummingbird Bakery but the prices are affordable and quality good.

Oldham doesn’t do ‘gastro pubs’ but we did have lunch in a pub selling real gutsy food. Ignoring the ‘sandwiches with roast beef and gravy’ and ‘panini with prawns and Marie Rose sauce’ (ugh, all those drips!) I opted for freshly cooked fish n chips. Oldham being nearer to the sea than Loughborough makes it a safe bet. The landlord chatted to us in a neighbourly way, not because he was looking for a tip. It’s no good looking for fusion food in Oldham. Patrick says the nearest they get is a Chinese takeaway with chips. In Notting Hill there’s a canal they call ‘Little Venice’ lined with wine bars. Well Oldham has the Rochdale canal lined with pubs. Patrick says that people are definitely friendlier in the north but he does object to loud conversations about medical conditions in the street and in queues. In fact Oldham has its own charm but ‘it’s still boring and there’s nothing to do’.


Italian silks repurposed

My daughter works for an Italian textiles company that produces wonderful silks. She colours designs from their archives and these are produced as samples to show to clients. I discovered in conversation with her that, after presentations, they throw away these glorious silks. ‘Well what use are they?’ she said. Not any more; she gives them to me. And I am going to turn them into scarves and bags (when I work out how to make bags!) This is my first attempt that I gave to a friend this week and she loves it. It has lovely blue flower patterns. I’ve explained that the only dodgy part if the hemming which is mine. On trips to Lake Como, particularly Bellagio, I’ve gazed at gorgeous silk scarves in shop windows. Now I can produce my own in Loughborough (doesn’t have the same ring as Bellagio!)