Friday, 30 April 2010

The Elephant Keeper

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is a wonderful book. It's an account by Tom Page, the elephant keeper of the title, of his relationship with two elephants in 18th century England, and it manages, with no apparent effort, to talk about the nature of love, power structures and their effect on human relationships, notions of the afterlife, landscape gardening and a host of other things. It does so with grace, humour, depth and, above all - perhaps unexpectedly, given that the core of the book describes the love and respect a man can have for an animal - humanity. In an age of taxonomists and dictionary-makers, of professional hermits and travelling menageries, the book gives value to similarity above difference, to care above indifference. Tom Page is a wonderfully conceived character: courageous, touching, stubborn, but with a streak of anti-heroic realism that keeps the reader on tenterhooks. He can also be very funny. I don't think I've used the word unputdownable before. I must have been saving it for this novel. I recommend it to everyone.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Book-loving in Catalonia

No, I'm not dead, in case you were wondering, and I haven't been resting either, in the Thespian sense or otherwise. As we say here in Italy, when struck by wistful longing, magari (to the latter, obviously: I mean, not death, of which I've had already had more than enough these past few months). To be honest, it's been a period of unrelenting distress and confusion and now we're getting the builders in for three weeks just to finish us off completely. I say three weeks. I must be mad.

Which means that I'm looking forward even more to spending a few days in northern Spain this summer in the company of people who write books and people who love them, and possibly write them too. I've been invited by an organisation called 7 Day Wonder to take part in their book-lovers' holiday near Girona, from 3 to 10 September. The other authors will be Ann Cleeves, Claire Dudman and Adam Nevill, so it's a pretty varied and exciting line-up. Plus, I've been told, the food is fantastic, so you'd be crazy not to sign up this very minute.

Girona, too, is a wonderful place to visit. We went there years before Ryanair started pretending it was a suburb of Barcelona, and loved the high sunlit square in front of the cathedral, the balconies dripping spider plants, the river weirdly packed with fish and some rather interesting chicken rissoley things we ate in a bar. We were travelling with a very complete guidebook, which even told us where the town's red-light district used to be. But we still weren't prepared for the sight of a middle-aged woman in a doorway, black beret tipped teasingly to one side, slit skirt and lightly swinging handbag, looking for all the world like a provincial Marlene Dietrich.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010


The town I live in, Fondi, has a brand new town council. Well, not quite brand new. The freshly elected mayor (with over 55% of the vote) is a Mr De Meo - you may remember him from the election material I posted some time ago; he's the one with the unnaturally blue eyes, bald head and air of enthusiastic idiocy, as though he'd like to take your children's toys and smash them to bits with a hammer. This might be his first shot at mayoralty, but he's not exactly unused to the corridors of Fondano power: he was responsible for town planning under the previous council, the one that resigned before the government got round to dismissing it for mafia infiltration. De Meo, not surprisingly, appears as a suspect in the accusatory documents - town planning is mafia shorthand for one of those magical pots of gold - you know the kind: the more you take out of them the more there's left to take. He's not alone either. Eleven of the new department chiefs in the new council, responsible for all kinds of lucrative civil activities, have simply been recycled from the previous one, as though re-election had the same kind of cleansing qualities as full confession (and, who knows, perhaps it does). The photograph above is of my local bins, which also preach recycling but don't seem to know quite how it's done.

Foot and mouth disease

I've been on the point of writing something about the whole paedophile scandal for a couple of weeks now, but really, why bother? The Vatican is doing such a good job of shooting itself in the foot - yes, that's right, the one it's managed to jam into its own mouth - that additional comment from me seems superfluous. Let them get on with it, say I. Ratzinger and his gang of frocked deniers have managed to anger just about everyone and mollify no one so far, something I'd never have dreamed of achieving with my own humble sniping from my own very small rooftop 100 miles away from Ground Control by the Tiber.

So I'm not even going to comment on the latest nonsense from a certain Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone (seen here with friends), who claims that a clear link has been found between paedophilia and homosexuality but not between paedophilia and celibacy (except perhaps to point out that if you're celibate, darling, you're not having sex with anyone). In fact, the only clear link I can find in this whole sad business is the one between a bunch of frightened old men whose authority is being challenged and the spouting of malicious bullshit.

And that's not a comment. That's science.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Lech Kaczynski dies in plane crash

One dwarfish homophobe less in the world (calm down - I'm talking about the one on the left). Of the evil Polish ex-child stars, Lech is the straight twin; his even more repulsive brother, Jaroslav, is the one rumoured to be gay. He's still alive.

Still, as the Tesco ads always say: Every little helps.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Take your partners

The nearest I got to any seriously engaged reading during my three years at Cambridge was probably every Thursday when NME came out and, in the company of friends and a pinch or so of grass, we gathered in my room in South Court and subjected each article to the sort of analysis we should have been applying to Samuel Richardson or the Paris commune. It's hard to imagine now, but NME in the early and mid-1970s was a pretty cutting-edge publication, on the look out for music that would meet its journalists' (and readers') intellectual needs and more than fed up with the bombastic, overweening, cod-classical trash - Yes, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, (shudder) Queen - available at the time. So all our ears pricked up when news filtered through of a band, except we didn't refer to them as a band, called the Sex Pistols. Long before they'd recorded anything we followed their antics and the antics of their manager, Malcolm McLaren, including his attempt to resurrect the New York Dolls, an act of such majestic awfulness they could neither survive nor be allowed to die. I never heard the Sex Pistols live - their first gig was a few months after I'd graduated - but I saw Johnny Rotten once, thrillingly, outside a pub in Charlotte Street and I managed to acquire a tee-shirt from Sex, with a hardcore gay orgy silk-screened on the front - a tee-shirt I still have but, unsurprisingly, no longer wear.

A couple of years later I was visiting an aunt of mine in the Midlands. Steeleye Span were playing in town that evening and, for old times' sake, I went to their concert. It was the night Elvis Presley died but that isn't why I remember it. I remember it because the concert I didn't go to that evening was one of the dates of the last (real) Sex Pistols tour in the UK. I didn't go because they were performing under a different name to avoid being banned, and I couldn't have read my NME closely enough that week; I'd slipped out of the loop. In those years, I saw pretty much everyone on the punk and post-punk scene, from X-Ray Spex and Siouxsie and the Banshees to the Buzzcocks and Generation X to Wire and the Gang of Four, but I still regret missing the Pistols for Maddy Prior.

I was in Portugal when Sid Vicious OD'd on heroin, two months after the death of Nancy Spungen. A voice on the BBC World Service announced that Mr Sidney Vicious had been found dead at the age of 21, etc. I wanted to shout out that Vicious wasn't his real surname but found myself crying instead. It was a low point in my life and it felt as though something messy and possible, some sort of dirty inchoate hope for a different sort of future, had been definitively stifled. By the time I was back in Britain, the world had changed, or mine had, and I found myself wearing a suit and working for a medical publisher's near Tottenham Court Road. The man I was working with, it turned out, had shared a flat with Malcolm McLaren and an actress, I think a midget, who'd worked in The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle. He shook his head when I asked him what it had been like. When I insisted, he mouthed the word 'drugs', and shook his head a second time.

And that slight degree of separation was as close as I got to McLaren, apart from buying his music when a lot of other people had probably stopped. Which doesn't quite explain the sadness I felt this morning when I read that he was dead. It's not like the death of Sid Vicious, but something has gone, a smidgeon of naughtiness and fuck-you-allness that won't come back easily or be found in quite the same guise as it was in McLaren's joyfully sleazy post-situationist stance, and a wide-open and essentially generous eye for the main chance in a world that tends to seize its opportunities, and then close them off, in a meaner and somehow more self-interested way than he did.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010


Patricia E. Fogarty of TheAmerican | inItalia interviewed me recently, about Little Monsters and Any Human Face, along with the whole business of living and writing abroad. As you'll see, I'm snugly placed between a piece on the highly regarded Italian actress Margherita Buy and an article about the eastern coast of Lake Como. You can read the interview here.

To heaven with a handgun

Would you buy a used apocalypse from these people? More information here.
"By Monday, the Stones’ house stood empty, its front door ajar and two dogs still tied up in the muddy yard, which was littered with dilapidated furniture, a washing machine and tires."

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Via Parlamento

I took this photograph on the day it was announced that the leader of the regional parliament of Sicily was being investigated for Mafia connections. He isn't the first: his baby-faced predecessor was famously photographed offering his partners in crime a trayful of cannoli - a local delicacy - to celebrate his conviction for a similar crime a couple of years ago. This street looks sufficiently nondescript to house the gang of self-interested delinquents that currently run the island ("by special statute"), but the real parliament sits, from Monday to Thursday each week, in a wonderful structure, shared with an Arab tower and a room of extraordinary beauty known, like a child's nursery, as 'Roger's Room', some distance from here. You'd think from the hand-written nature of this street sign that someone is making an ironic comment on the absence, or shabbiness, of the Sicilian parliament, or a suggestion that the damn thing simply go away. But this really is the name of the street, although I've no idea why. In a city where signposts are lamentably few, this small square of cardboard is probably no more than a private gesture of good will.

Biofeed? No thanks!

The next time you're thinking of adding a little extra fertiliser to that rubber plant in the corner of the living room, consider these monsters from Piazza Marina in Palermo and think again. (I'm just there for purposes of scale.)