Thursday, 30 May 2013

Strange things to buy in Venice.

In my last post I showed you how goods arrive at their destinations. Here I have some of the things you can buy. I have not included anything from a street stall, most of which are crammed with bags and scarves and masks and little models of St Mark's. All these were in shop windows (except the one that was on my table ... that will become clear). I do not claim that this is not representative of things you can buy in Venice - simply things that caught my eye.

Suppose you've been walking all day, your feet ache ... would you buy these?

Speaking personally, I value my knees to much - though I can see that they are rather wonderful colours.

If you don't fancy shoes, how about jewellery?

When I saw this, it struck me that it resembled a collection of green nipples. But maybe green nipples are your thing ...

You can buy dolls in many shapes and forms.

These are dressed in their finery, and are presumably meant to sit on the side and be admired. No use to my granddaughter then.

I can't see her playing with these, either. They're glass, and the colours are lovely, and might look good with the sun behind them.

Maybe the grandsons would like masks? There are masks all over Venice - and some of them are truly beautiful. I'm sure many tourists swaddle them in bubble wrap to get them home. And how many unpack them and wonder - what are they going to do with it now?

It's all getting too much. Time for this:

Monday, 27 May 2013

Deliveries, Venice-style.

Some years ago, before Over the Hill was published, a mentor suggesting I don't write about anything you might see on the telly. So, given that pictures of Venice are everywhere, I thought I'd give you a different view or two.

Have you every wondered how all that stuff - the food, the goods in the shops, the furniture in your hotel room - arrived? Anywhere but Venice, it comes on a lorry, or van, or maybe you trot off to the shop and can carry it yourself (though the shop has to get it from somewhere.) In Venice, of course, it's much more complicated. For everything comes by boat. Anything heavy is lifted off by a small crane.

While boxes of strawberries are hauled up one box at a time.

Then what? Well, big things like tables fold up and go on a trolley.

And heavy things, like barrels of beer, have to be wheeled through the streets - these trolleys have special little wheels at the front so they can go up and down the stepped bridges without the driver rupturing himself.

And, at the end of the day, comes the rubbish man, with another wheelie trolley, to take away the detritus that is left behind.

And in my next blog, I've got some photographs of some of the extraordinary things that come into this city on boats!

Thursday, 23 May 2013

What did you do in Venice?

What did you do in Venice?

I got lost.

What do you mean, lost?

Indeed - what do I mean, lost? As a child was taught that 'lost' is something terrible. It means someone nasty might take you away. That storms would rage and winds would howl and there'd be no gingerbread house for me, oh no, I'd be cold and wet and what's more nobody would love me.

But lost, I've learned, can be many things - rarely starkly good, or bad - rather it can be uncomfortable, or inconvenient, occasionally alarming. And it can also be an opportunity. Lost is the place where we find the unexepected. It is the place where we can look up and see the sky is a different blue, the buildings a strange shape, the people with smiles you don't recognise.

Some years ago I was Hue, in Vietnam, for the Chinese New Year. I was studying a map - useless, when all the street names were in a different script - when a man came and used his one sentence of English: What is your name? He led me to his home, to his frail parents and his gentle wife and his sister and three children who bounced around my knees. The children knew we didn't need words. I spent the day with them. I have no idea what was going on, what I ate, nor what sense they made of me. It was a wonderful, 'lost', opportunity.

I didn't meet unexpected families in Venice. But I wandered into a church and found a picture by Tintoretto. I was tempted by tiny passageways that led to a courtyard where the sun shone on flaking pink walls and tiny white flowers shimmered. And I sat in the sun, in my lostness, and watched tourists studying maps.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

On arriving in Venice at sunset

There's nothing exceptional about Marco Polo Airport. It's all corridors and lights and hurrying people. It would help if their directions were better, but, hey ho, I found the boat into the city eventually.

It was about 6.30 in the evening. It had rained all day, but clouds were being frightened away - though it was still grey to the west. But here the sun was low over the water, taking over from the rain, glittering, like diamonds scattered across the lido. White water - in the wake of the water taxis - whooshed into rainbows.

Sun crept across the buildings. Marble was stained with evening yellow. Solid red walls became a luminous orange, or deep rose-pink. The spring-green of trees as bright as jewels. People, wandering along by the water, insignificant beside the magic of the buildings.

There was the chug of the boat, of course, and the smell of diesel, but that soon forgotten as we edged towards the city, bouncing in the wake of vaporetti and water taxis. The slap of water against the boat. Closer to the buildings, the sun lower in the sky now - and the shady corners darker here, like little mysteries, places to hide dark deeds. If my grandchildren had been there we'd have told stories of derring do, of swashbuckling, and maybe of love - for the sun went down and stars dared to twinkle.

I could have told myself stories, of course. Scribbled them down, even put them on this blog.

I didn't. I went out for pasta and wine. (Well, what would you have done?)

ps. If anyone hasn't seen the excerpt from Bombs and Butterflies on my website, you can find it here.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

You don't expect writing today, do you?

Tomorrow I'm going to Venice - I hope you don't expect me to write sense today.

Between now and tomorrow morning I must sort the laundry, buy some milk, cut the grass, clean the cooker, water the plants, sew on a button, write a letter, buy a birthday card, order two toy wheelbarrows, order a supermarket shop, talk intelligently at a literature festival as if I had nothing else on my mind,

pause, breathe, remind myself that this will be worth it,

(nearly forgot lunch),

clean out the fridge, change the sheets on the bed, phone the bank (god help me), charge the phone, charge the camera, charge the kindle, return a book I borrowed to the woman next door, water the plants,



For tomorrow I'm going to Venice!

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Can you write, with All That going on?

We all have times that are a bit full of Life, Ketchup times, when thinking gets a bit scrambled (I know, mixed metaphors, but what do you expect at times like these ...)

Yet I can write. Not made-up stuff. None of those exercises that suggest you imagine yourself on a distant planet now open your eyes and write about what you see. Not a hope of a once upon a time. Nor trying to imagine life as a man, or a person of colour, or a teenage girls with spots. No - any suggestion of 'pretend' and the imaginative half of my brain shot warning sparks. If you try to write any of this stuff down, it said, you'll see it's such twaddle you'll be convinced you've gone bonkers. (Maybe I was, just a little.)

But travel writing is not made up. The bones of the story are there. I could sit with my diaries from Laos know where I went, where I ate, which temples I visited, which wonderful people I met. (Just so you know, I never make up anything in my travel books - everything is as it happened, though some things are played with, just for fun.)

And so it has been possible to use the logical, clear-thinking, unimaginative half of my brain to find stories from my trip to Laos. To tell the truth, it was a relief, when I could find the time, to sit with my memories and the computer and discover that part of my brain was still working. Sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, the stories when down.

The first draft done, I read it through, expecting it to be rubbish. And surprised myself. It needed playing with, but the bones of my story had flesh on them now. All it needed was clothes. And so I edited, and edited, and then asked friends and critics to read it - still not convinced that, in my muddled state, this tale was good enough to publish.

But even my fiercest critic (you know who you are) insisted it's good. It's different from Hidden Tiger, but Laos is a very different country. With different ideas and people and stories. Though, like Hidden Tiger, this will also be an ebook - and for the same reason. It's only 30,000 words: far too short for print copies. (You never know, if I do a third trip, I might put them all together and print them - but that's a decision for another day.)

So I sent it off for a copy edit - and now that is back. The blurb for Amazon is in draft form. The cover is gestating. When I get back from Venice next week I'll take another look at the copy edits, knuckle down to final tweeking ... and formatting ... and marketing ...


Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Finding the funny side.

As you know, life has been a bit full of, well, of Life recently. Since the day I got back from Laos, if we're going to be precise. I'm not going to write about the main focus of all this - mainly because the real heroine is old and frail and believes the internet was spawned from the devil's armpit, and so it would be disrespectful to splash her story over my blog.

But why is it that Big Dramas always come with a sub-plot?

For instance, at that moment when I was most in need of a cup of tea, the kettle blew up. To be fair, my failing to fill it with water was a contributory factor. But such reasoning was beyond me. At the time, standing in the kitchen with the kettle doing its hissing thing and then - phut, that tell-tale phut - and you know it's dead, my reasoning went something like this:

The kettle did this on purpose. It knew this was the very moment I would die - literally die - without a cup of tea. I must ring ... who ... someone who could go out and buy me a kettle, bring it to me wrapped in sparkly paper, make me tea while I sobbed my recovery. (Why couldn't I go and buy my own kettle? Because it was a Sunday, and I live in a small town with no kettle shop open on a Sunday. I have no car, and Sunday buses are ... when did you last see a bus in the countryside on a Sunday? What's more, the kettle must have known all this and chosen a Sunday, deliberately.)

I didn't do any of that. I took a deep breath. Found my little travelling kettle. Made some tea. Ordered a new kettle.

Then, on Bank Holiday Saturday, just as Life was receding enough for me to notice the crumbs on the floor, the hoover blew up. Just like that. The engine all hot and bothered. I'd have carried on regardless if there had been suction, but the hoover must have known I'd do something like that as it packed up entirely. With a little sigh and a stink - and then, nothing. Bank Holiday Saturday, the house uncleaned for weeks - and no hoover.

So, that was the moment it mattered more than anything in the world that I clean the house. I have books to read, the grass to cut, cakes to make (I lie about that, I rarely make cakes), friends to visit, logs to chop for the fire next winter, plants to repot, bed sheets to change, stories to write, films to watch, hair to wash - but somehow I can't do any of it until the house is clean. I order a new hoover. And wait in the dust for days, follow its tracking, jump up each time a truck goes by. The world has stopped because I can't clean the stairs.

Unreasonable? Of course it's unreasonable.

But the conspiracy of kettle and hoover, just when my head is peering above the parapet of Really Serious Drama, is unreasonable.

Please tell me I'm not the only one to have a common sense bypass when things like this go wrong?

Monday, 6 May 2013

When Life is like Ketchup

Many years ago, someone suggested that life is like ketchup - you shake the bottle for ages and nothing happens, and then it comes out in dollops.

Well, I came home from Laos to dollops of it.

You know what it's like - Mrs Next Door phones to ask you to look after Little Jenny while she goes into hospital to have another baby, of course you will, when? Now? Now? Well, of course.

Get down, Little Jenny, you say, kindly, when she climbs on the freezer that is in the middle of the kitchen floor because it doesn't fit in the space the old one came out of even though you measured it twice. Be careful, you will fall. Woops. It's all right, have some ice cream; oh, no freezer, no ice cream, nor frozen peas to put on your arm that looks a funny shape. Oh heck, how to tell Mrs Next Door Little Jenny has broken her arm.

So the phone rings. Old Aunt Gladys as put her head in the gas oven - she's fine, but in hospital and wonders if you can go and check she turned the gas off. Of course, when? Now? Now ... of course. Even though she lives 200 miles away and has neighbours but they don't have a key because, well, you never know with neighbours do you (her words, not yours). Maybe you can take Little Jenny to A&E in the hospital where Aunt Gladys is. But Little Jenny will only get into the car if you give her ice cream, because you promised ...

We all have times like this. Even so, nothing quite prepares you. There are moments of clarity, when you understand exactly what needs doing and can do it. And other moments when common sense disappears over the horizon with its arse on fire.

Slowly - so slowly it feels as if it will never happen - everything settles. You peer above the parapet to find that the sun still rises, the magnolia is blooming and you are amazingly, here to tell the tale.

That's the bit I've reached. There are still loose ends to tie up, but the world is reshaped am I'm fine. Well, in need of a little R and R. So I bought a flight to Venice - at the end of next week. It's what I do to reward myself after times like this.

What do you do, at those dust-settling times, to look after yourself? Your reward for keeping the show on the road as best you can?

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Local Election Day.

Yes, it's local election day. Are you yawning already? After all, it's hard to get excited about voting for councillors. We all know that they spend most of their time playing power-games, demanding double yellow lines outside their own houses while potholes get deeper where you live. That they'll fritter money on new computers, office chairs, fancy bollards on the cycle path near their own houses, leaving nothing left to pay for care homes or refuse collections.

At least - that is the fantasy. In practise some work hard, others don't. Some listen to their electors while others get carried away with the politics. Some beaver away behind the scenes and we never know how much they do while others spout from their soapboxes to make sure we all know how wonderful they are.

We know all that - and I'll still trot off to the polling station and place my cross.

Because how can complain if a councillor doesn't do his or her bit if I haven't done mine? I want to whinge about rural transport (we now have no buses at all on a Sunday), but if I can't be bothered to make a detour to the polling station once every few years then how can I expect a councillor to make an effort on my behalf - or complain when he or she fails to do anything?

But it goes deeper than that. Women chained themselves to railings just so I could vote. They were sidelined, ridiculed. They marched through London and were beaten by policemen. They went to prison, had tubes pushed down their throats so they could be force-fed. One died under the hooves of a horse. What if they'd given up? It they'd returned to their firesides, cowed, defeated?

I owe it to them. So I'm off to the polling station this morning.