Monday, 26 September 2011


So, I got home from Italy on Tuesday, and did bits of laundry and so on. On Wednesday I woke up with a sore throat, which I put down to having been cooped up in an aeroplane and a lot of trains. However, it quickly became obvious that that wasn't it.
I've spent most of the intervening time either curled up in bed, or on the sofa.
Now would be a good time to buy shares in tissues and lemsip.

Here's me and the excellent& lovely Moira Young prep... on Twitpic
(Picture borrowed from
@PhilipReeve1's twitter)
I think I'm starting to get better. I ventured out yesterday to go to Bath - the Bath Kids Lit Fest started on Friday, and I had a ticket to see Philip Reeve and Moira Young.

I enjoyed the panel, and it was  but it did make lovely to be able to say hello to Philip Reeve in person, after having spoken to him once or twice on twitter,  but I think I may have made a mistake in venturing out.

I was back at work today, but I only made it until about 1.30 before having to give up and go home.

I was due to go to a Kids Lit event this evening with David Almond, Melvin Burgess and Meg Rosoff but that's not going to happen, sadly. And the event on Sunday with Judith Kerr has had to be cancelled as she is not well, so my Kids Lit Fest this year will be a bit of a damp squib.

Oh well. C'est la vie.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

What I did On My Holidays - Part the Fifth - Naples Fiend-meet

After booking my holiday, it occurred to me that Sorrento and Naples are not too far from Rome, where my friend Nathalie lives, and when I got in touch with her it turned out that she was free on Monday, so we were able to arrange to meet up.  Nathalie generously agreed to come to Naples, and as Monday was my last full day, and I had a very early flight home on Tuesday morning, I'd booked a hotel in Naples for Monday night, so I travelled from Sorrento and checked in there, and Nathalie travelled from Rome, and we met in the lobby.
The weather had broken overnight - I was woken at 2 a.m. by a tremendous thunder storm - I thought for a moment the hotel was falling down around me! the rain lowered the temperature, which was nice, and it also meant it was a little clearer, although not by as much as I would have expected.

We set out to explore Naples - we started with the cathedral of San Gennero, as it turned out it was the day for the annual miracle, when some vials of St. Gennero's blood are brought out of the bank-vault in which they are normally kept, and the dried blood inside 'miraculously' liquefies. As a result, the church was very full, overflowing with nuns, and men in cassocks, and local dignitaries; we saw the tail-end of the procession going to the Church, but didn't wait for the miracle itself (although I gather this took place as advertised!)
'Dissillusion' (Pic from museum website)
We also visited the Cappella Sansevero, which houses a very famous sculpture of the 'Veiled Christ'. Unfortunately they have a very strongly enforced 'no photography' rule - however, the sculpture is incredible - really gives the impression of a body covered with a veil, through which details such as the wounds on the hands and feet can clearly be seen. The veil itself has delicate carved lace along the edges.

The sculpture is in the centre of the chapel, which also contains a number of other statues all having allegorical meanings, and with many references to freemasonry. To me, the most impressive is the statue depicting  disillusion, which has intricately carved stone netting!

Below the main chapel,  is a smaller chamber which contains two 'Anatomical Machines' which consist of two human skeletons, male and female, showing all the veins and arteries, and at least some of the internal organs. These were made in the 1760s, and no-one is entirely sure how they managed to do it. One theory is that it was done by injecting something, but according to the reading I've done since, it's now believed that the circulatory systems were made using wire, and plaster and beeswax, but it is still an incredible achievement - not least as it displays a much more accurate depiction of the circulatory system than was thought to be current at that time! The two bodies are looking somewhat the worse for wear, but very interesting, in a slightly gruesome way.
We went to the church and cloister of San Chiara, which features a cloister with majolica tiled pillars and seats. Most of the tiles features either daily scenes of trading or hunting, or of imaginative scenes of coaches drawn by lions, or peacocks, or sea monsters. Inexplicably, the scene in which the lions turn on their grooms and devour them, illustrating why cats are not suitable for this kind of work, is omitted.

We could only find one scene which related to the life of the convent, showing a nun feeding cats - two of which we identified as Bengals...

The church also has a small museum, in which none of the exhibits are labelled, so you find yourself looking at a mummified leg in a gilded case wondering who it (is supposed to have) belonged to.
We also visited a number of other churches, and we tried quite hard to visit Castel Nuovo, but unfortunately it was closed. It has a pretty impressive gateway, though!

We did, however, manage to find a nice restaurant where we ate pizza and drank beer, and later, we had coffee at Gambrinus, which is the oldest coffee shop in Naples, and still serves excellent coffee!

We were also unable to return to the archaeological museum, as that, too, is closed on Mondays. We did however, pass through the Galleria Umberto I, which is a huge shopping area, built in the 1880s, and featuring lots of angels, and glass ceilings and plasterwork. As shopping centres go, its pretty impressive.

There were a few more churches, and admired some .. interesting.. pieces of sculpture. I personally have no problems with Artemis of Ephesus or with one-legged Sphinxes as part of a tomb in a christian church, but I'm curious to know how they came to be approved, and what they were deemed to symbolise to make them acceptable for such a place!

We also spent a sensible amount of time sitting drinking granita and chatting, and simply wandering around, looking at streets and graffiti and stalls selling crib-figures, (and some figures *not* suitable for cribs, such as statues of Berlusconi and of various other celebrities and politicians.)

I really enjoyed the day - spending it with a friend made a wonderful finale to my holiday! (Although I did realise, when i got back to my hotel, that I had forgotten to give Nathalie the jar of home-made bramble jelly I brought all the way to Italy for her...

And then on Tuesday, I got up very early in the morning, and caught my flight home.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

What I Did On My Holidays - Part the Fourth - Villa Poppeae

After visiting the museum, I was on the circumvesuviana train back to Sorrento and decided, on impulse, to get off at Torre Annunziata, where I had seen that there is another Roman Villa, which was engulfed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD.

I am so glad that I did. The Villa Poppaea Oplontis is amazing, and it was virtually empty - there were only 4 or 5 other visitors there so I was able to have most of the rooms to myself a lot of the time.

The villa is very complete, and the wall-paintings are incredibly well preserved. It's thought that the villa belonged to the family of Poppea (murdered wife of the Emperor Nero), and that it was empty and undergoing renovations after damage caused in the 62AD earthquake, at the time of the eruption.

The villa was large, with gardens and a swimming pool outside, and this, together with some of the decoration of the gardens and courtyard walls has survived.
You can also still see the plainer decoration on the pillars, and the walls of the corridors and the courtyards.

And wooden shutters have survived in places. The archaeologists have also been able to identify some of the trees and plants which were growing in and around the villa, and so the appropriate fruit-trees have been replanted.
But I have to admit that it is the paintings which I like best, and found most intriguing and memorable. seeing how bright the colours are, it's hard to realise that they were painted over 1,900 years ago.
I'm so very glad I did decide to get off the train, and go to look at the Villa.

(More pictures in my Flickr set here)

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

What I Did On My Holidays - Part the Third - more Roman Remains

Visiting Pompeii and Herculaneum was fascinating, but many of the paintings and mosaics, as well as other artifacts such as glass, silver, and household items have been removed, and are now in the Museo Archeologico Natzionale in Naples, so I decided to take a day-trip into the city to visit the museum.
It's housed in an imposing building, (originally built as a university) and includes a vast 'Great Hall of The Sundial' which holds an ancient statue of Atlas, carrying the globe which is itself carved with depictions of the zodiac. (The sundial in question is set into the floor, and lit by a hole in one corner of the hall, and is, as far as I could make out, designed to show mid day at different seasons, rather than to measure the hours each day.
Alexander the Great - Mosaic from the 'House of the Faun', Pompeii (detail)
Quite a few sections of the museum are closed, including, to my regret, the section holding the 'Farnese gems' (mainly cameos) and some of the Pompeii paintings, but I was able to see the mosaics from Pompeii, which are extraordinary. I think that the mosaic showing the battle between Alexander the Great, and King Darius is probably the most famous, and it is utterly amazing, but the others are pretty impressive, too.
Octopus vs. Lobster (detail of mosaic from the House of The Faun, Pompeii)
I liked the seafood mosaic, and little details of several of the others - this spiky-toothed hippo, for example, and the cat, lurking below a birdbath.

There are also mosaic-decorated pillars, more cats, another guard-dog mosaic.
Another room worth visiting is the 'Gabinetto segreto' (secret room). This is not so much secret as segregated - it contains lots of erotic art - originally, in the early 19th Century, the room was closed, and only those who were "of mature age and well known morality" were granted permits to view the "infamous monuments of heathen licentiousness".

It was then open during the Garibaldi period, and closed under the fascist regime, until 1967! Now it is open again, although there is a sign outside in four or five languages warning it may not be suitable for younger visitors..
Some of the artworks, such as the 'Venus in a golden bikini' are quite unexceptional.
Others, however, such as the statue of Pan with a she-goat, are more startling, to modern eyes!  There are also paintings taken from one of the lupanares (brothels) in Pompeii, with paintings showing different acts and positions, and various Herms, votive offerings (how often do you see a cupboard entirely full of penises?) and paintings, mosaics and statues leaving nothing to the imagination!

After which it was quite soothing to go and look at charming, if at times confusing, paintings from Pompeii - a cupid with a pair of shoes, for instance.
Portrait of the baker, Terentius Neo, and his wife
They also have selections of decorative silver, found at Pompeii (it survived intact having been stored in a chest, padded with blankets, possibly because the house was in the process of being reconstructed following the earthquake of  62AD. More amazingly, there are also glass items, and even papyrii which, despite the fact that they are seriously burned, archaeologists have succeeded in reading!

As well as the Pompeian art, there are also lots of sculptures, some of which were also found in Pompeii or Herculaneum
This lady -> is one of five statues found at Herculaneum, and still pristine.

One of the most famous sculptures in the museum is the 'Farnese Bull', which used to stand in Rome.

It is colossal. 

And while I can't approve of celebrating the habit of tying ladies to enraged bulls, (even if they have been misbehaving) you have to admire the craftsmanship involved!

As you do with the other sculptures.

(the dog, incidentally, is part of a table leg. He is one of the 3-heads of a dog emerging from the stomach of the sea-monster, Scylla, attacking Ulysses' sailors. But you probably knew that.)

all in all, it's a fascinating museum, and I'm very glad that I had the time and opportunity to go.

What I Did on My Holidays - Part the Second - Sunshine and Water

Sorrento itself is perched on top of a cliff - it's only when you get down to the bottom, to sea-level, and look back up that you realise quite how much work must have gone in to to building those cliff-top hotels and homes so they won't tumble down..
In order to get from the main part of the town, you can either walk down a steep staircase, and then a short, hair-pinned cobbled road, or down a longer, smoother path which zig-zags its way down (and at one point through) the cliff, or if you feeling lazy, you can pay your E1 and take the lift! I don't think I've ever come upon a beach serviced by a lift, before..

Most of the beaches are private - you pay your 8-12 Euros, depending on whether you want a sun-lounger and/or a parasol, but I decided to stick to the little public beach (on the right of the photo) when I ventured down for a swim. The beach is black, presumably the sand started life as volcanic ash and stone - and the water is disconcertingly clear, blue and warm.

As I was growing up, most of my seaside visits, and therefore most of the swimming in the sea I did, were in England, so I expect the sea to be grey, and cold, and full of sand and therefore stirred up by the waves. Additionally, swimming in the sea normally involves being regularly slapped in the face by icy waves, so the concept of being able to paddle around in clear, placid water is unnerving. And I am used to having to get out of the sea after a relatively short swim, as all my extremities turn blue and I start to lose feeling in them, so the concept that it is possible to stay in the water long enough to start worrying about sun-burn and prune-y skin instead is very strange (I mean, I could get used to it, if forced, but it does feel a little unnatural!)

I also took the opportunity to make a day-trip to Capri, which is of course only a little way off the coast, from Sorrento. Capri seems to be entirely made up of precipitous cliffs and you get around in little tiny buses, which have to go onto the wrong side of the road in order get around the hairpin bends, which makes bus travel exciting.
I went up to Anacapri, from where you can ride a chair-lift up to Monte Solaro. I love chair-lifts - they're a bit like hot air balloons, in that you get to float, almost silently, above the world.

In this instance, the views from the lift, and from the top of the mountain were not as good as they could have been , as the air quality wasn't the best - lots of dust and haze in the air, but even so, the views were pretty darn good!

When I went down again, I visited S. Michele's church, which has a majolica tiled floor with a picture of the garden of Eden, which includes a charming elephant with paws, as well as lions and bears and horses and a slightly random unicorn.

I  also got a bus round to the Grotta Azzurra, which is one of the most famous attractions on the island. The water is, indeed, very blue, and very beautiful. Getting in, however, is . .. interesting.

After rather a lot of queueing, you have to scramble into a small rowing boat, and then, as the entrance to the cave is very low, it's necessary to lie flat on your back in the bottom of the boat while the boatman performs a kind of limbo while pulling the boat into the cave using a chain!

 If you are not acquainted with your travelling companions before you get into the boat you certainly will be after lying next to (or on top of ) them to get in and out of the cave!

After that, I took my slightly soggy and dishevelled self back to Capri town, where I founbd that a 50/50 mixture of lemon granita and freshly squeezed orange juice is even better than either one alone..  An important discovery, I'm sure you'll agree.

And a little later, my evening included spaghetti con vongole, and wine made by the restaurant itself, and an odd but tasty fennel liqueur.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

What I Did On My Holidays (Part the First - Pompeii & Herculaneum

I got home this afternoon after spending 8 days in Italy - based  in Sorrento.It was lovely. The sun shone (most of the time) and there are lots of Very Old Things to visit.

I went to Herculaneum first - which, like Pompeii, had a bad case of Volcano in 79AD. It's incredible, and awe-inspiring. It's hard to believe until you see it, and even then, it's hard, emotionally, to grasp the fact that these homes, these paintings, have survived for 2000 years.
'College of the Augustals', Herculaneum
The frescoes are perhaps the most stunning survivals, but even more extraordinary in some ways is the fact that there are wooden survivals, too - doors, window shutters, a wine rack, and parts of a staircase and of ceiling timbers.  

The wood is charred and blackened, and the window-shutters show the encrusted mud and ash, and somehow these serve to remind you that this was a vast human tragedy, as well as creating an archeological treasure trove.

A couple of days after visiting Herculaneum, I visited Pompeii, which is the same, only bigger. Parts of the town are closed off, for conservation, or for safety reasons, (there are a lot of walls propped up with scaffolding poles, and there are no maps to tell you which parts will be closed, so you can find yourself going round in circles to try to reach a specific house, only to find yourself foiled at every turn!                                                                                                         However, I did manage to get in to see the Terme Suburbane - these are currently undergoing conservation, and are not generally open, but if you pre-book you can still go in (it looked to me as though they let a maximum of 15 people in every 30 minutes, but it doesn't seem to be publicised, so I was able to book a place, even though I didn't try to book until the day before I went)

The Baths (im)famously have explicit pictures - whether to illustrate what was on offer to patrons, or simply to give them ideas, is unknown. Allegedly, the Vatican got quite upset about them...

There are also some wonderful (if very faded) scenes with fishes and other water animals, including a lovely Hippo, and a gloriously sinuous octopus!

Another highlight was seeing the Villa dei Misteri, which has some amazingly complete wall paintings, as well as decorative pillars, mosaic floors, and a number of stray dogs keeping cool by lying on the 2000 year old floors.. (I don't think the dogs are original, though. Perhaps they are decended from the original canem of which one must cave in Pompeii...?)

They are extraordinary places. And it seems somehow fitting that there is rosemary gowing amoung so many of the ruined villas, for rememberance...

and bouganvillia and pomegranites, too, and the occasional olive tree. And little lizards run across the walls, as they must always have done.

Further pictures in my flickr set here

Traveller's return

I'm back in England, after a lovely week in Italy, including meeting up with @Spacedlaw.
I'm currently trundling home on a variety of trains.
No doubt when I arrive, Tybalt will tell me Cheryl has been starving him, and I will look at the heap of empty cat-food tins and sympathise with him.

And a little later, once i've unpacked and done some laundry and maybe watched Doctor Who, I shall start uploading photos and writing a blog wntry or two about What I Did On My Holidays.

Monday, 12 September 2011


I shall be mostly off-line for the next week.

Try not to break the Internet while I'm gone, please !

Sunday, 11 September 2011


I shall be on holiday for the next week or so, so blogging is likely to be light to non-existent.  It looks as though the weather in Sorrento is set  to be fine and sunny for the next week, I am going to meet up with a friend, and am staying over with my sister tonight, which should be fun :-) Life is looking good. Of course, there are a few trains and planes to navigate in the meanwhile, but with nay luck that will go smoothly.

I'm sure there will be lots of photos when I get back, however, and meanwhile the house will be guarded by a Very Fine Cat and his human minion.

I think I am over my inevitable packing panic. My main concern is lest I have packed too few books, but I do have quite a number downloaded onto my ipod, so while that screen is rather small for reading from, I shall at least not be left book-less (my biggest fear) if I run out of dead-tree books before the end of the holiday...

In Which There Is Theatre and Ian McKellen

A couple of months ago, when I first got my  season programme from Bath Theatre Royal, I saw that in September, Sir Ian McKellen would be here, playing in The Syndicate. So I bought a ticket. I didn't, at the time, know anything about the play, nor did I know it would be just before I was due to go on holiday to Italy...

The play is by Eduardo de Fillipo whose work I'm not familiar with, although I gather that to any Italian this would be unthinkable. The play, The Syndicate is set in Naples, in 1960, and follows Don Antonio, (Sir Ian McKellen)  his family and associates.

It is an interesting play - Don Antonio doesn't appear at the start - we see the rest of his household, and it becomes clear that he is a very powerful, much feared and respected man; the young man who has arrived in order to have a bullet removed from his leg is not able to stop shouting or crying out by appeals to his courage, but the warning that he might wake Don Antonio does the trick!

(Photo by Manuel Harlan, from Bath Theatre Royal website)
And it quickly becomes apparent that Don Antonio, although he is obviously a ruthless man, does have a conscience of sorts. He seeks to prevent vendettas, ("Next time you want to shoot somebody, you speak to me first") and steps in to prevent a loan-shark from pursuing his victim, but at the same time he makes clear to his friend and doctor Dottore Fabio Della Ragione (Michael Pennington) that should he leave, to go to America as he wishes, he will be killed. He also clearly has had a very murky past, among the mafia of New York "it involved bloodshed, of course. But nothing dishonourable"

The play revolves around Don Antonio's attempts to reconcile a father and son, in order to prevent the son from killing his father. There were excellent performances from Gavin Fowler as Rafiluccio Santaniello as the son, and Annie Hemingway as Rita, his (very pregnant) girlfriend and Ian McKellen was superb, managing to be very funny at times, but also to create a very real air of menace, and despite everything, to be a sympathetic character.

I felt Cherie Lunghi (Donna Armida Barracano, Don Antonio's wife) was a little wasted, as she had very little to do, and somehow the strong feeling of a close family which came across from the actors playing Don Antonio's daughter, sons and housekeeper didn't seem to extend to her, but over all there was a very strong cast, and while the play perhaps paints a somewhat rosy and optimistic view of mafia life it was very well done.

I'm glad I went. And I hope I don't meet anyone like Don Antonio and his associates when I'm in the Naples area this week!

Friday, 9 September 2011


It feels as though autumn has truly arrived, in the past few days. We've been rained on, and rained on some more, and my tomato plants seem to have gone, overnight, from green and vigorous to yellow and fading (although still with a fair number of tomatoes)

The rainy weather has suited my mood, as after the fun and excitement of the long weekend, full of treats, I have been back at work, and very busy.

Now, however, it's Friday again, and my last day at work for two weeks! The disadvantage of having upheavals at work requiring my presence, and lots of colleagues who want to book time off is school holidays is that you get very tired waiting for the point where you can have a holiday.

The advantage is that suddenly it's mid-September, autumn is coming, and you get to go off and play!
I have a theatre ticket for Saturday night, then on Monday I am off to Italy for a week, then I shall have a few days either at home, or in Devon, depending on the weather.

Hopefully I shall be able to relax, unwind, and return to work invigorated!

Plus, the Bath Kids' Lit. Fest starts at the end of  the month so there is something to look forward to on my return. Guests this year include Judith Kerr, Eoin Colfer and Philip Reeve, to name but a few.

And not long after that my birthday will come round again, with friends here for the weekend, and another theatre trip.
So, despite rain and wind, life has its charms!

Sunday, 4 September 2011

An Exciting Weekend - Part 4 - In Which Are Writers

I booked for Neil Gaiman's  'Worlds of Wonder' event at the British Library as soon as I became aware it was happening (thank you, Maggie!) and was very much looking forward to it.
However, it wasn't due to start until 2.30, so I needed to find something to do to entertain myself on Sunday morning.

I decided to visit The Wellcome Collection - it's small, but interesting.They have one of Antony Gormley's casts (from 'Another Place') hanging from the ceiling in the lobby, which is always good.

The part of the museum which I enjoyed the most was the 'Medicine Man' exhibition, about Henry Wellcome himself. He appears to have been an avid, if somewhat indiscriminate, collector -  amongst other things, he had Napoleon's  toothbrush, Lord Nelson's razor, a lock of George III's hair and two of Charles Darwin's walking sticks.

He also had shrunken heads, a peruvian mummy, some Japanese sex toys, and some very gruesome momentos mori...

There are also other, (slightly) more medical displays - one large glass case, filled on one side with amupation saws of all shapes and sizes, and on the other with gynocological forceps, and another case full of artificial limbs, including one dating to 1580! (and another, which appeared to be made of wrought iron, with decorative little twiddles, from the 1850s)

Very interesting stuff!

After visiting the museum, I fortified myself with a sandwich before heading across to the British library. I was fortunate enough tio reach the shelter of the Library just before the heavens opened and it poured with rain!

At the Library, I met up with my friend Cheryl, and a girl called Lucy, who was drawing a gorgeous picture of Neil, and Robin (@Raliel), and Mike (who bought my spare ticket from me), and Maggie, who I know from twitter but haven't met in person before, so I was more than happy to be wiating around for the doors to open.
Then we got to wait around inside, which was warmer, and less rainy.

And there were books for sale. Neil arrived looking rather windswept and rained upon. Cheryl lent him a hairbrush, and he brushed his hair, which instantly reverted to looking wild and windswept. I always suspected that Crazy Hair was, in truth, a factual record, and now I know it for sure.
Farah Mendelsohn, Neil Gaiman, Rachel Armstrong, Peter F Hamilton, Kari Sperring
I was lucky enough to get seat in the front row of the auditorium, and settled down to enjoy the discussion.

As well as Neil, the panel consisted of Farah Mendelsohn (moderating), Rachel Armstrong (TED fellow), Peter F. Hamilton and Kari Sperring. Farah did a sterling job of moderating, and the discussions ranged far and wide - from the fact that Science Fiction is (almost) always about now, not the future, how Chinese and Indian Science Fiction is optimistic, and how you don't really need to write science fiction specifically for children because they read what's written for adults..

There  was also the discussion about whether things are getting better or worse (and WHO they are getting better or worse for .

I don't, now, recall exactly what it was which led to Neil describing to us the "Shit Machine" he had seen in the Museum of Old and New Art, in Tasmania.. I think super villains came into it somewhere.

Rachel Armstrong provided an interesting perspective, and argued passionately that science needs writers to fire the imagination about science, and Neil and Peter both talked about being inspired by science as much as by fiction.

The discussion also ranged over politics and gender, (and how far we still have to go) - Neil talked about how 'Coraline' was initially considered to be unpublishable, because the protagonist was a girl. Which is pretty depressing..

There was comment about the effect on spam-mail of 3D printers (xkcd have, of course, already given it some thought)

The discussion ended with a short Q&A, then Neil  and Peter signed  - I've never seen a shorter signing line for Neil!

I allowed sense to overcome ambition and, on the basis I had to carry all my baggage for the weekend had brought my copy of Shoggath's Old Peculiar (now adorned with R'ylehian inscription) rather than my  Absolute Sandman - I think it was a wise decision, even if it means I do not qualify as a True Fan!

I did give him some autumn flavoured elderberry jelly, though!

More conversation, and introductions to interesting people, and then, once the signing was over, and Cheryl and I had had a chance to chat briefly to Neil, we left the library. Cheryl and I joined what appeared to be about 1/2 the audience from the library in the pub over the road, for a quick drink, then we had a rather nice curry.

I don't know about anyone else, but I had an early night, after a truly enjoyable day.

A weekend well spent, I think :-)