Hyperlocal travel writing: the sofa

I have been in Verona.

Not literally.

Well, technically, yes, I’ve stood in a very long queue for the ladies’ at the railway station between getting off a train from Venice and getting on one to Brenner(o). Technically, I have been in Verona. But that wasn’t my point.

Figuratively, I have been in Verona.

Dark screen showing DVD covers for three different versions of Romeo and Juliet, plus other Shakespeare plays

I started off in January in kitschy, fictional, Verona Beach, because I needed to remind myself of Romeo and Juliet in a hurry, and the version that was at that moment the most accessible was the Baz Luhrmann one.

Now, I am just the age to have hit compulsory school Shakespeare when Romeo+Juliet had been out long enough to become the version that English teachers turned to (and Titanic was just out, and Leonardo DiCaprio was a very big thing indeed). My teens are a bit of blur at this point (not for any sex/drugs/rock’n’roll reasons; it’s just that we spent an entire year moving house) but I’m reasonably sure that I studied Romeo and Juliet three times running at three different schools. I only really remember one of those with any clarity (it was, interestingly enough, the school I struggled with the most, but I did enjoy English): we watched the Luhrmann version; we watched the Zeffirelli version, too, but it was the tat-tastic, somewhere-on-the-American-West-Coast, Verona Beach that’s stuck in my memory.

Anyway, that was January. I finished off the thing I’d watched it for in the first place, and I thought no more about it. Then I fell down the rabbit hole. It was the discovery that Alan Rickman had played Tybalt (BBC, 1978) that had me leaving scorched rubber in the search bar and resulted in the delivery of a parcel of DVDs (it comes in a set with the major tragedies, and I thought I might as well add in the Zeffirelli version, not to mention the Branagh Much Ado About Nothing, and make the most of the postage charge).

BBC Verona is much like other BBC sets of the seventies: very much a stage set, earnestly reproducing balconies and battlements in painted plywood. Alan Rickman as Tybalt is pretty much exactly how you’d expect Alan Rickman to be as Tybalt. Perfect casting, to my mind.

Reminding myself of Zeffirelli’s Verona, I suddenly saw what the BBC had been going for, how much it owed to the earlier production. It wasn’t filmed in the real Verona but I had to look it up to check. (It’s not like I would know from the railway station lavatories, after all.) This Verona is made of stone: it’s all walls and pavements and battlements, and feels at once very authentic and very claustrophobic.

Then I remembered the existence of the musical. Musicals, plural, if you count West Side Story, which to my mind is one of the best musicals in existence, but is very much not set in any sort of Verona. The Presgurvic musical, though, very much is. Welcome to Verona, my beautiful Verona, the city where the families make the law, the city where everyone hates everyone else. (Translation mine, from the earworm: the original actually rhymes and scans and is probably in a different order.)

I’d watched the Hungarian version years ago and had vague memories of a grungy, punky set and a heart-breakingly optimistic Romeo. It’s still up on Youtube, so I watched it again. My memories were correct; also, there’s a lot of fire. There’s also a real sense of a city that runs on hatred. This isn’t the Sharks and the Jets floating on top of a city that doesn’t know much about them and doesn’t care at all; this is somewhere that wouldn’t even know what it was if it didn’t have the feud. I found the Italian version, too. That’s less fiery, more gothic. This Verona is somewhere between the Middle Ages and the apocalypse.

One cannot watch videos all the time, but one of the great things about working from home is that one can have whatever music one likes in the background (and so can one’s partner, at the other end of the landing). So I’ve been listening to the French version a lot. I have yet to fork out for Spotify Premium, so I get the government popping up and telling me what to do if I’m an EU citizen (alas!) in between Mercutio yelling ‘Je maudit vos familles! Je maudit vos maisons!’ and Romeo losing it. But then I also get people popping up to ask me to sort out their login problems, so somebody’s death scene is always going to get interrupted sooner or later.

Then I found my CD of the Bellini opera. Actually, I found the libretto booklet, which had somehow got separated from the CDs. Flicking through it, I discovered something that made me go, ‘Ohhhhhhhhh!’

… A grave reason spurs Capulet to this urgency. Maybe a sudden storm hangs over the heads of the Guelphs: maybe the Montagues are rising again in enmity! May they perish, ah! perish, those savage, insolent Ghibellines!

Now, all I know about the Guelphs and the Ghibellines comes from reading Dorothy L. Sayers’ introduction to her translation of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy several years ago, and about all I had remembered was that they were opposing parties. It hadn’t occurred to me that the feud in Shakespeare might have had anything to do with real world partisanship, but it seemed really insultingly obvious now. I looked it up on Wikipedia, and there it was staring me in the face: Ghibelline swallow-tailed merlons on the ‘Casa di Romeo’, of the Montecchi family of Verona.

Small collection of clutter including a battered paperback copy of 'The Divine Comedy: Hell' by Dante, translated by Dorothy L. Sayers, and the insert from a CD of I Capuleti e i Montecchi by Vincenzo Bellini.

I picked up Dante again – I’d been thinking of reading it over Easter anyway – and reread the introduction. I hadn’t remembered entirely accurately: there were plenty of family feuds going on alongside the Guelph-Ghibelline stuff:

… the Italian nobility was violently divided by internecine clan feuds like those of the Campbells and MacGregors, so that each great family was a law unto itself and its followers, overriding the native constitution, bearing rule according to its own tribal custom, and indulging in perpetual raids and vendettas against its rivals…

After setting out the broader political context, Sayers focuses on Dante’s life, following him from Florence into exile in (wouldn’t you know) Verona and, ultimately, Ravenna. Then I spent three quarters of an hour listening to Dr Eleanor Janega tell me about Boccaccio’s Florence, and now I’m trying to remember why it is that Ravenna’s stuck in my memory. Maybe the Diarmaid McCullough History of Christianity…?

Meanwhile, cycling season has been getting underway. I like watching the cycling: often it’s two hours of scenery followed by ten minutes of excitement, but the scenery’s worth it. Strade Bianche: the white roads around Siena. Tirreno-Adriatico: west to east, sea to sea, cypress trees and red roofs, hilltop villages, Roman ruins… This weekend, it’s Milan-Sanremo. Par for the course for a spring in which I’ve been seeing a rather lot of Italy, not to mention a whole lot of Veronas, from my sofa.

Map showing main rail lines in northern Italy

Upstaged! anthology out today

Prima Donna

I’m very pleased to say that Upstaged!: an anthology of women who love women in performing arts is available now, and that it contains my story Prima Donna. It’s a delightful selection of short stories published by Supposed Crimes, who specialise in F/F fiction across a variety of genres.

The ‘performing arts’ in question are many and varied – my story is (of course) about opera, while others feature panto, silent film, burlesque, plays and musicals.

The genres are many and varied, too. We have steampunk, sci-fi, romance, slice-of-life, and straight (or not-so-straight) historical. Settings range from the 1830s to the far future, from Broadway to New Helsinki. Not all the stories will be to everyone’s taste – that’s the nature of such a diverse collection – but all the same I think there is something in there for everyone.

There’s an interview with me about the inspiration for Prima Donna and about my future projects over at the publishers’ site today.

As for the book itself, here it is at Amazon.com…

… at Amazon.co.uk…

… at Kobo…

… at Smashwords…

… at Barnes & Noble

UPSTAGED cover-2

Upstaged: an anthology of queer women and the performing arts

UPSTAGED cover-2

I’m very pleased to say that my story Prima Donna will be appearing in Supposed Crimes‘ upcoming anthology Upstaged.

My author copy came through yesterday, and I’m planning on spending the weekend reading it. I know what’s in my story, of course (opera, travesti, people jumping to conclusions and having to find their way back from them, and more opera) but the rest of the anthology is new to me, and it looks very intriguing…

Presenting the Revial of Jan, Aila Alvina Boyd – Years after blowing her Broadway debut, a former actress is convinced by the playwright to come out of retirement in order to revive the role that pushed her to the brink of insanity.

The Helsinki Incident, Renee Young – After an unexpected, erotic encounter with a mysterious and beautiful stranger, the lead guitarist of a band touring mining outposts across the solar system rediscovers her love of music.

I, Stage Manager, Marolyn Krasner – A short love story about a stage manager, eccentric theater types, a kooky best friend, and leather daddies.

End of an Era, Althea Blue – In the years leading to the death of the silent film, many careers were ended prematurely. But do we really know everything there was to know about the silent stars who faded away?

Knife’s Edge, Geonn Cannon – Amid the insanity of the circus, Arlie and Ru must place absolute trust in each other. Arlie trusts that the blades will hit their intended target, while Ru trusts that Arlie won’t flinch. It would only take the smallest of mistakes to destroy that trust.

I Think I’m Gonna Like It Queer, Allison Fradkin – Theatre is an ensemble of inflection, projection, and rejection. So when 16-year-old Reyna—a performer who’s part prima donna, part dreamgirl next door—desires a duet with Melinda, the ingénue who plays her best friend, she can’t just run and tell that. Or even run and tell Melinda. But with the arrival of a triply threatening romantic rival, it’s five to places and ten to one that Reyna had better act on her feelings before the curtain closes on her chances.

London Lark, JL Merrow – Repairing a salvaged automaton becomes a labour of love for apprentice tinkerer Harriet Hodgkins. But the clockwork coquette is destined for resale, and Miss Pandora’s restoration will signal their separation—unless Hodgkins can engineer a more auspicious ending.

Prima Donna, Kathleen Jowitt – Everybody knows why the great Signora Valli left the Licorne opera company. Everybody, that is, except Monsieur Perret, who’s taken the brave – some would say foolish – decision to cast her opposite rising star Delphine Vincent-Leclerc in Rossini’s Tancredi. But what everybody knows is only half the story.

Oh No She Didn’t!, Debbie McGowan – Once upon a time, in the not so faraway land of small-town amateur dramatics, there lived a widow called Marcy and her beautiful, grown-up daughter, Ginny…

Rise or Shine, Sonni de Soto – What is Cadence Carrington to do? Her public life is colliding fast with her private persona, when her boss at the governor’s office sets his eye on shutting down the club she secretly performs burlesque at as featured dancer and femme fatale, Rebel Rouser. It’s only a matter of time before she’s found out, but the question is will she choose Cady’s steady, straight-laced life or will she choose to be the Rebel she knows she is at heart?

A. M. Leibowitz, the editor, says:

We had everything from actual plays to space operas to period pieces to contemporary romance. These talented storytellers captured womanhood, and women on stage and screen, in all their beautiful, wonderful glory. In the end, I was only able to take ten stories. These are the ones that made me laugh and cry and want to sing. There are erotic and sensual tales, gender non-conformity, trans women, lesbians and bisexuals, politics, falling in love, parenting, youthful crushes, opera, toe-tapping musical numbers, death-defying stunts, humor, and more. This anthology is a celebration.

Upstaged will be released on 15 July and is available for pre-order now.