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

Between books

Grey stone building with an arch that leads through it to another arch and a grassy space beyond.

If I were to tell you that I’m not writing anything at the moment, it would be an evident falsehood. I mean, here I am, tapping away, writing a post. I spent the afternoon writing things for work. And even when I’ve finished this post I’ll move on to the short story I’m trying to finish for an end of January deadline.

I’m not even not writing a book. Technically.

I have the Ruritanian thing, but that’s something I’m writing for fun, and when it stops being fun I stop writing it. I also stop writing it when real politics makes fictional politics feel either too depressing or too frivolous to write about. There are days when I think I can subvert the trope of the plucky English adventurer fixing other people’s countries, and there are days when it seems too far gone even to be subverted. I think I’ve worked out a way around that, but at present I don’t have the motivation for the plotting and planning and Post-It manoeuvres that it would need. I’ve written about 5000 words on it since Christmas. It’ll get done when it gets done, and if I’m happy with it I’ll publish it.

I have a couple of other semi-active projects – one on writing while keeping the day job, and one very specific and experimental anthology.

I know what comes next for Stancester, but I’m not starting on that for reasons including: a) I don’t know how it finishes; b) it feels a bit heavy; c) [monster story about how everyone who liked the first two will hate it because it won’t be lesfic]; d) I’ve only just been there.

So I’m not not writing, at all. But I am consciously playing with the idea of not writing, of seeing who I am when I’m not writing. I’m playing with the idea of being enough, of being sufficient, when I’m flopped on the sofa watching the skiing, when I’ve slept through my alarm, when I’m writing three words in half an hour, when I’m not writing anything at all. In these times when doing nothing has become the virtue that perhaps it always should have been, I’m giving myself a bit of space, and resisting the temptation to fill that space with work or guilt. Or trying to, anyway.

Perhaps what I really mean is that I’m writing when I feel like it, and writing what I feel like, and giving myself a break from the associated hustle. I am stepping away from Twitter, which (for me) seems to be the highway to fruitless rage and depression. I am dropping my expectations of when the next book will be finished and what it will be. I am going to stop chasing reviews. I might write nothing but short stories. I might write nothing at all. I might abandon the Ruritanian thing entirely, or I might get it out in time for Christmas. I might post here less, or I might post here more. You never know.

December Reflections 31: my word for 2021

a compass rose stamped in red ink with the words
LOVE
COURAGE
WATCHFULNESS
CLARITY
SOUPLESSE
HERITAGE
RESONANCE
handwritten around it, with LOVE at North and then proceeding in a clockwise direction, in black ink

Why use one word when eight will do? Less flippantly, it’s been my custom for the last few years now to set a compass for the coming twelve months. This year I’ve been layering the hours onto that eight-pointed cycle, too, so it looks rather like this (the hyperlinks go to the Angel of the Hour, which I’ve been using this year to give structure to my working day):

NORTH – LOVE – CHRISTMAS – VIGILS

NORTH EAST – COURAGE – CANDLEMAS – LAUDS

EAST – WATCHFULNESS – LADY DAY (or Easter) – PRIME

SOUTH EAST – CLARITY – MAY DAY – TERCE

SOUTH – FLOURISHING – ST JOHN – SEXT

SOUTH WEST – SOUPLESSE – LAMMAS – NONE

WEST – HERITAGE – MICHAELMAS – VESPERS

NORTH WEST – RESONANCE – ALL SAINTS – COMPLINE

There are some there I’ve used before – love, courage, clarity – and some new ones – heritage was a bit of a surprise, and souplesse comes from cycling commentary, where it means something like flexibility, style, smoothness. I think I’ll need to feel my way into both of those.

It probably deserves to have a space of its own, and not be mixed up with my takeaway order and what I did at work that day, but actually I rather like it that way. Because that’s the point of it: all time is holy; this dark into light, light into dark, cycle is the structure that underlies life as I experience it.

December Reflections 30: thank you for…

square of blue-painted cardboard with a compass rose, labyrinth, stylised shell, and the names of the monastic hours and the quarter and cross-quarter days added in metallic paint

… time and space.

Thank you for the protection and privilege of being able to work from home.

Thank you for the opportunity to settle gently into our new home. Thank you for the business of settling in, as a distraction from the culture shock outside.

Thank you for the neighbours we’ve sort of met.

Thank you for the time to get another book done and out in the world.

Thank you for the time to reread Agatha Christie novels and watch skiing and generally do nothing of importance at all.

Thank you for the gift of three hours every working day.

Thank you for the garden, and books, and books in the garden.

Thank you for here. Thank you for now.

December Reflections 28: an intention for 2021

iecut plywood Christmas tree decoration in the shape of a circle with stars and a shooting star. Blue and green fairy lights can be seen through the gaps

In the immortal words of Rick from Casablanca, ‘I never make plans that far ahead’. Actually, that’s not entirely true. But I’m conscious today, as I have been for the last few days, that setting myself any kind of commitment or expectation feels unnecessary, uncalled for. Unfair on my future self who’ll have to act on it.

Today, I just don’t want to. And that feels like something to pay attention to.

Oh, I have a growing list of things I want to do When It’s Safe To Do So: ‘go to the cinema and watch more films’ and ‘take actual skating lessons’. Will that be in 2021? I hope so, but I’m not going to pin a year to it. I have plenty of vague thoughts about ‘more piano practice’ and ‘showing up to morning prayer’ and ‘finishing the next book, maybe in time for Christmas’, and other things like that. But the thing about things like that is that I’ve been adding more and more of those. It feels like time to stop. I expect the ones I really want to do something with, I’ll do something with.

So, as things stand, with three days left of 2020, my only commitment for 2021, is to make space. And that feels like plenty.

December Reflections 27: 2020 taught me…

blue sky, with a waxing gibbous moon large but faint in a gap between trees

Didn’t we do this just a few days ago? No, not quite. Well, has anything changed between then and now?

Yes. An eleventh hour Brexit deal. A lousy one, admittedly, but so much better than the alternative. And, it turns out, for me, better than the eleven months of things being more or less the same as they’d always been but knowing they were about to come to a screeching and painful halt. Well, you’ve been through this year, too. You know about that grim, resigned, fatalist waiting-for-the-other-shoe-to-drop, wondering how and whether what’s going to happen next can turn out to be anything other than awful, wanting things to be different, goodness knows, but maybe not given how awful they might end up being…

2020 has taught me about change.

I wrote earlier this month about my self of eleven years ago and her inability, or stubborn refusal, to imagine that things might possibly get any better than they were. I’ve been thinking about the landscapes I’ve lived in, the way they’re shaped by time and tide, of how human intervention can only hold back so much of that process. It took me a little while to make the link with Goldengrove unleaving: a lot of this year’s depressive funk seems to have come from the realisation of my own mortality. Today I’ve been given occasion to remember my sixteen year old self, how resistant she was to change, how insistent on holding everything she could (precious little) in place, while all the while everything went on changing around her. This year I’ve felt just as helpless; it’s just been on a bigger scale.

This year, we’ve been sitting in this strange stasis, waiting. Waiting and hoping, waiting and dreading. I’ve hardly been travelling hopefully, but goodness knows I haven’t wanted to arrive, either. I haven’t wanted to know the news. And yet, when I’ve looked, it’s been awful, but not universally awful.

Will I remember this, next time I get stuck? Probably not, going on past form. Will I ever learn how to let myself imagine that things might change for the better? I fear that I might not. And yet it’s been the signs of change that have been the most comfort to me.

December Reflections 26: slippers

pair of feet wearing black socks and red leather slippers with pointed toes, decorated with sequins, seed beads, and gold thread

I am not a great one for slippers. I generally go barefoot, assuming it’s warm enough; slippers are more a way to save my socks when it’s not. I’ve tended to find fluffy moccasins too sweaty (it came as something of a revelation when I tried wearing them with socks and found them deliciously cosy). The ones shown here – purchased, as best I can remember, at a car boot sale in Exeter some time in the early 2000s – are spectacular; they’re also a little too small for me, so that the ends of my heels hang off the back, and the soles are a little slippery on tiles. Nevertheless. I don’t think I’m ever going to find the perfect pair of slippers for me, so I’m going to enjoy the imperfect ones.

December Reflections 24: one year ago

reproduction of a 1610 map of Buckinghamshire

One year ago, I was somewhere in Bedfordshire, or Buckinghamshire, or possibly Hertfordshire, visiting in-laws and in-laws’ in-laws. I’d taken the train straight up there from London, and I think we all hopped straight into the car and went to pick up my stepmother-in-law’s brother and then all went to see her brother. There was a lot of travelling that afternoon, anyway. No planes (I haven’t flown since 2007), but trains and automobiles, by all means.

This year, not so much.

It occurred to me earlier just how much travelling there is in the Gospel accounts of the nativity. Mary, going to the hill country to visit Elizabeth. Mary and Joseph, travelling to Bethlehem. Or from Bethlehem to Egypt. The Magi, travelling from the east, via Jerusalem. Even the shepherds go even unto Bethlehem to see this thing that is come to pass. The Gospels disagree about who travels where, but they both agree there’s a lot of travelling. Matthew and Luke, both knowing that Bethlehem is important, both knowing they’ve got to get everybody there somehow, but not sure whether to start them off there and move them to Nazareth later or throw in a census to get them out of Nazareth. I sympathise.

As my Playmobil crib figures hop from bookshelf to bookshelf, traversing the length of the sitting room, I don’t seem to be going very much further myself. This evening I’m travelling vicariously with NORAD Santa. In a normal year I’d be clocking up over a hundred miles every weekday. That all ground to a halt in the middle of March. Actually, I hadn’t done so badly. Work had sent me to Manchester, and then I managed a dash to Bristol for what must have been one of the last full-scale weddings. I’d gone north. I’d gone west. South would come later.

I’m sad not to be seeing people. My in-laws are in tier 4 now; we’ll be in it ourselves from Boxing Day; and such of my family as wasn’t in tier 4 will be moving from tier 1 to tier 3. This isn’t such a wrench as it has been for some people, as we’ve done Christmas on our own before. And goodness knows I’m well off compared to the poor hauliers waiting at Dover. It’s more the not knowing when I will see people again.

Which is not to say that I haven’t found value in staying still, or in traversing the same short distance over and over again. I wrote, some time in the first lockdown,

this time is reminding me very much of my childhood: all the household is at home all the time; there are columbines and copper beech and swelling fruit in the garden; I can hear a cock crowing. Encountering civilisation is a bit of a palaver. I spend most of my time barefoot. Going on holiday is a very remote possibility and will be the Isle of Wight if it ever does happen. People who I love very much are a long way away from where I am, and there’s no prospect of seeing them soon.

I did make it to the Isle of Wight; my middle brother drove up with his fiancée and picked me up. And the journey was the way they always used to be: leaving very early in the chill of a clear summer morning that’s going to be hot later, heading south through long shadows.

Until we got to the ferry terminal, where they were still advertising the Isle of Wight Festival which was never going to happen this year, and there was another brother in the queue…

Soon, soon, we’ll be able to do all that again. And it’s worth waiting for.

December Reflections 22: sparkling

 a plant with pointed oval leaves, with raindrops clinging to them, very green under a bright light

Sparkling. Sparkling wine (no, only the non-alcoholic stuff). Sparkling water (no, can’t stand it). Sparkling conversation (not tonight, I’m too tired). Sparkling wit (see above).

The lights our neighbours have in their tree? No, those twinkle rather than sparkle. Same for the stars, not that you can see them tonight. Candles glow. Our Christmas tree isn’t decorated yet. I suppose I could show you any one of several pairs of earrings, including the ones I’m wearing now (miniature stockings, with a sparkly trim). But what would I say about them?

Sparkling. Sparkling implies movement. It implies that something is reflecting light without necessarily producing it. And this feels rather reassuring. I am not called upon to produce something from nothing, merely to reflect back what is already coming my way. Nor do I have to move all that much. No sustained effort, just going with the flow.

Raindrops on green leaves, a barely perceptible breeze, a bright light in the darkness. That’s the closest to sparkling I can get tonight.

December Reflections 21: comfort

Bureau style desk with a laptop on a raiser, keyboard, mouse, etc, and an adjustable chair

I have made some progress since the last time this prompt came up. I have replaced the desk I was talking about back then, and have obtained a proper adjustable chair. (I’m wearing the same jacket, though.)

It took me seven months of working from home to get round to getting that chair, seven months of telling myself it wasn’t as bad as all that. Probably it wasn’t. I’m very aware of my privilege in being able to work from home at all, when the people whose interests I represent are out on the front line, in hospitals and care homes, collecting the rubbish, giving schoolchildren lunch.

And this makes me think of an older meaning of the word ‘comfort’: comfort as in the Comforter, the one who stirs up, encourages, equips. Today I’m tired, too tired to express myself pithily or eloquently. I have two and a half days left to work, and I’m looking forward to the break. And if I were less tired I would want to say something about how taking a break, sitting in a decent chair, allowing myself to take comfort, equips me to do my job better, write better, serve better. As it is, I’m making this a short post and calling it a night.