Sunday, 26 February 2012

Thin Paths by Julia Blackburn

I love Julia Blackburn's work - her biography/memoir 'Daisy Bates in the Desert' is one of my favourite books.  Add to that the fact that I live much of the year in an Italian mountain village not far from Julia's home in Liguria and you can see why Thin Paths - Journeys in and around an Italian Village was a must for me to read.

My partner loves climbing mountains, so we've been exploring the 'thin paths' that spread like a spider's web over the slopes for several years now.  These paths are very old, some of them are paved and walled and date back to Etruscan or Roman times.   This one is a carefully constructed series of stone steps.

 Often they lead to abandoned hamlets of stone houses high on the mountain-side - now ruined and overgrown,  but which used to be inhabited every summer when livestock was brought up to the high summer pastures.

Some were permanently inhabited by people who lived, precariously, off the land.  Inside, oddments of furniture still rot in rooms exposed to the elements, cattle chains and implements dangle from rusty hooks.  You get glimpses of an old way of life, gone for ever.

There are also other, less pleasant, memorials here.  Crude metal crosses, shrines, stones roughly inscribed with names, that mark the places where men were killed during the brutal civil war in 1944/5 between the fascists (both German and Italian) and the partisans (mostly peasants trying to protect their homes, crops and their way of life).   Communities up here are scarred forever by it - still living beside families who took the other side, or who betrayed friends or relatives.  Terrible things happened which those over 70 still remember witnessing. 

Julia records her own exploration of her village in Liguria and the paths that wind their way up into the mountains.  She records her neighbour's stories; finds the caves they hid in, visits the ruined villages where they were born.  At one point she discovers an entire abandoned hamlet with clothes still in the closets and crockery in the cupboards, left to mice and bats and the predations of the weather.  She has encounters with wild boar, salamanders and snakes.   The book began as a series of pieces commissioned for BBC radio and is composed of journal entries and essays which some reviewers have criticised for being too fragmentary.  It's true that it leads to a certain amount of repetition, but I didn't find that a problem.

What does come out of the book is the terrible hardship of the lives these people lived.  Yet they loved the landscape so much they were often unable to settle in the coastal towns they moved to after the war to get work.

I definitely recommend this book as a window on Italian life.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Two Thrillers: Jar City and Before I go to Sleep

Jar City: Arnaldur Indridasun
As a fan of the Killing, the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Wallander, I was delighted to find a new Just-South-of-the-Arctic-Circle  author.  Arnaldur Indridason is Icelandic and his books are set on this cold northern island with its long dark winters, twenty four hour summer days and an inward-looking population of only about 300,000 people.  Jar City is  brutal, absolutely convincing and compellingly written.  I like his characters - the morose detective whose wife divorced him years earlier; the daughter who suffers from drug addiction;  his female side-kick, and the cast of strange characters who inhabit isolated, wind-blown hamlets on the edge of the ocean.

Jar City is a lab which contains biological specimens.   When a middle-aged man is found murdered in his flat with no obvious suspects, a photograph suggests a link to the death of a small girl many years earlier (no it's not about child abuse!).   The solution to the murder and the link, lies in Jar City, courtesy of a rogue pathologist.

The book became a film a few years ago which was a Guardian/Observer film of the week and got four stars from Rotten Tomatoes.  I immediately obtained a copy of the film and watched it, but if I hadn't read the book first I would have found the film quite confusing.

Jar City is the first in a series and I'll definitely be reading more of Indridason's work.

Before I go to Sleep: S J Watson
This is a really excellent thriller.  Although the idea of using amnesia as a device has been employed several times before, the plot still had originality.  A woman wakes up every morning, with no idea who she is, or the identity of the man beside her. Every evening when she goes to sleep she knows that she will forget everything that happened during that day.

As I sleep, my mind will erase everything I did today. I will wake up tomorrow as I did this morning. Thinking I’m still a child. Thinking I have a whole lifetime of choice ahead of me …’

 Every morning the man who shares Christine's bed tells her the story of her life so far and she has to believe him because she has no memories to contradict him.....    Cue, danger!

But there is also a doctor in her life, one who is convinced that her condition is curable.  He encourages her to keep a secret journal and telephones her every morning to tell her where to find it.  Without a memory, Christine is vulnerable, unable to make rational decisions, unable to know whether what she is being told is true.  Her journal is the only record of her life that she can trust.  And the story it begins to unfold is shocking and unexpected. 

S.J. Watson is a product of the new Faber academy for writers - it will be interesting to see how many of them make it into the best-seller charts the way this book has.  I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, found it convincing, and will happily read anything else by S.J. Watson. 

Monday, 6 February 2012

Martin Figura: Whistle

I’ve often been disappointed by poetry cabaret performances at literature festivals - so often over-acted, precious, amateurish, with a lack of balance between poetry and cyber-technology - it’s rare to see something really good. So I approached ‘Whistle’ with a degree of scepticism. And was unprepared to be blown away by it.

It’s very low-tech - a video projector unobtrusively parked, a stage with low lighting, a screen for the black and white images. Martin Figura came on-stage and stood, equally unobtrusively, behind the microphone in the shadows at the side of the screen, dressed in black and white. He began to speak and the images began to flicker across the screen and I was immediately lost in the story.

My mother and I pose in Sunday best
in front of a cottage with roses
around the door. She dreams .....

The performance is a blend of poems, letters read by a female voice (his wife, the poet Helen Ivory), and his own narrative links. There are no pyrotechnics, no special effects, no emotions except those generated by the words themselves and their relationships with the images. I was moved, delighted, saddened, and moved again by the story that unfolded.

When Martin was 9 his father, a polish refugee who came to Britain during the war, murdered Martin’s mother.

‘Through the wall, it causes no more than a ripple
on the surface of milk....’

His father - diagnosed with mental health problems - was placed in Broadmoor, and Martin and his two sisters were consigned to boarding schools and orphanages after an uncle and aunt decided they couldn’t give them a home. Salvation came in the shape of the Piggotts - a large catholic family who had been neighbours and who rescued Martin from school to bring him up as one of their own brood.

‘Taken prisoner by this bashing, clouting clan. Jammed between
Danny and John, the second and third boys with their shock
white hair and flying fists. Dragged through lanes and hedges
into ponds and up trees for birds’ eggs. ......
Flying over fields on the Honda fifty, being chased
by the mad dog. The mad dog burying bones in your bed;
hurling itself downstairs.......
Family parties at the drop of a hat: party cans and egg-
rolls, trifles and crisps, hokey-cokeys and terrible dancing
to Status Quo.....'

The poems try to claim fragments of memory to bring his mother June to life. There are a few black and white photographs of her as a young woman, a young wife, quotes from her letters, a glimpse of her daily life.

Her own face appears in the furniture.
She shines small brass animals back to life.
A tiny kitchen disappears into the mist

of an afternoon. A sponge cake rises
behind the oven door. He watches
the last slow hour on the factory clock.

... we can nurse baby for half an hour and then you must put him to bed. I insist on this as I want him to know his Daddy as much as me. He must grow up to love us equally. We must give him a good life so he will be proud of us.

Poems reconstruct a family history, trace the rehabilitation of Martin’s father, and the awkward attempts at a relationship after his release.

The girl I’m going to marry
sits with a cup of tea on her lap
while Dad fusses over the gravy,
peels the potatoes under the tap.....

It’s a stunning show because it’s so honest and doesn’t try to push any buttons. There are just the words and the images. Martin is also a photographer, so he knows how to use visual imagery.

I bought the collection, published by Arrowhead Press, so that I could read the poems again. And as I read, I can see the images floating through my head. What it would be like to read the poems without those images, I don’t know, but I have a feeling that they still stand up. Poetry as narrative autobiography is rare - and even rarer when it works as this does. Whistle has won awards, notably at the Edinburgh Festival, and it deserves them.

Martin Figura 'Strange Boy' is my Tuesday Poem over at

Clips from the show

Martin’s website

Buy the book here: