Saturday, 31 May 2008

Little Monsters: review and interview

Little Monsters has just been reviewed by Kay Sexton. You can find the review, followed by an interview with me, on Writing Neuroses, here. Kay's questions were challenging and fun, and I've done my best to answer them. I can do no more.

(There's also a photograph of me in my new desert
boots pretending to read the book...)

Friday, 30 May 2008


Many posts ago, I quoted a colleague who commented that that the fact we share so much of our DNA with chimps (and, for that matter, sea cucumbers) is only significant if we think of DNA as non-sequential. If, on the other hand, we think of it in the way we think of letters that form words, it's less surprising that a minimal difference in the order of the same letters (i.e. with a 100% match) can have a pretty substantial effect on meaning. It's the old god/dog trick.

I've just been reminded of this in a very personal way. I put this blog on Facebook (I know, I know) and couldn't understand why I kept getting a very different blog whenever I clicked on the (admittedly also different) image.
This is what I got each time. Don't worry, you don't have to read it all. Here's a sample.

The Bible gives us over 50 descriptions about the people at the time of the end. These fit the people of today perfectly, but did not fit the people of fifty years ago. Here are some:


Some would depart from the faith and go into devil worship-1 Tim 4:1. This is perfect.

B. People would mock about the last days and not believe-2 Pe 3:3; Jude 18.


People would become lovers of themselves-2 Tim 3:1,2. Remember the TV commercials—"I do it for me"?


People would be disobeying their parents-2 Tim 3:1,2.

E. People would be grateful for nothing-2 Tim 3:1,2.

F. Homosexuality would increase-Lk 17:28,30; ref Gen 19:5; Ro 1:24,26,27.


People would be without self-control in sex-2 Tim 3:1,2,6; Rev 9:21, Lk 17:28,30; Jude 7. Is this not the great sex generation?


People would love pleasures more than God-2 Tim 3:1,2,4. This is true. Shall we go on a picnic, watch football, or sleep. Church?—we can go another time. Our American motto "In God we trust" has become a joke. Remember, these were all predicted centuries ago as part of the signs that we are at the time of the end.


People would be taking drugs-Rev 9:21. The Greek word for sorceries, in Rev 9:21, means pharmaceuticals or drugs. God’s Word is 100% right on every one. That’s 6 out of 6. How could you have any doubts at this point?
Note: Fifty years ago, many people seldom locked their doors at night. There was little or no profanity on television, radio, or in the movies. One of the biggest problems in public school was gum chewing. Those days are long gone.
It took me quite a while to spot the problem. Or should that be psot?

Daft Punk: Harder Better Faster Stronger

Lesser god stuff

Nine days before Gay Pride is supposed to take place in Rome (Saturday, 7 June), the organisers have discovered that the march can no longer end in Piazza San Giovanni, despite authorisation having been granted in April. Why not? Because it would coincide with a choral performance and convention in the Lateran Palace, next door to St. John Lateran. The Lateran Palace has extraterritorial status, which means it doesn't actually belong to Italy or come under Italian jurisdiction, fiscal or otherwise, but that's clearly less important than ensuring the discomfort of the many thousands of Italian taxpayers who'd expected to end their annual march (sorry, vulgar exhibitionist display) in a square traditionally associated with civil rights and the left.

Alemanno strikes again.


I don't know if Colchester is a typically or untypically ungodly example of modern urban Britain, but of the three churches open last Friday one had been converted into a museum, one into a shop and the third, although still functioning, had the air of a place little visited and less loved. Although it's clearly being used by someone. I took this photograph at the bottom of the stairs leading up to a sort of dusty gallery, used, like this vestibule, for storage.

Note the writing to the right of the door.

Colour chart, Colchester

Wednesday, 28 May 2008


The last place you'd expect to find a review of the O. Henry Prize Stories 2007 is in what purports to be a review of the 2008 collection - just out. But the Manila Standard Today is clearly a paper that ploughs its own furrow, and all the better for it. Particularly in the case of this review, which doesn't only concentrate on last year's anthology rather than the new one but focuses on two stories in it, one of which is The Scent of Cinnamon. You're probably as tired as I am of seeing praise heaped on this story (don't worry, I'm joking), so you needn't go and read it. I'll just quote a phrase - a love story of heart-rending proportions - as a possible amuse-gueule.

PS. I thought I'd check the spelling of 'gueule' - how could I fail to after the spiky post below - and I found this fascinatingly complete (as in, containing strictly irrelevant but nonetheless fascinating information) definition, on Everything2:

In the most literal sense, amuse gueule translates from the French as an amusement for the mouth - but not a mouth in the human sense - amuse bouche would be used in that case (which indeed it sometimes is). It seems that gueule means a non-human mouth, either that of an animal or more intriguingly, a gun. When used in reference to humans, gueule is a slang term, roughly translating as gob. It gives you an idea of the playfulness of the dish.

(Sic) as a parrot

Watching daytime TV yesterday (yes, I've been staying with my mother), I noticed spelling mistakes in two consecutive ads. In the first , for a removal company (I think), 'geographical' was spelt 'georgraphical' (note the intrusive 'r'). In the second, claims were being made for a detergent that would clean all surfaces, including stainless steal (sic). I found my temperature rising.

Does this make me Lynne Truss? Or I am becoming sad in my own quiet way?

Sunday, 25 May 2008

A question of style

Yesterday’s Independent had two stories that reflected each other in the revelatory way skewed mirrors sometimes do. The first had to do with Naomi Campbell, who is still spitting fire about her treatment at the hands of British Airways. She denies that the company has banned her from its flights, and her luggage from Terminal Five. It has, however, ‘disrespected’ her. In the Devil Woman’s own, reported, words:

Someone from British Airways asked that I return to fly with them but this will not occur so early. I am speaking for all those that have been disrespected.

As a teacher of English (‘in my spare time’, according to the still mysterious ‘Luke Rocchi’), I wouldn’t know where to start with a text like this. Its sheer unnaturalness suggests machine translation from some arcane bureaucratic dialect. I may be quite wrong, of course; it may simply be the way people chat to one another in the world of high fashion. As in: Jean Paul asked that I share a line of coke in the back room but this will not occur so early. I particularly like the second sentence, which bears no logical connection to the first but smacks of Ms Campbell in what she probably imagines to be Nelson Mandela mode. Naomi, champion of ‘all those that have been disrespected’. It’s good to know she’s prepared to speak up for all the little people whose luggage also went astray but who didn’t have sufficient elegance or promptness of spirit to gob in a copper’s face.

A few pages later in the same issue there’s an article about the cosmetic surgeon, Martin Kelly, who died unexpectedly, and tragically, a few days ago. Kelly spent a fair amount of time reconstructing the septums (septa?) of people who share Ms Campbell’s world and habits, but he also, and principally, dedicated himself to people who don’t, including a small girl in Afghanistan, whose face was so deformed the local Taliban considered her a ‘devil child’ and wanted to have her stoned to death (with stones, not cell phones). Thanks to Kelly’s work, she is no longer a devil child. Now 11, she wrote to thank him:

First of all I say hallow to my doctor Moten Kalli. I’m Hadisa Husain from Afghanistan. I’m at school now and I’m very happy. I don’t have any problem and I’ll never forget you, and I’m waithing for my next opration. Thank you.

The spelling might not be perfect, but for efficacy of communication Campbell could learn a thing or two from it. No disrespect intended.

Monday, 19 May 2008

Palomino Blitz: I can't recall

Ballarò etc

If you're in Italy tomorrow, speak Italian, have a television, and care about the lettori situation, don't miss Ballarò on Rai Due around 9 pm.

If any of the above conditions do not apply, I suggest you do something more rewarding with your time.

Like waste it on Facebook, for example. I swore I'd not fall into the maws of another over-hyped time-devouring virtual monster (Yes, I did visit Second Life; no, I didn't go back), but Baroque in Hackney lured me in with promises of nylons discounted Salt books, including hers (eyes right), and how could I say no? As a result, I've just spent half an hour becoming a fan of, among others, David Boreanaz (and I'm not sure I can even spell his name). Is this any way for a 54-year-old published author to behave? Now she thinks she can make it up to me by sending me a picture of a flowerpot with some rather odd flowers sticking out of it. Hah! I may have to retaliate... A zombie hug? A poke? (If only I knew what they were.)

Still, I now have 34 friends. Not bad.

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Quotas: footnote

It looks like it's all to do with numbers. How many people come in, how many people are forced to leave. Alemanno says he's going to expel 20,000 illegal immigrants from Rome and I wonder how he arrived at this number, the way I wonder how Stalin arrived at his daily quota of traitors to be arrested and tried and murdered. Do these people use pins, or dice, or multiples of their birth date? And if the numbers don't tally, what then? If there simply aren't enough clandestini? Or too many?

Numbers are part of the rhetoric. The number of Italians who want gipsies expelled, according to a recent opinion poll, is 61 in every hundred. And yes, that includes the 70,000 gipsies with Italian citizenship (as potential expellees, obviously: they're hardly likely to have been asked their opinion on the matter). But what was the question, and how was it framed?

On Annozero the other night, a middle-aged man from, I think, Morocco said that immigrants weren't chattels, to be bought and sold, but human beings. He went on to accuse Roberto Castelli, ex-Minister of Justice, of being a delinquent. This is the kind of language that's used all the time during political debates on Italian TV; it's actually tamer than most. It isn't unusual to hear politicians merrily calling each other shits on prime time telly. Normally nobody bats an eyelid; at worst, there's some muttering about vulgarity in the next day's papers. On this occasion though, Santoro, the ringmaster, silenced the man (physically, by turning his microphone off) and, using the familiar 'tu' form, said he was doing his cause no good and should be more careful before he spoke. Castelli was then allowed to use this act of lèse majesté as an example of how 'they' come over here, insult us, think they have the right, etc. etc.

But how many people watched the show?

Friday, 16 May 2008


We live in interesting times, as the Chinese curse has it. A few months ago, after reading about the treatment meted out to refugees in Britain and thinking about the mood of anti-refugee rage I encounter so often when I'm there, I wanted to write a short piece on how Italy, despite the xenophobic legislation enacted by the previous Berlusconi government and the lackadaisical failure of its successor to address the issue, still maintained a sense of the shared humanity of the other - faint, flickering, barely enough to light a cupboard by, but still, despite everything, alive. You could see it in the tone of TV news reports when people died while crossing the Mediterranean in boats that should never have been allowed to leave their harbours and the port of Lampedusa was paved with body bags. The images we saw were of kids who didn't look old enough to have left home, never mind homeland, shivering in blankets, drinking something hot, wondering what now? The attitude wasn't approval, far from it, but there was an ounce or two there of understanding, and of pity. I wanted to talk about this, and about how often ordinary people, on buses, at markets, would refer to immigrants, whether legal or not, as poveri Cristi. They might not want them, but they recognised them. I've seen all kinds of people step in when police try to arrest the Africans selling their pirated CDs and fake Louis Vuitton handbags and Dolce e Gabbana shades.

I don't think this is true any longer. I think the mood has changed and that what looked like a sort of prelapsarian innocence - because, of course, it wasn't innocence at all, but nuanced and humane - has now been lost. It would be easy to point a finger at the Northern League and its shameful exploitation of racist sentiment in the north, where half the factory
workers are illegal immigrants and 100 percent of the live-in carers, without whom the old and ill would be institutionalised or alone, come from outside Italy, from the Ukraine and Indonesia and Brazil. It would be easy to blame the press, which for political motives or worse, has exaggerated the criminal impact foreigners have had, devoting pages to Romanian hit and run drivers and paragraphs to the home-grown kind. It would be easy to blame the last government for its failure to understand the extent to which the agenda - in this as in everything else - was being set by others, which crucially underplayed the security issue, which flip-flopped between the draconian measures taken in Bologna by Cofferati, ex-darling of the left, and the ill-thought-out laissez-faireism of those who wanted to woo the radical youth of the centri sociali, paying lip service to both. It would be easy, finally, to blame the tiny percentage of immigrants who do rape, and murder, and plough down pedestrians in cars they're too drunk to drive.

They're all to blame, I suppose, and the people who came to Italy to improve their lives, and those of their families, and who, in doing so, have also improved the lives of those around them by doing jobs nobody else wants at wages nobody else would accept, by looking after the people we don't have time for, for whatever reason - well, those people are going to have to sit out the storm, hoping their papers, if they have them, are in order, contributing to a national insurance scheme that would soon be belly-up without their money, being humiliated on a daily basis by people who now feel what they had in common with the other has somehow been rubbed away by a too daily contact, by too much friction. On Rai 2's Annozero last night, someone commented that what we really want from immigrants is for them to work from Monday to Friday and then to disappear until they're needed again, and this was wryly accepted by almost everyone there. And now there's a comment on my THES article about lettori in Italy, which shocked me, by someone who left the country because he couldn't take the racism here. And it makes me wonder how I managed not to see it for so long.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Duh revisited

Well, my piece on lettori has led to a predictable hoohah, most of it occasioned less by me than by the mysterious "Luke Rocchi" - mysterious not for any intrinsic value the person might possess, but because of the fact that he/she doesn't seem to exist. Google the name and you get an Australian who makes sculptures from wood, and very nice they are too. Turn Luke into Luca and you get lots of candidates, including Mr Gay, but nobody seems to be working in an English university. Plus the fact that whoever Luke/Luca is, he/she seems to know rather more about me than is comofrtable. Anyone who reads my blog will know that I'm a fairly open - and well-thumbed - book, but I've never spoken about my lack of a PhD, because the occasion for doing so has never arisen. So how does he/she know? There's a level of personal malice in the person's comment that suggests we may have known each other. It's clear from the language that the writer is a native speaker, and knows a lot about lettori up to but not beyond the European court decision. I also wonder how he/she found the article. As a 'university teacher in England' he/she may simply read THES every week, in which case the research into me, my novel, my 'prestigious publications' and my blog came later, to garnish the bitter dish; but it seems more plausible to suppose that 'Luke' read my blog first and then the article. Who knows?

Of course none of this supposition would be necessary if 'Luke Rocchi' had the courage and, indeed, decency to use his/her own name instead of skulking behind a pseudonym.

Monday, 12 May 2008


I've been told by someone who doesn't like my Times Higher Educational Supplement piece about lettori (see below) that my blog is 'self-serving'. I've no doubt he also has strong opinions about the religious identity of the pope and where bears defecate.

Still, a hit's a hit!

Sunday, 11 May 2008



Mara Carfagna is Minister for Equal Opportunities in Berlusconi's new cabinet. This poster comes from an earlier incarnation as calendar fodder and, oddly, wasn't used to promote her campaign during the recent elections. Possibly because Italian voters aren't actually allowed to choose their representatives, but only the party to which they belong. In the lovely Mara's case, the Popolo delle Libertà, otherwise known as Poppe al Vento (Boobs to the Wind). I wonder what Gianni Alemanno, Rome's new mayor, thinks about this sort of exhibitionism.

Carfagna announced last year that gay unions shouldn't be recognised because 'homosexuals are constitutionally sterile.' No one is quite sure what this means, but it certainly feels offensive.

Holy shit

My sister normally reads these posts from work, but she had a surprise last week. The server her workplace uses wouldn't let her open the blog. When she told me about it a couple of days ago I thought she was going to say it had been blocked for obscenity (read: Berlusconi's todger). But I was wrong. My crime, which renders me unreadable for a large public organization in London, is profanity. I may express the occasional doubt about the role of various churches in issues that don't concern them, but profane? Surely that's rather harsh. I also wonder how they know. They obviously have much more sensitive filters than those used by GoogleAds, which also picks up on the religious content of the blog, but seems to think my readers are either devout catholics (which may sometimes be the case) or waiting for the Rapture (which I devoutly hope, isn't.)

And if you're wondering why I've been inactive these past few days, let me show you a sample of the 40-page text I'm supposed to be editing for a certain unnamed international agency:
"The farmers organization without the money", that falls the farmers are to be an only the beneficiary of the grant aid, that is free of charge, by the government and/or donors with passiveness, no ideas against the trouble shooting, and they are just like only being gathering group. How extent of the grant aid could help the poor farmer's hope? When considering the disturbance of the "free of charge" programme which being spoiled the farmer's self-help efforts, it was really necessary to discover the right direction for the International Cooperation that will not be a "free of charge".
As Sophie Tucker once said about a TV healer: "Honey, he can heal the sick, but he can't raise the dead."

Thursday, 8 May 2008

A variety of salad leaf

This week's Times Higher Education Supplement has a leader on the appalling treatment meted out to foreign language teachers by Italian universities. I wrote it. Here's a taste:
I became a lettore in 1982, in Rome. The building I worked in was a box of concrete and rattling glass that would soon be declared unfit for purpose and abandoned. My first class, for beginners, had almost 100 students and was held in a room the shape of a boot. Standing at the toe, I watched what I taught being relayed to the hidden third of the class beyond the heel. Students would turn up hours before class began for a seat within sight and hearing of me. It didn't surprise me that only 10 per cent of Italian students graduated.
I didn't have space to describe the room we were given in the place to which the faculty was moved a few years later. The building had been a private clinic of some sort. There was a padded cell on the third floor and in some ways I'm surprised we weren't told to store our books and receive students in that. But someone had a better idea. The morgue. Perhaps it was felt that the chilly atmosphere would help us to preserve our linguistic freshness. (You'll need to read the piece to understand this reference, and the title. And if you'd like to leave a comment, I'd be delighted.)

Wednesday, 7 May 2008


Gianni Alemanno, Rome's new mayor, as far as I know unasked, has announced that the city will not be supporting Gay Pride 2008 (yes, it's that time of year again), on the grounds that he doesn't approve of sexual displays of any kind, heterosexual or homosexual. This is the standard line now, and really means nothing at all, unless of course he's also going to suggest that Alessandra Mussolini, or Daniala Santanché or any of the other belles du jour of the right, button up their blouses and climb down off their vertiginously high heels, which have the effect, as high heels are designed to have, of emphasising their buttocks and calves, admittedly secondary sexual characteristics, but nonetheless on display. It isn't clear though whether this mayoral disapproval is going to express itself as laissez faire disdain or take the more concrete form of a ban. That would be foolish, and unpopular abroad (as if Alemanno cared). It might be the most practical thing to have us all herded into some suitable public space. A stadium, say. Or one of the gipsy camps about to be emptied of their current inhabitants. Or why not simply put us all in the same place - gipsies and gays together? It won't be the first time, after all. It's actually rather practical. Gipsies are dirty and horribly untidy, while gays love nothing more than rearranging the furniture and ironing doilies. It's a holocaust made in heaven.

Some Forza Italia token gay, god love him, suggests that we should do the march in suits and ties. This reminds me of the time I saw a member of the gay commune Bethnal Rouge - oh heady days! - in unusually sober attire. 'I'm wearing man drag,' he confided. 'I've got to go to the job centre.' On the other hand, Rome is worth a waistcoat...

(It's worth remembering, of course, that Rutelli, the PD candidate for mayor, also withdrew support for Gay Pride on similar grounds. You see how fair I am?)

PS No-neh is the noise Roman matrons make when denying children some small pleasure; it's accompanied by a wagging finger.

Monday, 5 May 2008


There's an error in the previous post. Where I say 'adoring' I meant to say 'adorning'. I could have just corrected it but why waste a layer of meaning, albeit unintentional? As long as the ports have names for the sea...

Not to speak of the wonderful pain/paint slip-up from Lion Lion (Tom Raworth).

PS I've also just realised how ambiguous my final sentence is in the post below. I'll be thinking about this and getting back to you with some kind of clarification. Or not. Why waste a layer of meaning?

PPS I'm quoting myself. I'm very tired. I'll tell you why tomorrow. To prepare you for what's coming, I'll whisper the word 'train'. And that reminds me of perhaps the worst printing error I've ever come across. If you haven't read Anna Karenina, there's a spoiler coming up. (On the other hand, if you haven't read Anna Karenina, you deserve a spoiler.) At the end of the novel, in the edition I read some decades ago, Anna commits suicide by throwing herself under a 'good strain'. What a misplaced 's' can do.

PPPS And given that tiredness encourages this process of random association, I'm reminded of a comment made by Julian Bees from the ANSA English desk some years back, when told that human beings and chimpanzees share 90-whatever percent of their genes: 'Genetics isn't maths. It's spelling. You change a letter, you change the word.'


The news that Rome Film Festival will be concentrating its efforts on promoting Italian cinema rather than the careers of foreign actors would probably have been greeted with greater enthusiasm if it had come from a liberal mayor. The fact that the decision has been made by Alemanno has led to a rather more - how shall I put this - strident, even hysterical, reaction. Particularly outside Italy, where The Times of Rupert Murdoch, in pot-to-kettle fashion, refers to the new mayor as il Duce. That's as may be. Though it's odd that the spots of hard left leopards seem to wash off with no trouble at all, aided perhaps by a gentle shower of clerical rain, while those adoring the hard right are considered to be as permanent and indelible as Indian ink.

Personally, I'd be happy to see a little more attention being given to an industry that still manages to produce worthwhile cinema - Crialese, Moretti, Soldini, to cite three very different directors - despite the massive attention given by the media and distributors to foreign (read, US) movies. Maybe a little autochthony will do us all good. It will also be refreshing
to see less of Walter Veltroni fawning over Hollywood starlets as though they were envoys from the planet Beautiful.

Is this the beginning of the backlash?