Saturday, 28 March 2009

A crate for fruit

Update: If anyone thinks this is a gratuitous slur on the Pontifex and his sexual preferences and doesn't speak Italian, the slur is actually worse than they may have thought. The name of the wholesale fruit and veg dealers on the side of the plastic crate in the top picture is PAPA & L'AMANTE (which, translated into English, reads POPE AND LOVER). Papa is a fairly common name in these parts, L'Amante rather less so; the combination was too good to miss.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

The world

I got this from Joe.My.God, who got it from See My Briefs, who got it from their friend Kevin. Thank you, Kevin. 

(You need to click on it to see the whole thing. Dont ask me why, ask Blogger. I just do what I'm told.)

Thursday, 19 March 2009


If you're wondering a) what the odd little widget to the right, the one with the numbers and the blue bar, is all about, and b) why my contributions to this blog are so erratic these days, well, there's one answer to both. I'm working on a new novel, entitled ANY HUMAN FACE, my progress on which is being measured by the aforesaid widget. (The figure of 85,000 is a purely hypothetical final word count.) Everything else is being pushed to one side. But believe me, it will be worth it. And, meanwhile, please don't give up on me - keep dropping in (if only to see how many more words I've written). I'm sure I'll find time to express irritation about any number of things before the novel's finished and I resume normal service. Be warned, Ratzy! 

Monday, 16 March 2009

Strano is as Strano does

The name of the caterwauling, gesticulating oaf with the slice of mortadella hanging from his lips is Nino Strano, the place - alas! - is the Italian senate. Nino Strano is insulting Romano Prodi and his supporters in the way that comes most naturally to a man of culture, by calling them 'faggots' and 'pieces of shit'. Strano says he has gay friends – I hope that's no longer the case. He lost his seat at the last election but has been chosen as a candidate, by Berlusconi, for the European elections later this year. Remember, in Italy, we don't get to choose who we vote for; that's the job of the party, which just knows better. We give carte blanche to each political party to make its own decisions about who should represent us. In his efforts to clean up his act defend his honour, Strano is threatening people who show this film, including YouTube and individual bloggers, with legal action. Which is why I'm posting it here. And which is why I'm asking anyone who reads this and also has a blog to post the same film. It's a small thing. But so is Nino Strano.

Sunday, 15 March 2009


I'd just like to point you towards an excellent review for Little Monsters from The Fiction Desk. This may be the first time that my moustache has been called out in a review, and it's certainly the first time the novel has been rated more highly than a plate of cacio e pepe, one of my absolute favourite dishes and possibly the last remaining reason for living in Rome. (I'm joking. Just.) I can't tell you how much this means to me. 

You can read it here.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Press freedom in a democracy. Lesson one.

Dario Franceschini, the new PD leader, though probably not for long, suggested  a couple of days ago that the unemployed should receive some kind of indemnity payment from the government. I thought they already did, or at least had the right to do, but apparently I was wrong. There were vaguely positive murmurings from left and right, possibly because it looked like the kind of thing Obama might propose, so it's a bit of a vote-catcher and it never hurts to be associated with one of those. 

But Berlusconi immediately ruled the proposal out. Not because it was unfair, or because the funds weren't available. His argument, in pure Silvio fashion, was that it would encourage employers to sack people. These people would then pick up their dole cheques and be re-hired illegally at lower wages. What kind of brain does it take to come up with that kind of scenario? (Yes, this question is intended to be rhetorical.)

He also said that Italy is the only democracy in which state television criticises the government in power with impunity. (If only this were true.) He's obviously been taking lessons in democracy from Putin. Oh yes, his latest word on the economic crisis. He admits there is one, but insists that the media exaggerate it. Which media? Not, one assumes, the huge swathe of it owned or controlled by the grinning buffoon himself.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Ave fellow thugs

The back in the middle of this picture belongs to someone called Don Giulio Tam. He defines himself as an 'itinerant Jesuit' but he's actually one of the gang of break-away catholic traditionalists, headed by Lefebvre and recently re-admitted to the fold by Ratzinger. He looks as though he's calling for order or maybe directing traffic in this picture, but what he's actually doing is making a Roman salute, the kind Mussolini made fashionable all those years ago, to a group of right-wing extremists (sorry, Forza Nuova) in Bergamo. What with Archbishop Robinson et al, it looks as though, for the Vatican, blackshirts are the new black. 

These must be prayer sticks.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009


These two sheep, plump and sloping out of the wind as they head over the brow of the hill, are a wonderful shorthand for a bucolic life the people who commissioned this painting - closed order nuns - had probably never experienced. They adorn the back of a bench in the majolica-tiled cloister of Santa Chiara in Naples, the one with the martyrdom of Saint Catherine, in comic strip detail and sequence, on a neighbouring wall. Other images show carousing groups, dancing, and various other high jinks, which must have rubbed salt into monastic wounds. Or maybe not. The convent was, after all, in Naples.

A wheel within a wheel

This is a convent wheel, currently in the Santa Chiara museum in Naples. I'd never seen one before. It was used in the convents of closed orders, whenever communication with the rest of the world was required. The nun would stand on one side of the wheel and speak into the drum. The sound would travel into the other half of the drum and out of the opening on the other side. I was there with my sister, we tried it and it works extremely well, though it wasn't clear to me why it should be a wheel rather than, say, a wall, unless the idea was that it could be spun round to accommodate particularly tall or short petitioners. Although presumably the nuns were accustomed to kneeling... The wall of the cloister closest to the museum contains scenes from the martyrdom of St Catherine. I wonder if the wheel ever reminded the cloistered nuns of the rather gruesome images outside.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Balancing on the Edge of the World

I first came across Elizabeth Baines through Fictionbitch, which struck me immediately as one of the liveliest and most thoughtful literary blogs around. Intrigued, I bought her collection, Balancing on the Edge of the World, and was moved and impressed by its intelligence, emotional acuity and sheer variety. Since then, we’ve met twice, far too briefly, and it was a great pleasure on both occasions, although the second time Elizabeth’s journey home, if I remember correctly, was interrupted by a random sniper outside Manchester. I hope this has no significance. Last year I was lucky enough to be interviewed by Elizabeth on my own Cyclone tour, and I’m delighted to be able to return the gesture of respect and curiosity that this sort of interview represents. I’m only sorry we weren’t able to sit down together and have a glass of wine while we were about it. Although after the sniper incident perhaps this is just as well.

For those of you who don’t already know Elizabeth, this is what she has to say about herself:

Elizabeth Baines is a writer of prose fiction and prize-winning plays for radio and stage. Her short story collection, Balancing on the Edge of the World, was published by Salt in 2007 and was long-listed for the Frank O'Connor International Award for the Short Story 2008. Her novel, Too Many Magpies, will come from Salt in late 2009. Elizabeth was born in South Wales and now lives in Manchester. She has been a teacher and is also an occasional actor. She writes the critical-commentary blog Fictionbitch and also has her own author blog.

I asked Elizabeth three questions about her work. Here they are, with her wonderfully illuminating answers.

Many of the stories in Balancing on the Edge of the World deal with, and illuminate, social issues: homelessness, street violence, divorce, infidelity. There’s a strong sense not just of place but of their being rooted in social and economic circumstance that’s refreshing in a form which sometimes tends towards the airy-fairily universal, while the conflicts the stories enact are powerfully realized at the personal level, but are also, in a large sense, political - issues of power and so on. At the same time, a story like ‘Conundrum’ shows a healthy distrust of political orthodoxies. This obviously isn’t simply the effect of writing about the world ‘as it is’, but the result of decisions about what constitutes reality and how we, as individuals, shape and are shaped by it. To what extent are you aware of thinking ‘politically’ – if this makes sense – as you write? And have you ever found a story leading you into a place you’re at odds with on an ideological level? If you have, what did you do?

Well, I said right at the start of this tour on Barbara Smith’s blog that I’m just writing about the world as I see it, but the fact is that I think I do see the world politically, though in the widest sense, as you say. Since I’ve revealed so much on this tour already, I don’t mind saying that I grew up with a raging sense of injustice. As a teenager I had a very stormy relationship with my parents (so I felt big injustice on my own behalf!) yet I was also naturally deeply affected by the class, race and religious prejudice they had experienced and which informed their attitudes, and also by the non-conformist bent of my Welsh family on my mother’s side. So yes, from early on I was made political in the sense of questioning things and also protesting against authority and whatever seems unfair. But since what both my Irish father and Welsh mother had always struggled against was religious and political orthodoxies, I was always going to be, as you note, suspicious of orthodoxies of any kind – well, not just suspicious, I’d say, but passionately concerned to expose their potential iniquities. Two other more explicit examples of this in Balancing are ‘The Shooting Script’, a satirical story about an arts worker from hell, which shows how the politics of equal opportunity can be paradoxically twisted to wield unfair power, and ‘The Way to Behave’, another ironic story in which a wife uses the unthinking pieties of a certain strand of feminism to take revenge on another woman, her husband’s female lover. Take that issue of feminism: it would be hard, I think, not to be convinced by the humanitarian insights of true feminism, and indeed my first two novels were fiercely motored by them. But by the time I came to write my first radio play I had seen how certain strands of feminism had become problematic, even damaging orthodoxies, and this was what Rhyme or Reason, that first play, was about. (Orwell’s Animal Farm is my yardstick, after all!) Some feminists were very unhappy about that play, especially when it was nominated for Sony Awards and Harriet Walter won Best Actress, as they felt I was very publicly discrediting feminism, but as I say I write the world as I see it, or as far as I can see it, and indeed it’s precisely that kind of blanket thinking (you’re with us or you’re against us; all x are good, all y are bad etc etc) that I have often explored in my writing.

As you note, however, what I’m concerned with is the way all of this operates on the personal, experiential and psychological level, which is why I’m so concerned to portray the sensual aspects of experience (including a concrete sense of place etc). This is the real politics for me: the way those social and economic circumstances affect us on the deep emotional level and consequently affect our sense of ourselves in the world. For this reason – as you also indicate – I’m deeply concerned in my writing with the question of reality, and the contingency of reality, and the psychological matter of viewpoint: What constitutes reality? How does our sense of reality differ according to our circumstances, our place in the balance of power?

As for the question of whether a story has ever led me to a place with which I’m at ideological odds… Well, I think it must be clear now that if by ideology we mean a pre-packaged system of thought then I’d prefer to be free of authorial ideology, although I know I have slipped up once or twice: nowadays I’d be far less hard on the men in my first novel The Birth Machine than I was. I’d say that writing well is a process of looking for the truth, rather than imposing a set of preconceived notions. It’s true that as I’ve indicated there are certain overriding and indeed passionately-held attitudes I always bring to my writing, chiefly my concern with all forms of unfairness, cruelty or domination – social and personal, intended or unintended. But what I want to do above all in my writing, nowadays at any rate, is understand the psychological basis of these and other human impulses, and so for this reason nothing is out of bounds in terms of subject matter, nor the viewpoint of any protagonist – I’d get inside the mind of Hitler were I capable of it. In ‘The Way to Behave’, for instance, the behaviour of the wife is pretty underhand and, according to my own personal principles, inexcusable on moral terms, but entirely understandable. By getting inside her head and her pain and at the same time showing the devastation for the woman on whom she takes revenge, I hope I’ve come to some kind of deeper understanding of the tragedy of the whole situation. It’s in the treatment rather than the subject matter, I think, where the politics of a piece of writing lie, and I never write without a strong political consciousness (in the widest sense!), so no, I have to say I haven’t ever found a story leading me away from my politics at the time of writing. (Needless to say, as I’ve also indicated, my politics/insights have changed and developed as I’ve gone on living and writing.)

You also write for radio. I don’t know if you’d agree with this but, for me, writing short stories is a solitary business but also one that gives the writer enormous freedom, given that the activity, for most of us, has practically no economic return (alas!) and doesn’t require– or even presuppose - a particular reader or group of readers. I imagine that writing radio drama is a much more collegial affair, both explicitly - working with producers, actors, etc. – but also implicitly, in terms of internalizing the needs of the medium. How far are you aware of writing for a specific audience when you write for the radio and do you see this as a hampering constriction or a challenge?

Well, there’s an obvious difference in the sense of audience for the two forms, but I have to say that my sense of an audience has changed for both short stories and radio. I wouldn’t say that I felt exactly as if I was writing for myself or in isolation when I first started writing short stories, since I was writing into a literary magazine culture which inevitably influenced me, and which gave me a sense of a literary community and constituency – but yes, that also gave me great freedom because of course literary magazines are the places for innovation and individuality. Funnily enough, when I wrote my first radio play, Rhyme or Reason, I did so with even greater freedom, and with even less sense of having to please an audience, as, frankly, I simply wrote what I wanted to hear and didn’t do what you’re always advised to do (nowadays at any rate) and listen to lots of radio plays to see how it’s done and what’s wanted. And that’s how it was for my first few radio plays. Indeed, I was told by one producer that anything I wanted to write she would produce, and although I had an exhilarating sense of the huge audience out there for radio (compared with that for short stories, at any rate!) I had no sense of needing to please it beyond doing what came naturally to me. But as everyone knows, in the end BBC Radio finally caught up with the other media and became market-conscious, and the sense of audience became everything – and pleasing it the holy grail. And the audience that the commissioning editors had in mind was not the one I had previously envisaged: above all, it wanted ‘heart-warming’ stuff, apparently, and the last thing it wanted was irony or satire – my main stock in trade, especially when it comes to drama. As I mentioned on Scott Pack’s blog, I took this as a challenge (well, there wasn’t much else I could do other than give up!) and it was an interesting battle, with losses and gains. I don’t think I ever internalized the strictures (personally, I didn’t agree with the BBC assessment of their radio audience!), but consciously looked for ways of pushing at the boundaries, and I slipped in a few satirical plays that way. But of course, as you say, a great deal depends on others in drama, and one play I wrote as satire wasn’t produced as such. On the whole, therefore, I’d say I felt hampered rather than extended by the restrictions, and when my producer gave up radio I stopped doing radio too for the present. (It’s possible that things have become different again in radio since.)

However, I’d say that the whole experience of writing for a well-defined audience, and for actors and directors who challenge the lines they have to speak and the motivation of characters, affected my sense of the audience for prose: I think it sharpened my sense of the need for clarity and accessibility. This was reinforced by the fact that (as I explained on Scott’s blog) magazines prepared to publish experimental work disappeared for a time, making me feel the need to write for a more conventional short story market. But I think my experience as a dramatist has made me strive harder for accessibility even – and perhaps especially – when I’m trying to do something unusual in a story. Whether my prose has actually changed as a result is probably for others to decide.

Other interviewers have spoken about your voice, and I’d agree that there’s a strong sense that these stories are coming from the same place, a lot of which I think is to do with your language choices, which strike me as both spare and surprising, and the acuteness of your observation. But it’s also true that the stories demonstrate an enormous range of moods, and styles. I’m not talking so much about the experimental/traditional opposition, which you’ve already discussed, as I am about the nitty-gritty of tense, punctuation, viewpoint. Is this range, which I admire very much by the way, a result of letting the story dictate its form or of your desire, as a writer, to avoid the equivalent of type-casting? And do you think it strengthens or weakens the collection as a whole? (I should say here that I think the collection is greatly strengthened by it!)

Well, thank you, Charles! I shall return the compliment, as I in turn find your collection impressive and engrossing for its breadth of style and mode. For me, as I know it is for you, it most definitely is to do with the requirements of each individual story. Take the two stories I talk about above, ‘The Shooting Script’ and ‘The Way to Behave’. As stories examining overtly social issues and featuring wicked plotting on the part of their characters, they lent themselves naturally to a conventional satirical format where, along with a satirical voice, plot is uppermost. There is however a difference in the way their narrative voices operate (and thus in style), and this is a result of the different focus in each of the two stories. In ‘The Shooting Script’, the plot that the devious arts worker weaves is pretty complicated (comically complicated, I hope!), and complicated enough to be the focus of the story. The story was therefore best served by a first-person narrator with whom the reader could identify, as she tries to work out what he’s up to and forestall him. And because the story has a basically social focus (the corruption to which arts organizations are vulnerable), the appropriate voice was a detached, ironic one, and since this is best achieved via hindsight, the story is inevitably cast in the past tense. ‘The Way to Behave’ has a more complex narrative voice, which it can afford because the plot hatched by the woman in this story is simpler, and which indeed is inevitable because the subject matter is more personal, concerned with relationships and emotions, and because (following on from that) the focus is the psychology of the plotting character. Therefore the narrative voice is that of the plotter – first-person narration and present tense giving immediacy (I hope) to the portrayal of her psychology – but the irony here resides outside that voice: the reader is intended ultimately to take her in an ironic light. Right at the other end of the spectrum is a story like ‘Going Back’ which is about a new mother breaking down emotionally, and the potential consequent breakdown of the family. The only way to render this truthfully was to get right inside her psychology, and the way to do that was to make the prose follow her obsessive and broken thought patterns with repetitions and lines broken on the page, and a complete lack of speech marks, illustrating that what is being represented is not an objective ‘record’ of what other characters say, but the way the protagonist hears it, part and parcel of what’s going on in her head. However, much as this story works to replicate the mother’s psychology, it is told in the third person rather than the first, as a way of setting her psychological trauma in the unnerving, vast and impassive context of geological and biological history, and setting the seal on her alienation. Although it’s a very different kind of story, I use some similar techniques in ‘Daniel Smith Disappears off the Face of the Earth’. I don’t employ conventional speech marks here either, since as the victim of a mugging Daniel can’t experience what is said between him and his muggers in any objective way, but at the same time it is also frighteningly alien to him, so I render it in italics.

I must add, as usual, that I don’t think these things out in this intellectual way while I’m writing, but do it all more instinctually, and the format/style will come to me right at the start, integral to the story.

Like you, I think such variations strengthen a collection, and I’m not a great fan of the recent trend for publishing collections of short stories unified in style, mood and very often linked in subject-matter – basically mimicking novels in order to sell to a novel-reading public which has got out of the habit of short stories. I think I’ll be talking about this in more detail on Tania Hershman’s blog, so I won’t say too much here, apart from this: anyone who comes to a short story collection looking for the satisfactions of a novel – the ability to be swept along from cover to cover – is bound to be disappointed. A good short story collection, as a collection of poems, is like a box of chocolates to be dipped into, each item savoured.


This was seen on a lamp post near Piazza Bellini in Naples yesterday. I don't think the last line is a joke. If it is, it's missing a heartfelt need.