Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Off my beaten track...

… I'm in Aci Trezza today, my last day in Sicily…
Harbour and Isole Ciclopi

The town of Aci Trezza has a population of around 5000 people and, as unfamiliar as the name might be, it has some serious connections.  Read Homer's Odessy and the greek myths and you'll discover that the ghosts of the three Cyclops - Brontes, Steropes and Arges - were banished and consigned to dwell in the caverns of Mount Etna by Apollo.  Mount Etna sits behind the town and it is very much alive.  From my seat on the train on my return from Siracusa the other day I could see little clouds of grey smoke billowing out and around the summit.  The Cyclops, mythical one-eyed giants.  were builders and master smiths.  So their presence in the caverns of Mount Etna was a classical explanation for the smoke and fire issuing from the crater.  The story that is pertinent here is the one of Odysseus and his escape from Sicily.  Getting the Cyclops drunk, Odysseus then blinded him with a stake.  The next morning when the Cyclops let out his herd of sheep and goats, Odysseus and his men escaped back to their ships by clinging to the underbellies of the animals.  Not content with remaining alive, Odysseus also stole the flock and then taunted the Cyclops who responded by throwing three vast rocks into the sea.  Those vast rocks are the basalt sea stacks that stand by the harbour here in Aci Trezza.  They are referred to as the Isole Ciclopi (Cyclops Islands).  I know that geology, geography, and the weather are the reasons for the sea stacks being where they are, but it's a neat tale!
But there's more.  The city of Catania is around 10K north of here and the writer Giovanni Verga was born in the city in 1840.  He also died there in January 1922 at the age of 81.  He is best known for his wirtings about Sicily and Sicilian life.  He was also the author of a short story called Cavalleria Rusticana.  This story subsequently became a one-act play.  But it was also set to music by Pietro Mascagni and first performed in 1889.  You may not know the story or the play but I'm sure you'll recognise the intermezzo from the opera.  It is a beautiful piece of lilting and haunting music that has been used countless times as a backdrop for emotional scenes in any number of films and TV programs, with snippets of the music being used for adverts too.  I've even used it myself to supplement a scene on stage in a play I was directing a few years ago.  Check out the link.  Intermezzo  I guess you can't come to any part of Italy without music featuring somewhere.  With the violins playing in my mind I stroll along the the main street in town.
The view from  my hotel
As I pass the pasticceria on my left I can't help but stop and peer in the window.  Stunning cakes with mirror smooth glazes tempt me. I can also see cannoli.  These pastries originated here in Sicily but can be found almost anywhere now.  Small crispy pastry tubes filled with riccotta and dipped in chopped pistachios.  They were served for dessert at my Hotel and they were delicious.  As I look at the cannoli in the shop I wonder if I should buy one or wait to see what I will be served tonight.  I decide to wait.  I make my way up the hill as I want to spend a little time on my balcony and capture a few last shots of the island.

… dessert that night was Italian cheesecake and it was as light as a feather and absolutely scrumptious!

You can read more about my little adventure in Sicily, Here  Here and  Here

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Come and meet Charles Blondin…

Abbey ruins, St Omer
…acrobat, tightrope walker and circus performer…

Born Jean-François Gravelet on February 28th, 1824 in St Omer in northern France, Charles Blondin became a world-renowned performer.  From the age of 5, he attended the École de Gymnase in Lyon where he trained as an acrobat, making his first public performance within a year under the stage name of 'The Boy Wonder'.  As a performer, of course, he had several personas, one of which was Charles Blondin.  Over here and in the United States he became known as 'The Great Blondin'.
Charles Blondin came to the UK in 1861 after having toured America, and Ireland.  His walks across the Niagara Gorge in 1859/60 were all over the newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic, because of his dangerous and theatrical settings.  Apparently on one trip, at 49m (160 feet) above the water, he stopped mid-way to cook and eat an omelette!
His first appearance here was in London at Crystal Palace (October 7th, 1861).  The rope was stretched across the central transept about 21m (70 feet) from the ground.  He startled his audience with somersaults on stilts as he crossed from one end of the rope to the other. He went on to perform at venues across the country, in Ireland and Scotland.
Next time you're in Birmingham, take a trip along Ladywood Middleway and look out for a statue of Blondin that commemorates his crossing of Edgbaston Reservoir on September 6th, 1873.
Blondin and his family settled in Ealing in the family home he referred to as 'Niagara House'.  After a period of retirement, Blondin returned to performing in 1880 both on ropes and on the stage - he took a role in the 1883/4 pantomime season at Crystal Palace.  He continued to work until 1896, and his very last performance was in Belfast.  He died at home in Ealing on February 22nd, 1897 and is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery, London.
Crystal Palace
I first came across Blondin while I was researching my family tree.  A chance remark made by my dad when I was a teenager had stayed with me, and when I started the research, I had convinced myself that somewhere in my distant London ancestry there were other performers, maybe even circus people.  It was a myth that took me quite a while to bust, and the discovery was nowhere near as romantic or dashing as the life of Charles Blondin.
But for at least three generations of my distant history, life was just as dangerous as Blondin's.  Some of my distant relatives worked on the docks, and they moved lengths of timber from the wharfside into the vast warehouses that lined the Thames.  These men, Deal Porters to give them their correct job title, were often referred to as Blondins.  That nickname coming from the nature of their work.  The men carried lengths of cut timber, usually about 4 battens each of 3m to 3.6m (10-12ft) in length, along planks that were stacked across the piles of wood that needed to be shifted.  As the stack on the dockside lessened, so the pile in the warehouse grew.  They could be carrying their load - 'a turn' - up flexing planks to a height of 15 or 20 feet by the end of the day.
When you consider that a 'turn of deal' would weigh about 120lbs, that they would be running backwards and forwards for a full shift of up to 8 hours, you realise that these men had to be strong and deft.  One wrong footstep and anyone of them could have been hitting the wharfside or warehouse floor 20 feet below with fatal consequences.  It was this research that inspired my completely imagined scenario in my story 'Treading' in the Dark London anthology.

about the books...

Dark London Volume One : nine gripping short stories that leave you gasping for breath as London’s dark side is revealed!

Authors featured : Miriam Drori, Jess Popplewell, Ted Bun Anne-Marie Ormsby, Kate Braithwaite, Donna Cuttress, Sue Barnard, Sam Hall and Cathie Dunn
With a foreword by Alice Castle, author of the bestselling London Murder Mysteries series.

Dark London Volume Two : nine intriguing short stories that leave you reeling!

Our authors are : Chris Dommett, Alice Castle, Richard Savin, Alan Taylor, Marie Gault, Tom Halford, Denise Bloom, Harper Channing and me!
With a foreword by Mark Patton, historian and author of historical fiction.

You can get the books using the following links :  Volume One Volume Two 

All proceeds go to London Charities and you can read more about the books Here

Tuesday, 16 June 2020

I'm cycling the Canal du Nivernais...

...from lock 63 to 67...

I'm heading up to Mailly-le-Château today and taking the bike with me.  I have a very important mission to complete, and it involves cake!  The route along the canal from my campsite in Châtel-Censoir to Mailly is the D100.  Take the road at a bit of a meandering pace as there is a little piece of history here.  At the roadside is a small stone surrounded by some chains with a small vase of flowers in front.  It's in recognition of Capitaine Émile Laureillard, born in 1913 who became a professional soldier and was stationed in Auxerre.  In 1940 he was captured and imprisoned until 1942 when he was released.  On his return to Yonne, he joined the resistance and in May 1944, became head of the chief of staff for the 2nd Forces françaises de l'intérieur (FFI).
On August 2nd, while leading a small group on a sabotage mission to Tonnerre, the truck the group were travelling in was attacked.  Laureillard was injured as he tried to make his escape but was captured and imprisoned in Auxerre later that day.  On August 15th, he was taken to Merry-sur-Yonne, executed and his body was thrown from the top of Rocher Saussois.  His body was discovered two days later by the Mayor of Merry.  This little stone, along with his name on a monument beside the D91 near Chablis, are all that remain.
Maiily is in two halves, the imposing clifftop town and château, and the cluster of houses that sit at the foot of the rocky outcrop.  I'm driving up to the ville haute just because I can, and the best place to park is in front of the château.  There's a fabulous view from there across the valley.  With the house behind you walk along rue de château and take first left in Jeu Paume and you'll find a tiny bakers shop on the left about halfway along.  Today there's Quiche Lorraine on offer, and I can't resist.  I also purchase a piece of Tarte Normande - absolutely scrumptious.  With my lunch secured in my little rucksack, it's a short walk back to the car, and a drive down the hill where I can park.
The canal path from here is tarmac and in good condition. The scenery moves between wooded areas and fields, and there are plenty of opportunities to see herons, swans, coots and barges - mostly tourists - as they meander along the canal and river.  There are also plenty of spots to stop for lunch.
I'm heading about 6 kilometres up the canal today to Prégilbert, a small village of fewer than 200 people.  I'll be clocking up another 5 locks (63 - 67 inclusive).  Although I'm not doing it
today, if you continue on the canal path beyond Prégilbert, you will come to St. Pallaye. 
Fellow travellers!
Another tiny place but with Roman connections.  You'll find a Roman sarcophagus in the church crypt.
I covered the section of canal from Prégilbert to Vincelles a couple of years ago, and the part from Châtel-Censoir south to the next basin at Coulanges two years before that.  So that means that I can now claim that I have cycled the Canal du Nivernais from Auxerre to Coulanges - that's from lock 52 to 81.  OK, It may have taken me some time, but I think that's awesome!

You can read more about my journey along the waterways Here and Here

Tuesday, 9 June 2020

In memory of Dickens…

Some of my inherited copies of Dickens
Born in Portsmouth on February 7th, 1812, Charles John Huffam Dickens became one of our greatest writers.  Working first as a freelance reporter, in 1864 he founded the Journalists' Charity - an organisation that still exists today.  An essayist and inveterate letter-writer on the rights and education of children, he was also a travel writer.  Oh, and he wrote a stack of novels and short stories too!  He died 150 years ago on this day in 1870 at his house in Gads Hill, Higham in Kent.
I've found that Dickens is a bit like marmite: you either love him or hate him.  As you can probably guess I fall into the former category.  I find Dickens' plots intriguing, his characters fascinating and his setting - mostly London - a window on time and history.  As a youngster, I would read his books - very gradually, they are all rather long - and find myself completely lost in the world on the page.  He has an incredible knack for capturing your imagination from the very outset.  But a lot of his stories originally appeared in serial form, so it's perhaps not surprising that he became a master of the 'cliff-hanger' device that so many writers still use today.
It was Dickens' Pictures from Italy that got me interested in France.  Hmm, yes at first glance it appears there is a disconnect there - but it's true.  When I was a very bookish 14-year-old, my father gave me his copy of Pictures from Italy to read a couple of months before I embarked on a school trip that took me, and the other girls in my class, on a journey by train across France and on to Venice and Rome.  If you follow this blog regularly, you'll know that I've been revisiting France ever since.
In Pictures from Italy, Dickens and his entire family leave their hotel on the rue Rivoli in Paris to travel by coach to Milan.  Rue Rivoli is one of the most famous streets in Paris.  Running through the 1st and 4th arrondissements this street now contains some of the world's most prestigious shops.  Named after Napoleon's victory at Rivoli in January 1797, you would have thought Dickens might have made mention of this - it is 1844 when Dickens is making this trip.  He merely remarks, that for a Sunday, the 'wine-shops (every second house)' were doing a roaring trade and that the people in the streets were so numerous that he could find nothing that 'denoted' the day as a 'day of rest.'   He clearly wasn't impressed!
The Seine, Paris
His route takes him from Paris to Sens, through Avallon and onto Chalons.   In 1844 this would have been one of the routes impériales designated by Napoleon in 1811.  On a modern map that is likely to have been the RN6 - a route through France I've taken myself on many occasions.  Dickens describes his journey - three days in a coach - as moving from 'a dreary plain' to an 'interminable avenue' and round and round again.  I do seriously have to disagree with him on that point.
His journey takes him on from Chalons to Lyons.  He describes the city of Lyons as 'a whole town that has tumbled, anyhow, out of the sky.'  Well, perhaps in 1844, that was how the city looked.  Not to my more modern eyes.  Dickens then completely dismisses the cathedral and he gives the astronomical clock inside, a scathing, but detailed description.  This can only be the 9-metre tall astrolabe that dates from 1661.
As a timepiece, I think it's incredible.  Regrettably, the clock is no longer working, so Dickens has the advantage.  But I do have to wonder why he had to be so dismissive.  Even in 1844, a timepiece of that age, that quality of craftsmanship, must have been of note.  I guess there's no accounting for taste!
From Lyons (the N6 becomes the N7 south of the city) Dickens moves through the Alps, the foothills of which he describes as 'great sullen hills', onto Valence and Avignon.  This old papal city receives more favourable comment than Lyons.  From Avignon, he travels to Marseille via Aix-en-Provence (on a modern map that would be via the N8) to the coast..
Dickens dubs Marseille as a 'dirty and disagreeable place'.  He notes that the streets are full
The modern metropolis that is Marseille
of 'foreign sailors of all nations.'  That is still true today. Marseille is such a cosmopolitan city that you can eat in any one of a hundred different languages.  Dickens tempers his dislike of the place by adding that the view 'from the fortified heights' - perhaps the ancient fort that previously stood where the basilica Notre Dame-de-la-Garde now stands - is of the Mediterranean and the islands and that it is 'most delightful.'  And on that point I can most heartily agree!

You can read more about my visits to the modern city of Marseille Here

Tuesday, 2 June 2020

Please welcome, friend and author, Roger Barton...

... to my blog this week.  Hi Roger, and thanks for making the time to be here.  So, tell  me, what is your current release?

RB  My book, Incident at Barbers Ridge was published in October 2019 through Dovetail Press.
AW  And that's semi-fictional, I believe. You've written your autobiography… how difficult was that? It must be very hard to commit to paper events and incidents experienced or seen that changed your thinking or the course of your life…
RB  My first book, Waiting for the Rains, is an autobiography about my life working and living in Africa.  I spent many years working and living in south-east Africa.  This was in Malawi and Zambia, but I also travelled to Mozambique, Kenya and Zimbabwe.  Also Egypt and Ethiopia in the north.  The experiences and situations I was either in or saw, I felt needed to be told.  I have been back to Africa many times, the latest being three years ago.  The interior of Africa does not attract many tourists. Many correspondents fly in for an assignment and then leave.  I was living there and so can give a balanced summary of what I saw and experienced.
It was not difficult to write an account of my life in Africa.  I thought it needed to be told.  Not so much a mission, but necessary for others to read about the often unique and personal situations happening day to day.
AW  What about other types of writing?  Have you ever dabbled with short stories, for instance, or other genres?
RB  I belong to two writing groups.  The assignments are often short, 500 to under 1,000 words.  This number of words forces you to be brief and get the story told with the minimum of description.  It’s rather like being a student with an assignment needed for Monday morning!  There is a deadline.  With a maximum number of words, you just have to have discipline.
AW  Famous authors, such as Roald Dahl and Dylan Thomas, had a special space for writing.  Do you have a writing ‘shed’ of your own?
Walking home - from Roger's time in Africa
RB   I don’t need a special place to write.  Sometimes when I get ideas, they are tapped out on my phone.  Or text may be scribbled down on a piece of paper while on the top of a bus, going into Leeds.  But usually I don’t want background music. Silence is my best option!  I will even think over ideas while going out for a jog. Takes my mind off the pain of going up the next hill!
AW  Finally, if you had a whole afternoon to yourself and could choose to spend it with any one individual, living or dead or a character from a book, who would it be, and what would you want to discuss?
RB   There are several people I would like to spend the afternoon in discussion with. An ancient Greek philosopher like Plato (several others could be on my list) would be fascinating.  He had such original concepts hundreds of years before anyone else. Especially interesting would be to ask his opinion about how these concepts would be applied to the modern world.  It would be hard work, but a stimulating afternoon!
about the book… This is a story about a conflict somewhere in Africa. Although the characters are fictitious, the situation is based on facts. (The writer lived and worked in Africa for many years.) A war correspondent is sent to report on a long standing dispute about land ownership. The original settlers have farmed the land for generations, producing, crops for their livelihood. The indigenous people want their land back, claiming it is their inheritance. Both sides have a genuine claim, worth fighting for. This leads to a minor war with the army.  They are led by 'A Squad', an experienced bushland fighting unit, who operate out of a base deep in hostile territory.  The squad is fighting in the harsh conditions of the savannah, where the terrain is as much of an enemy as the rebels.  The rebels are born in the savannah and seem to appear and disappear into the sand and heat haze.  The story is also a mixture of politics and ethnic rivalry.  Much of the action is set in Mwanza, where the squad go to between missions.  This is a remote rest and recuperation town, full of drink, sex, gambling and drugs. The rebels have an ace player, who could perhaps broker a deal between both sides.  In the story, the lives and aspirations of the major players are examined.  The final outcome is forged at Barbers Ridge, the rebels major stronghold.

You can get Roger's books using the links in the text above and you can follow Roger on his Facebook page.