Archive | January, 2015

Memento of Sorrento – 1

22 Jan

There is a romance about Italy that neither Spain nor France manages. The Italians don’t do as they are told; they’re charmingly corrupt and inefficient but steeped in a love of music and art and food and wine. They seem to sense that civilisation began somewhere near Rome, way, way back when.

The Italians are not proud of Silvio Berlusconi or the trash which lines the streets of Naples or Mussolini or the Mafia…but they smile knowingly if others try to take the higher moral ground. Let him who is without sin…Having already enjoyed the fantasies of childhood holidays in Diano Marina, the misted hills of Tuscany, the brilliance of Venice, Padua, Verona, Pisa…the lakes – I continued my love affair in the Spring of 2014 with a trip to Sorrento.

What follows is a diarised account which, I hope, captures the whole experience of travel and not just the sexy Italians doing what they do best – crashing cars and ogling women.

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Dragging ourselves out of bed at 3.30a.m. is one of the questionable pleasures of cheapskate package tours. Thomson’s slot on the runway at Gatwick was 6.15 so a quick slurp of tea and we were on the road with that slightly fluey feeling you get when your body is reacting to the Godforsaken hour. We saw no other cars along the A 217 until we neared the M25 at Reigate. Then the London orbital woke us up and we were at the Gatwick Summer Parking Check-in in a trice. A group of early risers huddled on to the Airport bus. They were panicking. Only 15 minutes till check-in closed. A mother was chatting about her daughter needing 3 As for Bristol University. She should get them easily. Easily?! I thought – bloody grade inflation. In my day you were a genius if you got 3 As. Now it’s the requirement for Media Studies.

The Thomson check-in was all efficiency and smiles. Then security. There was some guy complaining about his hand luggage being searched. I wanted to say that that’s what security is all about but my attention was grabbed by a tiny child setting the bleepers off for no apparent reason. His little shoes were taken off for further examination with parents looking bewildered. More weird was the ageing English couple who complained they didn’t know that they couldn’t take a litre of vodka and a similar quantity of whisky through security. Voices were raised as the toxic liquids were confiscated. The grey couple were offered the chance to retrace their steps and recall their luggage to house the contraband but, all things considered, they wisely decided to eat humble pie and enter the departure lounge quietly, without alcohol in their satchels.

An hour to go before the flight. We headed for Jamie Oliver’s kitchen where Jamie is everywhere – on posters and screens and packaging. The display counter was groaning with carbo-loaded goodies:pastries, breakfast croissants stuffed with hams and cheeses – never mind healthy eating for kids in school, this was Jamie-fare for adults and we were in cholesterol city. I loved it and went for a £4.99 vast, ham-stuffed croissant. Magic.

The screens alternated video streams of Jamie in Italy with flight updates and soon enough our gate – 47 – flashed up. The Thomson clan trooped off and, as usual, there weren’t quite enough seats at the waiting area to accommodate the plane’s complement. We were Ok, though,  and that was all that mattered. We had numbered seats so unless something very unusual occurred, our places inside the tin cabin were designated and secure. This didn’t stop half the passengers eschewing what seating there was and standing in a snaked line in front of an unmanned checking station. When the Thomson uniforms arrived a painted woman screeched something that was barely audible because of her high frequency and the ensuing vibration in the speakers which served Gate 47. The gist was that passengers should sit down until the boarding was called. Moreover when boarding started passengers would be boarded in ascending seat number order. She didn’t use the word ascending, of course, but you get the idea. No one moved. Again, you won’t be surprised. The triumph of hope over reality when the Brits are queueing is one of life’s comforting certainties. When boarding actually started several high-pitched seat-number reminders had been barked by understandable irritated Thomson staff (appropriately clad in blue and purple). I counted five couples or groups being sent to the back of the dinner queue for misbehaviour.

I’m not a good flyer so every bubble of turbulence sends butterflies racing round my intestines like Lewis Hamilton at Monaco. As we accelerate towards take-off I start counting, slowly – eyes closed. I don’t sit in window seats. By the time I reach 200 the captain has usually turned the seat-belt sign off which tells me that he doesn’t think we’ll crash for the time being. I open my eyes. On this occasion the suave Captain Harris warbled that we were going to rise to 38000 feet but at that height we would still be just sitting on the top of some cloud, so we ‘Might enjoy a bump or two’. I grimaced at his calm levity but couldn’t find much to smile about as we hopped across the Alps and my coffee slopped over my Kindle. Captain Harris’s landing left a lot to be desired. The disc brakes had to work overtime.  I remembered the emergency stop on my driving test and wondered idly whether the co-pilot had slapped his hand on the cockpit dashboard.

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Safe and sound we arrived to a dull but warm Naples airport and were met by James who was gay in every way. He directed us to a bright blue coach which was to whisk us from the grotty environs of the airport to the romance that would be Sorrento – about an hour around the bay. Sam was to be the rep. on board and she was an eyebrow-pencilled Geordie out of the very heartiest hi-di-hi stable. Say hello to Gennaro, our driver, everybody! No seat belts. Something about this pleased me and made me admire the Italians for their clear disregard of some EU Brussels directive. We rumbled on around the Bay of Naples which was built up and ugly. Every now and then a church or a lemon grove would awaken a thought of what was enduring. The rain came on quite heavily.

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As with most package deals punters are dropped off in hotel sequence and our Hotel Admiral was at the end of the line. So inaccessible by large transport was the Marina Grande in Sorrento, that we transferred to minibus and even this couldn’t take us to the front door. Our smart hotel was perched under cliffs at the furthest end of the improbably named marina, as it is by far the smaller of the two. The other – Marina Piccolo – is the large ferry harbour where jetfoils and other sizeable craft take cargo and humans to Capri, Sardinia and beyond, while ocean liners park offshore and cruise-trippers make their way in to Sorrento for the day.

Hotel Admiral lies right on the water. Directly across the bay Vesuvius rises clearly looming above the city of Naples. As we rumbled our luggage over the typical pockmarked black, large cobbles the last few steps to the door, the sun broke out.

 

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Poems of my Life: My Grandmother

2 Jan

Grandmothers. We all have them. The pair allotted to me were rather distant. One didn’t intend to be, the other did. Nanna was my English granny, my mother’s mother; Farmor my Danish one. The former was a kindly but self-absorbed depressive lady; the latter a rather cold Cruella.

So many years on from their deaths, I find Elizabeth Jennings’s poem the first to come to mind when thinking of my grandmothers. It has nothing to do with them – and everything. Were I to write a granny-verse, I’d focus on my Nanna. She and my grandfather (Poppa) lived in a flat above a gentlemen’s outfitters. The sense-impressions of that poky pad teem. The mustiness of granny-smells: Gifty the mangy dog; old-lady perfume; cigarettes and pipes; over-steamed vegetables; seaweed by the front door; barometer to tap by the stairs; outside toilet an Bronco paper fro big jobs; damp blankets and counterpane, brylcream-stained antimacassars; ashtray stands with spin-away push buttons to make the stubs disappear; spare teeth in a glass by the bureau; complete Dickens and Encyclopedia Britannica hiding in a glass-front bookcase; ash hanging precipitously from Nanna’s lip (she would set herself alight more than once before her time was up)….I miss that stale, musty, can-only-be-Nanna smell. Despite not really being that close to her in her self-absorbtion, there are times when I catch a sense of her in a Victorian print, the scent as an elderly woman walks by, a look of despair. And in this poem.

MY GRANDMOTHER BY ELIZABETH JENNINGS

She kept an antique shop – or it kept her.
Among Apostle spoons and Bristol glass,
The faded silks, the heavy furniture,
She watched her own reflection in the brass
Salvers and silver bowls, as if to prove
Polish was all, there was no need of love.

And I remember how I once refused
To go out with her, since I was afraid.
It was perhaps a wish not to be used
Like antique objects. Though she never said
That she was hurt, I still could feel the guilt
Of that refusal, guessing how she felt.

Later, too frail to keep a shop, she put
All her best things in one narrow room.
The place smelt old, of things too long kept shut,
The smell of absences where shadows come
That can’t be polished. There was nothing then
To give her own reflection back again.

And when she died I felt no grief at all,
Only the guilt of what I once refused.
I walked into her room among the tall
Sideboards and cupboards – things she never used
But needed; and no finger marks were there,
Only the new dust falling through the air.

 

I’m resolute: no resolutions this year.

2 Jan

I mean what’s the point? Two days into the new year and resolve is crumbling. All over the civilized world, hapless souls in their millions have thought up life-changing new behaviours or privations to which they have committed. In the steeplechase of 2015 most will fall at the first fence but some will steer through the mess of fallen runners and riders and, as that luckiest of all steeplechasers, Foinavon did in the famous Grand National of 1967 , win against all the odds. At 100-1 and with his owner, Cyril Watkins, giving him no chance, the plucky steed navigated his way through the carnage of the 23rd fence and realised that 3/4 of the field were no longer in the race. Eleven only of 44 starters survived beyond that fence. The odds for new year resolutes are far, far longer. Just a few, a happy few, will be sitting smugly on NYE 2015 in the knowledge that they have scored some sort of victory. Pyrrhic? Probably. And who gives a toss?

I can hear do-gooders carping at my scepticism. They can trot out endless lists of genuinely life-enhancing changes that people can make. Cut out the bottle of vodka a day; phone granny once a week rather than once a month; actually give the Red Cross some money rather than using their Christmas card for free. The list is endless. Gym memberships soar in January, apparently; sales of chocolate, beer and cake plummet. Bicycles pour forth, de-rusted, from asbestos sheds; libraries experience a surge of borrowers; TV ratings fall. Simon Cowell and the Strictly crew aren’t stupid.They know that telly-sloth peaks before the old year is out so all reality and other banal TV fodder must, must, must be done and dusted before Big Ben chimes at midnight on the 31st.

I have friends who have serious faults which they should have addressed years ago. From tight-fistedness to cup-half-empty syndrome; from the unpunctual to the impolite; from sexist to other ‘ists’, I have a pretty full set of flawed acquaintances. The thing is, I like them like that. If any of them resolved not to be annoying for 2015, it wouldn’t be them would it?

Imagine my friend Geoff announcing, “I insist on buying the first beer every time I walk into a pub this year!” Or Gill proclaiming, “I know that I have been unreasonable about immigrants so I’m going to give my spare room, rent free, to a Polish builder.” It isn’t going to happen is it? Moreover Geoff and Gill wouldn’t be the same people if they made such seismic shifts. You might be thinking that my friends don’t sound very nice anyway. Well, as my Dad once told me, “You don’t pick your friends son; somehow they pick you.”

Resolutions should be made when the spirit is resolute, not when we are at our weakest, bloated with turkey sandwiches and midnight champers. The distractions of Ben Haenow, Ant and Dec, Sir Alan and Miranda are lost in the mists of Christmas past. We are prey to that dastardly of all illusions: hope. Now they say that it is better to travel in hope than to arrive. New Year resolutions work counter-intuitively, you arrive on 1st Jan before you’ve had time to travel in hope. Disaster.

 

(ps I hope my friends Geoff and Gill will forgive me)

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