Tuesday, 19 September 2017

The Sense of an Ending

Well, you'll have noticed there haven't been many updates on this blog for a while.

There are a number of reasons for this. After five years there are, inevitably, fewer stories to tell. But more than that, a lot of what happens in day to day life involves people who have become friends and I really don't feel very comfortable about using that friendship as source material for the blog. And so, I think the time has come to lower the curtain on The Venice Project.

Living here has changed our lives in ways that we could never have imagined. It has been the most extraordinary adventure of our lives but now, after nearly six years, I think the time has come to change from writing about "building a life in Venice" to simply "living in Venice".

For this reason I'm moving to :-


I'll continue to write there - about Venice, about food, about Nathan Sutherland and whatever else seems worth recording. I do hope you'll join me over there.

I'll be leaving links here to the new site for the immediate future. In the meantime, thank you all for your company and feedback over the past six years. For those of you who haven't always liked it - well, other pages on the internet are available. For those of you who have - thank you, your support made a difference when times were a bit tough.

It has been a delight to share the adventure with you. A presto!

Phil and Caroline.

Monday, 27 February 2017

Shape of the Octopus

The Thursday night class has been a delight for much of the past four years. But this year we've encountered a problem. To be honest, it was there for much of the previous year, but we managed to rise above it. But now it's become unavoidable.

The songs.

Every wretched song in the workbook. Every one delivered in a cutesy-pie accent to the accompaniment of a Bontempi organ, with lyrics along the lines of (taking the subject of food as an example) "a bowl of rice is very nice, but it tastes better with some spice".

Previous lessons have ended with kids wrapping scarves around their ears to block out the pain. To be honest, I could sympathise with them. Maria Giulia once snatched a pen out of my hand and drew a teary face on the board, followed by the words "This song is very very very very very horrible". And, again, I could only agree.

Something has to be done. I look ahead to the next song. It's about the sea and marine life. It includes the words "Don't throw rubbish in the sea. Dolphins don't like it and neither do we." Okay, there's some useful grammar in there but otherwise...the kids are eleven years old and listening to Adele, Fedez and J-Ax.

No, This will not do. I am not going to have my brilliant kids put up with this nonsense. I just need another song about marine life. And I think I have just the one.

And so I arrive for the next lesson and announce that this week - this week - we will not be doing one of the horrible songs from the book. No. We will be listening to "Octopus's Garden" by The Beatles.

I was prepared for the reaction, which can be best described as underwhelming. Questions are asked immediately.

'Not the Beatles! My granddad listens to the Beatles.'

I'm prepared for this one. 'Yes. I'm old enough to be your granddad.'

'Can't we do "Shape of you"?'

I'm prepared for this one as well. 'No, because I'll be sacked.'

And finally, 'Do we have to?'

'Yes. It's great for the conditional and for prepositions. Also, the guitar solo is really good.'

There is a mutinous silence. I spread my hands in my best "Aren't I the best and most laid-back teacher in the world?" gesture. 'Up to you. Either the Beatles or - ' and here I gesture towards the workbook ' - there's a horrible song about dolphins.'

Silence for a moment, then a nod of agreement. We listen to Ringo's magnum opus. Twice. And it may not be the best lesson we've ever done, but neither does it end with the entire class - myself included - with their heads in the hands, whimpering 'please make it stop.'

I'm not convinced they're going to rush out and buy Abbey Road. But we get a bit of work done. Maybe I'll try them with Jethro Tull or Hawkwind next time. But in the meantime, grazie Ringo.

Friday, 23 December 2016

2016 and all that...

A year that began with the death of David Bowie, and finished with the passing of a dear friend was never going to be the best of years.

It was the year in which the bad guys won. At everything.

Brexit hit us like a bereavement. That is not hyperbole. I know exactly what I mean when I say that. I'm afraid we're not ready to grow up, move on and march on together towards a brighter future with Nigel and Boris just yet. We've started the road towards Italian citizenship. It may or may not work. I hope it does. If our native country doesn't want us, then maybe Italy will.

But apart from that Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play...?

Strangely, in many ways, it was the best of years. The year of the Great Breakthrough. Caroline semi retired, and I was able to take on a bit less work. I gave up my adult evening classes. It broke my heart, because they were all so lovely, but it has to be said that life is so much more manageable without finishing at 10 and starting again at 8.

I passed a significant birthday, and we held a party for my Italian and British friends. It was a good year for singing. An exchange visit to Rome with the Cantori. Singing Sospan Fach to a restaurant full of Italian friends. Singing mass at San Marco with the Ensemble, and finishing up with  Auld Lang Syne  at the Frari.

It was the year in which we really and truly felt properly at home here. We thought it might have taken 6 - 12 months. Instead it took about four years. But that's okay. We got there.

A year both to forget and remember in equal measure then. But 2017 will be, at the very least, an exciting one.

On March 2nd, will you be ready to play... The Venetian Game...?

A very Merry Christmas to all, e Dio ci benedica tutti.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Remembrance of Sandwiches Past

If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change...

   - Giuseppe Tomaso di Lampedusa, The Leopard

We're in Er Buchetto in Rome for the first time in fourteen years.

You could, at a stretch, just about define Er Buchetto as a bar. But only just. It's little more than a hole in the wall, on a stretch of road near the railway station. You can't get a coffee here. You can't get a beer. There are a few sad-looking dusty bottles of spirits. But you can get a glass of wine from a tap in the wall. And you can get one of the best sandwiches in the world.

There is no choice. You can have a porchetta sandwich made with a plain white roll. That is it. You could, if you want, ask for a few olives or chillis to be chucked on top but really there is no reason to come here other than to have some porchetta in a bun. To be honest, it's not even that great a bun. But what porchetta it is! The sandwich maestro carves off a mixture of lean meat, the more unctuous bits to add a bit of moisture and some crackling to add texture. Then he sticks it in a bread roll, wraps it in a paper napkin and plonks it on your table. Or more likely, given that there are only three tables, just passes it to you wherever you happen to be standing which is probably on the pavement.

Last time the only other customers were a couple of off-duty cops. This time, a young Canadian woman is talking to two young Milanesi as they roll cigarettes.

Last time we were on a rugby tour. We were following Scotland as they played Italy in the Six Nations. This time we're on an exchange trip with a Roman choir : they came up to Venice last Christmas for a performance of Ramirez' Missa Criolla; and now we've come down for an all-Venetian programme at the church of Santi Apostoli.

I remember 2002 for a lot of drinking, a modest amount of eating and quite a bit of singing as well. The ratios have changed a bit in 2016 - if there's rather less drinking there's one hell of a lot more eating and singing. Little has changed, and yet everything has changed. If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.

It's a hell of a good sandwich. So much so, I have another one. Then we take our leave. I could happily have had a third, but there's an ice cream shop to go to that we haven't visited since 2002...

Monday, 3 October 2016

Return Journey

Friday 30th September. The flight is 20 minutes late, but that doesn't matter. We'll probably make that up in the air. I have to be in a pub in Guildford sometime before 9.30 if I'm going to eat tonight, but there are hours and hours of contingency.

   I lean my head back against the seat. Easyjet seats are not the comfiest, but that doesn't bother me. I can sleep through anything.

   I'm half-asleep, but I can feel and hear the engines powering up, and the plane start to move. Then suddenly, I'm aware that someone is shouting.

   'Hostess! Hostess!'

   I open my eyes. There's a grey-haired man, perhaps early sixties, two rows in front of me. He's on his feet and shouting.

   'Hostess! Hostess!'

   I'm still sleepy, and can't work out what on earth he means.

   'Air Hostess! Air Hostess!'

   Oh bloody hell. Somebody must have been taken ill. I can't really make out what's going on but there's a grey haired lady to his left, and someone with dark curly hair to his right.

   He's still shouting. 'Air Hostess! Air Hostess!'

   'Press the button,' someone shouts.

   Nobody knows what's happening. I don't know if his wife's been taken ill or if he thinks he's having a heart attack or something similar; but I'm wide awake now.

   The guy to his right speaks, 'Are you all right?'
   'No I'm not all right.'

   One of the air crew comes running. I feel the engines powering down, and the plane coming to a standstill. She doesn't even get the chance to speak.

   He points to his neighbour. 'He's got Muslim photographs on his phone! He's got Muslim photographs on his phone!'

    The words are like a punch in the face. I've read about this happening. I never imagined I would actually experience it. The other passengers, to be fair, are brilliant. Nobody is panicking. Nobody is shouting, screaming or getting hysterical. The only emotion I can sense is of mild curiosity.

   The accused is genuinely bemused. He shows his phone to the hostess. 'It's my family back in Brazil', he says.
   I can't let this go. I really, really can't let this go. 'It's not a crime for Muslims to take photographs', I say.
   I don't know I've been heard or not, but the shouting man has realised he's losing the argument and changes tack. 'Anyway, he shouldn't be using it, ' he says.

   His neighbour is still trying to be civil. 'No, it's allowed. It's in flight-safe, look.' He proffers the phone to the air hostess.

   Words are exchanged, sotto voce. The air crew go back to their positions. We've missed our slot now, and wait on the runway for another twenty minutes.

   'I'm sorry,' says the shouting man. He's calmed down. He sounds embarrassed. Or do I just hope that he sounds embarrassed? He attempts a jocular tone. 'Better to be safe than sorry, I always say.'  The subtext is a hopeful My goodness me, this has all been a pretty pickle hasn't it?  Still, no hard feelings, eh?

   His neighbour is extremely polite, but restrained. Yes, it's okay. No, I am not going to be your friend. Twenty excruciating minutes pass, and then - once we're in the air - he gets moved to a seat up front. 'Better to be safe than sorry, eh?', says his neighbour repeats, hopefully, in the hope of jollying things along. I don't know who he's saying it to.

   It's a short flight, not much more than ninety minutes. I can normally sleep through anything, but I can't get back to sleep again. As we disembark, the wronged party is talking to the air crew. They've been absolutely fantastic. They've defused a potentially very nasty situation, and looked after him well.

   I give the crew a smile, and step it out a bit. I catch up with him. I'm sorry, I say.

   He looks confused for a moment.

   I'm sorry, I repeat. I'm so sorry about what happened back there.
   He gives a thin smile. Thanks, he says. You think people would know better by now. You remember the bombs in 2005?

   I nod.

   The Brazilian electrician? The one who was shot?

   De Menezes? Yes, I remember.

   He nods. It's sad, he says, just so sad. People just think the worst.

   I can't think of the right words. I'm sorry, I repeat. Are you on your way home?

   Yes, he says. He's been here for over ten years.

   I wish him a safe onward journey and we take our leave of each other.  I make my way through immigration. There is no queue at all. I swipe my passport and walk through to baggage collection. Thirty minutes later, and I'm on my way to Guildford. I have a glass of M&S red wine on my knee, as I think. The shouting man on the flight had been on holiday in Venice, the meeting point between East and West for over five hundred years. And then, and then....'He's got a Muslim photograph...he's got a Muslim photograph...'.

   I take a drink of my wine and try to concentrate on my book. But the voices in my head are impossible to drown out. 'He's got a Muslim photograph...'.  How often is this happening? And what is happening to us?

Tuesday, 2 August 2016


A wise man (let's call him 'Peter') once asked me about the editing process. Or, as he put it, 'so what's it like having someone else tattoo your baby?'

It's a good question, so I thought it might be interesting to run through what actually happens.

It works like this : you might have spent months/years/decades working on your manuscript. By now, you are far too close to it to see what faults it might have.  You are probably blind to its good points as well. It needs a professional to look at it to decide what works well, and what needs a bit of tightening up. And so your publisher assigns an editor to work with you in order to turn a publishable book into a good or - dare we hope -  a really good one.

It's important that your editor understands what type of book you're trying to write. It's even better if you get on well together. And I'm very fortunate on both counts. He's a frequent visitor to Venice, speaks good Italian and understands exactly what type of book it's supposed to be.

So in February I flew back to London for a meeting. We talked over lunch about what things worked and what things could be made better, and agreed (and this is crucial - nobody is going to force you to change anything) on a list of changes. Nothing too major, but this is a flavour of them :-

- Drop the prologue. Or rather, you don't have to drop it altogether, but just work it in as back story later in the book. But get straight into the plot.

- Chapter <x> is too long. It moves the character on, but not the plot. Trim this back a bit.

- There are one too many scenes in the same bar. Drop one of them. (A shame. I really liked the bar. But when I re-read it I had to confess that this particular scene was obvious word-spinning).

- Could you change character <y>? Not very much, but just a bit? And this was the most interesting part of the whole process. I really liked character <y> the way I'd written him. Maybe a bit too much. So how to change him? It involved rethinking the way he looked in my mind. And then it involved rethinking the way he spoke. Nothing too much but - originally - he would rarely use contractions. The revised character does. Little things like that ended up making a difference. And, I have to admit, the new character does work better.

I trimmed away some scenes which - in retrospect - seemed like obvious padding, and added a couple of new ones which I'm very pleased with. And at the end of this process, I had a book which - surprisingly - was slightly longer in terms of word count yet felt a lot tighter. A bit more thriller-y, shall we say.

The next step is the copy-edit; where your editor goes through the revised manuscript and formats everything according to the publisher's in-house standards (dates, italicisation, punctuation, spellings etc.) and marks up those occasional passages which might have clumsy or repetitious language or where something isn't quite clear (for example : "at the start of Chapter <n> you say the protagonist is not at work...and yet five pages later he refers to finishing work for the day").

Once you've approved the copy-edit; you move on to the first proof. This is your last chance to make any minor changes but - by this stage - they really do need to be minor. At the same time, a professional proof-reader is working on the copy. When you've both finished, the changes are collated and reviewed in-house.

And at this point, your work - as author - is done. Step back from the keyboard. If you suddenly think that scene <a> misses something, that character <b> is too weak or that scene <c> goes on too long - it's too late. And, chances are, you're wrong anyway and your editor would have picked it up.

Here's a picture of a present from two dear friends (let's call one "Peter" and the other "Lou") that they gave me on the very day that I received the news about publication.

It travels everywhere with me. By now it contains over 100 pages of almost-legible scribbled plot notes, character descriptions, fragments of dialogue and things that I just thought might come in useful at some point in the future.

Time now to crack on with the next book...

Thursday, 7 July 2016

The History Boys

1993 : I'm in a bar in Aberdeen. Wales are playing Romania in the final qualifier for a place in the 1994 World Cup. This isn't just any Romania side, however. This is the side of Dumitrescu, Raduciou and 'The Maradona of the Carpathians' Gheorghe Hagi in his pomp. But we're no mugs either...we've got Southall, Rush, Hughes, Saunders and a young Ryan Giggs. We're still in the game at 1-1.

   I'm speaking to my mate. I'm a bit worried, I say. I always swore to myself that - if Wales should ever qualify for a tournament - then I'd go. Wherever it was. And this one's going to be in the USA. It's going to cost me a packet.

   Minutes later, Wales get a penalty. And Paul Bodin's shot cannons off the post. Within minutes we're 2-1 down.

   My friend pats me gently on the shoulder. I think your money's safe Phil, he says...

2003 : I'm in a bar in Dublin. Wales are in the final play-off game for the 2004 European Championships. We played Russia to a goalless draw in Moscow. Only Giggs remains of the class of '93, but we now have Savage, Bellamy and Hartson. We're not a bad side. Win the home leg and we're through. And inevitably, within a few minutes, we're a goal down.

   It remains that way. A friendly English stranger buys me a pint and gives me a hug. Caroline phones me from Edinburgh. I'm all right, I say. And I am. Because I've just given up. There have been so many occasions like this now that it doesn't even hurt any more. There is just the dull sense of inevitability. And this time, there is a moment of clarity. We are never, ever going to qualify for a major tournament again. At least, never in my lifetime.

   And I'm right of course. Over ten years of failure follow, but we're not even close to qualifying for anything at all so at least there's no pain.

   And then...and then...suddenly I'm not right. Suddenly I'm proved wonderfully, gloriously wrong. Suddenly we've not only qualified for Euro 2016, but we've done it in some style.

   I'd always sworn I'd be there if we ever made it. But work is getting in the way. And maybe I'm too old now anyway. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter, I tell myself, if we lose every game. At least we made it.

   But we don't lose every game. In fact, we win rather more than we lose. We win our group in some style. Next thing is, we're in the quarter finals and our neighbours are greeting me in the street with a cheery Forza Galles. And then we're in the semis and...it couldn't be possible could it...?

   No. Not quite. But if we fell short at the last, then so be it. We graced this tournament. And I know this may never, ever happen again in my lifetime. That doesn't matter. It happened here, it happened now and I - and every other Wales supporter down through the years - was privileged to be a small part of it.

Thank you boys. The History Boys.