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

Editing

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.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Satisfaction

It’s nearly the end of the school year. Yet again, I’ve taken on too much work and I’ve effectively been holding down two full-time jobs since December. There’s also been the workload of the edits for the forthcoming book, and planning the sequel. It hasn’t left me any time for blogging. But I’m still here, the end is in sight at last and - finally - I’ve finished my Saturday morning classes.


I’ve almost finished my term as lettore at a scuola media on the mainland. It’s my fourth year here. I’ve taught every single kid in the school. And now the third years are about to move up to scuola superiore. It’s unlikely that I’ll teach any of them again, and that makes me a little bit sad.


We’re in the middle of a class, and the kids are working away on an exercise. The professoressa turns to me. You know the boys in 3A…?, she says.


Of course. The rocker boys. They’re only 14 years old, but they’re into music that was old when I was young. Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd. Every lesson we talk about music, and about their band.


It’s the school concert in a couple of weeks, she says. They asked me to ask you if you’d like to sing with them. The Rolling Stones, (I can’t get no) Satisfaction.

Well now.


I’ve just got my Saturday mornings back after six months of hard work. Do you seriously think I'm going to give one up in order to make a two hour round trip, for three minutes of singing, in a school concert for parents?


Yes. Yes, I am. Of course I am.


Caroline gives me some essential advice. Namely, do not scowl.

Do I scowl?

Yes, you do. You always look very fierce when you sing.You'll frighten the kids. And their parents.


Well, it’s serious music.


This is the Rolling Stones in a school concert. It's not the Missa Solemnis.


Hmm. Fair point.


Anything else?

Don’t try and imitate Mick Jagger.


I head off on Saturday morning with the words of Satisfaction endlessly looping in my head. Along with the words Do not scowl. Smile. Above all, do not attempt to imitate Mick Jagger.


Everybody is crammed into the gym, maybe fifty kids and a hundred parents. Most of the concert is made up of popular classics and pop songs, played by an army of descant recorders. Carmen reads some poetry. Eleonora plays violin. And then, at the end, Gianmarco (bass), Francesco (guitar), Lorenzo (drums) and  Professor Mr Jones stand up together….


I do not scowl. I smile. I do not attempt to imitate Mick Jagger. And I successfully fight any temptation to dance.


And it’s actually pretty good. I look out at the parents. They’re laughing - in a good way - smiling and clapping. The lads in the band give me a big grin. Then I look out at the rest of the kids, armed with their recorders. Three years together now, and this is the last time. I am so, so proud of them. Of all of them.


I’ve been fortunate enough to sing in some of the greatest spaces in Venice. But a school gym in a small provincial town has perhaps been the most special of all.

Monday, 21 December 2015

That was the year that was...

The year, I suppose, revolved around two books. One is by Karl Marx. The other is mine.

   There was going to be a "Venice Project 2". The first one sold quite well, people seemed to like it and I felt I had sufficient material for a second volume. Indeed, by the summer of 2014 I'd put down about 30,000 words. But I wasn't enjoying it. I had a vague idea for a novel in the back of my mind, and I was more excited by the prospect of getting started on that.

   And then I got lucky. Very, very lucky. I was contacted by an agent who'd enjoyed the first book and wanted to know what I was working on next. We discussed the fragments of ideas that I had, and he suggested I send him three chapters.

   I spent the next month trying to write the best 10,000 words of my life. He liked them. He liked them so much he asked if I could add another 70,000 or so, and send him a complete novel. And so, 1000 words a day, every day, for three months, I put it together. Caroline proofread it for me (we'll never agree on the Oxford comma), suggested it might be a little bit sweary (I disagree, so I cheerfully ignored this) and - crucially - pointed out I'd got a major character's name wrong in the penultimate chapter; a mistake that made a complete nonsense of the ending! Phew...

   In short, My Brilliant Agent (as I shall refer to him) liked it; and began the process of trying to find a publisher. It all seemed like a bit of a dream. At times I wondered if some of my friends were actually playing the greatest ever practical joke in the world on me. It should have been nerve-wracking, but those first four months of the year were intensely busy ones for work, and there wasn't much time for much other than teaching and sleeping.

   School broke up at the end of June, and a strange-yet-brilliant job appeared out of nowhere. We'd first come to Venice for the Biennale, and now we had a chance to be a part of it. Isaac Julien's "Das Kapital Oratorio" project would keep us busy for most of the summer, and several times a week we would head off to the Giardini to read Karl Marx. It was tiring at times, and sometimes frustrating (reading some of Marx's most impassioned passages to an empty theatre, or seeing the audience thin away to nothing during the interminable economic formulae of Volume 2). Still, it was a worthwhile experience and we met some great people with whom we hope to keep in touch. It would have been nice to see it through to the end, but my involvement finished in September, with the advent of the new school year.

   Being part of the Biennale did make it difficult to actually see it all. Nevertheless, we saw perhaps 90% of it this time around. Among the home nations, Bedwyr Williams 2013 "The Starry Messenger" was always going to be a difficult act for Wales to follow, but Helen Sear's "...the rest is smoke" was still a beautiful piece of work. Scotland - after a lamentably poor 2013 - redeemed themselves with an excellent exhibition from Graham Fagen. As for the UK pavilion itself, well perhaps the best that can be said is that it might have seemed more impressive in 1995.

   Then, on Friday September 25th, at about 13:20 Italian time, I got The Email from My Brilliant Agent.

   It began with the words "Get the Prosecco out."

   He'd done it. He'd placed the book with Little, Brown for release in early 2017; with a sequel in 2018. We went out to celebrate with our Brilliant Australian Friends (and yes, I am aware that I am overusing the word 'Brilliant'). It's kind of hard to describe how I felt, so I'll just say that everyone deserves a day like that once in their lives.

   Caroline semi-retired this year, something that suits us both. No more bored teenagers, no more screamy infants. Just nice, motivated students. She still seems to find herself with a bafflingly large amount of work though.

   Next year is going to be a busy one. I've made the same mistake as last time, the one I promised myself I wouldn't repeat, and taken on too much teaching work. This means the first few months of next year are going to be a bit grim, but those three months will pay for us to have a good summer again. Then there'll be work to be done on the first book, and another one to be written from scratch.

So Christmas is nearly upon us. I've done quite well for presents, again : a bottle of prosecco from a teaching colleague, a splendid meal with my Intermediate students, an origami swan; and some of the kids made me cards. OK, one of them says "Merry Christmas by you" but (a) prepositions are always difficult and (b) they're only seven. A reminder, at the end of the year, that this is often a lovely job.

Merry Christmas everyone, e Dio ci benedica, tutti!

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Spleen

Fog lies heavy on the city, and - cold but happy - we arrive back from pre-Christmas drinks with friends. Just a couple of days more work and then the schools will break up and - assuming we can find our passports in the chaos of the spare room - we'll be heading back to the UK for a week.

   We need to be using things up, so dinner tonight is designed to start clearing out the fridge/freezer and the vegetable rack in the magazzino : potato and celeriac mash, roasted radicchio and some defrosted beef and radicchio burgers from the freezer.

   I peel the spuds, rescue as much as I can from the rather sad-looking celeriac, and put them on to steam. I chop the radicchio in half, give them a generous drizzle with some olive oil, and stick them in the oven.

   I put some Bach on the stereo, and pour a glass of wine.

   I go back to the kitchen and unwrap the burgers.

   I blink.

   The packet does not contain any burgers.

   It contains a spleen.

   I think back to two weeks ago. Roberto, at the farmer's market, is a very nice man. So much so that - after buying our usual provisions - he had given us a free spleen. There is, I'm sure you will agree, no greater mark of a gentleman than that. It went into the freezer, in a packet pretty much identical in size and shape to the beef and radicchio burgers.

   Back to the present. The radicchio is roasting away happily, and the potatoes/celeriac will be done in about 15 minutes. Defrosting the burgers is not an option. I need an emergency spleen recipe, and I need one now.

   There is nothing in The Silver Spoon, so I check Fergus Henderson's Nose to Tail Eating volumes. There is nothing to be found. And if Fergus cannot help us, then no-one can.

   In desperation, I turn to the internet. There are a few recipes there, but mainly along the lines of "first, boil your spleen for sixty minutes" and there's no time for that. There's a rolled spleen and bacon recipe, and yet I have no bacon. "Rolled spleen with no bacon" doesn't sound as if it will quite hit the spot.

   What to do? I've only ever had spleen once in my life, at a market in Palermo, served in a bun with a squeeze of lemon. I can't remember much about it beyond the fact that it tasted a bit like liver.

   That'll have to do. I fry up some onions, trim the spleen and slice it into thinnish chunks and - as soon as the onions have caramelised, into the pan they go. A good shaking of balsamic vinegar, I let everything reduce down, and we're ready to go.

   And...well, it's not too bad at all. The radicchio has been roasting for quite a while now, but that just means the outer leaves have gone crispy and that's not a bad thing at all. As for the spleen - well, the flavour is slightly milder than liver, although the slightly spongy texture isn't as nice. Maybe that why the Sicilians serve it in a bun.

   Not too bad at all though for what was basically a free dinner. I was quite pleased with my emergency recovery.

   The burgers are now defrosting for tomorrow night.