What is it that makes us …

…who we are? I read with interest in the August edition of GRAPEVINE magazine (www.luccagrapevine.com), that expats in the Bagni di Lucca area near Lucca can now purchase their gourmet reminders of the old country through the enterprising Paolo and his Catene Café. Thinking about this caused me to reflect on a simple, yet highly complex question: What makes us who we are?

The population of this ancient island of Britannia is a distillation of many national origins – who can say they are “English” with any clear understanding of what “English” is, any more than someone in Italy can easily define themselves as “Italian”? Despite this, we all feel something inside us that makes us feel we belong somewhere. On my many trips to La Bella Italia I have always felt very much at home; even on my first trip, when my then embryonic Italian language skills were put to the test, I felt comfortable in a land of strangers. Perhaps this is because of being uno straniero myself in someone else’s backyard?

So, what triggers a feeling of “home”? Expat Australians can be moved to tears by the smell of eucalyptus leaves; South Africans munch their biltong and Brits long for a good cup of tea or even the taste of Marmite. Why do I go to an Italian family-run restaurant in the Weald of Kent, and feel so relaxed surrounded by the taste and sounds of Italy? I am not Italian. Why do I feel so proud conducting my forty-strong concert band playing God Save the Queen? Is it because I am British? On the other hand, why am I so moved by hearing Inno di Mamelli?  I am not Italian, but would be quite happy to become an expat in Italy.

What is it, therefore, that takes someone out of the land of their birth, but seems unable to take the land of their birth out of them?

In Britannia, things often seem to be less than ideal. Perhaps it might be the weather – what other country makes an art out of turning the sun-starved failed tomato crop into green tomato chutney? Or perhaps it might be the perceived dithering indecision of those at the helm. One of the larger political parties is currently in search of a new leader, but the candidates’ vision for the future of the nation seems to be as uniform as the typical weather – shades of indifferent grey.

For me, the only true voice of Britannia is the great music of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Parry: music that stirs the soul and reminds us of a glorious past that was definitely better than the present – or was it? Could it be an invention of the collective imagination that this was ever the case? What drove the expats to become just that; what makes us look for greener grass on the other side of the path? What makes us seek for a remembered “better” time?

We are currently remembering the carnage of the First World War and the anniversary of the Battle of Britain in the Second War. Recently, Italians have commemorated the appalling massacre of more than 500 civilians in the Tuscan village of Sant’Anna di Stazzema in August, 1944. These were hardly better times than the present. Perhaps the important thing is to hang on to the memories and try to make the best of the here and now.

Even the potholes that littered Britannia’s over-taxed roads after the recent bad winter weather are slowly being filled in, so that now suddenly seems a little better than then.

Therein might lie the secret – sit back and enjoy your cup of expat PG Tips whilst you savour a Hobnob or sink your teeth into a slice of Marmite-smothered toast. It’s the simple things in life that really count, even in the embrace of your adopted land.

Speaking of simple things, it’s amazing how excited you can make someone just by giving them a book!

Roberta in the Tuorist Information office in Lucca.

Roberta with her copy of FEELINGS OF GUILT in the tourist information office in Lucca.

Mind you, it does make a difference when that person is the model for one of the minor characters in that book. Meet Roberta, an extremely competent operative in the tourist information office in Lucca. I met her on my first visit to the city and, with the passage of time, her persona became the inspiration for one of the characters in my “An Eccentric in Lucca” series of novels. Very recently, she was given a signed copy of the second novel in the series and burst into tears…that’s so Italian!

Tanti saluti da l’antica isola!

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Another Christmas…

…has come and gone, hotly followed by the New Year festivities. So here we go again, Christmas cards put away and the [minimal] decorations carefully stored until the next time. Hopefully, the endless attempts of seemingly increasingly desperate retailers, continually telling us (or is that actually pleading with us?) to celebrate the event by buying this or that over-priced piece of the unessential will also join the crumpled and discarded outer wrappings of presents in the rubbish bins. Don’t get me wrong: the recently past period is supposed to be one of giving, but has our over-commercialized modern Society managed to get something very seriously wrong with the way they approach things?

I recently watched two TV programs that made me sit and think. The first one was about the Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra in the Democratic Republic of Congo. That was inspirational, due to the efforts of their musical director (a retired pilot) and the citizens of Kinshasa, many of whom live in the most abject poverty, and who regularly survive their day on the promise of rehearsing music in the evening, often on home-made instruments. Repertoire ranges from original compositions to the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, both with choir (taught using sol-fa).

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The healing power of music…

 

Even more inspiring was the second program, which showed the re-establishment of a National Music School in Kabul. Again, this was due to the efforts of a single Afghan, who had been trained at the Moscow Conservatory before the Taliban vacuum descended on the blighted country. Some of the pupils learn their music during the day and then sell plastic bags in the markets to make ends meet. And we in the West are told that we simply have to have this or that unnecessary extravagance for Christmas…

Our extravagance for Christmas was to go back to Brugge for three days. Great time – got some writing done, but ever so cold – not that that put the locals off their street festivities and markets for a single second! They had erected a huge ice rink in the Groote Markt, where the Band had played in October. Lights everywhere, but being Belgium I suppose that they were all environmentally friendly and emitted but the smallest of carbon footprints…otherwise the electricity bill must have been horrendous!

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Groote Markt and intrepid skaters in Brugge at Christmas.

This May the Wadhurst Brass Band are off on a tour to Aubers in France. Wadhurst is twinned with Aubers and there were 25 men from the village, members of the Royal Sussex Regiment, lost in the Battle of Aubers Ridge in 1916. Following on from our short break in Brugge, we crossed into France and visited the town to get a handle on the place before the tour. On a very cold and frosty mid-morning we visited the Aubers Ridge British Cemetery; the wind chill factor would have frozen a windjammer going around Cape Horn and the grass was so frosty it was like walking on a crème brûlée. It was sobering to see so many graves marked simply “A Soldier of the Great War”; I subsequently found out that of the 25 Wadhurst casualties, only 2 were ever positively identified.

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Aubers Ridge British Cemetery near Aubers, France. So many of the graves contain unidentified casualties of the bloody Battle of Aubers Ridge in 1916.

We then went on to Thiepval in France to visit the Thiepval Memorial and pay respects to some of the dead and missing of the Battle of the Somme. It was bad enough walking around in temperatures that were even colder than they had been at Aubers, but it was even worse when we stopped to consider those in the trenches in this area a century ago. They had no option but to sit and wait – at least we could get back into the car and turn the heater on! By the time we encountered the chaos at the British border control at the Channel Tunnel nearly 2 hours later, my feet were still freezing, and that was with two thick pairs of socks on. That in itself focused the mind on the women’s groups who sat and knitted socks for the Boys in the trenches all through the First War. Having experienced a brief taste of how cold it can get there, those socks must have been a welcome sight to those lucky enough to receive them!

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Thiepval Memorial in France. 300 British and 300 French war dead and another 72,000 names of the missing from the Battle of the Somme engraved on the memorial. It was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and was built between 1928 and 1932. It is the largest British battle memorial in the world and was inaugurated by the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) in August ,1932.

And to finish off this Seasonal Dispatch, we are now informed that something like £17 million of UK “Foreign aid” funds have been siphoned off with his usual flair by President Zuma of South Africa to build himself a modest little pondok suitable to his station! Thinking back to where we had just been – and the freezing cold – it raised the question as to whether or not the cemeteries and memorials had actually been worth the losses that caused them to be established in the first place? The residents of those places went off with a belief in the cause of right, as they saw it. These days, politicians are [generally] simply obsessed with preserving their [in my opinion] worthless continued existence. The bully is still in the corner to where he was driven at least twice during the twentieth century. Further afield, corruption has been raised to the level of a university degree! With an election due here in May, and their cushy jobs and all the rest of it at stake, nobody in Parliament is going to bother to question why so much hard-earned UK taxpayers’ aid money can be so easily miss-spent on one man’s folly at the other end of the world; they’ll be far too busy with domestic issues, telling those who can’t avoid listening to their feeble bleating that the other side is far worse than they are!

Meanwhile, for South Africa it was a bleak day indeed when the moderating hand of a great humanist and visionary was finally stilled in December of 2013. One shudders what is in store for the country without the positive influence and shadow of Madiba.

Time, which is a true constant, will tell.

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Celebration…

…can take many forms. Birthdays, weddings and graduations are the obvious choices, but there are also other occasions to celebrate. On the one hand, for example, the life of a departed and much-missed loved one, passing your driver’s licence test or getting into that new item of clothing without cutting off the oxygen supply; on the other hand, achieving that which you thought unattainable and beyond your levels of endurance.

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Private Sydney Godley VC, born in East Grinstead.

It was with regard to this latter option that the East Grinstead Concert Band (EGCB) assembled in East Grinstead’s High Street yesterday to celebrate the bravery, devotion to duty and plain tenacity of Private Sydney Godley of the 4th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers. On August 23rd 1914, during the Battle of Mons, the 4th Battalion were ordered to defend the Nimy Bridge over the Mons-Condé Canal. Lieutenant Maurice Dease and Godley manned a machine gun after the previous crews were either killed or wounded. Dease was killed and Godley continued to man the gun for two hours, holding off the advance of the German army and allowing the rest of his section to retreat. Godley was severely wounded before being taken prisoner. The two men were awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest military award for bravery under fire. They were the first to receive this honour in a war that what was to drag on for over 4 years of senseless slaughter on all sides. The event was also a salutary reminder that words such as “duty”, “commitment” and – sad to say – “loyalty” often come off very badly in our modern society.

The flagstone set into the foot of East Grinstead's war memorial honouring Godley's bravery and his commitment to his duty and to his comrades.

The flagstone set into the foot of East Grinstead’s war memorial honouring Godley’s bravery and his commitment to his duty and to his comrades.

The concert was also an occasion to mark an important event from our own times. The EGCB is a very talented and dedicated group of amateur musicians (several with a musical or military background), many of whom play more than one instrument. Some of us are also competent arrangers of music (within the copyright laws) and conductors. Yesterday’s concert marked the conducting debut of our Assistant Musical Director, Phil Stewart-Johns. To conduct one or two items on the programme can be harrowing enough; to direct the entire programme – particularly in gusty, cold and overcast weather conditions – can be positively terrifying! Phil and the Band came through with flying colours, so that was another reason for celebration. I also had the opportunity to play clarinet, which was a pleasant change from waving the baton out front !

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With Phil during the interval in our concert. Smiles all round !

Last Wednesday was also the day on which I had a meeting with my publisher, The Book Guild, in order to finalize the programme of publicity for the second novel in the “AN ECCENTRIC IN LUCCA” series, “Feelings of Guilt”. Publication date is set for mid-November and you can read a sample on my website, www.stuartfifield.com. We also finalized the contract for the second in the “JOURNEYS OF RUPERT WINFIELD” series, “The Gershom Scroll”, which is due for release in March of 2015. There will be a sample available on my website from mid-September. We are also planning an event via www.goodreads.com , which will give you the chance to win a copy of Rupert Winfield’s first Journey, “FATAL TEARS”. I’ll post more information on that as and when it becomes available.

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For me, these are all quite big events to celebrate, but perhaps we should also not lose sight of the simpler things in life, such as celebrating the ripening of home-grown tomatoes (no mean feat in our often miserable, sun- and heat-less climate), a glowing sunset or the affection we share with our pets. Life doesn’t always have to be complicated; simplicity also has an intrinsic value.

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What does change…

…mean to you? How do you view the difference between change and improvement?Are you someone who accepts the inevitability of change, or are you someone who blanches at the thought of changing something that is well-known and rather comfortably understood for something that is often one great, confusing mystery – when does change not become an improvement to the status quo of living? Consider the monumental changes during the 20th century, many of which can hardly be considered to have improved people’s existence; contemplate the modern world of electronics and instant communication.

If I had shown my grandfather a telephone the size of a playing card, he would have scoffed. If I had taken a picture with it, placed it next to a computer the size and thickness of little more than one of the upper-end glossy magazines, he would have scratched his head. If I had told him that something called e-mail would move it from ‘phone to computer, he have thought me totally daft. If he had known that the instant message had travelled those few inches from phone to laptop via Miami, Ulan Bator or goodness knows where else, he would probably have dialled 999 and asked for help!

Not as daft as it seems – who else amongst you can remember a ‘mobile’ telephone the size of a house brick?

Credibility is another thing often subject to change – what was once an unquestioned truth is now subject to a scrutiny that would have been unthinkable a few decades ago. So, all things considered, what does change actually mean to any of us?

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HRH Princess Anne in East Grinstead to unveil the memorial to Sir Archibald McIndoe, 9th June, 2014.

Recently, I conducted the East Grinstead Concert Band during the ceremony in which HRH Princess Anne unveiled a statue of the pioneering surgeon Sir Archibald McIndoe. The advances he and his team brought to the practise of plastic surgery, through the reconstruction of severely disfigured Allied airmen at the town’s Queen Victoria Hospital during the Second World War, changed and continues to change countless lives for the better.

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The McIndoe memorial surrounded by some of McIndoe’s “Guineapigs”. East Grinstead Concert Band can be seen in the top right hand corner of the picture.

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A century ago to the day, August 4th 1914, who would have thought that the conflict, which was predicted to be over by Christmas, would have such devastating and long-ranging effects on the entire planet? In our own time, there is the question of the change in our climate…

Being an Italophile and having one eye on retirement, I recently visited Bagni di Lucca. Enthused with that same spirit of exploration that sent armies of my fellow Anglo-Saxons to all corners of the globe, I set off from Lucca station with the anticipation of viewing the sites, especially the historic Royal Casino, Nottolini’s splendidly imposing Chain Bridge over the River Lima, the famous Ponte a Serraglio, and also of paying my respects at the English Cemetry.

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Looking up stream towards the Royal Casino and Ponte a Serraglio from the middle of the Chain Bridge.

At the end of a tiring day, sitting back on the platform of Bagni di Lucca railway station, I started to ponder the question of change in this peaceful part of the world. The River Lima, as it winds its way through the towns that make up what I now understand to be the larger Bagni di Lucca area, must have seen many changes over the years. Sitting on the platform of the attractively maintained station, it seemed clear that there had once been a garden area attached, presumably for the enjoyment of the flood of important, wealthy visitors who once frequented the famous thermal springs in the nearby towns. Sadly now somewhat overgrown, the outlines of the garden are still there, as are the well-established trees, but any sense of grandure has now gone: another instance of the fortunes of change? As I sat in the late afternoon warmth, I pondered how a return to the brighter lights of an earlier era might change the peaceful tranquillity of the area – would an increased flow of tourists be for better or worse? Perhaps in our instantaneous world, where so many seem to expect everything at the push of a button and to have it in their hand the day before yesterday, finding places such as those of the Bagni di Lucca area is one of the more rewarding aspects of change – or should that be reversion to a less hectic, more measured way of life?

As the train for Lucca came to a stop and I climbed aboard, it seemed to me that the towns of this particularly appealing area of a beautiful country really are something of jewels in the crown: perhaps not being in the mainstream of change is not such a bad thing after all. For my part, I’ll be back again at the end of this year to do the whole thing all over again.

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When is an Improvement…

 

…not an improvement ? Quite possibly when the new version seems to be inferior to the older one. I refer to the miraculous world of IT or Information Technology or, to put it in plainspeak, computers. Although a firm believer in the old Chinese proverb about the reed that does not bend in the wind snapping off at the base, I sit and scratch my head to the point of splinters when faced with the illogical (to me at least) “progress” foisted upon us by the market leaders in world computing. Looking at the screen as this “progress” pops across it (even seemingly unbidden), I am inclined to ask the simple, but oh-so-powerful question, why ??

But I digress…following a recent trip to Lucca, as reported in a previous blog, the video that was partly the reason for going is now finished and viewable on YouTube.

Something else that produced a tingle of excitement in the bones was to see that libraries in Australia have copies of ERRANT ANGELS on their shelves and that a bookshop in Mumbai (Bombay to those of us who can remember back that far !) is also advertising it. The Contessa’s first foray into the printed word also seems to have made its mark on the world of e-books. Whoops, back to computers again !

That’s it for now.

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Right now the days are…

…just not long enough to get through everything! You know the feeling – no sooner have you started working than it’s the end of the day with a lot still to do.

Just back from a very pleasant and successful promotional trip to Lucca. I felt it would be a good idea to stay in an apartment in the Roman Amphitheatre, just to see how the Contessa manages in her luxury apartment a little further on.  It was quite something – very high ceilings with exposed beams, large exposed sections of the original stonework and a fabulous view into the arena. It was also the centre of culture galore: a dance festival; performances by very talented music students from the Istituto Musicale Luigi Boccherini, so the Contessa would have been quite at home with that; some odd statuary and the Lucca flag-throwers, all kitted out in Renaissance outfits. And that was over just one weekend.

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Flag Throwers in the Amphitheatre. Hours of practice made it look oh so easy.

One of the projects during the trip was to explore the area around the town of Bagni di Lucca, a collection of picturesque and historic villages forming a region to the north of Lucca. The area has been famous for its mineral waters since Etruscan and Roman times. It also boasts Europe’s very first licensed casino. The fifth in the An Eccentric in Lucca series is planned to involve the Contessa and COGOL – not to mention the attractive Arthur Crowe and his Banda Inghiltalia – in planning an arts festival there. Who could want a more beautiful location for making great music ?

Ponte a Seraglio spans the River Lima in the Bagni di Lucca region

Ponte a Seraglio spans the River Lima, the main tributary of the River Serchio. The Casino, which still awaits the granting of a license to resume its former role, is in the immediate vicinity. Napoleon’s sister, as Grand Duchess of Tuscany, spent the summers here in the early nineteenth century.

 

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Built in 1837, this was the first licensed casino in Europe. Puccini and Strauss, as well as anyone who was anyone, frequented the casino. Others visited the numerous establishments in the area offering the benefits of the area’s mineral-rich water – these are the Baths of Lucca.

 

This medieval, high-arch bridge, the Ponte della Maddellena, is in Borgo a Mozzano and spans the River Serchio. the bridge is known as "the Devil's Bridge".

This medieval, high-arch bridge, the Ponte della Maddellena, is in Borgo a Mozzano, a couple of kilometres below Ponte a Seraglio. It spans the River Serchio and is known as “the Devil’s Bridge”.

A highlight of the trip was a meeting with Norma Bishop, the editor of the Grapevine magazine. The March issue contains an extensive review of ERRANT ANGELS, and was on sale at two of Lucca’s literary outlets.

Great excitement at finding he book advertised through the pages of Grapevine !

Great excitement at finding ERRANT ANGELS advertised through the pages of Grapevine !

We enjoyed an early evening spremuta di arancio in the amphitheatre, almost where the flags had been hurled up into the air and caught again the previous Saturday. I’m currently drafting an article for Norma on a foreigner’s discovery of the cultural promise of Bagni di Lucca.

Meeting with the editor of Tuscany's GRAPEVINE English-language magazine. Thanks for your time, Norma.

Meeting with the editor of Tuscany’s GRAPEVINE English-language magazine. Thanks for your time, Norma.

Visit the GRAPEVINE’s website and check out the magazine – it’s full of very useful and informative information on Lucca and environs.   http://www.luccagrapevine.com

The results of the trip will shortly be available on YouTube. It’s called “The Contessa’s Lucca” and will hopefully whet your appetite to visit this beautiful city.

The other big surprise recently was an e-mail informing me that I have a distant relative about whom I knew absolutely nothing. Talk about a bolt from the blue! My grandfather Harry Rolfe had a brother, who had a family of his own – you learn something new every day. I’ve also been able to add this great photograph to the two I already have of him and the Mauritius Police Band. I’m also excited to learn that there are plans afoot to open a museum to the band – another good reason to visit the Island and do some research. Thanks for all of that, Pam.

Inspector Harry Rolfe and his Mauritius Police Band somewhere during the 1930s.

Inspector Harry Rolfe and his Mauritius Police Band somewhere during the 1930s.

I’ve received the edited proofs for the second in the An Eccentric in Lucca series, FEELINGS OF GUILT. It should be out in August or September.

The other important diary entry is the London Book Fair. The Book Guild is featuring ERRANT ANGELS on their stand, which is very exciting.  I’ll tell you more about that after the event.

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It’s in the Genes…

… or so we are led to believe, according to current research. Or is it ? If an immediate ancestor was a gifted thinker, does the offspring become a philosopher?; does a highly successful economist produce a millionaire?; would Dr Crippin’s offspring have followed in their father’s footsteps?

How do we differentiate between intellectual capacity and inherited, coded instructions as to what we look like or might eventually become? Answers on a postcard please, as they used to say on the wireless…

What’s brought this on is some research I’ve been doing into my maternal grandfather’s career. He was a pharmacist with the Royal Army Medical Corps, before ending up – by a circuitous route that I am still trying to discover – as the bandmaster of the embryonic Mauritius Police Band in the years before the Second World War. Of diminuitive size (so that, at least, I didn’t inherit!), Inspector Harry Stephen Rolfe built up both the band and his reputation on the island. I’d like to think that his music genes were passed on to me; can’t think of what other source pushed me in a musical direction …

This is the only photo I have that shows both him and the band:

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Bandmaster Rolfe and the Mauritius Police Band, c.1926 [?].

I have a baton that was presented to him in 1925 as a token of apprecitation by the residents of Port Louis. It is of ebony with decorative gold bands; he never used it to couduct, as he found it too heavy. He was very forthright and I can imagine his response when the suggestion to use it to conduct was made …

Nearly 90 years on and his grandson uses a much lighter wooden one:

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A lighter baton guiding the East Grinstead Concert Band.

And to finish off this time, a couple of before and after photos …

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Band Master Rolfe and the Mauritius Police Band c. 1926

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The modern day Mauritius Police Band