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!


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.







Meet the Contessa…

Cover Contessa 1

Introducing the Eccentric of Lucca, her singing “Angels”, her Maltese poodle and her irrascible maid…

…di Capezzani-Batelli, or simply plain Pen to her friends. She is also regarded as something of an eccentric by her army of admirers.

ERRANT ANGELS is the first in a series of novels about Penelope Strachan, the Contessa, and her group of dedicated opera singers in the picturesque city of Lucca in Tuscany. Just how a gifted English pianist studying at the Royal Academy of Music before the Second World War came to end up bearing an ancient and much respected Italian title is all part of the journey of discovery as you wander through the pages.

Now in her later 70s, the Contessa is the doyenne of the music circle in Lucca and, together with her Chamber Opera Group of Lucca – COGOL for short – is a major fundraiser for a whole host of charitable causes. She regards her singers as her “Angels”, but she has no illusions about their flaws, some of which could be considered as rather serious. Perhaps one of the most flawed characters, but for only the very best, well meaning of reasons, is Elizabeth McGraunch, her faithful maid of nearly half a century.

The character of the Contessa is based on two very real women, both of whom were instrumental in the establishment of an operatic tradition in South Africa during the 20th century: Désirée Talbot, my singing professor at the South African College of Music, University of Cape Town (and her pet Maltese poodle, who had a much better relationship with people than does the Contessa’s Carlo Quinto)

Désirée Talbot

Désirée Talbot, Emeritus Professor of Voice at the South African College of Music, University of Cape Town.

Albina Bini, founder of the Florence Chamber Opera Group.

Albina Bini, founder of the Florence Chamber Opera Group.

and Albina Bini, an early giant in the establishment of opera in South Africa and founder of the Florence Chamber Opera Group in Cape Town.

Visit my website for a full biography of both of these remarkable musicians.

What can one say about the assortment of characters who go to make up COGOL – not to mention the others characters who cross the pages at reasonably regular intervals ? When you get to know them I’m sure that you’ll recognize characteristics of people you have met over the course of time.

After all … it’s all really just observation, isn’t it ?

ERRANT ANGELS is published by the Book Guild in hardback and is also available in e-book formats and through Barnes & Noble in the United States. The next novel in this series – FEELINGS OF GUILT– is due for publication in 2014.