Love is in the Air

It will be of no surprise to you that I can recall with astonishing clarity a girl who passed me on the elevator at Chalk Farm tube station in 1959 but cannot remember where I left my reading glasses five minutes ago. Among the choicest souvenirs in my mind’s cluttered ephemera are images of girls I never even spoke to. I remember a girl in the choir at St Stephens in Lower Norwood that inspired the purist of loves in a 12 year old schoolboy. Later there was a girl in a café in Gothenberg whose perfect Nordic beauty bordered on imperfection.(1) And then there was Number 16. Number 16 and her fiancé were the sixteenth couple programmed to be married one Saturday morning in the Mairie of Paris’ 15th Arrondissement. Clutching my ticket number 17, I was standing a few steps below her on the marble staircase with my own fiancée and small wedding party, just one degree of separation from the blonde, Polish beauty in front of me that I should have been marrying. The time to bolt was right then instead of in 5 years time, but I delayed and delayed as we moved slowly and steadily up the staircase, past a bust of the Phrygian-bonneted Brigitte Bardot, until suddenly there we were signing the register under the bored gaze of the tricolour-sashed Mayor himself. And then there was the “coup de foudre” that hit me at 11pm on 26th October 1977 when I was sitting in the departure lounge at Orly-Sud Airport.

I was looking at the owner of a cloud of ash-blonde hair and a pair of cornflower blue eyes, a tall woman, “bien en chair” with strong features and a rash of freckles; a stranger with a face I felt I had always been expecting. In contrast to most of the women in the room pretending to look bored by the prospect of transatlantic air travel or tired at the late hour, she looked bright and expectant. Her eyes may have swept over the 35 year old accountant but if they did they found nothing to arrest them. The lounge was packed for the flight to Rio and as usual the ground staff of the carrier, Varig, seemed incapable of restricting many of the 380 odd customers to a single item of cabin baggage. I’d been on this flight several times over the last months, and when boarding was finally called I made my way to my preferred spot on the aisle at the back of the bus. I had hardly settled in and nodded briefly to the man occupying the window seat next to me when the girl from the lounge came down the aisle. This time our eyes met as she passed by and settled into a seat a few rows back in the central block of seats. Eventually the DC10 began to roll. I was not a white-knuckle flier in those days and already had my head in the Herald Tribune as the plane gathered speed. At some point the ride began to get bumpy and it seemed we were taking forever to lift off into the night sky. My neighbour, who had been gazing idly out of his window, suddenly burst into life, “Jesus Christ the f*****g engine’s on fire!”  I leaned over; sure enough the starboard engine was enveloped in flames. Just as the cries of panic and alarm began to spread throughout the cabin the pilot threw all engines into reverse. The backward thrust of the two functioning engines (the DC10 has an engine in the tailplane) began to slow us and (as I learned later) we had not quite reached V1, the point when the ‘plane must take-off, and so we sailed on, over the end of the runway, through a bank of landing lights and across the grass until we finally ground to a stop metres from the fence that separated airfield from motorway. Later I learned that the plane had been over-loaded, a tyre had burst and we had been rolling along on the metal undercarriage, sending shards of metal and sparks into the starboard engine and causing it to ignite. Twenty three years later a similar accident occurred when a piece of metal left on the runway at Charles de Gaulle burst the tyre of a departing Concorde resulting in a punctured fuel tank. In this case the Concorde pilot had exceeded V1 and was obliged to take-off; the plane crashed minutes later, killing all on board. A few seconds longer on the runway and that would have been our fate.

Meanwhile the panic intensified. Further down the cabin a hostess opened an emergency exit only for the chute to inflate inside the cabin where it was hacked away by frantic passengers before they jumped. I grabbed my hand luggage and headed towards the rear exit. The girl from the lounge was groping in an overhead locker. I helped her down with her bag (strictly against emergency procedures) and propelled her to the rear exit where we slid, almost together, down the chute. When we reached the ground, cabin crew pulled us to our feet and pushed us off into the night, telling us to get as far away from the aircraft as possible. A hundred metres from the ‘plane we sat on the grass, watching the fire engines douse the burning engine and the ambulance crews dealing with the broken limbs of the passengers who had jumped. A bottle of duty free whiskey was produced and we settled down to wait for a lift back to the terminal. I don’t believe in fate or the supernatural, just luck, good or bad and the extent to which either strikes just depends upon the random cocktail of the hour. To the chance encounter, to whatever it was in a stranger’s face that drew me to her, had now been added the shared experience of danger. It was a powerful combination. The face before me when “the bolt of Cupid fell” belonged to Audrey Guy, a ground hostess working at the Air France terminal at Les Invalides and on her way to see a friend in Sao Paolo. She was a divorcee, a committed Basque nationalist and that rare jewel, a French Anglophile.

Eventually the buses arrived to round up the scattered passengers and we were taken to the Orly Hilton where we were offered free accommodation until the next flight, scheduled for the following evening. I suppose there must have been brief envelope of time, perhaps a nanosecond, when I decided not to go home and not to telephone my wife. Such a decision, with its possible long-lasting repercussions, seemed to require no internal argument at all, no assessment as to whether this was right or wrong; I would spend more time choosing a ball-point pen. By the time I reached the concierge there were no more single rooms. I asked Audrey if she would care to share a double. She would. In the anonymity of the hotel room there was an absence of awkwardness and an air of expectant intimacy, but within minutes of hanging a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door, Audrey was violently sick and immediately fell into a deep, drunken sleep. I cleaned her up and slept chastely in the other single. Audrey was unable to find even a jump-seat on the flight the next day, but eventually we met up in Brazil; it was the beginning of an affair that lasted 3 years and which ended where it had all began, at an airport, although this time it was Linate.

Thirty years later my friend Pierre-Jacques, at home in Paris, was reading “Les Miracules du Ciel” a collection of personal accounts from survivors of air disasters (2) when he recognized a story entitled “Catastrophe, Miracle et Histoire d’Amour” (Disaster, Miracle and Love Story). Audrey had contributed her account of the Varig incident and the beginning of our affair. Some of the facts had been changed. In the book Audrey and I were sitting together; she is also described as an air rather than ground hostess, using her expertise to open the rear exit door, something apparently beyond the capabilities of the Varig cabin staff. Furthermore, the Audrey I knew was not the person described in the book as someone who “hardly ever touched alcohol”. Once, in the back of a taxi on our way home from a bout in a Rio night club, she was sick into my jacket pocket, but I loved her at the time and so didn’t really mind.

1. Tennyson’s Maud was “Faultily faultless, icily regular, splendidly null.”

2. “Les Miracules du Ciel” by Jean-Pierre Otelli. 1998, Editions Altipresse.

Drugs and Artistic Creativity

In 1906, a young Italian painter, Amedeo Modigliani, arrived in Paris and joined the bohemian colony of struggling artists in Montmartre. When he arrived, Modigliani was sober and well-dressed; within a year he had become a dissolute sociopath, heavily addicted to absinthe and to hashish, which he took in pellet form. Within sixteen years he was dead, destined to become part of the already well-established myth of the questionable marriage between art and drugs. His friend and biographer, Andre Salmon, wrote that it was Modigliani’s ‘impatience to become a genius’[i] that drove him to his addictions, later claiming that ‘from the day that he abandoned himself to certain forms of debauchery, an unexpected light came upon him, transforming his art’.[ii] It seems evident that Modigliani, like many artists and writers doubting the potency of the creative talent on which their livelihood depended, took drugs to relieve the burden of possible failure. It is less evident that drugs transformed his art, for, if his painting did improve, who is to say it was not practice, the influence of a happy marriage and a reduced drug intake during his last years that were responsible? Alternatively, given that absinthe is a stupefacient and that hashish can induce depression as well as euphoria, it is possible that Modigliani’s addictions were actually detrimental to his artistic output if not to the quality of his art.

Modigliani’s story, while certainly not uncommon in some respects was unique in others. Every case of drug use will have a different effect on the user, occasioned by his personality, prevailing mood, the locality and time of administration and the drug itself. Norman E. Zinberg codified these variables into what he called ‘Drug, Set and Setting’, claiming that ‘it is necessary to understand in every case how the specific characteristics of the drug and the personality of the user interact and are modified by the social setting and its controls’.[iii] Modigliani’s drug of choice was hashish, produced from the resin of the cannabis sativa plant. With a maximum THC content of 15%, taken in large doses the drug, reportedly, may cause a user to hallucinate.[iv] The use of cannabis and opium can be traced back thousands of years. Sadie Plant points to evidence of opium use in European Neolithic settlements, in Egyptian tombs of the fifteenth century BC and in ancient Rome, although it is not clear if the drugs were used for other than medicinal and healing purposes.[v] However, it is more recent times and the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin that provide some first real evidence of the effect of hallucinogenic drugs on human consciousness. This evidence is important because, first, the drug (most commonly Yage) is taken by the user with the express intention of entering into a trance and using whatever visions were experienced for specific benefits to the community. Second, there is evidence of its impact. The impact cited by Andrew Weil in his paper ‘Clues from the Amazon’ [vi] does not point to life altered by psychotic, drug induced dreams, but to the complete absence of addiction and abuse. Weil attributes this ‘success’ to the positive objectives of the drug taking (normally healing or religious ritual), the purity of the unadulterated plant life that constitutes the drug and the ceremonial or ritualistic circumstances under which the drugs are administered, normally by a spiritual leader or shaman.

The factors that made drug taking in remote areas of the Amazon basin harmless or even beneficial were entirely absent in the cities of the industrialised world, where, in the mid-nineteenth century the mind-altering qualities of opium first began to be examined. Alethea Hayter, in her study ‘Opium and the Romantic Imagination’, identifies three groups of people (excluding those who take opium as a pain killer) who are likely to experiment with drugs. The first group consists of the curious, the seekers of novel experiences; the second, those desiring rest and freedom from anxiety, and the last, those who take pleasure in participating in ‘secret rites and hidden fellowships’.[vii] In 1821, English writer and intellectual, Thomas De Quincey, provided the first serious study on the effects of opium on human consciousness with the publication of Confessions of an English Opium-eater. Although a curious intellectual, De Quincey discovered opium in taking it as a medicine finding, at the same time, ‘the secret of happiness’ and his pains ‘swallowed up…in the abyss of divine enjoyment’.[viii]  Outside of his ecstatic eulogies De Quincey also provided some meaningful insight into the effects of opium on the sub-conscious and creativity.

De Quincey’s basic observations, which were to be subsequently confirmed by other opium users, covered several important topics. He claimed that ‘The sense of space, and in the end, the sense of time, were both powerfully affected’. [ix] He underlined that the experience taught him nothing new but, in the words of Martin Booth, ‘embellished what already existed, heightening awareness of latent thoughts and imagination’, in other words, improving creative talent but only in the event that the idea already existed.[x] De Quincey also reports that his memory was vastly improved and that he was able to recollect ‘the minutest incidents of childhood’.[xi] Finally he addressed the negative aspects of the drug, claiming that it rendered him too weak to record his extraordinary dreams in print and that it induced feelings of anxiety and melancholy.[xii] Later, the dreams, once of extraordinary shapes and colours, would become agonising and frightening nightmares. De Quincey, in managing to control his life-long addiction, lived to a reasonably old age and enjoyed a happy personal and professional life.

While the creative advantages expressed in Confessions of an English Opium-eater undoubtedly influenced others writers to experiment with opium, notably Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Baudelaire and Nikolai Gogol, there were many others who had discovered the drug for themselves. Many were introduced to it in the form of Laudanum, a medicine composed of opium powder and alcohol, sold without prescription until the early twentieth century. During the nineteenth century, among the millions of opium addicts trying to alleviate their misery from the gold mines of California to the dens of Shanghai, elitist groups sprang up – those hopeful that the drug would lead to enlightenment or artistic creativity. One such group formed the Club des Hashischins, while the Romantics, a group of European writers active between 1770 and 1840, included several authors who experimented with drugs. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was at the very centre of the Romantic movement, found inspiration for his poetry in laudanum, at the cost of his health and his income from lecturing. [xiii]

In 1954 mescalin became briefly popular when another curious intellectual, Aldous Huxley, self-administered the drug to test its possible spiritual uses. Huxley experienced the same vivid dreams, disassociation of mind from body and intensification of colour, but the result was the same – the drug can only extract what already exists within the subconscious. He concluded that it was useful as an alternative to words. [xiv] It was a synthetic drug, Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD), discovered by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann and championed by Harvard professor Timothy Leary, that became the drug of choice for musicians and artists in the ‘swinging sixties’. Even the CIA and US military, who found it caused anxiety and was therefore useful to the interrogation process, examined it closely. Again the results were the same; LSD could send you briefly to the stars, but it could also cause the user to become ‘paranoid and bewildered’.[xv] It also proved relatively unhelpful to the artistic community. Writer Anais Nin found the drug did nothing to inspire creativity; Jack Kerouac felt the drug had permanently harmed his health.[xvi] Writer Julia Ward Howe thought that to use drugs to help write was actually cheating. [xvii]

Hashish, opium, mescalin and LSD – there is no evidence that they can expand human consciousness beyond what already lies in the user’s memory. As British writer Arthur Koestler said, after experimenting with LSD, ‘There’s no wisdom there. I solved the secret of the universe last night, but this morning I forgot what it was’. [xviii]

Drugs therefore cannot contribute to artistic creativity by providing material that did not already exist in the artist’s conscious. The positive contributions that opium, cannabis and hallucinogens have made to artistic creativity lie in two different areas. First, the addicts’ world, together with the fantastic and sometimes gruesome visions that drug-induced dreams produce, have been the subject and inspiration for many fine novels and poems, notably Coleridge’s Kubla Khan and the stories of Edgar Allen Poe. Second, drugs provide, for some artists, the only influence under which they can be in any way productive. It enables the artist, perhaps poor and tortured by the possibility of failure, to escape ‘the cosmic suffering that is the inescapable lot of the Romantic artist’.[xix] It becomes not a benefit but a necessity, even though the costs, financial, physical and mental may be severe. Negro jazz musicians in turn-of-the century New Orleans, Toulouse Lautrec and Modigliani all spring to mind. Personally, I always find my art, writing, cooking and life in general improve after the second glass of wine, but that’s just my opinion.

[i] Salmon, Andre (1957) Modigliani, a Memoir, London: Jonathan Cape 1961. p.61

[ii] Werner, Alfred (1967) Amedeo Modigliani. London: Thames & Hudson. p.20

[iii] Zinberg, N E. (1984) ‘Historical Perspectives on Controlled Drug Use’. In Drug, Set and Setting: the Basis for controlled Intoxicant Use. Yale University Press. P.15

[iv] Nordegren, Thomas (?) The A-Z Encyclopedia of alcohol and Drug Abuse

[v] Plant, S. (2000) ‘Private Eyes’. In Writing on Drugs. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, pp..4-5

[vi] Weil, Andrew, ‘Clues from the Amazon’ in The Natural Mind: an investigation of Drugs and the Higher Consciousness, Weil, Andrew 1986.

[vii] Hayter,A. (1968) ‘Case Studies.’ In Opium and the Romantic Imagination. London: Faber, p. 40-41

[viii] Booth, M. (1996) ‘Pleasure Domes in Xanadu’. In Opium: a History, London:  Simon & Schuster, p.36

[x] Booth, M. ‘Pleasure Domes in Xanadu’. In Opium: a History, p.36

[xi] Booth, M. ‘Pleasure Domes in Xanadu’. In Opium: a History,  p.38

[xii] Booth, M. ‘Pleasure Domes in Xanadu’. In Opium: a History,  p.38

[xiii] Booth, M. ‘Pleasure Domes in Xanadu’. In Opium: a History,  p.44

[xiv] Huxley, A. (1972) ‘The Doors of Perception’. In ‘The Doors of Perception and Heaven & Hell. London: Chatto & Windus, p52.

[xv] Levinson, M.H. (2002) ‘The Quest for Instant enlightenment: Drugs and Literary Creativity’. In The Drug Problem: a New View Using the General Semantics Approach, Westport, CT: London, Praeger. p. 88

[xvi] Levinson, M.H. (2002) ‘The Quest for Instant enlightenment: Drugs and Literary Creativity’ p.88

[xvii] Levinson, M.H. (2002) ‘The Quest for Instant enlightenment: Drugs and Literary Creativity’ p.86

[xviii] Levinson, M.H. (2002) ‘The Quest for Instant enlightenment: Drugs and Literary Creativity’ p.88

[xix] Carpenter, L. (2001) ‘Enhancing the Possibilities of Desire: Addiction as Post-modern Trope’ (Opium, Heroin, and the Novelists of the romantic Imagination), Southern Humanities Review, 35 (3): p.232


Booth, M. (1996) ‘Pleasure Domes in Xanadu’. In Opium: a History, London:  Simon & Schuster, pp. 36-49.

Carpenter, L. (2001) ‘Enhancing the Possibilities of Desire: Addiction as Post-modern Trope’ (Opium, Heroin, and the Novelists of the romantic Imagination), Southern Humanities Review, 35 (3): 228-251.

Cohen, Sydney, (1965) Drugs of Hallucination, London: The Scientific Book Club.

Hayter, A. (1968) ‘Case Studies.’ In Opium and the Romantic Imagination. London: Faber, pp.36-66.

Hodgson, B. (1999) ‘The Writer’s Muse’. In Opium: a Portrait of the Heavenly Demon. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, p.83-103.

Huxley, A. (1972) ‘The Doors of Perception’. In‘The Doors of Perception and Heaven & Hell. London: Chatto & Windus, pp.40-78.

Lee, M.A.(1992) ‘Psychedelic Pioneers’. In Acid Dreams. New York: Grove Wiedenfeld, pp.44-70.

Levinson, M.H. (2002) ‘The Quest for Instant enlightenment: Drugs and Literary Creativity’. In The Drug Problem: a New View Using the General Semantics Approach, Westport, CT: London, Praeger. pp.75-92

Plant, S. (2000) ‘Private Eyes’. In Writing on Drugs. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, pp.3-32.

Salmon, Andre (1957) Modigliani, a Memoir, London: Jonathan Cape 1961.

Zinberg, N E. (1984) ‘Historical Perspectives on Controlled Drug Use’. In Drug, Set and Setting: the Basis for controlled Intoxicant Use. Yale University Press. Pp.1-18

Eeyore’s Italian Christmas


Warning: some food descriptions may be distasteful to vegetarians and vegans. 

I know, I know, I said I’d never fly Qantas again (or C**t-arse as a French friend unwittingly pronounces it) but our national airline is in financial trouble, its shares reduced to the level of junk bonds, so time to help out. What’s this? They’re announcing that the catering truck responsible for victualing my flight to Dubai with the usual luke-warm compost has crashed and there will be a delay in boarding of approximately half an hour. Quelle surprise! Once on board I find I’m nicely placed in an Exit row and near a toilet, which, as I’m a Gold Frequent Toilet Flyer, is a Godsend. The in-flight attendants are charming but seem terribly young. I’m worried that when the Captain orders ‘Doors to manual!’ they will open them by mistake and I shall be sucked out of the aircraft and end up in someone’s dining room in Wollongong. Better tighten the seat belt.


Back in the organized pandemonium that is Italy. I’m on my way to Genova to witness my young friend Andrea’s graduation as a Master in Engineering. I take the coach from Malpensa Airport. It’s cold and a silver dollar of a sun sparkles through banks of mist on fields of frozen stubble and woods of spindly, leafless trees. Incongruously, at a quiet country intersection, stands a beefy Siren with red lips and short skirt waiting for some lonely male on his way home. It’s Christmas time and a little ad hoc prostitution helps to secure those festive extras. My heart goes out to her. Back on the Autostrada we begin the descent off the great fertile plain of Lombardy, winding down through tunnels and viaducts until we arrive in the ancient and pleasant city of Genova. This is the city of a million scooters and should be twinned with Kuta. Narrow, steep winding roads with cars parked half on the pavement half on the road with not even the space to slide a piece of paper between them. An ancient, congested city centre and an absence of public car parks make two wheels a necessity. It’s warmer than Milan with clear blue skies.

Off to the Castello hill, the oldest part of Genova’s historic centre to collect bound copies of Andrea’s thesis. The printer’s shop is located near the Faculty of Architecture from which Andrea’s brother and his girl friend, both graduated. Genova, with some 40,000 students is one of the newer Italian universities, founded in 1481.The Faculty of Architecture, cunningly incorporated within the remains of the ancient monastery of San Silvestro and a medieval Bishop’s Palace, is an exciting mixture of ancient and modern, a labyrinth of lecture rooms and libraries cunningly installed in the irregular spaces dictated by the ancient buildings, including a triangular cloister. On the roof we look out over the port from which Columbus sailed, now filled with ferries and container ships.

Up early for an assemblage of Andrea’s family and friends at the Faculty of Engineering. Francesca, Andrea’s mamma is there along with his brother Simone, Simone’s fidanzata, Eleonora and assorted uncles.  Andrea’s fellow students are all charming young people; you would think that Italy would be in good hands when they are in charge but alas the country always seems to end up in the hands of cunning, self-serving politicians like ‘Burlesque-only’. We sit in rows behind a quintet of examining Professors while Andrea confidently presents a summary of his thesis. Then a wait outside until he is called back in to hear his mark. It is difficult to tell from his expression when he emerges whether the result is good or bad. It’s 109 out of 110! That single missing point is important to Andrea who aims high, although, to me, it’s just a whisker, a whisker that could easily have been influenced by nothing more than one irritable examiner dwelling upon an unfair parking ticket. I would have spent the next five years sticking pins into effigies of the professors, but Andrea, like the man he is, puts it behind him, dons the laurel wreath and gets on with the festivities. I had warned him before I came that, as in Roman times, I would be standing behind him in the chariot as he goes to receive his Triumphus, reminding him that he is not a God and whispering ‘Respice post te. Hominem te memento!’ But for the minute I think he deserves to be feeling like one. Who could have predicted the happy repercussions arising from our decision to take in a young Sardinian exchange student those seven years ago?

I’m waiting with Simone and Eleonora for our transport to arrive to take us to the restaurant where Andrea is holding his celebratory lunch. It’s an up-market part of town and the pavement sports a red carpet in front of some expensive boutiques. I’m trying to figure out whether I’m in front of a jewellery shop or a pasticceria, unsure whether the object in the window is a cake or a large Faberge’ egg (the price suggests it could be either) when a young man asks me for money for a coffee. A coffee? If he’s hard up, why not a sandwich or some fried potato peelings? A coffee is a luxury in my book; but then I’m not Italian. Now a man selling lighters wants a hand out. I give him a couple of Euros. If I stay here much longer I’ll be bankrupt. Chi sono io, Babbo Natale?

Andrea is hosting his family and friends in my favourite restaurant. If you are in Genova and looking for somewhere serving well cooked, classic Italian food, where any combination of antipasto, secondo and dessert costs 10 Euros and where you eat in a charming warren of green tiled rooms, then this is it. But I’m not going to tell you its name or location as I think the place should be left to the quiet enjoyment of the Genovese. In the evening we return to the Engineering Faculty for the graduation ceremony proper when Andrea gives me a copy of his thesis in which part of the dedication is to his adopted Australian family. It’s a ‘hats in the air’ occasion and Spumante corks are popping like gunfire.

After the ceremony I set off with Francesca, Simone and Eleonora whose parents, Ermanno and Marita, have kindly invited me to stay at their home in Diano Marina, a seaside town an hour’s drive west along the Italian Riviera. We arrive quite late in the evening and sit down to a marvelous feast of antipasti, tortellini in brodo, bollito misto, formaggi and Sachertorte washed down with excellent Chianti. Behind Francesca’s petitely innocent façade is one of Sardinia’s major producers of powerful moonshine and we round off the meal with some of her vintage Mirto.

The next morning is warm and sunny and after a breakfast of coffee and biscotti laced with Marita’s marmellata of mele cotogne and a charming audience with Eleonora’s nonna, we walk the through the quiet pedestrian town centre to the beach where the dogs race around like greyhounds on Ecstasy. Simone buys chunks of warm focaccia al gorgonzola, which we eat on the way home effectively reducing my capacity for doing justice to the marvelous lunch prepared by Marita with the enthusiastic assistance of Simone.

One should approach these meals as one would a 10,000 metre foot race; you must know how to pace yourself, to enjoy each course (including the unexpected ones) so that, at the end, you still have that little space for the chocolate and Mirto. Self-control has never been one of my strong points, although I’m not sure if my life would have been better with it.

In the late afternoon Ermanno drives us along the coast so that we reach San Remo as the sun is setting. The streets, closed to traffic, are thronged with Christmas shoppers although I’m not sure if anyone is doing any serious spending. Then on to Monte Carlo where the Piazza bounded by the Casino and the Hotel de Paris is decorated in a black and white theme – white Christmas trees, black Bentleys, white diamonds, black fur coats.

The next morning Ermanno takes us along the coast to Cervo, a medieval village perched on a hill overlooking the sea. The jewel in its crown is the pastel pink 19th Century Church of San Giovanni Battista, built from the wealth amassed by the town’s coral fishermen. The fishermen have long gone, the seabed hoovered clean of coral, but as always in Italy the Church still stands. That afternoon Ermanno takes me to the station where I catch a train to Milano looking forward to being reunited with my Honeybee. I wonder if I’ll be back here for the marriage of Simone and Eleonora; just in case the wedding’s here rather than in Sassari, I’ve taken note of a pleasant little B & B in Cervo.

S. Giovanni Battista overlooking Cervo

S. Giovanni Battista overlooking Cervo


A taxi to the Castello and a stroll towards the Duomo, which I come upon suddenly, a great iceberg worked on by Grinling Gibbons that leaves me breathless. The Cathedral is surrounded by bancarelle selling salami, cheeses, panforte, Christmas trees and the traditional, ladies red underwear. Dean Martin is singing ‘Let it Snow’; a pair of Carabinieri Officers, elegant in cloaks of Prussian blue, polished boots and spurs stroll across the piazza; for the first time in many years I feel a sense of Christmas.


Il Duomo with Carabinieri

Il Duomo with Carabinieri

A tsunami of salami

A tsunami of salami


I slide into the perfumed warmth of Rinascente (Department Store) and am overcome with an uncontrollable urge to spend. Even from 10,000 miles away I can sense my bank manager checking the availability for an increase in my overdraft. Extra personnel take their places in front of their PCs at American Express, fingers poised over the keyboard. I am a magpie, drawn to anything that catches my eye – a nativity scene in porcelain by Villeroy & Bosch, a lady’s high-heeled shoe in dark chocolate, a pair of stainless steel spaghetti tongs. What am I doing? I ask myself as I squeeze into a pair of brightly coloured jeans made for someone half my size and 50 years younger. Perspiration trickles down my temples and my spectacles mist up when I see the price, but the sales lady is young and attractive and I exit with two pairs. ‘Mutton dressed as lamb’ my mother would have snorted. I may be going down but I’m going kicking and screaming.

Into the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele and into Tods, my favourite shoe shop, which appears staffed entirely by Japanese. I’m undecided whether to take the suede lace-ups or the leather slip-ons. The assistant suggests I take both pairs. Of course, how stupid of me not to think of that! The streets are full of busy shoppers and I see no evidence of the frail economy that the press harps on about, pointing to the level of Italy’s national debt, which is apparently on a par with that of the USA and Japan. As I see it, this places Italy alongside the giants rather than among the economic pygmies like Canada and Brazil.

Paolo takes me to the quiet town of Pavia where there is a Monet Exhibition in the Palazzo Visconti. The Palazzo dates from the end of the 14th century and once had Petrarch in charge of its library. The exhibition is wonderful, lots of Monet’s works from his early childhood drawings to his last oils and none of the water lily series that seem to overwhelm most shows. Everybody is out buying boxes of Ferrero Rocher Chocolates and recordings of Nat King Cole singing ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ and we have the place to ourselves. There’s not even a security person in sight so I can get very close to the canvases to inspect Monet’s brushstrokes.

On the way back to Milano we stop to look at the Certosa di Pavia, a monastery built between 1396 and 1495 to accommodate Carthusian monks. After a series of monastic takeovers the cloisters are now home to the silent traffic of the Cistercians.


La Certosa di Pavia

La Certosa di Pavia

Our final stop is Vigevano, home to the magnificent Piazza Ducale, the work of Donato Bramante the high priest of Renaissance architecture. It is dark now and children are ice-skating in a Piazza once overlooked by Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan and his protégé, Leonardo da Vinci. Thank you Paolo for those unforgettable experiences.

It’s that time of year for reflecting on the past 12 months, when every magazine trots out articles featuring the best of 2013, be it film, book, athlete, unit trust or travel destination. The Economist votes Uruguay Country of the Year and Italy’s L’Espresso magazine nominates Constantino Baratta, a 56 year old builder from the island of Lampedusa, Man of the Year. Signor Baratta’s achievement was to save 12 Eritrean refugees when their boat capsized. Surprisingly, but admirably, Italians display an amazingly generous attitude towards refugees in spite of the vast numbers crowding daily into this small country.

Ne’ carne ne’ pesce

Dinner alone in a Trattoria in the Piazza Gramsci. I’m struggling through a Cotoletta alla Milanese the size of Roger Federer’s tennis racquet when in comes the Dottore. Our Host, no longer interested in discussing my request for a second flagon of wine, rushes, beaming, to greet this more important customer. ‘Buona sera, buona sera Dottore! Make yourself comfortable at your usual table.’ Then, after inquiring into the state of the Dottore’s family’s health, the weather outside and the Dottore’s success in finding a parking space, our Host, wringing his hands in pleasure, pops the all important question:
Carne o Pesce?’
After years of trying to accommodate his various clients by reconciling their dubious tax declarations with the exigencies of a continuously changing law, the Dottore has become wary and indecisive and, through habit, indifferent to the unctuous groveling of our Host.
‘Hmmm, what fish do you have?’
‘We have fresh branzino, which we are serving grilled on a bed of potatoes, onions and wild fennel.’
‘Hmmm, do you have any scampi?’
‘An excellent choice, Dottore but unfortunately Beppe neglected to refuel the Ape and by the time he reached the fish market this morning the best scampi had gone’.
‘Hmmm, what meat dish can you recommend?’
At this point I had finally managed to secure the assistance of a sulky waitress and my attention turned to the pitcher of the house red wine she brought me, a vino vivace as pink and delicious as Lady Gaga’s lips.

It’s my birthday and we’re whooping it up in the Osteria del Borgo Antico, with Paolo, Franca and Andrea. My birthday present from Honeybee is ‘The Broken Road’ the last, posthumous, volume in a travel trilogy by Patrick Leigh Fermor. In 1933 at the age of 18, the author begins a walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. Moving through an Eastern Europe still inhabited by a noble peasantry, he sleeps in barns and hedgerows, falls in love with a Rumanian Princess and lives with her in Rumania and Greece until the drums of war summon him back to England. He joins a Guards Regiment and is parachuted into German occupied Crete where, with the help of partisans, he kidnaps a German General, an event dramatized in the film ‘Ill Met by Moonlight’, with actor Dirk Bogarde playing Leigh-Fermor. It is the author’s association with Military Intelligence, his partiality to cigarettes, strong liquor and beautiful women, his good looks and his friendship with Ian Fleming that lead many to feel that he was the inspiration for James Bond. If you read his books, start with the first book in the trilogy, ‘A Time of Gifts’, published in 1977, 43 years after the event it describes. Its title will lead you to Louis McNeice’s poem ‘Twelfth Night’  (‘For now that the time of gifts is gone’) and if you happen upon a copy of the original edition still with its dust cover, you will have an introduction into the cubist art of John Caxton. What makes PLF’s books stand out from those of other travel writers is the stylish prose. Here he writes of those events, unanticipated, their importance unappreciated at the time, which shape our lives.

‘One is only sometimes warned when these processes begin, of their crucial importance: that certain poems, paintings, kinds of music, books, or ideas are going to change everything, or that one is going to fall in love or become friends for life; the many lengthening strands, in fact, which plaited together, compose a lifetime. One should be able to detect the muffled bang of the starter’s gun.’


On our way to spend Christmas with my suocera (mother-in-law) in the town of Adrano.

On a clear day the first thing you see as you deplane at Catania Airport is the volcano. Its brooding presence dominates the horizon. To the Greeks Etna was the home of Haephestus, God of Fire, who used the lava to forge Zeus’s thunderbolts. To the Sicilians it is muntibeddu but to my mother-in-law and the others who live on its slopes it is simply ‘a muntagna, the mountain. To the vulcanologists it is the highest (at 10,890 feet) and most active volcano in Europe. In 1669 lava reached the outskirts of Catania and in recent days it blew its top, sending clouds of sulfurous dust into the air and closing down air traffic. What lunatic decided to build Adrano on the slopes of an active volcano? I picture myself in a thousand years, a museum exhibit like those unfortunate Pompeians, a lump of fossilized volcanic ash in a cowardly foetal position. Better pull the bedclothes up tonight.

Etna - 'A muntagna

Etna – ‘A muntagna

Adrano is a poor town, you can tell from the fact that cigarettes and AA batteries can be bought singly. There is no cinema, no hotels or passable restaurants, the buildings, many fine, are chipped and weed infested. In the main Piazza there is a gloomy 12th Century Norman stronghold built in black volcanic rock and the elegant church of Santa Chiara, its façade still pock-marked from the second world war. The municipal authorities have abolished dustbins (since they overflowed) and rubbish piles in the streets since people cannot wait for collection days to dispose of their rubbish. There’s little to do except drink the small, bitter espressos, smoke and hope, which in the short-term is expressed in a scratchy and, in the longer term, in a ticket for the National Lottery.

Orange tree in the middle of Adrano

Orange tree in the middle of Adrano

Poor it may be but the people are kindly and courteous, exhibiting an almost old worldly degree of politeness. The town itself is a genuine example of ‘shared space’. In a town of 20,000 people there is not one set of traffic lights and although there are marked pedestrian crossings, people only use them IF THEY HAPPEN TO BE AT THE PLACE THEY WANT TO CROSS knowing that drivers will always slow to let them pass. There are no public car parks and the people park anywhere without ever resorting to reverse parking. But nobody minds. The roads are clogged with cars the size of dog-kennels. But you never see any road rage. These conditions I also witnessed in Genoa, San Remo and Milan only confirming my opinion that Italians are the most expert and generous spirited drivers in the world and therefore Italy the easiest place for foreigners to drive in.

Sicilian eco-taxi

Sicilian eco-taxi

We come from a city where the seasons are only mildly distinguishable and everything is available regardless of the season. That is not the case in Sicily and when we enter the Caffé Europa for breakfast expecting to see the polished, mahogany domes of brioches and jugs of granita di mandorle we are informed that these are for summer only consumption. Still, some warm, ricotta filled crescents dusted with icing sugar and sliced almonds will do very nicely.

Christmas Eve and we go to the Associazione Nazionale Combattenti e Reduci, an RSL in other words, except there are no pokies. We have come to listen to a quartet (tambourine, guitar, accordion and fischietti, a Sicilian, Pan-like whistle) play traditional Christmas music. While an elderly gentleman recites a Christmas themed poem in Sicilian dialect, I inspect a splendid battlefield mural featuring a mortally wounded WW1 Italian soldier.

Sicilian RSL

Sicilian RSL

Like every shop, building and piazza the club has a presepe (nativity scene) and like all the others, the crib is empty, for all the baby Jesus, from those no bigger than my thumb to life-size examples, are in the Churches waiting to be ‘born’ the next day and transported in processions to their allotted straw cots. In the foyer of my mother-in-law’s apartment block, framed in tinsel and poinsettia, a young man is clutching a whole pig to his chest. He is there to play a selection of Christmas music on what turns out to be Sicilian bagpipes and after wailing for ten minutes moves to the first floor to annoy some other residents.


Sicilian bag-pipes

Sicilian bag-pipes

This is a very religious island and its religiosity is evident everywhere. My mother-in-law’s apartment is crammed with religious statues, crucifixes, messages from Popes and pictures of Saints in various anguished or beatific poses. As I lay in bed under a particularly harrowing Crucifixion scene I can look at a plaster statue of the Black Madonna and Child (why not?) and a picture of the new Pope. My Honeybee, a Catholic, asks what is the principal difference between the Catholic and Anglican religions and I explain that Anglicans deal directly with God while Catholics use the Virgin Mary as an interlocutor. Do Anglicans follow the Stations of the Cross, she asks and I tell her that to a heathen Londoner ‘Stations of the Cross’ can only mean Charing Cross and Kings Cross.

Christmas Day and not a turkey or a mince pie to be seen. Most Sicilians seem to eat the same food at Christmas that they eat regularly throughout the year with the addition of a bottle of Spumante and a Pandoro or Panettone. We are beginning with an antipasto of Zozzo (brawn) and baked ricotta. Although customarily a New Year’s Eve dish, we follow with Zampone, literally a ‘big foot’, in this case that of a large pig, emptied of flesh and bones, stuffed with spiced, minced pork and reassembled, complete with toe nails, and ready for boiling and eating with lenticchie nobili (good quality lentils from Ustica).

Zampone ready for the pot

Zampone ready for the pot

To finish we have pere spinelle (boiled, squash ball sized local pears) and prickly pear fruit. Some of my mother-in-law’s friends have joined us for dinner and I’m sitting next to Marcello, a courteous neighbour, who has looked at me on previous occasions, as if I’m from outer space. Tonight however, we are bonding nicely, having found a common interest, first in the inky, Nero D’Avola wines of Etna and now in a bottle of Limoncello. While Marcello cracks walnuts for us I reach for the Limoncello to toast once more the glory of Anglo-Italian relationships and my new best friend but, as so often happens, the ‘League Against Dancing on Tables’ (a movement composed exclusively by women dedicated to saving men from themselves) has spirited away the bottle. I would have thought that so many similar experiences over the years would have alerted me to the danger posed by Marcello’s diminutive but explosive wife, Graziella.  I was disappointed but not surprised to learn that Honeybee, a founding member of the League, supported her.


My Honeybee and I are in the Trattoria Primavera in Palermo reading our favourite piece of literature – the a la Carte menu of a new restaurant. Among the primi our attention is drawn to Fettucine alla Nelson. My limited knowledge of Sicilian history suggests that the dish was invented by or (more likely) conceived in honour of Horatio, Lord Nelson rather than Nelson Picquet or Nelson Rockefeller as the English Admiral, at one time, had quite close ties with Sicily. The roots of the relationship lie in the conquest of Sicily and Naples in 1734 by Philip V of Spain ending 20 years of Austrian rule. Philip, a descendent of the Bourbon King Louis XIV, installed his son, Charles, Duke of Parma as ruler of the two separate kingdoms. On the death of his father in 1759 Charles assumed the Spanish throne as Charles III, abdicating as King of Sicily and King of Naples in favour of his third son, Ferdinand, the Spanish constitution prohibiting the holding of more than one crown. Ferdinand (styled Ferdinand IV of Naples and Ferdinand III of Sicily) married the Archduchess Maria Carolina (daughter of the Austrian Holy Roman Emperor, Francis I), who dominated her weak husband, pressing him into actively supporting the Anglo-Austrian alliance against the French Revolutionary Forces. In 1793 Nelson arrived in Naples seeking reinforcements for the British attempt to capture the port of Toulon. It was the first fateful meeting between Nelson and Emma, the soiled but ravishing wife of the British envoy, Sir William Hamilton. In September 1798, shortly after destroying the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile, Nelson was back in Naples for R & R where he and Lady Hamilton began one of history’s most famous love affairs. In November, Nelson tore himself from Emma’s embrace to join with the Neapolitan Army in taking Rome from the French, who soon regrouped, routed the Neapolitans and invaded Naples. Ferdinand and Maria, together with the Hamiltons and other notables, were safely evacuated aboard Nelson’s flagship, the Vanguard, which sailed into Palermo on Boxing Day, 1798. Nelson returned to Naples to help loyal Neapolitans succeed in ousting the French and then to punish those Neapolitans who had sided with the Jacobins. In 1806 the persistent French were back again, retaking Naples and installing Napoleon’s brother-in-law, Joachim Murat, as King, a reign that lasted until Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo in 1815. The British Navy prevented the French from taking Sicily.

In recognition of his services to the kingdoms of Naples and Sicily Ferdinand gave Nelson the Dukedom of Bronte (in Sicily) along with the Castello Maniace. Nelson never lived to see his ducal residence but if you go there now you will see the initials NB (Nelson & Bronte) set into the wrought iron gates and his coat of arms with the inscription ‘Heroi immortali nili’. Bronte lies some 10 miles from Adrano on the slopes of Etna. The Sydney suburb of Bronte is named in recognition of the Hero of the Nile. In 1815, after the final defeat of Napoleon and the execution of Murat, the separate crowns of Sicily and Naples were merged, still under King Ferdinand, into the single Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, although I feel The Kingdom of the Two Volcanoes would have made a more sensible title.

The ‘Nelson’ ingredients accompanying the ribbon pasta are melanzane, zucchine, pomodoro, mozzarella, basilico and parmigiano.

Susan Sontag, in her novel ‘The Volcano Lovers’, provides an excellent record of the affair between Nelson and Lady Hamilton.

Falcons and Pigeons

In spite of a light rain falling, a crowd has gathered in a Piazza, their gaze directed towards the narrow, fourth floor ledge of a palazzo upon which a large dog is precariously balanced. Unable to advance, having reached the end of the parapet, the dog attempts to turn. With paws scrabbling wildly on the wet stone, the dog falls, even as the mournful alarm of the vigili wails in the distance. The crowd now turns its hostile attention to the fire services, called over an hour and a half earlier, and then to the dog’s (absent) owner, who has failed to mend a gap in the railings, which enclose his terrace. This familiar story – a preventable tragedy, the tardy reaction of indifferent authorities, the minimal effect on a better future that public sentiment produces – is a microcosm of the country’s fight against the Mafia.

Of course, there is always a new hero ready to step up to take the place of Carabiniere General Dalla Chiesa (gunned down with his wife in 1982) and Prosecuting Magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino (both victims of Mafia bombings in 1992). This time it is Anti Mafia Magistrate Nino di Matteo, recently fingered for assassination by Mafia Boss, Tito ‘the beast’ Riina, currently serving a life sentence for the killings of Della Chiesa, Falcone, Borsellino and a hundred others. Government ministers have yet to announce any supportive measures for di Matteo and there are suspicions that it may have to do with the fact that it is the former Interior Minister, Nicola Mancino, who is accused of Mafia connections when he and Judge Corrado Carnevale released many of the top Cosa Nostra criminals in 1992.

Not that there isn’t any public support for di Matteo and the fight against organized crime. In the Chiesa dei Cappuccini in Adrano we listen to a youth orchestra, part of a foundation formed to honour the memory of Falcone and Borsellino, while Palermo Airport is now called ‘Falcone Borsellino’. Island clergy are in the streets announcing their solidarity with di Matteo, but perhaps the most encouraging sign is the campaign by Palermo shopkeepers to resist paying the Pizzo, literally the lace embroidery edging a piece of material but also the protection money paid to the Mafia.  In the town centre we are handed flyers saying “Paga chi non paga” (pay those who do not pay), referring to shops that refuse to pay the Pizzo. At the Punto Pizzo Free Emporio in Palermo’s city centre the shop owners have banded together, refusing to pay protection money. We wish them well.

Our hotel is in an old Palazzo rich in elaborate frescos and as we lie in bed and look up at the ceiling I feel we’re lying in state in the Sistine Chapel; anyway Honeybee doesn’t have to think of England with all this elaborate decoration to engage her attention.

Bedroom ceiling in Palermo

Bedroom ceiling in Palermo

A baby Jesus, naked except for an enormous gold crown and carried by six elderly Sicilians, parts the Christmas shoppers; behind comes a marching band playing Jingle Bells and in front a quartet of young men collecting for the Confraternita Maria SS delle Grazie dei Pirriaturi Palermo whatever that may be, but I’m sure it’s a good cause.

Baby Jesus ignoring lady's legs in stocking advert

Baby Jesus ignoring lady’s legs in stocking advert

We’ve seen la Cattedrale and the Byzantine wonder of Monreale and I’m ready to go home now and enjoy proper plumbing, but I dread the endless journey back to Sydney and that ghastly stopover in Dubai, a Middle Eastern Mecca of consumerism; people buying Rolex watches at 6 o’clock in the morning; Harrods in the January sales. Can’t understand why it takes as long flying home as it does coming here, after all it’s all downhill going back, innit? I think I’ll just go to Haberfield next time or have a stroll around Prahan Market.