‘Happy are the painters, for they shall not be lonely. Light and colour, peace and hope, will keep them company to the end, or almost to the end, of the day’. Winston Churchill.

‘Only artists produce for each other a world that’s fit to live in’. D H Lawrence

In the late 1760s a young Frenchman , Noel Desenfans, arrived in London to teach languages, later marrying one of his pupils, who came with a fortune that her new husband used to acquire important works of art. Such was Desenfans’ success in the field, that King Stanislaus of Poland appointed him Polish Consul General in England with a mandate to collect pictures for the formation of a National Gallery in Warsaw. In 1795, when Desenfans had already acquired a substantial number of paintings, Poland was rudely partitioned by its neighbours, Prussia, Russia and Austria and Stanislaus was invited by the Russians to be a permanent houseguest in St Petersburg. In 1799, Desenfans, whose art collection now included all the unpaid works he had acquired for King Stanislaus, offered the whole to the British Government. Fully occupied with another war with France, the Government declined the offer. On his death in 1807, Desenfans left all his pictures to his friend, Sir Peter Bourgeois, a Royal Academician, who in turn, in 1810, bequeathed them to Dulwich College, a South London school founded in 1619 for the purpose of educating twelve poor scholars of the parish, but which, by 1950, was almost entirely focused on teaching the sons of the better off.

A gallery to house the collection was designed by Sir John Soane and built in Gallery Road, Dulwich. It opened its doors to the public in 1817, seven years before the National Gallery began business in Trafalgar Square. For several years I lived in the same Gallery Road, a boarder at the school that owned the picture gallery.  It was too convenient not to be incorporated into the school’s curriculum and on wet, weekend afternoons, when the cricket was called off, we formed a crocodile and marched to the gallery. In the late 1940s and early 1950s the collection was still mostly Desenfans’ original, largely Baroque, collection and the gallery was not the ‘vibrant, cultural hub’ it is today with its glass-encased cafeteria, shop, website and colourful, outdoor installations for children. It was heavy duty for a ten year old, but among the grim Velasquez portraits and dark, classic landscapes there was the odd, saucy work by Rubens and there was Van Dyck’s titillating ‘Samson and Delilah’ to store in the memory and take back to the dormitory. The gallery was a pointer as to how I would spend my future leisure time; art would come before sport.

Dulwich Picture Gallery

At school most of us drew and painted in our leisure time. At home my mother was an unhelpful critic – ‘Very nice, dear’, she would say as I presented her with another page from an endless portfolio of spaceships and dragons. How do life-long passions for a particular pastime originate? If you are a painter, is it from the covers and illustrations of our earliest books, or the pictures on the walls of our childhood bedrooms? Ideally, a hobby needs to get you to the very end. Keeping fit is not a hobby. I take heart from those photographs of Renoir and Monet in old age, sitting at their easels in their gardens, Renoir with his arthritic hands bound with rags, Monet half blind, both kept alive by their hobbies. Two of the more minor criticisms of my character that popped up frequently on my school reports were ‘needs to try harder’ and ‘gives up easily’. Recently, it came to me that after all these years, in spite of countless failures, I’ve never given up hoping that one day I will paint a picture that more or less lives up to my initial expectations.

Dulwich College, (1871) by Camille Pissarro, a refugee from the Franco Prussian war.

At my next school art was discouraged, buried in small print in the curriculum and listed after every sport and every dead language known to man. Those interested in art were treated like vegans at a Texas barbeque. Schools think their job is to prepare us for a career and forget that we have all that leisure time to fill, especially the lengthy, post retirement bit at the end. Not all of us are interested in a career. In spite of the lack of encouragement, my interest in painting was consolidated by three events, all independent of the teaching staff.

The first was the decision to abandon watercolours and switch to oils. It was like parking the Vespa and slipping behind the wheel of a Ferrari. Watercolours are tiny, the domain of lavender scented, Victorian ladies; they prohibit the bravura brush stroke and lack the colour intensity and oozing beauty of a coil of oily pigment. Squeeze out some paint from a tube of New Holland and you will understand why Vincent liked to occasionally tuck into a tube of ultramarine. Watercolours are odourless; oils appeal to our senses. Although the smell of pigment is quite subtle, a good quality turpentine, distilled from the resin of Mediterranean pine trees, a heat-thickened linseed oil or a fine varnish deserve to be sniffed as you would an ancient cognac. Over time I have become addicted to resin and its Greek wine derivative, Retsina. Watercolours only require water, maybe a little gum arabic and a sable brush while oil painting requires a fascinating array of paraphernalia. My spare bedroom studio resembles Merlin’s cave, with its rows of bottles of siccatives, thinners, varnishes, glazing materials and gessos, forests of flat, round and filbert brushes, bundles of charcoal and selection of palette knives. Then there’s the romance behind the oil paints themselves, in tubes since 1841 when American painter John Goffe Rand patented the collapsible, screw top tube, without which, as Renoir pointed out, there would have been no impressionism. JMW Turner was a technical advisor to Winsor & Newton when they opened for business in 1832 but today their paints seem a trifle industrial compared to another, new British art supplier, Michael Harding. Charvin opened its doors in 1830 on the Cote D’Azur and has a very South of France spectrum. Try their Veronese and Prussian blue and you will be using the same paints that Cezanne used in his landscapes in Provence and around the Mont Sainte Victoire. Bonnard also squeezed his paint from Chardin tubes. Being French, Charvin likes to be different, using poppy oil instead of the cold pressed, extra virgin linseed used by most other suppliers. The Rolls Royce of oil paints is Old Holland, created in 1664 when a Dutch painters’ Guild began manufacturing its own paints. Rolls Royces don’t come cheaply and the more expensive pigments come at the same price as a box of Monte Cristos. Acrylics are an attempt to bridge the divide between oil and water, but the finish has a plastic, artificial feel and the colours lose the vibrancy as the paint dries.

Leave it to the French to sum up the subject in a few lines:

La peinture a l’huile
Est bien difficile,
Mais c’est beacoup plus beau
Que la peinture a l’eau.

A second epiphany occurred while reading a biography of Toulouse Lautrec, my first experience in linking a painter’s life with his work. As soon as I had put it down my future suddenly seemed bright and the road ahead clear. I no longer had to agonise over whether to seek a career in the army or join a sea of clerks in the City; I was going to be a painter and live in Paris. The Place du Tertre, a sort of open-air, art supermarket near the Sacre Coeur, seemed the ideal spot to set up an easel. The quality of the art work I had seen there was conveniently poor, mainly pictures of the façade of the Moulin Rouge or the old windmills that still stood in Montmartre. Most importantly I had a career objective that didn’t require the sort of swotting needed to become a brain surgeon or actuary.

Lastly, there was a visit to the National Gallery. At the end of one term, taking the special train that the school laid on for the sons of those parents too busy to collect their children, I left Charing Cross intending to make straight for Soho but instead, for motives I have forgotten, crossed Trafalgar Square and entered the National Gallery. Three paintings I saw that day I have never forgotten. The first was by El Greco, the Mick Jagger of Renaissance art, whose swirling lines and rebellious colours resurface in the later works of Van Gogh.

The Opening of the Fifth Seal, El Greco, 1614. Said to be the prime source of inspiration for Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

Next was a peaceful, Dutch, 17thcentury landscape and the last an interior by Fujita, a Japanese artist and print maker who joined the international brigade of Modigliani, Soutine and others in Post Impressionist Paris. Epiphanies mainly happen while you are young.

Years later, still determined to live dangerously, I planned to enroll at St Martin’s School of Art (located conveniently on the edge of Soho), but doubts soon entered my mind when I explained my intentions to my flat mate who had just signed up to become a Chartered Accountant. Accountancy was a mystery to me at the time, and still is, but listening, I could see that here was life insurance with the whole premium paid up-front and a ticket to anywhere. Plus, I still wanted to shop at Harrods. My mistake was thinking that accounting was something to fall back on if the paintings didn’t sell. Once a clerk, always a clerk.

The day came when I was freed of my accidental clerkship and transferred to the firm’s Paris office as a newly minted Chartered Accountant. I knew the instant I emerged from the Gare du Nord just how Vincent must have felt when he arrived in Paris, fresh from the dung-coloured potato fields of Belgium. Out with the Sepia, the Burnt Ochre and Van Dyke Brown, in with the Ultramarine and the Cadmium Yellow. Clerkship in Paris was not unpleasant and I was both unhurt and unsurprised when occasionally clients or new acquaintances were stunned into incredulity or laughter when I announced my profession. And then, while painting one weekend in my apartment, a thought suddenly struck me – Is this not what I had planned all those years ago at school, to paint in Paris?

Having clerked and painted for many years, I have learned that art requires courage, clerkship a clean set of numbers. ‘I believe to create one’s own world in any of the arts takes courage’ said Georgia O’Keefe, echoing Churchill who claimed the first quality needed in a painter is audacity. I still sit in awe of each clean, new canvas, convinced the first mark will eventually condemn the whole project to the dustbin. When you get going fear can make you hesitant; agonising over a brush mark will result in loss of spontaneity and will show up in the finished work. To show a completed painting to others is to risk exposing a lack of taste; exposing a lack of talent is less damaging. I start off each painting with a clear idea of how the finished work will look but with the certainty that I will not be able to attain the perfection of the original conception.

There are artists, like Gauguin and Van Gogh, who pursue their own feelings and own self satisfaction and expect audiences to come to them. And artists, such as Scottish painter, Jack Vettriano, who exploit the desire of the audience to be wooed, amused and entertained. Vettriano, one of the world’s richest contemporary artists, only began painting in 1987 when he was 36, channeling Gauguin by leaving his wife and job in educational research to apply himself fully to his art. Success came in 1992 with The Singing Butler, which last sold in 2004 for US$ 1,340,640.

The Singing Butler. 1992

Reproductions on posters and greeting cards are reputed to earn Jack a similar amount annually. Called ‘the Jeffrey Archer of the art world’ and ‘a purveyor of badly conceived porn’, Jack’s paintings are shunned by the galleries but popular with the public and celebrities with taste like Jack Nicholson and Elton John. So satisfy yourself before others. Still, Vettriano does follow one rule and that is to attach a story to a painting. You do need a point of view.

What is the purpose of art; does it need a purpose, by what standards do we judge it? Is graffiti an art? In the Gaza Strip it’s politics, in London’s Mayfair it’s vandalism, in Hamburg it’s an art movement. John Fowles (author of The French Lieutenant’s Woman), who knows about these things, writes in The Aristos that it is the artist’s job to describe the outer world, to express his feeling about that outer world and to express his feelings about himself. The explanation of self by the expression of self. At least that was the old way of looking at it; the principal gauge of art is now STYLE. Style is acquired by painting subjects about which you have a point of view, trying different techniques until you find one that you are comfortable with. If you spend your life copying you will never find a style and you will never experience the pleasure of composition or choosing your own palette.

Has my painting suffered from not going to art school? Yes, because some important techniques like paint mixing and draughtsmanship need professional instruction. Many may disagree, but if you can’t draw you will never produce great art. Rothko with his two fields of intense colour, Jackson Pollock and his whirligig drippings, both began as master drawers. Dribbling liquids haphazardly onto a ground, swirling them around until you find, by chance a likeness of aurora borealis will produce no more than a bit of harmless fun.

I have also learned to avoid sport as a subject to paint; it has never been a topic for great art. A notable exception is the Panathenaic Amphora depicting athletes at the Panhellenic Games in 530 BC.

Amphora 530BC

If horseracing is a sport, paintings on the subject by Degas and Toulouse Lautrec may also be exceptions. It’s the horses that tip the scales; men and women engaged in sport present too trivial a subject to be represented in bronze or oils. Honey bee draws my attention to the mosaics in The Room of the Gymnasts in the Roman villa at Piazza Armerina in Sicily. Art, like the Amphora, it undoubtedly is -and I put this anomaly down to time, the length of survival of an artifact, which becomes a factor in its beauty: survival in time seems to add beauty and interest.

‘Movements’ are a convenient way to study art history and satisfy our urge to categorise everything. What movement are we in now? There have been countless art movements over time, but most are short lived. Take Dadaism, an attempt to intellectualise art by adding a moustache to the Mona Lisa. Duchamp had the sense to resign from the movement and take up chess after The Society of Independent Artists unsurprisingly rejected his urinal as not being art. The urinal was not art but a statement about art and a forerunner of those future statements featuring a pile of bricks or an unmade bed. Dadaism and all other movements are mere footnotes to the two ‘big bangs’ of art, the Renaissance and Impressionism. ‘Art requires the right space’ claimed Rothko and we are fortunate that most Renaissance art is to be found in the places intended for it by its artists, that’s to say the churches and historic palaces of Italy. In the Uffizi I came across a painting of Madonna and Child. It was a circular canvas, freshly restored and sitting on an easel, just where Raphael, the Prince of Painters, would have wanted me to see it. It is the first painting in my collection.

Impressionism began in France and spread like a tsunami both into offshoots (Neo, Post and Fauvism) and geographically into, among other places, Bloomsbury where it spawned the Omega Workshop and ended up in its textiles. A hundred years later forgotten pockets of Impressionism were still popping up. The works of the Scottish Colourists, like a rare Bugatti found in a barn, were rediscovered the 1990s.

The Founding Fathers of Impressionism, Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Pisarro and Cézanne gave us those illuminated and brightened landscapes which were partly due to their research into the physics of colour. They also gave us a new painting method, alla prima, a quick, wet on wet technique that opened the door to we amateurs. I have chosen a Cezanne for my collection, Still Life with Onions, which I thought made a nice change from apples. Impressionism was all about the outdoors and still life paintings were unpopular at the time but Cezanne said ‘I will astonish Paris with an apple’ and he did.

Still Life with Onions. Paul Cezanne. 1898

Cézanne set the stage for the Fauvists, a group of wild beasts comprising the Dutchman, Kees Van Dongen and the Frenchmen, de Vlamink, Marquet, Matisse and Derain. I’m choosing a Van Dongen portrait – Woman with Large Hat (and bare breasts).

Woman with Large Hat. Kees van Dongen. 1906

Some painters fail at the end, something goes. Van Dongen had the chance to go out on a high when he painted the portrait of French Goddess, Brigitte Bardot. Brigitte fed it to her cats. One wild beast, Georges Rouault, set me off in the direction of the German Expressionists and to the work of Ernst Kirchner. I’m finding a spot for his deeply disquieting ‘Self-portrait with Model’, painted in the atmosphere of insecurity that preceded WW1. When the Nazis launched their ‘Action against the Un-German Spirit’ in 1933, Kirchner was one of the first to have his work deemed ‘degenerate’; a few years later 600 of his paintings were destroyed to protect the morals of the German people.

Self Portrait with Model, Ernst-Ludwig Kirchner, 1907

To be a collector with money and taste in Paris in the early years of the 20thcentury must have been Heaven. Most painters then seemed to congregate in two Montparnasse cafés, La Rotonde and Le Dome where, for the price of a glass of absinthe, you could take home a Modigliani sketch. There were so many wonderful artists in Paris at that time – Soutine, Lautrec, Matisse, Chagall, Vuillard, Utrillo and two very talented ladies, Suzanne Valadon and Berthe Morisot. I’m not adding a Picasso to my collection; he did remarkable things and stood against fascism but he was unkind to his chauffeur and to his women. The sheer ubiquity of Vincent has cooled much of my former enthusiasm; I’ve seen his art on too many coffee mugs, tea towels and mouse pads.

Tourism had yet to be invented when I arrived in Paris. There was no waiting three months for a table at Maxim’s and if you were visiting the Louvre you needed to wake a sleeping attendant and ask him to turn on the lights. In the department of the museum devoted to the Romantics you will find The Death of Sardanapalus, painted in 1827 by a 29 year old Eugene Delacroix.

The Death of Sardanapalus, Eugene Delacroix, 1827

Based upon Byron’s 1821 poem of the same name, it depicts the death in 876BC of the last king of Ninevah, who, to avoid humiliating defeat by his enemies decides to kill himself after destroying all his prized possessions, including his concubines and horse. There are references to Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt and the painting blazes with the sensuality and colour of a Rubens. You can feel the heat and excitement coming off this canvas; you won’t need central heating. Delacroix also provided the cover art for Coldplay’s album ‘Viva la Vida’.

Delacroix’s Spanish counterpart and fellow Romantic, Francesco Goya was caught up in the twin horrors of the Inquisition and the invasion of his country by Napoleon’s armies. The result were Goya’s breathtaking pictures of bandits and succubi, devils and dwarfs, witches riding on cats and women trying to pull out a dead man’s teeth after a hanging. I would like one of his macabre etchings but it might frighten the children so I’m choosing La Maja Desnuda, painted for Manuel Godoy, the Spanish Prime Minister.

La Maja Desnuda. Francesco Goya. 1800

Famous for the insolent way the little minx stares out of the painting at you as if to say ‘so what’ and the whisper of pubic hair (reputedly the first artwork to show this), La Maja was hung in Godoy’s ‘boys room’ alongside Velasquez’ Rokeby Venus and a score of other paintings of female nudes until it was raided and closed down by the Inquisition.

Whether you are painting, collecting or just looking, your choices will be bound up with your childhood memories. Mine are of the artwork of Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac and Heath Robinson and later of painters Stanley Spencer, John Piper, Paul Nash, Eric Ravilious, Peter Blake and Howard Hodgkin:

and David Hockney:

Portrait of an Artist, David Hockney, 1972

In 2018 Portrait of an Artist sold at auction for US$90.3 million, the highest amount ever recorded for a work by a living artist. Thankfully it is a painting that replaces the previous holder of this distinction, one of Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog sculptures, which to me always give off the same message – ‘Look at this trashy world we live in’.

If you are an Aboriginal artist your palette consists of charcoal, kaolin ochre, white and black because you’ve grown up with Nature in its dead, burnt and crispy state. If you grew up in the lush, English or Irish countryside your palette will be green, blue and yellow. The mood is peaceful and nostalgic, as in Constable’s The Hay Wain painted in 1821 and left unsold at that year’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. It had better luck in the 1824 Paris Salon, where it won a medal and was praised by Gericault. The house on the left is still there today. The wain stands stationary in mid-stream to cool the horse’s legs and to soak the wooden wheels that can detach from the metal rims when dry. This is a painting about those ‘blue remembered hills’.

The Hay Wain, John Constable,

In 1999 English artist, Tracey Emin entered an unmade bed for the Turner Prize. My Bed failed to win the prize, pipped at the post by Steve McQueen and his home made video, but the fact that it was short listed caused a sensation. In 2014 it sold at auction for 2.5 million pounds. I didn’t bid as I was sure Honeybee would want to change the sheets. Between 1984 and 2019 only 6 winners of the Turner have entered paintings, the other 29 a mixture of videos, sculptures and installations prompting the question ‘Is painting dead, replaced by pseudo technology?’ In 1830 it was assumed the arrival of photography would kill off painting but it merely pushed artists, like Vincent, into distorting nature and using unnatural colours. Dadaism was once thought a brief threat but perhaps it’s back; maybe painting is not a medium that can express the amount of existing discontent. I’m quite unconcerned; I can always look at my own, un-made bed in the morning before I get behind my easel.

And then one weekend in Norfolk we lunched at the Gunton Arms in Norfolk, an 18thcentury estate, once used by Edward VII for naughties with Lillie Langtry and now restored and converted for hospitality by art dealer Ivor Braka. Ivor has decorated his hotel with an art collection that saves the locals a trip to London’s Tate Modern. There are David Bailey prints in the bathroom, a Lucien Freud painting in the TV room, a Damien Hirst hanging in the bar and in the corridor a Tracey Emin painted sculpture. Avoid this if you are about to go into the dining room for lunch.

Tracey Emin. Cockwork

Later I came across an exhibition of Tracey’s drawings at the Musee D’Orsay – think Egon Schiele in monochrome – convincing me that, out of bed, Tracey is a talented drawer.

The mention of Lucien Freud makes me think about how life imitates art:


The Venus of Willendorf. 25,000BC

The Venus of Hollywood, 2019


Venus Reclining (Big Sue) Lucien Freud, 1995

We only have a small apartment but I can squeeze in one more painting and it will have to be a Gauguin.

Breton Calvary, Paul Gauguin, 1887

What stories exist, both in his own quest to find some nobility in life and in the paintings themselves! Hardworking, eternally poor Gauguin was only 54 when he died. If you wish to get near him you should visit the small Breton town of Pont Aven where he, Emile Bernard, Paul Serisier and others painted in the mid 1880’s and where cloisonnism was born. He also had some important advice for us amateurs: ‘L’art est une distraction. Tirez-la de la nature en rêvant devant et pensez plus a la création qu’au résultat’.

In 1916, thirteen years after Gauguin had died in the South Pacific, Somerset Maugham travelled there to research the exotic life of the French artist. The result was ‘The Moon and Sixpence’, published in 1919, which tells the story of a bank employee who, in middle life, abandons career and wife to devote his life to painting. After struggling for years without recognition he sets out for Tahiti, settling down with a young Polynesian woman in a hut whose walls he covers with astonishing paintings. Before dying of leprosy he instructs his companion to destroy his work after his death. Only on the discovery of the canvasses he had tossed aside in Europe does the world of art realize that it has lost a genius. It’s the story of a painter who was a clerk.
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Pleasant town, Modica; less touristy than the provincial capital, Ragusa, while still containing an adequate quota of fashionable Baroque churches. Once the capital of a corn-rich province that stretched as far as Palermo, it was the Modican corn merchants that fingered the corrupt Roman governor, Gaius Verres, causing Cicero to sharpen his stylus and begin one of the most famous cases in legal history. The town, mostly built in the early 18th century following an earthquake in 1693, spreads up the steep sides of a valley. Our apartment, near the floor of the valley, is in one of the narrow alleys, surrounded by balconies, roof-tops and washing drying in the sun. Pigeons coo and homeless cats roam the passageways and stone staircases.




Modica and Franca’s shoes by night

The town comes alive at 9 am, traffic humming, bells ringing, roller shutters rattling up to reveal butchers and bakers and pasta makers. One o’clock and the town is silent as everyone except us disappears indoors for lunch and siesta. Life returns in the late afternoon when the shops reopen. Later, at dusk, the cafes and gelaterias become busy while swallows dart about reducing the mosquito population.


We are sitting having the traditional summer Sicilian breakfast of granita di mandorle and brioche. An illegally parked car attracts the attention of a smartly dressed policewoman who gives three sharp blasts on her whistle to warn the driver, who is having a hurried cappuccino and cornetto con crema before work, that he has ten minutes to move his car or be fined. I believe this civilized attitude contributes much to the calm and laissez faire attitude of the Modicani drivers, for here you may close your eyes and cross the road anywhere in the middle of rush hour without injury and without causing anyone the slightest irritation.


The Police keep a low profile


Outside the town they are harvesting hay in fields surrounded by olive and citrus. Sirocco gusts disturb the tops of bulrushes clogging the ditches; bougainvillea and prickly pear cactus hang over dry-stone walls. The walls are everywhere, criss-crossing the hillsides, delineating property and propping up ancient terraces, some perfect, some crumbling and neglected.  Wall building in this region began in the 15th century when the land-rich Cabrera family allotted plots of land to local farmers in exchange for a portion of their produce. The stones, dug from the fields to improve cultivation, were used as property boundaries and to separate animals from fruit and cereals. Ragusan dry-stone walls are particular in as much as the top of the two parallel walls are crowned with a row of semi-circular stones.


On the road to Scicli



On the road to Ragusa

At Al Molo, a five-star fish restaurant in the coastal town of Donnalucata, I look up from my plate of grilled red mullet to see a poem inscribed on the wall by Claudio, the restaurant’s genial proprietor. It’s called ‘U Muru a-siccu’ and it’s in Sicilian dialect and I can’t understand a word. Honeybee tells me it’s a dialogue between the poet and the walls, as if they are possessed of souls. Well of course they are; each stone is chosen, placed and shaped by an artisan; they are individual, beautiful and, yes, soulful. By contrast, your, your microwave oven and your black SUV with its darkened windows and six airbags have no soul. Nor does the internet. I’m not sure whether Henry Ford and Tim Berners-Lee  have really done planet Earth any favours. Am I a Luddite? Well I’m not going to smash my, I need it to call up an Uber.


At the Castello di Donnafugata

Incidentally, those prickly pear cactus that seem so Sicilian, were actually imported from Mexico by the Spanish in the 16th century, presumably as pot-plants and decoration as the peeled fruit is only mildly interesting in a melonish sort of way.


The beauty of the prickly pear



Impossible to imagine the landscape without the prickly pear


Sunday morning and I’m awoken by a salvo of cannon fire and a peal of bells. Is it Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture? No, it’s the festival of Santa Maria delle Grazie, the nearest of Modica’s hundred or so churches to our apartment. We hurry to the church to find the priest beginning the first of a day-long series of al fresco masses in the piazza.


Al fresco Mass



In the evening the Madonna is shown to the people



The Catholic religion is never far away in Sicily; there are shrines everywhere and rare is the home, shop or office that does not display a crucifix, a picture of a past or present Pope, a local Saint and the odd plaster statue of Christ or the Virgin Mary.


Holy section of local supermarket

There’s bound to be a few Saintly ceremonies when you consider that, over time, the Catholic Church has made Saints of approximately 10,000 of its followers. 2013 was an exceptional year for recruitment with Pope Francis canonizing no less than 813 former citizens of the Southern Italian town of Otranto, beheaded by Ottoman invaders in 1480 for refusing to convert to Islam. No surprises then, when, a week later in the town of Adrano , we witness the single celebration of three Saints.


A trifecta of Saints – Filadelfo, Alfio & Firino

I do love all this ceremony but I can’t help thinking that the world would have had a more peaceful history if Constantine had persevered with the Roman Gods and not made Christianity the state religion. I may be wrong, but I don’t think the Greeks or Romans went to war to force foreigners to worship Apollo or Mars or Athena, but for purely political, defensive or territorial reasons. Anyway, I’m not sure the Romans took their religion all that seriously; how could you when you learn that your chief deity, Zeus, had seduced Leda, wife of the king of Sparta, in the guise of a swan? On the other hand look at the wonderful art and architecture this so-called pagan religion has inspired. Having a series of specialist Gods who are experienced in the area in which you are seeking help seems very logical and in keeping with modern consulting practice and I really like the idea of having a God of Wine.


‘The expression mafia and derivatives such as mafiusu, mafiuseddu denoted outstanding beauty, grace and excellence. A beautiful woman, a fine fruit were mafiuse.’
Francis Guercio, ‘Sicily, the Garden of the Mediterranean’ Faber & Faber, 1938

It is well over a century and half ago that the mafia took root in the Borgo suburb of Palermo with the admirable objective of providing redress for the oppressed in exchange for money or favours. As we all know, it quickly developed into a uniquely criminal organization dealing in illegal drugs and extortion. And yet Francis Guercio concludes that, as a result of a campaign by the Mussolini government in the mid 1930s, the mafia ‘had ceased to be anything but a terrible anachronism.’ This is not so. You cannot come to Sicily today and ignore the mafia, even if, as is likely, you will never have any direct dealings with its members. While Toto Riina remains incarcerated for the murders of those heroic Magistrates, Falcone and Borsellino, one cannot help being reminded that the piovra still winds its tentacles around Southern Italy and in particular Sicily, both the best and the worst of Italy.

  • In the Nebrodi National Park in Catania province the Mafia set fire to petrol-soaked rags they have tied to the tails of cats. The cats, fleeing in terror into forest, set fire to the undergrowth. The objective? To replace the burned trees through a Mafia controlled re-forestation company. An attempt is made to assassinate Signor Antoci, the Park’s director, when he tries to stop the Mafia renting grazing land in the Park, a long-standing practice used to skim off millions in EU farming subsidies.
  • During a religious procession in the Calabrian town of Oppido Mamertina the statue of the Virgin is diverted and taken in front of the house belonging to the local mob boss, where the statue is made to bow as a mark of respect to the resident ‘man of honour’.
  • In Palermo, police trap four criminals following a robbery and car chase but are prevented from arresting the culprits by local residents and onlookers.
  • Public and official outrage follows the televised interview between journalist Bruno Vespa and Salvo Riina, son of the assassin of magistrates Falcone and Borsellino and author of a book extolling the paternal qualities of his father, where the interviewer is accused of providing a marketing coup for the mafia. Many independent bookstores refuse to sell the book.


Here, on the coast of Ragusa province, we are at the most Southerly point of Europe, where the Ionian Sea meets the Mediterranean. The nicest beaches are between Pozzallo and Santa Croce. At Donnalucata in May we have the beach to ourselves. We arrive early when the fishermen display last night’s catch

Although over 5,000 refugees have arrived in the nearby port of Pozzallo since the new year began, I hear and see only signs of welcome among the Sicilians. Scores of the North African fishing boats that succeed in making the dangerous crossing are piled on the beaches awaiting incineration.


Refugee boats dumped on the beach near Pozzallo


In spite of the chaotic politics, the graft and the refugees, what graffiti there is tends to be uniquely concerned with l’amore: 


‘I want to hold you in my arms, protect you from everything and everybody and never let you go!’



‘Let my white soul become inky black to give to you.’          Quite dark, that one.



‘Love is….’ a whimsical question on a wall near my mother-in-law’s apartment. I’m pretty sure it’s not her handwriting.



‘Either I love you or I kill you’!!! Andrea. Hmmm…



We are staying in an agritourism hotel in Schettino, a small town on the slopes of Etna. Our dinner order, chosen from a menu dominated by frozen products, is taken by the sour-faced proprietor and served by a waiter from the cast of The Munsters. The pillows in the bedroom are fashioned from railway sleepers and a gurgling water system keeps us awake all night. But all this is forgotten in the morning when we open the blinds, look up and see Etna, cloud-free in a brilliant blue sky.


Cloud-free Etna

We drive clockwise around the volcano, through Adrano, Bronte and the medieval town of Randazzo. Broom and wild flowers blossom among the lava deposits and small vineyards border the road, separated by dry-stone lava walls.


Broom grows where the lava deposits are more recent. Those are minor extinct volcanos in the distance

Until recently the wine produced here was for local consumption only; now it is to be found in the best restaurants from California to Tokyo. Near the little village of Passopisciaro, Franco and Gianni show us around their immaculate vineyard and let us taste their wines made from 90 year old Nerello Mascalese vines. Their red Calcagno wines are so good that I have to exercise all of my feeble willpower to spit out rather than swallow these splendid wines, but we do have a long road back to Modica.


Calcagno vineyard at Passopisciaro

We are on the sea-front in Giardini Naxos, the sun is sparkling on the Ionian Sea and it is time for lunch. Honeybee inquires after a good fish restaurant from the proprietor of a sports goods shop who is watching the passing traffic from his doorway.

Shopowner : Buon giorno, Signora! You have come to the right person for I can direct you to a trattoria where you will eat well and pay little.

Honeybee : We are looking to enjoy some seafood.

Shopowner : Beppe has the freshest seafood in all Naxos and his Spaghetti ai Ricci (pasta with sea-urchin) is a culinary miracolo.

Voice from within : There will be no ricci today because your cousin was playing cards all night and failed to take his boat out.

Shopowner : Don’t listen; Beppe always has ricci. He mixes the urchin-meat with a little cream and parsley, adds a whiff of peperoncino and a pinch of salt and ecco, un piatto da morire!!

The speaker joins the tips of his forefinger and thumb, purses his lips and rolls his eyes to heaven in an expression of ecstasy before giving directions to the Trattoria del Marinaio

Honeybee : Are there any vegetarian dishes, my sister is a vegan?

Shopowner : (Glumly) Ah, I have heard about such people; Beppe receives guests to his table from many different countries.

Honeybee : I expect there will be an insalata of some kind…

Shopowner : (shrugging unhopefully) Perhaps, Signora. Now don’t forget to ask for Beppe and tell him Carlo sends you.

Voice from within : Beppe will not be there; his mother finally got a bed in the hospital in Messina and is having her legs treated this very afternoon by Professore Bontempo. Beppe will be taking her the flowers he bought yesterday from that ladro’s stall in front of the Comune.

Shopowner: In that case Carmina will be doing the cooking!

Voice from within : Carmina cannot boil water; in any case I saw la troia disappearing on the back of Franco’s Vespa the moment Beppe was out of sight.

Shopowner: Ahhh.. so.. perhaps the restaurant will be closed….. mi dispiace, Signora. Buon pranzo e buon proseguimento. 

Overlooking Giardini Naxos is the once charming town of Taormina, already, in early May, awash with souvenir shops and crowds of tourists. The best time to visit Taormina would have been in 100 BC, although I remember it being still relatively unspoilt in 1972. It certainly made an impression on a neighbour of mine because he named his daughter Taormina after she was conceived there sometime in the early ‘60s. Fortunately the honeymoon wasn’t in Broadstairs or Tossa.


Giardini-Naxos from Taormina

We are in the delightful hill-town of Chiaramonte Gulfi, which went to sleep in the 17th century and has never woken up. At least not until tonight, because in huge letters in the main Piazza we see AVE MARIA’ in neon lights announcing some religious festivities in the Duomo. It is also guest chef night at ‘Da Maiore’, a restaurant with a menu designed entirely around the insides and outsides of the Nero dei Nebrodi, a breed of Sicilian pig noted for its sausage-filling qualities.


Gianni choosing a sausage necklace

Glasses of Frappato and Grillo and sumptuous antipasti of arancini, gelatina (pig), coppa (pig), salami (pig) and proscuito (pig) are served in the well-stocked wine cellar before we sit down to dine. The guest chef is Emanuele Fanitza of the Ristorante Letizia in Nuxis (Southern Sardinia), and he demonstrates how he makes tonight’s primo of fregola con ragu di salsiccia (pig), finocchietto selvatico, basilico e zafferano and secondo of maialino al forno (pig) while Honeybee takes notes. Enthusiastic wine growers get up to tell us about the wines we are drinking (Cerasuolo and Nero D’Avola), followed by a producer who elevates his olive oil into the culinary stratosphere -‘L’olio e il direttore d’orchestra d’un piatto: puo’ esaltare un cibo o puo’ distruggerlo.’ Quite. After a waitress tells us how she won a scholarship to a Hospitality College based on her thesis on salame, the chef of Da Maiore, splendid in foot-high toque, grabs the mike. Next to a lover’s lips there is nothing an Italian likes more against his or hers than a microphone. Unless you are Jamie Oliver, I guess a chef doesn’t get much opportunity to sound off, being stuck in the kitchen, and this was his moment. Anyway, his topic was the dessert, nougat ice cream on a bed of melted Modica chocolate, which gradually expanded into a discourse on world gastronomy until someone yelled out that the ice cream was melting, and everyone laughed and it was as convivial an evening as you are ever likely to enjoy.


Differing fashions in Sardinian and Sicilian tocques


In the souvenir shops of Sicily, amongst the fridge magnets and ceramic pots and tiles from Caltagirone, a visitor cannot help but notice the displays of brightly plumed and armour-clad marionettes.


Gift shop in Donnalucata with souvenir Orlando

Their story begins back in the 12th century with The Song of Roland, an epic poem recounting Charlemagne’s campaign in Spain against the Moors, the defeat, in 778, of his rearguard and the death of its Captain, Roland, during the army’s retreat through the pass of Roncevaux in the Pyrenees. History tells us that it was the Basques who destroyed Charlemagne’s rearguard, but such was the fear of Islam at the time, for propaganda purposes the defeat was attributed to the Moors. The fear dates back to the Arab and Berber invasion of Aquitaine and France in 732, which advanced as far as Tours before being stopped by a Frankish army under Charles Martel. It was a decisive victory but a half century later, his grandson, Charlemagne, was still defending Christian Europe from Moslem armies and, when he died in 814, Spain was still firmly in the hands of the Saracens.


Theatre quality Orlando

Seven hundred years later Moslems from the East were on the march. In quick order, the Turks defeated the Venetian fleet at Lepanto, conquered Serbia, Bosnia and the Crimea, marched into Hungary and Germany and captured, as mentioned earlier, the Southern Italian town of Otranto, decapitating 813 future Saints. These events reignited public interest in the story of Charlemagne and his Paladins – the twelve Peers of his Court – and their struggle against Islam producing three great Chansons de Geste:  Matteo Boiardo’s ‘Orlando Inammorato’, Torquato Tasso’s ‘Gerusalemme Liberata’ and Ariosto’s ‘Orlando Furioso’.  All of these poems employ the same characters, most notably Charlemagne and Roland, although the latter’s name has been Italianised as Orlando while his sword (Durendal in The Song of Roland), has become Durindana, a name once given by Sicilian barbers to their razors before the arrival of the electric shaver.


Orlando Furioso, the most important of these three epic poems (and the longest at 22,000 words) tells how Orlando, a military hero in the service of Charlemagne, falls in love with Angelica, Queen of Cathay, becoming mad with jealousy when he is rejected in favour of Medoro, an African Prince. This heroic tale of fantasy, love, war, magic, bloodshed and chivalry, derived from Carolingan, Celtic and Classical sources, has been mined by Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, Virginia Woolf and Stephen King. Ingres painted Ruggiero rescuing Angelica, Handel turned the story into an opera and Harry Potter rides a Hippogriff. Chivalry unfortunately disappeared when the horse, from which it took its name, ceased to be a means of transport. Now, even those minor, chivalric manners, such as holding a door open for a lady, are almost extinct, condemned as benevolent sexism. Sad, really really sad.


You can overdo these things

Sicily, under Spanish rule at the time Ariosto was writing, was also prey to Moslem aggression, especially from Khair-ed-Din, better known as Barbarossa, and his Barbary pirates and it was probably in this era that Paladin stories became popular and people began decorating their carts with scenes from Frankish romantic poems depicting the fight against  i mori, i turchi, i infedeli, i saraceni, e i pagani.

‘Childish pastime or serious art form?’ questions Francis Guercio. Either way, the practice continues today and the latest fashion collection of Dolce and Gabbana, both Sicilians, is based firmly upon cart-art.


Childish pastime or serious art form?



Dolce e Gabbana handbag



Cart-art fashion for the well-heeled

While Ariosto was writing Orlando Furioso, a new form of street theatre began to appear in Renaissance Italy, based upon the impromptu interaction between a number of stock, masked characters, which included Arlecchino, Pantalone, Colombina, Scaramouche and Pulcinella, the Lord of Misrule, who can still be seen on English beaches in summer under his Anglicised name of Punch. First called commedia all’improvviso and later commedia dell’arte, it flourished in the North of Italy where the weather is cooler and they welcome a bit of comedy, whereas in the South, especially in hot and sultry Sicily, the people’s preference was for Baroque melodrama, occasionally enlivened with aspects of commedia dell’arte.


Agramante on display in Marzamemi

In was in the middle of the 19th century, after writers Andrea da Barbarino and Don Giusto Lodico produced popular versions of stories from Orlando Furioso (never previously accessible to the common man), that l’opera dei pupi took the form that we still see today – marionettes performing from a repertoire of Paladin stories that concentrate on duels, battles and jousts between the Knights of Charlemagne and the warriors of Islam. More popular in the regions of Palermo and Catania and more frequently shown in the cooler seasons, l’opera dei pupi represents a living link to actual and legendary medieval events. If you do catch a show you may find that Orlando, aka Roland, is also called Anglante or the Count Rinaldo or… Montalbano! I knew the good Inspector came from noble stock.


Saints day festival in Adrano


Time to go home. My mother-in-law’s postman neighbor, Matteo, grasps me in a bear-like hug, squeezing the life out of me, and plants a kiss on both cheeks. Is this what it’s like to be a woman? But isn’t this what RLS was on about in his foreword to ‘Travels with a Donkey’- friends. So I’ll take Matteo back home with me, even though he drives me crackers with his Facebook posts. We will also be taking Adriano with us, a new friend, a Modican and a man with the rare gift of being able to communicate with both the young and the old.



Perbacco!! did we really spend all that money? Can’t be! Well, you did buy all those shoes. No other option; back to work.


Brother, can you spare me a dime?