“God looks at the clean hands not the full”
from the maxims of Publilius Syrus Latin writer (1st century bc)
Anyone familiar with the classic 70s TV series ‘Upstairs and Downstairs’ will recall one of the minor characters below stairs who often stole the scenes. Ruby was the accident-prone kitchen maid who was bullied and badgered from all sides. When Mrs Bridges the bustling cook wasn’t railing at her she was the resident dogsbody for everyone from the parlour maid to the footman. Poor Ruby only every operated in the nether regions of the kitchen where she was usually found up to her elbows in hot water sluicing down the pots and pans. The other maids were all as neat as pins in their starched white aprons and caps, but unlike the housemaids, Ruby was never allowed ‘upstairs’ among the genteel folk. Ruby wasn’t fit to be seen. So what did it matter what she looked like? What if her apron was mucky and her hair straggled untidily from under her cap? Lost in the darkest corners of the kitchen, no one was ever going to see her. Compared to the other maids, I suppose she was a bit of slattern; but she was a loveable slattern and viewers couldn’t help warming to her. If I felt for Ruby trapped below stairs in Edwardian England, today in 2020 I find I’m beginning to identify with her.
Like everyone else I’ve been following the instructions of the health authorities to the letter in the battle against Covid 19. As directed, I’ve been washing my hands more frequently and much more thoroughly. Then, about two weeks ago, after another brisk scouring session, I was drying my hands when I suddenly realised: I have Ruby’s hands. It’s true. Over these last weeks I’ve developed the coarse hands of a common scullery maid.
The truth is I’ve spent most of my life doing nothing more ‘manual’ with my hands than tapping at a keyboard. But to look at them now, you’d think I’ve had a life-time of scrubbing and cleaning. While my palms have acquired a papery texture, it’s the back of my hands that are particularly alarming. The skin over my knuckles is red, chafed and in some places, actually peeling. When I spread my hands out palms down, they are as wrinkled as those of an Egyptian mummy. My only consolation is that every man, woman and child must be experiencing something similar. Now that we are regularly scrubbing up like surgeons, our hands have aged in a matter of weeks. Whatever our jobs, to judge from our hands, we might as well all be dishwashers and kitchen lackeys.
I used to work as government press officer; a job which got me out and about a bit. One of my tasks was to create visits to the Yorkshire and Humber region for overseas visitors sponsored by Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The visitors were VIPs from all over the world and included government ministers, business leaders and industrialists. They had all spent some time in London before coming up to Yorkshire so my job was to show them what made our region tick whether they were interested in healthcare, education, law and order or business. It was a great job, and I got to visit steelworks, universities, power stations, and I can honestly say that I’ve ‘been inside’ most of the prisons in the region at one time or another.
One day I took some Australians to the wool auction in Bradford where we were invited to examine the huge piles of fleece about to go under the hammer. ‘Feel my hands’ said one of the wool handlers. I thought he was being pretty forward at the time, but when he insisted, I stroked at his palms tentatively (I almost said ‘sheepishly’). I have never felt such hands. I wanted to lift one to my face and run it down my cheek. They were marvellously soft and as silky smooth as a kitten. They were definitely not the hands of a burley middle-aged man in a brown overall. ‘It’s all the lanolin in the raw wool’ he told me, grinning at my surprise. Lanolin is the greasy wax secreted from the skin of the sheep and widely used in skin-care products. I’m told that people who work with the raw wool on a daily basis all have these velvety hands. That’s the day I discovered that in some jobs, working with your hands everyday can actually improve them.
That’s what I need. What we all probably need right now. Hand creams and moisturising lotions won’t cut it anymore. We need to swathe our hands in raw sheep’s wool. But in the absence of a healing fleece, I suspect that when these trying times are over, it’s the manicurists and nail bars that will come out on top.
In the meantime here in lockdown, we are all as socially isolated as poor Ruby tethered among her pots and pans in the kitchen. But unlike her we can look forward to being allowed upstairs, downstairs, outside, inside and wherever the hell we want to go. Soon. Let’s all just hang on in there.
The following was written as a sort of ‘prologue’ to jump-start me in beginning my latest book with the working title of ‘An Italian Education’ which is set in Siena in 1977
By the time the Africans arrived in Siena, I’d fought most of my battles both in and out of school. It had taken a while, mind, and some had been hard won. I’d had to ignore all the disbelieving stares and to ‘unhear’ the predictably stupid remarks. There were times when I’d felt as if I were a one-woman show working a tough crowd of hecklers. But I’d pushed on through. I’d risen above it with, what I believed, was a quiet but determined composure.
It had helped that I knew what I was in for from the start and that my Italian was robust enough to defend myself. I knew that I needed to get ahead of things. I would have to manage the Italians before giving them even half a chance to manage me. I might be hi-vis but my strategy was to be deliberately low-key. So I was matter-of-fact about the raised eyebrows and I shrugged off the sniggers and murmurs with a bemused smile. The trick was to act as if a joke had just gone right over my head and I knew it, but I was nice enough to be OK with it. No need for explanations. Yes, I’d worked on that smile.
So you might even say that I had found my niche in Siena. I was the city’s first ever black school teacher. As the assistente inglese down at the high school, I was committed to improving mastery of the English language for all those bright young minds. Sure, I might have turned heads at first with the Italians, but as time went on, anyone could see, that black or not, I had all the makings of a dedicated language teacher. Matter of fact, there were moments when I half-believed it myself.
Over the weeks the shock waves that had spiked on my arrival in Siena had gradually subsided to ripples. You couldn’t miss me, and that was a fact. I was the only black face around and not just in school but in the entire city. Only now people knew where I fitted into the scheme of things. I might still be a talking point, but I had a real role in the city that everyone understood. Yes, things had definitely settled down for me. Now most people saw that there was more to me than that strange, wiry-haired, black girl who had come out of nowhere.
Finally it felt as if I had hit my stride. After an unpromising start, school was going swimmingly, and I had a tight, little circle of Italian friends where I could be myself and not the buttoned-down version I had created for public consumption. On top of this, my modest salary from the school was boosted by a constant demand for private English lessons. In Siena, it was fair to say, I had become the go-to-girl for English; and for once in my life I was in the money. Matter of fact I was planning a trip to Paris with my Italian pals on the strength of it.
I may have been feeling a little pleased with myself, complacent even. And why not? I’d sowed the seeds, cultivated them with care, and now I was reaping the harvest. I’d earned my little niche in the city. I could relax now and enjoy it.
Then the Nigerians burst onto the scene like tropical fish blasted out of the water. There were only four of them, but dressed in colourful dashikis and squabbling noisily in Yoruba, they spilled into the shadowy little streets of Siena like an entire circus parade. They were too loud and too bright and too foreign in every way not to be enjoyed as anything but a spectacle by the Italians, who stood back and stared at them, hugely entertained. Ma guarda che roba! Take a look at this lot!
And suddenly I felt all my early groundwork beginning to shift. I knew that those hard-line defences I’d hammered into place were about to be breached again.
For months I’d been playing down my blackness with the Italians. Months of side-stepping random interrogations into my parentage and exact country of origin; facts that total strangers felt they had every right to know and that I had an obligation to tell them. But I was ready for them. Ready for all that “yes, but where are you really from?” caper. I’d been playing that game too long and I wasn’t having it. It wasn’t up for discussion. I simply did not have time to be black on their terms.
It’s true, I’d say. I am the English assistant down at the liceo. And just so you know, I’m born and bred in England. And yes, I know, I’m black. How crazy is that? Then I’d pull out the other smile that I’d perfected. It was a tight, weary smile. I used it like a punctuation mark; a full stop that didn’t invite further inquiry. This and a slight arching of the eyebrows said: Now, let’s move on shall we? And to be fair, it felt as if most of them had.
Then along came the Nigerians with their loosey-goosey swagger; a riot of colours and noisy energy. And I knew that the carefully controlled climate I had created for myself was at risk. Whether I liked it or not their arrival was going to have a knock-on effect to my own peaceful existence in the city. They might be as foreign to me as they were to the Italians, but their collective blackness put mine right back in the spotlight. Not that I was kidding myself. It wasn’t as if no one noticed me anymore, but people had got used to seeing me around and my visual impact was no longer the sensation it used to be. And I suppose that I had got used to them too. The stares and the stage whispers were never going to go away; that was just Italy. I was learning to manage it better.
The truth is: I’d been prepared to take on the Italians but nothing had prepared me for taking on a group of Africans in Italy. And I knew I was going to have to fight my corner all over again.
The Libyan Sibyl by Guidoccio Cozzarelli (floor mosaic in Siena cathedral)
Yoruba carved heads
Yoruba hand-carved and painted drum
Piazza del Campo, Siena
Model behaviour, top tomatoes and adventure afoot
Anyone who’s ridden the rails for a while in Italy, ( I know, I sound like an old American hobo) will know that even after you have purchased your ticket, before boarding the train you must validate it yourself by sliding it into one of the punch clocks found on the station platforms. If you fail to do this, ticket inspectors on the trains will fine you. All Italians know this, of course, but it’s a common trap that many foreigners fall into. The sales office personnel rarely mention the required self-validation when they issue rail tickets, and many new to the Italian rail system find out about it the hard way.
The train out of Fiumicino airport in Rome (‘The Leonardo Express’) to Rome’s Central station (Termini) is always jampacked with newly arrived foreigners and the ticket inspectors are issuing fines left and right. It’s a real ‘Welcome to Italy’ experience. ‘We didn’t know’ they cry ‘No one told us about it’; but the inspectors, who’ve got smart and now speak three or four languages, carefully explain their mistake and shrug. You have a choice; pay up or get off at the next stop. In which case, you could find yourself kicking your heels in one of Rome’s sub stations such as Tuscolana or Ostiense. I don’t know if it’s true, but someone told me that the inspectors get a small percentage of every fine they issue as motivation.
But sometimes even the Italians get caught out. ‘The validation machine wasn’t working’ said the group of three young Italians on their way from Perugia to Arezzo. The female inspector reminded them that there were several machines at each station and one of them not working was no excuse. ‘But we didn’t have time, we would have missed the train’ they protested.
I was two seats behind them and I’d already shown my ticket. Suddenly the inspector’s gaze fell upon me again and she pointed out this middle-aged black women to the young offenders.
‘Look at the Signora there. She’s not even Italian but she’s validated her ticket. You see! The Signora did the right thing. There are no excuses. She knows the rules and so do you.’
Needless to say ‘the Signora’ kept her head down. I wasn’t used to being publicly cited for good behaviour. I slid a little bit further down in my seat and fell to desperately searching for something (anything) in my bag.
It’s an old and oft-told story in Italy. Leaving behind family and friends, a young man sets out from his home in the economically-deprived south of Italy to find work in the big cities of the north.
‘Off to Milan eh?’ said the elderly gent opposite to the young man sitting next to me on the train from Bari going north.
It was one of the old corridor trains and we were five perfect strangers in the compartment.
‘Yes my brother works there. He’s just found me a job’
The young man glanced up nervously at the brown packing box tied with string that was balancing precariously in the overhead rack and threatening every minute to brain one of us. He got up to shove it in place more securely.
‘Supplies from home?’ the old man said with a knowing smile.
The young man nodded sheepishly.
‘It’s my mother’s pasta sauce’ he confessed checking the box again.
‘Of course it is. Your mother knows as well as I do that you can’t find a decent tomato in the north. Do you know where the best tomatoes come from? That’s right. Salerno. Right here in very south of Italy. It’s the soil. It’s volcanic, you know. You won’t find a more fragrant, more flavourful tomato anywhere in the world.’
The old man looked around us all in the carriage as if he was ready to knock to the ground anyone who said otherwise.
We all nodded in agreement. Yes indeed. No arguments here. The Salerno tomato was king.
‘Well, good lad.’ he continued brightly ‘Off to a new life and new friends. It’s an adventure eh?’
‘I hope so’
The young man suddenly looked uneasy.
‘My brother’s the only person I know there and, if I’m honest, I’m not very outgoing’
The old man shuffled forward in his seat the better to make his point.
‘Now listen to me, young man, I was always a bit shy myself when I was your age and I have to say it didn’t do me any harm. Not a bit of it. There are lots of girls who like the quieter type and I was never short of a girlfriend. They don’t all go for that bluff and bluster, you know. Us shy fellows are less threatening. More reassuring. No, it did me no harm at all being on the shy side. So don’t you worry yourself. I can see from your face that you’re a good honest sort. You’ll have no trouble, you’ll see’
The old man sat back nodding and smiling reassuringly.
So no spotted hankie on a stick for this Italian Dick Whittington. Armed only with an honest face, a pep talk, and a dozen bottles of his mum’s pasta sauce, our intrepid hero set out to conquer the big city of Milan.
Milan- Florence – 3hrs 10 mins (Don’t lean and don’t jump)
The first time I took a train in Italy it was from Milan to Florence and I was just 17. It was my first time in the country and I had come to spend the six weeks between lower and upper sixth form as an au-pair.
Back then there was no commercial airport close to Florence and you had to train it for over three hours from Milan or else do the same from Rome. It was July, there was no air-con and the train, one of those old carriage and corridor types, was rammed. I hadn’t been prepared for the Italian summer and in tights and a thin wool skirt (English summer attire) I knew I was ridiculously overdressed from the moment I stepped off the plane into a wall of heat.
There was no chance of a seat on the train and standing in the corridor we were shoulder to shoulder with every window wide open. We all leaned towards the windows where the stagnant heat gave us little relief. Whenever the train picked up speed it was like the hot blast from a hair dryer full in your face. I remember there were a lot of Italian soldiers on board all travelling south to Rome and Naples and I was disturbed at first, then embarrassed by the way they all stared at me and seemed to be openly discussing me. Thank God I knew almost no Italian at this stage and I had no idea of what a mythical beast, a lone black girl in Italy was at that time; no idea that I was considered a prize catch simply because I was black. It was my first exposure to the rampant attentions of Italian men and in that sweaty train corridor I felt as panicked as a trapped animal. Hot and miserably bothered, I guarded my suitcase and tried to concentrate on the sign on the train window, my first lesson in Italian:
“E’ pericoloso sporgersi dal finestrino” It’s dangerous to lean out of the window.
What with the heat and all those wolves in khaki sizing me up for the kill, it felt damn dangerous just standing in the corridor. There were moments when I had the terrible urge not to lean out, but to jump out of the window.
Foligno – Ancona 2hrs 20 (lunchus interruptus)
The high-speed inter-city trains in Italy are a very different travel experience than the regional trains that rattle and wheeze into every little station along the track. These trains arrive and depart in a great sighing breath and when you get on board if feels like you are about to embark on a journey not just a train ride.
I was on my way to Bari, the furthest south I had ever been in Italy. I had booked my ticket from Foligno to change at Ancona on the coast. It was almost midday when I found my reserved seat on the train; no 29 in carriage C. It was a table seat and three passengers were already seated. In the seat next to mine a middle-aged man was setting out his lunch with formal precision. His knife, fork and a plastic tumbler of wine were already in place; a cloth napkin was tucked into his shirt collar as he began to reverently unwrap small parcels of bread, cheese and salami.
Meanwhile his hat was occupying my reserved seat.
I showed him the number on my ticket and in my politest Italian I asked him to remove his hat so that I could sit down. The man looked at me appalled. You would have thought I had just asked if I could take a pee in his hat. Was I mad? Couldn’t I see that he was eating? He looked at his hat, then at me and then at his lunchtime repast. None of it was making any sense. With another plaintive look he appealed to the two passengers opposite who shrugged their support. Yes it was very wrong to get between a man and his food that was clear, said their shrug; but you can see she’s foreign she doesn’t have our Italian respect for food; and she has got a ticket for that seat. So what can you do?
I stood patiently in the aisle of the train, as the man gave a monumental sigh and reluctantly shuffled out of his seat to place his hat in the overhead compartment. Before sliding back into place he gave me one last pitying look. What could you expect? His fellow passengers were right. I didn’t know any better. The missionaries probably had never reached the darkest depths of Africa where I came from.
I thanked him, sat down at last, and I immediately got out a book and started to read (this much the missionaries had taught me at least) but it was more out of embarrassment than anything. I simply had to find something to do after that deeply resentful exchange during which my travel companions had not uttered one syllable. A whole conversation had been implied with shrugs and meaningful looks. Certainly I was more to be pitied than censured.
My lunchmate had removed his napkin and was carefully rolling his knife and fork up in it when the ticket inspector came around and we all began to fumble for our tickets. The inspector was about to clip mine, then he hesitated a moment.
‘You realise that you’re in the wrong seat, Signorina?’
‘No. No look it’s number 29’ I said frantic with indignation and twisting to check the seat number again.
‘Yes it’s the right seat but you’re in the wrong carriage. Your ticket is for Carriage G, Signorina. That’s, back there’
I tried to summon up every last fibre of my dignity as I rose from my seat, gathered my backpack from the overhead compartment and began the walk of shame to carriage G.
Florence to Perugia (2hrs 10mins on the regional line)
When I’m in Italy there’s a train line I use regularly between Florence and Perugia. At one point the train runs alongside the northern shore of Lake Trasimeno, the fourth largest lake in Italy which is mentioned in Virgil’s Aeneid. You can get a ferry from the pretty towns around its shores to the inhabited island in the lake (Isola Maggiore) where there’s a 12th century church perched on a hill with superb views across the lake.
The train follows the lake for about ten minutes before sloping away towards Perugia going south and Arezzo going north; but whatever the weather it’s ten glorious minutes. In summer you see it in shimmering flashes between the umbrella pines before the landscape suddenly opens up into a beautiful body of silver-blue water blinding in its intensity; in winter it’s a great swatch of grey ruffled silk under restless clouds.
I’ve been doing this same trip for more than twelve years and this part of it never stops being special. Whatever I’m doing on the train, reading, dozing, daydreaming, I always sit up and take notice as we skim the edge of the lake. I’ve seen it in all its moods; choppy and puckered with raindrops; serene with sailboats under cloudless skies; mysteriously eerie under low-lying fog. It may not have the cachet of the northern Italian lakes with their dramatic mountainous backdrops, but in the soft undulation of the Umbrian hills it’s the closest thing to a seascape in this region of Italy which is the only one without its own coastline. In fact it’s here that many Italians gravitate when they want a sense of the sea and in summer its beaches and surrounding towns and villages come alive with tourists and visitors.
I did this run in March this year on my way to Perugia and at Arezzo a family of four Brits got on the train. They stowed their backpacks, settled into their seats and then each of them, mum, dad, teenage son and daughter, fell to greedily ogling their individual i-phones. They barely exchanged a word and they didn’t seem to notice the glittering wonder of the lake skimming by as they scanned, scrolled and scrutinized their screens. I wouldn’t have minded if they were locals but I felt affronted on behalf of the Italians by their goggle-eyed fascination with technology that made them ignore the stunning landscape flitting by them. I had to resist the urge not to stand up and yell ‘For God’s sake put those things down and look out of the window’ (see my post ‘Zombie watch with WH Auden’)
It’s usually on this same stretch of line where a young man gets on the train and wanders up and down the carriage playing the same few chords on an accordion. He will come and stand right over you as he plays and anyone who’s ever had an accordion played into their ear in the confines of a train carriage will tell you it’s no easy-listening experience. But if you make the mistake of looking at him or catching his eye, you’ll see a hard-bitten gleam that says; ‘that’s right, I’m gonna play until you pay’. He’s just one of the many train-hopping accordion mafia that work the regional trains up and down Italy, and you can bet that there are never any train personnel around to stop these musical hi-jackers. So what if he hasn’t got a ticket? So what if he makes the paying customers uncomfortable for a while? He’ll be off at the next stop to hold another set of passengers to ransom. The train conductors either tolerate or ignore them and it’s hard to imagine a similar scene on a British train.
But that’s train travel in Italy for you, where like everything else, you have to balance the extremely annoying alongside the extraordinarily beautiful.
Pictures: Isola Maggiore; one of three islands in Lake Trasimeno but the only one that is inhabited (pop.18)
View from village of Passignano sul Trasimeno on northern shore of Lake Trasimeno
View from town of Castiglione del Lago on western shore of Lake Trasimeno
‘And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.’ Luke 1:29
I was flying back from Rome a few years ago and I got talking to a man who had been standing behind me at the check-in. He was a professor of art history. Not some desiccated academic, thank God, but a chap with a lively twinkle in his eye and an easy smile. We talked our way all through the airport. Then we nattered away the air miles on the plane. We seemed to cover everything from the wonder of Italian wall-paintings to dodgy British pension schemes. The pair of us were still talking as we reclaimed our bags in London and came out through the International Arrivals. There we exchanged business cards, pecked each other on the cheek, and parted the best of friends who never expect to lay eyes on each other again.
‘How does someone like you speak such good Italian?’ was his opener after over-hearing me talking at the check-in desk in Rome. I’ll say straight off that I wasn’t thrilled about that “someone like you” I’d heard similar things said over the years with that same quizzical tone of surprise, so I knew exactly what he meant. This was ‘politespeak’ for how does some random black-British woman of advancing years manage to be so nifty with the Italian. Tell me. How can that be?
I ought to be used to it by now, but it still amazes and annoys me in equal parts; the fact that a black woman with a talent for anything, other than belting out a tune or sprinting like a greyhound, can still be a thing of wonder for even some of the smartest people you run into. You can see their mental machinery working overtime as they try to match the limits of the visual message they’ve received with interesting new information.
Still, on this particular occasion, someone like me, decided to let the remark slide. I decided to let friendly curiosity be the better part of unconscious bias. Besides I liked the look of the professor with his curly dark hair and his fetching smile. He reminded me a lot of my old university tutor, years ago. It was only natural that sooner or later the conversation should fall to Italian art where my total lack of any formal knowledge on the subject didn’t stop me weighing in with this expert in the field.
‘I’ve got a bit of thing for Annunciations’ I confessed to the Professor as the
plane taxied towards the runway and the flight attendants cut up and down the aisle slamming the overhead lockers. He smiled and raised his eyebrows in what I took to be a sign of encouragement. So like a truck with faulty brakes, recklessly I plunged on.
‘I’m probably saying this to the wrong person, I know, but it’s just that here in Italy, you sometimes feel as if you’re drowning in religious images; all those sombre ranks of saints, and the endless Nativities and Madonnas. It can be overwhelming. But I have to admit I’ve always had a soft spot for Mary and Gabriel.’
‘And why’s that?’ asked the Professor, who was now looking at me over the top of his spectacles with an expression that told me he was prepared to humour me. ‘Why do you think you’re so drawn to that particular scene?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe I like to keep things simple. There’s so much going on in some of the other paintings such as the Nativity scenes; The Holy Family, Wise Men, shepherds, livestock, the angelic host. It’s all very busy. But the Annunciation seems like such a private party. Intimate really. Just one man and a woman’
‘Surely you mean just one divine messenger and a woman’ he was quick to correct me.
‘That’s true. It’s Mary before things get complex isn’t it? Before she becomes public property. She’s still just a girl. It’s a glimpse of the simple girl she might have stayed, the everyday life she might have had as an ordinary wife and mother. The next time we see her she is usually one of a pair with the baby Jesus attached. If the paintings are anything to go by, after The Annunciation she’s sitting around a lot fulfilling her destiny as the Queen of Heaven.’
‘Mmm, I see what you’re saying’ he said, ‘You mean it’s Mary before she becomes “The Madonna”’. Before she’s burdened with eternal suffering’
I nodded as the conversation threatened to take a darker turn, but then the Professor suddenly brightened.
‘But what about Gabriel? The heavenly being? He’s not just any angel after all, is he? He’s one of the top angels, if you like. This is very much his show too, isn’t it? It’s his most famous visitation. Perhaps you’re attracted to him. Him and his impressive wing span?’
I smirked as the Professor gave a cheeky chuckle. ‘You know people do seem to get very turned on by angels’ he said. ‘There’s no getting away from it.’
‘Well if it’s angels you’re after, in Italy there’s definitely no getting away from it. Here, they’re two-a-penny; from the hard-core boys, like Gabriel, to the all-purpose hovering variety. They’re ubiquitous.’ I said, glad of a chance to use one of my favourite words.
‘But you’re right about Gabriel.’ I added ‘He is a fascinating character, though the versions of him vary so much, don’t they? Sometimes he’s all muscular energy with a cracking pair of legs, and in other versions he can be quite limp and effete, wafting that lily about.’
‘That’s what I mean’ insisted the Professor ‘From a modern viewpoint, a non-Christian viewpoint, if you like, he may be more interesting than her. Like I said, angels are hot property in popular culture. They have a universal appeal that goes way beyond any religious significance.’
‘Yes, but here’s the big mystery for me’ I said looking him squarely in the eye as if I was counting on him to get to the bottom of it.
‘Why doesn’t Mary look more surprised? I mean here I am, at home, saying my prayers in a moment of quiet devotion and suddenly this dazzling apparition alights with wings a-quiver and starts talking in riddles about the ‘fruit of my womb’. I’m just a young impressionable gal, remember. I mean, come on, you’d think I would pass out from the shock alone. Or at the very least I’d be reeling.’
‘Mmm. I’m not sure that that’s entirely true’ he said furrowing his brow in concentration. ‘I mean, that she never looks surprised. Doesn’t react. No. In fact I’m just trying to think of some instances where she does make a real response. Now then, let’s see….yes I’m sure there are some….’
‘Really?’ I said dubiously. Clearly I wasn’t ready to relinquish this cockamamie theory of mine just yet. Not even to an expert in the field. But I’m not sure that he even heard me because the academic, who has facts and figures at his fingertips, had suddenly surfaced. I could see this by the way he pressed his lips together and drummed his fingers on top of the briefcase resting on his knees. He was riffling through his mental catalogue of Annunciations. Flicking through the files in search of a responsive Virgin Mary.
I left him to ponder as I went on protesting in my head. But it’s true, I tell you. Mary is always in a posture of serene acceptance. At most, she’s leaning slightly, almost coyly, away from Gabriel. There’s never the big reaction you would expect. ‘According to your word’ she says, but you do wonder if she can have any idea of what she’s letting herself in for.
They started to announce the refreshments trolley over the intercom and we trailed off the subject in the end. He couldn’t seem to put his finger on a precise painting or image that illustrated his point. I guessed he was privately miffed about it. Being unable to immediately refute my claim as poppycock had put a little dent in his professional pride.
And it turned out I was right. I had got under his skin, flaunting my untutored opinions that owed nothing to fact and everything to feeling. Days later, I was trawling through my emails, and up popped a message from the Professor. He’d been glad to meet me and thoroughly enjoyed our conversation, and by the way, please see the Annunciation attached.
“Here’s an Annunciation where, I think you’ll agree, Gabriel gets a bit of a reaction from Mary, (though maybe still not as overt as you would like!)” he wrote.
I clicked the attachment open and was delighted to find a painting by Simone Martini of the Sienese school. The Siena connection gave me an instant thrill of recognition. We might be separated by more than seven centuries of history, but Mastro Martini and I had both kicked over the dust in Siena’s glorious Piazza del Campo; he in the 1300s as a respected jobbing artist, and myself, in the late 1970s, as an assistant English teacher in a high school. This felt like home ground.
Though very much of its time, the Martini Annunciation is a dainty altar piece painted on wood in a brilliant gold ground. Being early 14th century it’s in the formal gothic style with the figures very stiff and mannered. The painting features the seated Virgin and the kneeling Gabriel, the central pair flanked on either side by two dour saints. All four figures appear under ornate ecclesiastical canopies in a straight row, but yes, Mary is definitely not thrilled with Gabriel. She’s clutching her mantle about her as if to ward him off. She looks like she just smelt bad fish. No. No way. You’ve got the wrong girl, her body language is saying. I don’t think so. I’m not ready for this.
Nicely done; I thought, and I had to smile as I chalked one up to the flying Professor. Here, after all, was an Annunciation that I could do business with. Even with all the stylistic restraints of its time, I liked this image of an uncompliant Mary who appeared to be actually recoiling from Gabriel.
Looking at the painting I realised for the first time, that it’s not what it starts, but what it finishes, that attracts me to The Annunciation. This beginning of something momentous has an inevitable sub-text; it’s also the end of something achingly precious. In announcing her future, Gabriel officially signals the end of Mary’s youth and innocence. It’s over, he’s saying. Time to grow up and face your destiny. The joyless saints standing guard in the Martini painting seem to be backing Gabriel up like a celestial heavy mob. There is no room for negotiation. Resistance is futile. Together this holy gang will carry her off into the captivity of her glorious womanhood as a mother, a martyr and a saint.
In this life-changing moment with Gabriel at her feet, we are seeing Mary in the last fond glow of her girlhood. And who wouldn’t want to hang onto that a little longer? Who wouldn’t be tempted to send the angel packing? It’s her, the girl that she might have become, that I find so compelling. It’s as if we find her and lose in the same moment.
No, I’m not hung up on angels, whatever the Professor may think, but I suppose there’s something to be said for the ‘Gabriel moment’. I don’t mean being frightened out of your wits by a dazzling apparition who’s talking miracles; more like, being taken aside by some wise, kindly soul and told that it’s time to grow up and get serious about a life plan. No need for divine interventions and prophetic signs, just a quiet word and a friendly nudge in the right direction. You may not feel you are ready to hear it, but some of us need it. Some of us linger too long in the careless borderlands between youth and maturity. But unlike Mary, we don’t always get the message right away. It can take a while to sink in. It can take weeks, months, or, in my case, a year caught in the luminous embrace of that glorious piazza in Siena.
In the meantime I’ve enlisted the help of friends for my ‘Find the most freaked-out Virgin Mary’ project: I’m grateful to Marcia McKean for discovering the one above. In this amazing Annunciation which has a cartoonish quality it seems to me, Mary really does look ready to make a run for it. The scared cat adds a lovely domestic touch to the famous scene. Over two hundred years separates Martini’s Annunciation from this one of Lorenzo Lotto’s and it’s interesting to compare the styles.
Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci (1472-75) the Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Annunciation with St Margaret and St Ansanus by Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi (1333) Uffizi Gallery, Florence (originally in cathedral of Siena)
Annunciation by Lorenzo Lotto (1534) Museo Civico, Villa Colloredo Mels, Recanati (Macerata)
The other day I put on a pair of earrings and I was transported back in time. A long-forgotten face floated up to the surface of memory: Sandra Moretti. And up with her came the Embassy of Italy in Washington DC during the 80s where Sandra and I worked together for nine years. She was a secretary in the political section upstairs and I was an assistant to the Press Attaché in the huge, ground-floor ‘salone’ that served as the press office.
The salone had been one of the grand reception rooms when this old neo-Renaissance building had been the Italian Ambassador’s residence and it still had four whacking great Murano glass chandeliers suspended from its ceiling as if to say: ‘and don’t you forget it’. These hovering monsters dripping with delicate flowers and intricate leaves were works of art in themselves. They were a stunning reminder of the place’s former opulence. Its glory days when the rooms would pulsate with the rich and powerful of The Nation’s Capital; they were a distant echo of the rustle of taffeta, soft laughter, the clink of champagne glasses and a quartet somewhere sawing away at Vivaldi. Once they had shimmered in splendour but now we clerical grunts skulked about beneath them typing up aide memoires, making phone calls to journalists and political aides on The Hill. Now the mighty chandeliers were dust-gathering relics and it was only when visitors gawped up in wonder, that we remembered to notice them at all.
In all the years I worked there I kept hearing the same thing. This building is going to be sold, they said, and these are makeshift offices; a temporary measure until we all move into a new purpose-built embassy just off the ritzy Massachussets Avenue (aka Embassy Row). Instead of languishing in what had become a rundown end of DC (Adams-Morgan) we would take our rightful place with the other European diplomats at the quality end of town. We had already bought the land, the plans had been drawn up and it was just a matter of getting the damn thing built. ‘When we get our new embassy things will be different’ went the refrain. I soon learned the appropriate response to this in wordless Italian. It was a gesture of thumb pressed against all four fingertips with a hand wagging motion just under the chin. This and a slight roll of the eyes meant; Yeah, yeah. It’ll never happen or ‘quando mai!’.
But back to Sandra and those earrings she gave me which are so dated they seem almost tawdry by today’s taste. They are two large gold triangles of the dangling variety. Pure American 80s bling. They weren’t really me at the time, if I’m honest, but I believe they represented a version of me that I aspired to back then. A flashy Americanised version that temporarily beguiled me.
Sandra wasn’t a pretty woman; in fact she was rather plain underneath all her layers of make-up. But she had a knock-out figure and she had that Italian knack of knowing how to make everything work, so that the overall impression was that of a confident, sexy and elegant woman. Designer clothes and accessories, carefully applied make-up by Chanel and Dior, killer heels and an engulfing waft of expensive perfume like a fragrant following wind, were all Sandra’s trademarks. It’s not a word I use often, but Sandra had it, and that was panache.
Her make-up regime, she once confided to me, took over an hour of steady concentration each morning and that was just her ‘work face’ not her ‘going-out face’. Sandra was immensely proud of her look. It was an act of artistic creativity which she built upon and tried to perfect. Looking good was her biggest achievement and she was dedicated to it.
I remember once we almost got snowed in at the embassy. Many roads were impassable and a rumour went around that we might have to bed down in our offices for the night. Sandra was beside herself. She prowled by the door in a state of high agitation. She was desperate to get into the parking lot and fire up her Chevy. She had to get out of the embassy come hell or high snow. The idea of being caught ‘senza trucco’ or without her make-up, absolutely appalled her. What if one of the diplomats saw her unmasked? What if the ambassador himself caught sight of the blank canvas that was her real face? Then they would know. They would know that Sandra was a fabrication. That without her painted mask she wasn’t fit to be seen.
Sandra had already been at the embassy several years when I joined, and for some reason she took a liking to this awkward Black-British girl who was struggling to come to terms with Italian diplomatic life. The press office was a through-road to the inner workings of the embassy and Sandra often sailed passed my desk, hips a-sway like a catwalk model. ‘I love your necklace’ or ‘great boots’ was all it took to make her dally at my desk for a while. Here, like a Zen master giving careful instruction to his student, she would ply me with tips on make-up and clothes; tips she felt my un-stylish British self so badly needed.
‘I like them but I’ve never worn them. They’ll look good on you with your darker skin colour’ she said tossing the earrings onto my desk one day. And I did wear them often for a while, but then my life and my style moved on and just like those monumental chandeliers, the earrings seemed a little too overblown, a little too showy, and they’ve been gathering dust in a jewellery box for years. On the few occasions that I’ve worn them since, it’s been more out a sense of nostalgia than style.
I re-visited Washington some years ago and the new embassy on Whitehaven Street is a showpiece of Italian architectural design. Outside it’s all sharp, sleek lines and inside it’s airy and spacious and flooded with light. It’s almost twenty-five years old now but it still looks classy and cutting-edge. It sits comfortably alongside the prestigious buildings of the other diplomatic missions on and around Embassy Row.
It couldn’t be further away from the drafty old bedrooms, grand receiving rooms and butler’s pantries we requisitioned as ‘offices’ for years, and where Sandra glided about like a queen in exile. Yet for all that, the old embassy with its neglected inner courtyard and its Rococo chandeliers had an unforgettable old-world charm.
Sandra and I weren’t close; I only really knew her by her stylish reputation. But she has remained for me the personification of the Italian word for make-up, ‘trucco’ which literally means ‘trick’ in the same way that magicians do tricks. The Italian verb for to put on make-up is ‘truccarsi,’ literally to ‘trick oneself’ into being more attractive by applying powders and paints.
Make-up, it’s the trick of making ourselves look better, and some of us pull it off better than others. But for women like Sandra, it’s an art form of invention and creation that you continually work at. It’s a piece of visual art that goes on exhibition every day and the real you can hide out behind it or even be completely invisible
pictures: Former Italian Embassy at 1601 Fuller Street, NW Washington DC (now converted to luxury apartments) /Vintage Venetian Murano Chandelier/Present Embassy of Italy on Whitehaven Street NW, Washington D.C
Six years ago (yes, I know, six!) I did a spot on BBC Radio Four’s ‘Saturday Live’ for their ‘Sound Sculpture’ feature where listeners would describe some sound that defined an experience or feeling that was significant and personal to them. I sent this following piece to the show’s producers who liked it and asked me to record something based on it in the BBC Leeds studio. It aired in January 2013. Only thing that annoyed me was an ongoing argument the Rev Richard Coles had on air with his co-presenter querying whether shouldn’t it rather be ‘expresso’ and not ‘espresso’! Oh ye of little faith…(and, as it turns out, little knowledge of Italian!)
‘My sound sculpture is the strangulated roar of the commercial Italian espresso machine, often accompanied by the loud hiss of the milk steamer. This together with the systematic thumps as the barista knocks out the used coffee grouts from the filter is a sound you will hear in any bar or restaurant across Italy all through the day but especially in the mornings. It’s a din I became familiar with in the early 70s when I first went to live in Florence as an au-pair. That sound, together with the dark aroma of coffee seeping into the cramped streets and old alleyways of Florence, conjures up a time of fantastic liberation in my life but also of tremendous confusion.
At just 18, I was a British girl of mixed-race. Here in England, I’d just failed my ‘A’ levels and I made the decision to take myself off to ‘the continent’ and re-invent myself. And so in Florence the love affair with Italy began; the sublime, old piazzas and the chic fashion stores. Surrounded by celestial images and angels, I was in heaven. The language was seducing me too. My old French teacher may have written me off as far as languages were concerned, but never having learned a word of Italian, I was beguiled, and I threw myself into it with gusto. Getting a feel for good food and wine was an integral part of this new life-style. I remember eating artichokes (carciofi) and aubergines (melanzane) for the first time; even their names in Italian seemed exotic.
Coffee was a big part of this food culture. In 70’s England it was all instant coffee and a frothy coffee in a café was considered the last word in cool. In Italy I soon got used to the dinky little cups half-full that you swigged like a stiff shot. I loved falling into one of the noisy local bars first thing in the morning, lining up with the rest of the customers along the bar and watching the barista swing smoothly into action. That espresso machine would be roaring like the very devil and the gadget warming and frothing milk for the cappuccinos would be hissing up clouds of steam as he deftly hammered out old coffee grouts, twisted into place the refilled filters, slipped the coffee cups onto the plate under the machine, then swung round to flick saucers and teaspoons into place on the counter in front of us. All this as he kept up a conversation with the customers over the racket.
That grating roar also reminds me of close encounters of the sexual kind. Back then there were very few black people around in Italy. I rarely saw anyone else who looked like me and apparently neither did the Italians. As a lone black girl, with a full head of springy afro-curls I felt as if I were a moving target. Men were everywhere, murmuring, brushing up against me, shouting at me from moving cars, blocking my path on the tiny pavements. Whenever I was out in the street, I always felt as if I were on the run. There were a couple of local bars near where I lived where I got to know the baristas and they let me take cover. When I was being hotly pursued by yet another unwanted man, they would let me come and hide-out in the unused, shadowy, back rooms of the bar until the danger was past. I felt like a fox down a rabbit hole waiting for the hounds to lose the scent. It was in the bowels of these places and with that strangely comforting roar and hiss and thump I would hear in the bar, that I took sanctuary; and it was here that there was nothing to do but flick through the crumpled back copies of Italian newspapers I found.
Maybe that’s where my love of the language began to take hold as I deciphered old copies of La Nazione and Paese Sera while taking refuge from Italian men. I went on to get a degree in Italian, teach in an Italian state school, work at the Italian Embassy in Washington DC for 9 years, and live in Italy and go on loving it. So much so, that I’m now writing a book about those early ‘pioneering’ years as one of the first ‘black settlers’ in Florence. The roar of the espresso machine loud and unrestful as it is, for me has become the sound of warmth and conviviality. For me, it’s the soundtrack of Italy.’
Now that I commute into work again, I’m back on the planet of the phone zombies. Waiting for the 7.23 into Leeds they’re lined up and lit-up all along the platform, furiously dabbing, swiping and scrolling; all peering into their I-phones like crystal balls. Even the two ‘customer service operatives’ at the ticket barrier are mesmerised by their mobiles, looking up impatiently when anyone needs their help. We’re not people anymore. We’re zombies. All under the spell of our tiny illuminated screens.
The mobile phone habit: it’s like smoking used to be. Once upon a time it seemed as if everybody did it. Some of us still remember that cloying fug that hung over us on public transport and in the cinema? Or when people smoked between courses in restaurants, reluctantly stubbing out their ciggie when the food came as if the business of eating got in the way of a good smoke? So even if you didn’t much care for the idea of swallowing toxic fumes for pleasure, it was so ubiquitous and so alluring that at 13 you gave it go. You coughed and spluttered and your eyes watered but you persevered, and soon, if you were like me, you had mastered the shallow puff.
No way was I ever going to be a serious smoker, I simply never got the hang of inhaling, but I could fake it well enough to join in. At one point so many of my friends smoked that not smoking felt like some kind of statement. And it wasn’t just about feeling cool and sophisticated; mostly it was about being sociable, being included. The cigarette was social currency; smoking was a shared experience, a shared ritual. As awkward teenagers it also gave us something to do with our hands and to hell with our lungs. Smoking may not have connected us with the world but at least we were connecting with each other, face-to-face and in real time.
While it’s true that mobile phones have put the world at our fingertips, still you can’t help feeling that they are slowly diminishing our humanity. Now that we carry entire entertainment systems in our pockets, why take the trouble to connect with real people?
At least mobiles don’t endanger our health like smoking you say. Well I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s been almost knocked to the ground by someone so deep in communion with their phone they forget to look where they’re going. And despite being illegal to use while driving, we know that they are still the cause of countless road accidents, sometimes fatal. And what about that tragic case recently in the Grand Canyon where a couple plunged to their death when they accidently stepped off a precipice to take an ‘extreme’ phone selfie? Just like smoking, phones can be a dangerous, even fatal addiction, and it doesn’t just seem as if everyone is hooked, we really are. The world is full of phone junkies.
If you’re in a public space now look around you. In my train carriage about 90% of the passengers are in thrall to their phones. From the platform they barely glanced up to step onto the train and now they are completely absorbed in the phone zone. They could be sitting next to someone wearing nothing but a cocked hat with a feather in it but they wouldn’t notice. We don’t see each other anymore. We’re too busy dib-dabbing at our illuminated control panels like so many programmed robots.
What happened to us? We used to notice each other? Notice what someone was wearing? What they were reading? We used to sometimes smile at each other and maybe pass the time of day. We might mention the weather or the appalling train service. And sometimes we even used to look out of the train window at the passing landscape. As we’ve opened up to the virtual world it seems as if we are shutting down to the actual one.
“The lights must never go off/the music must always play” wrote WH Auden in his poem ‘September 1, 1939’. He was commenting on the disconnectedness of people with what was going around them as we plunged into the Second World War. He wrote it while sitting in a New York bar watching people desperate to distract themselves with a drink, bright lights and music. That was almost eighty years ago. Today there’s a good chance that most of the customers in the bar would be wholly involved with their phones. Not just a distraction more like a virulent mass obsession. And you have to wonder what would Auden have written today?
“Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day
The lights must never go off
The music must always play
All the conventions conspire
To make this fortress assume
The furniture of home
Lest we should see where we are
Lost in a haunted wood
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good”
Excerpt from WH Auden’s ‘September 1,1939’
I know that heat rises. Except in this old convent building it struggles to get beyond the first floor. It gets as far as the staff room below us and then more often than not it gives up the ghost at the bottom of the stairs to the school library. Apparently up here we’ve got the wall-to-wall books to keep us warm. So I’m glad of that heavy wrap I bought in India all those years ago. If only it would stay put on my shoulders without sliding half way down my back and sometimes even trailing on the floor. I don’t have the knack of swathing it about me with a practised flick the way I saw the Buddhist monks do in Dharamsala were I bought it. Up there in the foothills of the Himalayas, the evenings can close in with a surprising chill, and the monks all wear their wraps tucked snugly over their saffron robes; they don’t seem to have any trouble keeping them beautifully in place, so I think there’s an art to it; a zen if you like. You see them gliding passed the big prayer drums as they head for the sanctuary of the monastery, each in his own self-contained bubble. Serene. Resolved. Well-wrapped.
India. It seems a lifetime ago now.
It was just after the incident with my ‘Royal Knee’. I had come a cropper at the railway works in York where the Duke of York was performing his first official appointment in his new role as UK Trade Ambassador. That’s right, the Duke was about to reinvent himself from vacuous bon viveur to the champion of British industry in the international arena. The novelty of the idea had already attracted a lot of media attention, and as the press officer in charge, I was running with the usual pack; a TV crew and a three newspaper photographers; all half my age. We were lapping the outside of the works to meet the Duke as he exited on the other side with the management team, when I suddenly went face down in the dirt with an almighty thud. I tried that trick of springing back to your feet and making light of it, only to find that I had no spring. My spring was gone. I lay there for a few long moments snorting at the gravel and finally, with the help of the TV presenter, I made an undignified scramble to my feet. The palms of my hands were stinging and torn to shreds and blood was pumping out of one knee. “Blimey, I wish we’d got that on camera” grumbled the TV presenter who made a feeble attempt to brush me down before plunging off with the rest of his crew. Yeah right, I thought as my knee pulsed with pain and I dragged after them. In the end I was just glad that it hadn’t happened in front of the Duke as I know those telly types wouldn’t have thought twice about livening up all that flat footage of grey suits glad-handing each other. Me taking a nosedive at the Duke’s feet would have lent just the right touch of irony to the occasion. Me. The Fall Guy.
We got our photos and footage as the Duke squared his shoulders and tried to look purposeful and engaged. ‘Duke Means Business for Yorkshire Exports’ read the headlines the next day. Alas, for me, the agony wasn’t over. After the railway works there was a business lunch at York race course to be hobbled through manfully. Thrusting Yorkshire business meets the Duke. The key players, the decision-makers, the captains of industry, all circling tables of canapés and mineral water while talking very loud. But once the royal party and guests had finally gone, I locked myself into a cubicle of the women’s toilets on one of the now deserted floors at the race course, and allowed myself an unscheduled panic attack. Between gasping to breathe, I howled like a stricken animal and wept inconsolably. Delayed shock I suppose, along with the pain, humiliation and frustration.
The truth is I’d been thinking about jacking the job in for a while. This government press lark was a young person’s job. Running yourself ragged behind royals and ministers and random VIPs required stamina. You needed to be fleet of foot to keep up with the press pack and I was getting too old for all this frenzied dashing about. Either I needed to take up some high intensity fitness training or I should give it up. Give it up gracefully. Not by biting the dust in front of the TV cameras. Royal visits were the worst, and my fellow press officers all knew it and steered well clear. It was like a blood sport. The press turned into ravening hounds. They’d take your eye out for the right shots, and you were always caught between them and the scowling royal minders.
So I went to India with a hole in my knee. I remember trying to keep my leg straight on the 10-hour flight to Bombay. No easy trick in Economy I can tell you. It was a small, open wound and I tried not to think about getting infections with it while I was in India and far from the bosom of the NHS. Tried not to not think of hospitals and illness and who knew what horrors if I should really get sick. I arrived in India over-anxious and still limping painfully, yet even before I’d been seduced by the ineffable style of the Buddhist monks, I was ready to be transformed. I was ready to make peace with the world and with myself.