discovering the hidden worlds of women composers

on not writing in Palermo


The basic idea is sound – and has worked before. Get myself out of familiar surroundings, put some distance between myself and Oxford’s academic world, draw a line under the research, pack up my laptop and my notes and head somewhere new. And simply start writing.

What I always forget is that it takes time and energy to settle in somewhere new. Here I am in Palermo, and there’s no writing desk, no coffee in the flat (and no shops open on a Sunday), and, right now, absolutely no desire to start work on my book.

All the energy that should be going into writing is, instead, going into making lists of questions for the people who own the apartment, and lists of things that I need to buy before I can start writing. Have I mentioned coffee? All seasoned with a nagging sense that there’s a city and an island out there waiting to be explored, and it would be madness to sit inside each day and grind out the requisite chapter chunks.

Palermo is already making itself felt. Seagulls and police sirens were the Sunday morning alarm, closely followed by church bells. Baroque splendour and shabbiness in equal measure dominated the square where we took our morning coffee and pastry, at a café where row upon row of canoli were being lovingly set out. The drive from the airport yesterday evening was a reminder of the utter anarchy of the Palermo roads: the same roads I imagined myself cycling along, a vision that seemed more and more foolish with every passing minute in the taxi (and downright dumb when carrying my bike up five flights of stone stairs to the top floor of a fifteenth century palazzo). Last night there was the usual buzz of la passeggiata, ramped up to Sicilian levels. And then the challenge of eating out (without menus) – a process of making intelligent guesses about what one is told about, then meekly and, so far, delightedly accepting what is brought to the table. Plagiarising the order of the people on the next table was my opening night strategy, resulting in a delicious aubergine starter and a beautifully grilled orata, which turned out to be a fish. Food names, including the Sicilian rather than Italian versions, are now going up on the chalkboard in the kitchen, in the hope that dinner tonight will be slightly less of a lottery. Then again, it makes it all the more exciting…

And even less likely that I’ll get any writing done.


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2 thoughts on “on not writing in Palermo

  1. Louise Farrenc – now she was a very good and extremely underrated composer.

    • What’s interesting about Farrenc is that she made it onto Radio 3’s Composer of the Week recently because, when listeners were asked which composers should be on the programme, she came out with the most votes. It’s really encouraging that ordinary music lovers (OK then, Radio 3 listeners…) advocated Farrenc, and it suggests perhaps that the problem of under-representation of women composers is not due to public taste, but to cautious programming?

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