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Somewhere else

This is an unashamed and gratuitous trainfest of a post, although I will start by noting the significance of trains to the lives of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel and Clara Wieck Schumann – and the way in which their experiences illustrate the phenomenal pace of change in the period. Hensel was born in 1805, Wieck only fourteen years later, in 1819.

In 1834, Fanny Hensel can write to her brother, Felix Mendelssohn, with amazement that there might be a new railroad project that could take a person to Dusseldorf in 4 hours‘. Her husband, Wilhelm, travelling in England in 1838, witnessed, excitedly, not only the coronation of Queen Victoria, but also the opening of the Great Western Railway (‘the most complete railroad’) on 4 June. Within a few years, the Hensels are regularly travelling (admittedly fairly short distances) by train, most, if not all of the wonder, gone.

By the early 1840s, Clara Schumann, newly married with young children in Leipzig, relied on the railways to keep in touch with her father, who had bitterly opposed her marriage to Robert, and now lived in Dresden. Friedrick Wieck, desperate for a reconciliation with his daughter, tried to encourage her to make the journey by reminding her that she could bring the baby, and not even pay for her. Clara travelled on the first German long distance railway line between the two cities: Leipzig Hauptbahnhof was the largest terminal station in Europe, a hub for central European rail travel. In 1843, Robert Schumann organised a surprise visit for his wife to her mother in Berlin. Marianne had left Clara’s father when her daughter was only four. Clara took her oldest daughter, Marie, still only a toddler, and her account of the journey will be familiar to many parents: ‘It was fortunate that we travelled first class because Marie didn’t sit still for five minutes on the whole trip….’ On arrival, however, Marie was not tired at all. Clara Schumann was exhausted, but then Marie ‘would only get in my bed. I didn’t sleep all night, for there was hardly enough room for one person, let alone two’. Marianne, however, was delighted with the visit.

When Clara and her family moved to Dresden, they lived close to the railway station there, quite a way from the courtly heart of the city, perhaps to enable her getting back to familiar (and more musical) Leipzig. Or perhaps because it was cheaper. Whatever, the approach into Dresden from Leipzig is spectacular, the courtly splendour of the city contrasting with Leipzig’s bourgeious respectability.

arriving into Dresden Railways, of course, facilitated Clara Schumann’s punishing touring schedule throughout Europe. And, one final cruel twist of railway fate, Robert Schumann died alone, because Clara had gone to the railway station to meet their friend, the violinist, Joseph Joachim. Clara had only just been allowed to see Robert, as he neared death, after years of separation, supposedly for the good of his mental health.

Looking at Dresden station now, it is easy to imagine it filled with steam trains, and Clara and her children (six of them by the time she left the city) travelling between the cities of Saxony and Prussia.

Dresden station

In Florence, a bigger task of historical imagination is needed, to imagine the city without the station of Santa Maria Novella, and instead, to see the streets and piazzas and churches of Francesca Caccini’s seventeenth century neighbourhood. Via Valfonda, where she lived, and owned property, runs beside and beyond the station.

via valfonda now The building of the station in the 1930s destroyed the city end of the street, whilst the coming of the railway itself some hundred years earlier destroyed the more rural sections. In Caccini’s time, the city end of via Gualfonda, as it was known then, had a moderate number of households, some with servants, some even owned by patricians. Further out, towards the Palazzo di Valfonda, it was less urban, and poorer.

Before returning to the gratuitous trainfest, a word about the title to this post. I found them in a poem by Wisława Szymborska – which you can find at The poem captures a significantly empty moment at a train station and ends, elusively:

Somewhere else.

Somewhere else.

How these little words ring.

Quite why I love being taken ‘somewhere else’ by train more than any other form of transport I don’t know. I do know, however, a good train when I see one: the Venice to Vienna sleeper.

the perfect train Just look at that shine! I booked a single berth (never done that before), which, confusingly but happily, was the same price as a triple. God knows why, and bluntly I don’t care, because not only did I get a compartment to myself, but I also got lots of goodie bags (slippers! Wine! A pen!) and a breakfast menu.

goodie bags Of course, the return journey – Vienna to Rome – in a six-berth compartment, crammed with teenagers (delightful Viennese teenagers, fluent in English of course, and off to Florence to study Italian, but still teenagers), was less perfect. But, even with minimal sleep, there was the huge excitement of waking up to the details of a different landscape – Italy again! ‘somewhere else’ – which is one of the glories of overnight train travel.

And, to close, two images from Sicily.

ragusa This is Ragusa, which, for some people, is significant because it’s where they film the TV series Montalbano. Indeed, the restaurant where we had lunch advertises itself as one of the places where the fictional policeman eats, life confusingly imitating art. But, for me, the wonder of Ragusa is the railway line which reaches the city, despite its position on top of a hill – actually two hills, and two cities, but that’s Sicily. My map gave me an almost overwhelming thrill when I realised how the engineers had solved the problem of reaching Ragusa. The train has to go through a tunnel which almost completes a circle as it climbs ever higher. Oh my goodness. So, I will have to go back to Sicily, if only for that train ride.

In the mean time, I will have to make do with the Cotswold line. I took my bike on the train on Saturday, and had a delightful cycle through pristine villages, complete with classic car rally, a church group out for a group ride, and English countryside. charlbury the maybushes in bloom.

It was not the same.

My final image was snatched on my last expedition out from Palermo. I’d been up to the hills above Cefalu, where Sicily gets as close to looking like a poor-man’s Tuscany as it ever does. As it turned out, and as I should have predicted – see my last post – the bus which I had been told to take to get home again didn’t actually go back to Cefalu (from whence I had a return ticket for the train back to Palermo, along the beautiful north coast). So the bus driver came up with a plan, dropping me off at an unsignposted junction, and pointing me along a somewhat desolate-looking main road. He told me there was a railway station a few hundred metres on the left. He was right. There was: Campofelice. The name was not apposite. But from Campofelice I took my last Sicily train, and the railway gods gave me one final treat. An announcement came, instructing the handful of waiting passengers (passengers, not customers….) that we had to move to the other platform. Which meant crossing the tracks. Which is, for me, one of the most exciting, if shortest, journeys that a person can make.

 crossing the tracks



Back in Oxford, and it’s not been a soft landing. I’m not sure how it could have been, since I’ve been in such a privileged position, focusing on one thing, writing, and with the attitude that almost everything else is SEP.* Now, it’s back to the pleasures and pains of owning a home (boiler check this morning, electrician on Tuesday, shall I go on? No…); the pleasures and complications of extended family life (both my daughters moved back in while I was away – yes, I know, I should have changed the locks, but that seemed a little harsh. Only joking, my lovelies); and being back in the familiar but exhausting business of juggling different professional roles, whether teaching Shakespeare or directing Creative Writing programmes or reviewing book manuscripts for publishers. Oh, and next week, I’m giving a lecture for the Friends of Milton’s Cottage at the Mercers’ Hall in London, fittingly on ‘Milton in Italy’ – he had well over a year in the peninsula, funded by his Dad – and he had the time of his life. You can find out more about the event in London here – do note the reference to a generous reception after the lecture, hosted by the Mercers’ Company.

But, it’s good to be home. Spring in England, even in the rain, is a special time

bluebells – witness the bluebells in Harcourt Arboretum – and I’m really looking forward to my trip up to the city next week. Sometimes one doesn’t have to travel very far to get a sense of living history, and I’ve found, in my limited experience, that the Livery Companies of the City of London provide an almost direct line to the past. And I have, at last, got a recording of Fanny Hensel’s Reise Album, the pieces she wrote while, or immediately, after her own transformatory trip to Italy in 1839-40 – almost exactly 200 years after Milton’s journey there. You can find some of the music here – – with a helpful bit of commentary, and some rather harsh things to say about the quality of the performances.

I’m only just getting to know the CD, but already find the Capriccio wonderful, with clear links to Hensel’s masterpiece, Das Jahr. If ever I needed motivation as a writer, then listening to this music, hidden for so long, provides it.

*“The Somebody Else’s Problem field is much simpler and more effective, and what’s more can be run for over a hundred years on a single torch battery. This is because it relies on people’s natural disposition not to see anything they don’t want to, weren’t expecting, or can’t explain.” (Douglas Adams, Life, the Universe and Everything)

The heart is not for sale


This image, of the fish market, has stayed with me from my trip to Venice, some weeks ago. My first morning in the city, I tried, and for the moment failed, to visit the church of Santa Sofia in Cannaregio, where Barbara Strozzi – father incerto, mother perhaps a courtesan, certainly a servant – was baptised back in 1619. Strozzi didn’t just live and write music in the shadow of the courtesan. She was a courtesan. (Well, actually, as ever, it’s bit more complicated than that, but it will all be explained in chapter two. Probably.) Cannaregio was Strozzi’s territory. She lived and worked in the neighbourhood, plying her two trades, music and sex.

So, when I turned from Santa Sofia, and looked across the Grand Canal to the Pescheria’s red awnings, the words I saw scrawled there seemed to speak across the centuries. I think the words mean, in Venetian dialect, that ‘the heart is not for sale’. Brave, defiant words but they don’t carry much weight in Venice now, and they certainly didn’t for Strozzi.

It’s impossible to wander around Venice without beginning to question one’s own sense of time and space. (It’s also impossible to write about Venice without stumbling over clichés). My grip on reality was not helped by running into a film crew

venice film recreating a vision of fifteenth century (?) Venice nor was it helped by seeing young naval officers lined up in their finery, a triumphant expression of la bella figura, overlooked by the lion of St Mark. It was hard to imagine them at war.


Fortunately, reality can always be restored with an aperitivo. Go to the square of San Giacomo dell’ Orio, look for ‘Al Prosecco’ – but don’t have prosecco, have one of the well-kept, beautifully-served big northern Italian reds, and watch a more mundane world go by. In a city where you can pay an awful lot for terrible food, you can enjoy a plate of lovely cheeses, complemented by home-made chutney, for, well, still a lot more than Palermo, but it is Venice. Kids play football, people talk, buy groceries at the Co-op. When I briefly lived in Venice, this was ‘my’ bar, and I am still very, very fond of it and its owners.

I stopped off there before taking the night train to Vienna. A glass of nebbiolo, a plate of cheese and salad, a few minutes of ordinary life, Venetian style, and I was ready to say goodbye, at least for a while, to Strozzi and her city.

Adventure in the Valley of the Pig

There are no photographs, but, dear reader, everything that follows is true.

It all began on Friday lunchtime. I was restless, keen to go out for a walk, but suddenly sick of the dog shit and litter on the Palermo streets. I consulted a reputable guide to walks in Sicily. A two and a half hour walk (grade 1-2, fairly easy, maybe the occasional ‘scramble’) was suggested, on Monte Pellegrino, the famous mountain that towers over the city.

A bus ride later, I got off, foolishly feeling too shy to ask the bus driver for precise directions. The Adventure in the Valley of the Pig has cured me once and for all of shyness. It soon became apparent that I was in the wrong part of the mountain, but I tried and failed to find my way to the right part. Each path led merely to a cave or just a rock face. After an hour of this, I decided to call it a day, and headed in the direction of the road. I’d had my hour’s walk, it had been absolutely lovely amongst the spring greenery, if a little frustrating, and now I would take the bus home. I arrived back at the road, and realised that I had, unwittingly, now reached the start of the walk in the guidebook.

I’d come back another day. Yes, that was a good idea. But my stubborn streak rejected good sense, and I decided to do the walk. Fifteen minutes later, battling with vertigo, combined with rage at the guidebook, and a ridiculous desire to laugh at the thought of meeting my doom on a mountainside within 500 metres of a main road, I was high in the Valley of the Pig. My first, relatively minor mistake, was embarking on any walk without a map. My second mistake, more serious, was keeping going for the few metres that meant that going back down was not an option.

For one brief moment I steeled myself to look behind me: sheer rock faces on either side, creating a narrow gorge. A jumble of boulders and trees behind me. It was impossible to see the path that I had already climbed, the gradient was so steep, the path so un-path-like. Far down below, the city of Palermo, bathed in sunshine. Beyond that, more mountains, with muddy storm clouds hovering. (There have been spectacular storms here in recent days. OK. That was my third mistake, check the weather). I did not stop or look back again: that is why there are no photos.

On I went, hoping, hoping that this was really a path and that it would come out in a ‘peaceful pine wood’ somewhere near a road on which there would be a bus that would take me home.

The entire climb took perhaps only 30 minutes. But, by the time I saw some mountain bikers, I must have looked like a madwoman, so happy was I to see another human being. ‘Stanca?’ one asked. Yes. I was. I was only too happy to take a photo of them, to joke about Vincenzo Nibali, and get directions to the road. The few minutes I’d spent chatting with the cyclists meant that I had missed the bus. Damn. The next one was in nearly two hours. I settled in for the wait at a cafe by the bus stop, enjoying the parade of cyclists arriving at the top of the mountain. (There is no equivalent to MAMILs in Italy – yes, the men are middle-aged, many are actually old, and yes, they are in lycra, but, my god, they are superfit, and take on the mountains with panache).

I was sipping a spremuta, and the cafe owner was closing up shop around me, when he surprised me by offering a lift back down the mountain. I jumped in the car with four other people, and off we went. I can’t believe I’ve been seven weeks in Palermo and not been up (or down) that road. Crammed in a small car, trying to speak Italian, and still somewhat wobbly from my climb, I couldn’t really appreciate the views, but I will go back.

Will I venture into the Valley of the Pig again? The answer should be no, but one of the strangest things about doing something like this is that, once it’s over, there’s a perverse desire to do it again. I would never have done the walk if I’d read the advice on the park’s website – consulted later that night, whilst restoring myself with a glass or three of Castellosvevo vino rosso – words like ‘espertivo’ and ‘difficile’ sprung out at me, confirming my dim view of the Cicerone guidebook’s reliability.

Above all, however, the afternoon confirmed my sense of two of the things that make Palermo such a special place. One is the way in which extremes exist side by side: squalor and beauty, wilderness and suburbia. The other is, over and again, the kindness of strangers.

The shadow of the cortigiana

I love a night at the opera. Opera houses reveal the particular quality of a city despite or because of their similarities (gold, staircases, red velvet, gold, over-priced sparkling wine, jewellery on display, gold). Palermo’s opera house is vertiginous, with the boxes, which dominate, rising sheer from the floor in tier upon tier. Up in the gods, and that means very, very high up – it’s not called Teatro Massimo for nothing – the audience were as interested in each other as in the performance. The acoustic was disorienting: one could only hear the clapping of the people immediately around one, but the singing – especially the excellent Julianna Di Giacomo – came across loud and clear.

I do not love opera, however. The Teatro Massimo’s Otello, in a somewhat self-conscious yet old-fashioned production, didn’t change my mind. Admittedly, the tale of a military hero turned wife-killer is not the ideal entertainment when one is writing a book about the stifling of women’s creativity. Desdemona is not actually stifled in Verdi’s version: she’s strangled. The shadow of the courtesan (or cortigiana…) looms large and proves deadly. One of the most painful moments in the opera comes when Otello appears, momentarily, to realise that he is wrong about his wife’s infidelity. Having publicly humiliated her, thrown her to the ground, he reaches out to Desdemona. She hopes, we hope, for a reprieve but it is a feint. With vicious sarcasm, Othello brands his wife a whore (‘Che? non sei forse una vil cortigiana?’) and justifies himself as her killer. (Shakespeare has: ‘I cry you mercy, then:/I took you for that cunning whore of Venice/That married with Othello.’)

There’s more of course – the moment when Desdemona forces out her last words, when we all think she is dead. She must, she will, she does, perform perfect, compliant femininity, to the extent that she claims to have killed herself, so as to cover for Otello. And don’t get me started on the kiss motif, the way in which violence to women becomes eroticised. (Which reminds me of a stupendous example of academic pettiness. Suzanne Cusick, the wonderful biographer of Francesca Caccini, had to put up with a colleague playing the kiss motif over and over again while she was trying to prepare her university’s first ever course on women and music.)

Yes, it’s all there in Shakespeare, but somehow the potential ambiguities in theatre are ironed out in opera, and we are left with a simple plot, lavish spectacle, and luscious music. (What’s not to like, I hear someone say….)

I do realise that if one removes beautifully sung violence, or erotically charged death, from opera then there’s not much left. And, for the record, Nero and Poppea’s ‘Pur ti miro’ at the end of L’Incoronazione di Poppea is stunning. So good, that I happily forget that they are both psychopaths, and that their expressions of ‘love’ are utterly implausible.

And maybe that’s the point: Poppea is not structured to be naturalistic. Opera and theatre performances in the seventeenth century, and beyond, had women playing men (breeches roles), boys playing women (on the English stage), and in the case of Poppea, a castrato playing Nero. This kind of thing at least makes one think about the gender categories we use to label, and to hurt, people.

But, as I said above, I don’t like opera. My night at the opera was, however, wonderful: walking out of the gloriously over the top Teatro Massimo, strolling through the alleyways of Palermo, grabbing something really good to eat, and all within five minutes walk of home. It would be nice to go again.

And just to show how mellow I am about it all, here’s a picture of Desdemona and her loving husband. She’s not dead yet.

desdemona not dead

Love conquers all things except poverty and toothache

I should have remembered The Wisdom of Mae West before writing my last post, which was, I now realise, a product of severe toothache. And lack of sleep. And strong painkillers. Not to mention a little bit of medicinal grappa. Hardly the state of mind and body needed for sympathy with what has been called ‘the most feted romantic love story in the history of Western music’. 

I’ve learned a lot in the past week. My Italian dentistry vocabulary has expanded spectacularly. I am an expert on all aspects of root canal treatment. I now know you can’t buy codeine from a pharmacist in Italy, that antibiotics are absurdly cheap here, and paracetamol is ridiculously expensive. My new best friend, il dentista (see? fluent), thinks it something to do with the church’s attitude to pain. He was joking. I think. The pharmacist suggested I bring some British paracetamol with me next time, and she’ll swap it for antibiotics. We’d both be rich. She was joking. I think.

And so, back to Clara Schumann. Without toothache. And damn it, I still don’t get it. What’s ‘romantic’ about living with a husband who is suffering from severe mental illness? What’s ‘romantic’ about that husband preventing you from doing what you do because he sees his work as of more value than your own? Why is it a ‘love story’ to get pregnant every eighteen months? And yet, and yet, as my lovely wise cousin (almost as wise as Mae West) pointed out, some people just thrive on being carers, and that is the role that Robert offered Clara on a plate, from the very start. He, knowing his mental instability even then, asks Clara: ‘Just love me a lot, do you hear – I ask a lot because I give a lot […] Your radiant image, however, shines through all the darkness, and I can bear things more easily.’

And Robert did love her. And he saw how hard it was for her. The phrases that touch me most come from Robert, writing in their joint marriage diary. He’s writing about and to Clara. (Marie and Elise were the couple’s two daughters). Robert’s words capture his wife’s spirit – the energy he so loved, needed and occasionally feared:

Clara is now setting her songs and several piano pieces in order. She wants always to move forward but Marie is grasping her dress on the one side, Elise also creates much to do, and the husband sits deep in thoughts of ‘Peri’ [Robert’s oratorio]. So, forward, always forward through joy and sorrow, my Clara, and love me always as you have always loved me.

Forward, always forward through joy and sorrow. That’s Clara Schumann for me.

- - click screen to close - -  Marie and Elise are at the back….

Cycling in Sicily

view from Caccamo towards sea       Five things I have learned…

almond biscuits yum  1. It is possible, but perhaps not desirable, to cycle for 30 miles (including 600m of climbing) fuelled only by half a small almond pastry. I now declare la mandorla the original and best energy food.

train leaving Roccapalumba-Alia station   2. It is not just possible, but easy and cheap (3.50), to take one’s bike on the train from the centre of Palermo into the Sicilian hills, enabling the intrepid – but somewhat plump (too many mandorle?) – cyclist to avoid a 400 metre hill climb at the start of the day.

3. Sicilian drivers are considerate of cyclists. I’m taking the honking of horns as a sign of consideration, rather than harassment. After all, it’s good to know when someone is overtaking.

view of madonie mountains  4. My goodness, the landscape is beautiful: views across miles, and miles, of undulating country to the snow-capped Madonie mountains in one direction, or towards the sea, so blue it defines the colour, in the other. Fennel growing wild on the roadside throws out a pungent aroma; sheep bells tinkle. It all helps as one walks up another hill.

5. You’re not supposed to cycle in the bus/taxi lanes in Palermo. But everyone does. It’s Palermo.


I’m starting to think about my trip to Florence, where I’m heading on the night train from Palermo, a week on Monday. A sceptic might ask, in fact, I ask myself, what will I actually learn from standing in the Baptistery in Florence, along with countless other tourists, about the first day of Francesca Caccini’s life that I won’t learn from reading books about baptism? What will I learn from gazing at the walls of the convent where Caccini spent her final years, that I won’t learn from reading books about nuns’ lives in seventeenth-century Florence? Why do I think it will be helpful to go to a concert of music for soprano in the church of Santo Stefano al Ponte?

My only answer is that it’s been invaluable in the past. Walking through the streets of London, east and north of St Paul’s, tracking down the streets where John Milton was born, where he was educated, loved, hated, persecuted, and sheltered, where he wrote, and where he died, brought home to me as nothing else could exactly how important these few square miles of city were to him. At Sherborne Castle in Dorset, being taken down dusty corridors by the wonderful librarian, far from the immaculate public areas, to a small, hexagonal turret room that was Sir Walter Ralegh’s study, allowed me to sense, fully, the conundrum that was Sir Walter – intellectual swashbuckler, screwed-up action man, practical aesthete – and started me wondering…would Bess, his wife, have used the other turret room (for Sherborne was originally designed on symmetrical principles – it was only the usurping Wingfield Digby family who added the monstrous, and unbalancing, wings), and if so, for what?

PS: The same sceptical reader who might have questioned the purpose of field trips, might also question my choice of location when the cities I need to visit are all hundreds of miles away, if not more. The answer lies clearly in my first sentence above: see for a rose-tinted view of an endangered species.

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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