discovering the hidden worlds of women composers

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Gloriously alive: making music in 1931 and 2016

IMG_1053 I made a pilgrimage recently to this unassuming building, just off the Portobello Road in London. Why? Because it embodies the spirit and determination of a group of composers and performers who – denied a more conventional platform – created their own space for new music.

I have been moved to tell their story  by the inspirational initiative of the London Oriana Choir whose five15 series will offer something as exciting and something, sadly, as needed in 2016 as it was in 1931. You can find out more here!

This building matters because…

The young composer Elizabeth Maconchy, fresh from success in Prague, and a Proms debut in the summer of 1930, was finding it hard to get her music played. The lack of a career infrastructure and performance opportunities for all young composers was exacerbated for women by good old-fashioned sexism in the classical music industry. Even after the triumphs of 1930, Maconchy later recalled no one

suggested a commission, or a grant, or even a chatty interview on the radio, let alone another performance. The publishers weren’t interested. They were all men, of course, and tended to think of women composers being capable of only the odd song or two.

They would have ‘liked some pretty little thing – I don’t mean a pretty little person – not steady, serious music.’ Maconchy singled out Lesley Boosey, of Boosey and Hawkes, as particularly hostile. One of Boosey’s readers ‘was frightfully keen to publish some songs and a string quartet’ of her, but ‘all Boosey would say was that he couldn’t take anything except little songs from a woman.’ Later, using her typical understatement which masks but does not completely hide her bitterness, she would say ‘that really was a very difficult thing to get over.’

But she did – with a little help from her friends.

Faced with the intransigence of the music industry, a remarkable group of women got together in 1931 and changed the face of music in London, at least for a few years. One was Iris Lemare, that rare thing a female conductor. The other two were the violinist Anne Macnaghten, and the composer Elisabeth Lutyens. Together they launched a series of concerts to showcase new music by young composers, alongside works from eras under-represented in the concert halls of London at the time. The Macnaghten-Lemare Concerts were to prove a lifeline for Elizabeth Maconchy through the 1930s.

And this is where the building comes in – the small, necessarily cheap Ballet Club theatre in Notting Hill, once a Ragged School would be their venue. It had been bought in 1927 by Marie Rambert’s husband as a performing and rehearsal space: the blue plaques today honour Rambert. There is no acknowledgement of the Macnaghten-Lemare initiative.

The women’s methods were collaborative and informal, with no committee, no hierarchy, just the drive to create a platform for their own work, whether as performer, conductor or composer: ‘honestly,’ remembered one of the organizers, ‘it wasn’t altruistic, it suited each other’s ends.’ Anne Macnaghten, who shouldered much of the organizational responsibility, was, however, eloquent about the driving vision, her words relevant to the world of music, past, present and future: ‘the great thing is to have lots of music going on all the time, lots of things being performed.’ Committees might set themselves up as arbitrators as to what is good and what is bad, but the thing is – get the music played, and

it will settle itself sooner or later. As long as there’s plenty of opportunity to get new works performed, no harm will be done; what is awful is if somebody is really doing something very good but nobody knows about it.

I could dwell on the predictable (and sexist) responses to the concerts, I could ask why they seemed to help a very young Benjamin Britten launch his career, but offer yet another dead end to the women involved, but – on the day on which my book is published in the United States, I’m determined to be optimistic. So I’ll leave the last word to the Musical Times:

there is nothing quite like these concerts in London. The concert givers get to grips with the real thing in a most delightful, unconventional way, and after an evening spent with them one feels that music is gloriously alive.

Can you hear the sex of a composer?

The challenge is on! Simply listen to these seven extracts (it will take less than 4 minutes), and guess the sex of each composer. Let me know what you think – and why.

Which one(s) were written by women?

By the way, I explored some of the issues at stake in this post.




A Valentine for Johanna

Do listen to this….

If it’s remarkable that women wrote classical music in the first place (when all the odds were stacked against them), it’s a bloody miracle when that music survives after their death. So, imagine my surprise when I came across this gloriously evocative recording, billed as the work of composer, Johanna Kinkel.

Now, I am well aware that, in terms of its musical quality the song is pretty average, perhaps interesting only as a period piece. But to come across any legacy for Kinkel, however trivial and/or dubious, is exciting, because this particular composer’s life has come to represent, for me at least, the dark side of the history of women’s music.

It all began so well. Kinkel was a multi-talented woman, both author and composer. She was a political radical, and, rare for her time, spoke up for the causes she believed in. She was generous in her praise for other women, as here in an account of Fanny Hensel in action:

She seized upon the spirit of the composition and its innermost fibres, which then radiated out most forcefully into the souls of the singers and audience. A sforzando from her small finger affected us like an electric shock, transporting us much further than the wooden tapping of a baton on a music stand. When one saw Fanny Hensel perform a masterpiece, she seemed larger … Even her sharp critical judgements shared with close acquaintances were founded on ideals she demanded from art and human character alike – not in impure motives of exclusion, arrogance and resentment. Whoever knew her was convinced that she was as ungrudging as she was unpretentious.

Kinkel knew Hensel’s world very well indeed, because she was absolutely part of it. Born in Bonn in 1810, she was mentored by Felix Mendelssohn, taught by some of the great figures in German music, praised by Robert Schumann for her songs.

So far so good.

The challenges would come thick and fast: an abusive first marriage (she left him); four children by her politically radical second husband; his sentence of life imprisonment, which prompted Johanna to engineer the family’s escape to England. Kinkel proved to be courageous and resourceful. She needed to be.

But then, an all-too-familiar story: in London, Kinkel would scrape a living teaching music and writing, holding the family together, financially and emotionally, while her husband continued on his revolutionary path, now in America. As a composer, she fell silent. Before she died, she did complete a novel, with a struggling, desperate composer for a hero: the fact that the hero is a man does little to conceal the work’s status as misery memoir. A visiting friend noted that she ‘accepted her lot, but not without serious dejection.’ Her health was deteriorating, ‘conditions of nervousness,’ began to appear, the news from America ‘did not suffice to cheer the darkened soul of the lonely woman.’

Kinkel’s life ended on the pavement below her St John’s Wood home. She fell, or threw herself, from an upper window. The composer’s posthumous life is just as dispiriting. An enemy, one Karl Marx (also exiled in London), viewed her as an ‘old harridan,’ and was disgusted that her husband, his political opponent, received sympathy merely because his wife had ‘broken her neck.’ Mr Kinkel, for his part, never realized his plan to publish his wife’s compositions.

For me, as a writer, it would have been all too easy to find a bookful of Kinkels, to represent every female composer’s life as a futile struggle against impossible odds. I chose instead to celebrate rather than to mourn, and I chose individuals whose music survives in enough plenty to enable us to make an informed judgement about them as composers. But sometimes, just sometimes, I feel that the Kinkels of our world should be honoured.

Whether a scratchy, quavery rendition of a somewhat trite song that might or might not actually have been written by her is the best way to honour Johanna Kinkel is another question. Maybe it’s because it’s Valentine’s Day, and I’m in fighting mood, but, after a bit of thought, I decided to go wild and spend $19.04 on a Performer’s Edition of Johanna Kinkel’s 6 Lieder, Op.19, first published in 1848. I’m not sure I’ll fall in love with her music, but it’s time to get to know it better.

Kinkel Lieder



Great music by great women: just one click away

I’ve put together a playlist* so that you can discover a few gems from the hidden treasure trove of music that has inspired my book.

Discover the composers in ‘Sounds and Sweet Airs’

It’s a work in progress, but there’s one piece from each composer – I’d love to hear who stands out for you. The penultimate piece may not be high quality in terms of its recording, but if you are not moved by Lili Boulanger’s setting of Psalm 130 you have a heart of stone…and then, if you need cheering up (Boulanger, above, died horribly young and her anguish – and faith – permeate her music), click on the Overture from Marianna von Martines, perhaps the least known of all the composers I write about. I challenge you not to smile.

Of course, this is only the tip of the (YouTube) iceberg. You won’t find some of my personal favourites, such as Rendi alle mie speranze il verde, a stunningly beautiful song by Francesca Caccini, or Das Jahr, a lost masterpiece for piano by Fanny Hensel – which I wrote about here.

I’ve also started another playlist, showcasing the work of a handful of the composers who don’t feature in my book. I only had eight chapters to work with, and, believe me, there are so many riches to discover, from a haunting song written in the twelfth century to the award-winning music for Wolf Hall.

From La Comtessa del Dia to Debbie Wiseman – 900 years of creativity

Meanwhile, publication day’s getting closer and closer and, just as important, I’m now working with lots of lovely people on a whole range of events which will celebrate the music and the women I’ve been writing about. More about those events another time…but do get in touch if you think of something that should be added into the mix.

*OK – I had some help from my techies, Elise and Jesse…thank you guys!

Free Ruggiero

Two things are really valuable when we approach the unknown or the unfamiliar in the arts.

One is for people who know about a bit about the unfamiliar experience to share their knowledge: give us some background, help us understand why we don’t know about it, point out what we might enjoy, what we might find challenging, and, maybe, share their informed enthusiasm for this new, strange experience that awaits us.

The other is for the performance itself to be wonderful – for all those involved in it to have imagined, worked tirelessly on, and then delivered something vital and engaging and transformatory.

If you have the latter, you can live without the former. (It doesn’t work the other way round – a humbling realisation for someone like me who only writes about music…)

Sometimes, if you are very lucky you get both, as I did when I saw the Brighton Early Music Festival’s production of Francesca Caccini’s La Liberazione di Ruggiero on a windy, rainy night in November on the south coast of England. Here’s an image from the closing minutes – channelling ‘Votes for Women’ from Mary Poppins – or is that just me?


ruggiero ensemble

You really did have to be there but trust me, it worked, the audience loved it, and (cultural historian hat on) it was yet another delightful nod to the gender politics which surrounded Caccini’s work back in 1625, and which were explored intelligently and creatively in the programme notes by Laurie Stras.

Caccini’s opera is rarely performed. (Ok, it’s not strictly an opera, but that’s how it gets into the music history books – as the ‘first opera’ written by a woman – and I’ll take any media hook that’s going if it helps to get her work performed.) When writing about La Liberazione in my book, I believed that it was unlikely I would ever see a live performance. How wrong I was – and how lucky I was that the first performance I saw was the one in Brighton.

Witty, exhilarating, beautiful, thought-provoking…but don’t take my word for it, the reviews were glorious, and rightly so.

As I walked back to my airbnb room that night, I truly was lightheaded with excitement. In one evening of entertainment, that performance had done more to make the music of women a normal, natural, glorious part of our shared culture than anything else I’d come across in the years I have been engaged in exploring women’s work in the classical tradition. I could even dream that La Liberazione di Ruggiero might become part of the repertoire.

So, it was with great anticipation that I headed to Paris this last weekend to see a second performance of La Liberazione in the Palace of Versailles. I was particularly excited because I thought that to see the work in such a splendid setting – La Liberazione was originally written for princely patrons, first performed at a Medici palace in the hills above Florence – would reveal yet another side to Caccini.

The first disappointment was that it was a concert performance. Now, I know I should be grateful that the programmers at Versailles decided to put even one work composed by a woman into their entire season, but part of the thrill of Caccini’s work is that it is multi-media entertainment. In the original 1625 production, one character arrived on stage on a dolphin; magical transformations, of sets and costumes, occured before the audience’s very eyes; and there were dancing horses. Dancing horses.

Even if you strip out the visuals, however, there’s still a spicy threesome at the heart of the drama. Put simply, a wicked (but oh so attractive) sorceress, Alcina, seduces a knight, Ruggiero, to her island and entraps him there in order to take her pleasure. Worse still, he, and a host of other previous victims, seem thoroughly to enjoy the experience. Fortunately, however, a ‘good’ witch, Melissa (bigendered, because s/he can appear as either male or female), triumphs over Alcina, and liberates Ruggiero and his fellows. Having seen the Brighton production, I can report the subplot – concerning some enchanted plants, and which, having read about it, I had previously dismissed as a bit of a bore – was, in performance, just as compelling.

So, maybe any concert performance was going to fall a bit flat. I take my hat off to Michaela Riener who did her damnedest to make Alcina the sexy threat to world peace that Caccini makes her (no time here to go into the political message of this work, but rest assured, it’s there and, yes, Brighton brought it out). But Riener didn’t stand a chance, with the overwhelming physical presence of the conductor – do we really need an old-style ‘look at me, I’m the boss’ conductor in music from this era? –  literally standing between her and her lover Ruggiero – who looked a little lost – and her arch-enemy, Melissa, sung here by a woman rather than a counter-tenor (because….? Who knows?)

A far cry from November in Brighton. Here Ruggiero attempts (not very successfully) to resist Alcina, watched from behind the bath-house by Melissa. You can almost hear the latter tutting his/her disapproval.

ruggiero alcina and melissa

Other factors conspired to take the edge off my enjoyment. The seating arrangements in the Salon d’Hercule at Versailles left a lot to be desired. I paid 50 euros for a seat in the back row. This was my view.

salon d'hercule

The acoustic wasn’t great either. A couple of the singers were pretty disappointing, although the fact that the room was very, very chilly might not have helped. There was no libretto available (as far as I could tell) – certainly no-one around me had one, and I’m not sure how anyone could have worked out who was who, let alone what was happening, without it.

There was, however, a paragraph in the season guide which left me gasping, although it shouldn’t have done, since I’ve been living with these sexist cliches for years. Apparently Caccini’s arias are very melodious, and one perceives the subtilty of the feminine hand/writer in them. I searched the rest of the season’s offerings, and couldn’t find anything similar written about the male composers who fill up the programme. (I’m not blaming the performers for this. Having tracked down their website, the phrase is missing. It’s the Royal Opera of Versailles that’s the culprit.)

Overall, I was left with the impression that the evening was more about sitting in a big room in the palace of Versailles than about the music. Having said all that, my companion for the evening (a nineteenth-century opera fan, for whom this was a first Ruggiero), enjoyed the performance far more than I did. He was pleasantly surprised by the variety in the music – I’d warned him about the dominance of recitative – and was delighted in all sorts of ways by Alcina.

Now, a little voice tells me that I should be oh so grateful to anyone for putting on any music by women. But damn it, there are performances which transform their audiences’ lives and create a space for new music (for this IS new music), and there are performances which keep women composers safely in their ‘feminine’ box, specimens to be viewed from time to time, but never truly freed to take their rightful place in our musical culture. That’s why the hashtag for the Brighton performance #freeruggiero was just so, so right.










Goodbye Cambodia

Time to pack my bags. But first, some images from my time here, in no particular order.

The railway line at Kampot (no passenger trains, sadly, in Cambodia – and no gears on the bike); two margaritas (Happy Hour when travelling solo…); buffalo near Kampot; the requisite grainy, mis-shot image of Angkor Wat at sunrise; an Angkor queen who took my fancy; chilling at the Peace Café, Siem Reap; and last, but not least, three pictures from daily life in Phnom Penh: the man who sells breakfast pastries; National Road 1 at sunrise; and finally, Cambodia, land of contrasts.

Breakfast at Prekeng

For regular readers, I bring news of great change. I have not had a cup of coffee for weeks. Nor have my lips touched wine. Instead, I breakfast on jasmin tea, with fruit and small pastries bought from a stall in the market across the road (not just any road – the terrifying, and utterly anarchic, National Road 1). I sip my tea while a couple of fishermen lazily search the ponds below me. The sun rises, and the cool, fresh early morning disappears.

I lunch on rice and vegetables, supplemented by a handful of honey-coated cashew nuts from my secret stash;  this particular vegetarian’s protein supplement of choice.  I usually dine on more rice, more vegetables, but this time with a sprinkling of peanuts. Some things don’t change, however. I look forward to, and then enjoy, my one cold ‘Angkor’ beer in the evening even more perhaps than I used to enjoy a glass of wine.

Mekong river

You’ll have worked out that I am not in Oxford. The market is in Prekeng, about 10km south of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, and the river is, of course, the Mekong. Keep going on National Road 1 and you’ll get to Vietnam. The climate here is hot and humid, although everyone here keeps assuring me it’s really very cool at the moment. Since when is 34 degrees ‘cool’?

My mornings are devoted to teaching English to small children. Through play. Those who know me well may now be smiling wryly. It’s no great secret that I am not the most tolerant or patient of individuals when it comes to small children. In fact, I am one of those strange parents who prefer teenagers to toddlers, and I am ecstatic that my daughters are now adults. In fact, I am rubbish at ‘play’. Even when I was a child, I wasn’t that good at it. I liked projects, and tests, and competitions. I devoured the classics of literature at a stupidly young age, hardly understanding a word, but loving that feeling of tackling a ‘grown-up book’. My imaginary worlds were telling: I played libraries, complete with complex filing systems but that was nothing on ‘swim to China’. Once in China, I would, with my friends Christopher and Clare, set up a shop. I still like deadlines, and spreadsheets, and exams. I like working on my own, in a corner of the library – or coffee shop. And I remain horribly competitive, although I like to think that I can also be a gracious loser.

But…everyone can change. And these past couple of weeks have seen me dancing around the classroom, making colourful posters, playing ridiculous (non-competitive) games, and singing at the top of my voice (or humming when I simply cannot remember the words to ‘One Finger, One Thumb’ and other classics of the pre-school repertoire). It’s been fun.

Maybe the children have learned a bit of English. Maybe I’m learning to play?

Paris 1916: Marche gaie


Image result for marche gaie paris june 2013

I was going to write a birthday tribute to Fanny Hensel, 210 years old today, but instead I’m re-posting words from March this year. I was celebrating a joyous work composed in a 1916 Paris under siege. The city and its people, all its people, are in my thoughts today.


It’s a bit cheeky to start with an image of La Marche des Fiertes on 29 June 2013, since I’m considering a musical Marche Gaie, composed some 97 years earlier, but both gay marches are Parisian, and I wanted a joyful image (thank you Reuters) with which to start.

A few weeks ago, I spent a highly emotional half-evening at the Royal Festival Hall: emotional because it was my first venture away from Oxford for almost two months (and this is the moment to thank all those who work at the Oxford Heart Centre, but particularly Mr Sayeed…

View original post 1,475 more words

In the room of the fragile rhino

That my musical education was haphazard and, well, basically, a bit rubbish had nothing to do with my teachers (with some spectacular exceptions) and everything to do with a toxic combination of my attitude (‘bolshie’ as my mother, a Communist for about half an hour in the 1940s, would say) and my quite ordinary levels of talent.

One of the problems might have been that I was predominantly self-taught, on the piano and the recorder. By the time my parents rented a clarinet so that I could learn an instrument properly, and found me a real teacher, my eleven-year-old self was disinclined to do anything ‘properly’. I still feel sorry for my teacher. I had some raw talent, however, and was encouraged to apply for a Saturday morning scholarship at the London music colleges. My mother loved to tell the story of my audition. I’ve blocked it out. Apparently, the accompanist started playing – it was one of the Brahms clarinet sonatas, and it took two buses to get to the audition, that I do remember – and I stopped him (or her) after a few bars and suggested they had got the tempo wrong. Yes. I’d have been pissed off too.

Anyway, I got into Trinity College of Music, and spent maybe three years of Saturday mornings there. I grew to hate the clarinet, and transferred to the piano as my main instrument, learning it ‘properly’, and growing to hate that as well. You may have spotted a pattern by now. It was at Trinity, however, that I discovered my love of composing, a thwarted teenage love that may (if and when I dare to put myself in therapy and remember those years in any clarity) lie behind the writing of this book.

Predictably, however, I left Trinity under a bit of a musical cloud, and with a clear awareness that I was a profoundly average musician. There followed two good years, musically speaking, at Richmond-upon-Thames Tertiary College, where there was a music centre, with practice rooms, and a choir, and an orchestra. Life at home was pretty grim at the time, and so music became a wonderful escape. It was a revelation to learn to sing: my one remaining friend from that time thinks we were both taught by a young James Bowman. Could that be true? The same friend and I hacked our way through piano duet versions of the most inappropriate pieces. I still cannot hear Mahler’s Second Symphony without overlaying it with the memory of a left-hand tremolando. I found I enjoyed accompanying people, rather than being a soloist. I finally took Grade 8 piano. I got a Distinction, something I still count amongst my greatest achievements, because I did it through sheer hard work and bloody-mindedness, and at a particularly bloody time. And I learned about counterpoint and harmony and sonata form and all that stuff – which stopped my own composing dead in its tracks.

And then for decades, nothing really. I still played the piano. I performed ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ perhaps 5,383 times in 1997 alone. I never played the clarinet. I took up the viola, briefly, with the idea that I could sneak into an orchestra-in- need (cue viola player joke). And, something else I am proud of, I organized informal chamber music with other parents of young children, arranging the parts as necessary according to the availability and ability of players. I named us the Orchestra of the Age of Disillusionment when we needed to get parts from the library, but, secretly, it was a pleasure.

A chance conversation in, maybe 2000, changed everything, introducing me to the best of musical places: a back room of the Natural History Museum in Oxford, complete with skeletons, jars filled with questionable substances, and the head of a rhino marked ‘fragile’ – which always spoke to me powerfully, although not literally, I hasten to add – and most importantly, four or five assorted recorder players. This, for me, was, and remains, music making at its best: complex, beautiful effects achieved from the simplest of components, each part playing its part. And until today, when I was trying to find out about the materials needed actually to transcribe music onto paper in around 1700, I hadn’t thought very hard about what it was that appealed to me so much. Then I read a few paragraphs in Harold Love’s book Scribal Publication and I now know that my hours spent with the fragile rhino go to the heart of my beliefs about music, reveal why I love the music of Caccini and Strozzi so much, why I sympathise so strongly with Hensel and Maconchy in their fascination with counterpoint, why my first love remains chamber music. (Scholarly point: Harold Love is writing about viol consorts, but it is equally applicable to a bunch of us playing recorders in Ruskin’s vision of cast iron and glass.)

Consort music was and remains primarily players’ music, giving each performer both an individually rewarding voice in the ensemble and a unique spatial perception of the interrelationship of the musical lines. It is most satisfactorily performed with the players in a ring facing inwards towards each other, the role of the listener, if any, being that of an eavesdropper. Roger North found an ideological value in this ‘respublica among the consortiers’, contrasting it with the ‘unsociable and malcreate behaviour’ of ‘some violin spark, that thinks himself above all the rest, and above the musick itself also, if it be not screwed up to the top of his capability’.

Yes indeed, particularly about those violin sparks. I’m not bitter. Love goes on to see this kind of playing as an encoding of an ‘idealized image of the gentry as a community of equals while, at the same time, providing release from the tensions of hierarchy in the state and in the family.’ I couldn’t agree more, particularly the bit about the family. And then he clinches it in his words about counterpoint – or rather, what has superceded counterpoint over the last 300 years or so.

In refusing a dominant role to any single part it was also asserting—even when played by musicians who were political royalists—a consensual conception of the ideal state. The culturally and ideologically competing ideal of a dominant, ornate melody line supported by a subservient chordal continuo was frowned on by admirers of the viol, though most of their favourite composers eventually adjusted to it. It also altered the social relationships of playing, making the accompanists subordinate to the soloist and the soloist in turn subordinate to the listener.

Then again, it might be nothing to do with ideology. Perhaps the pleasure I take in playing the recorder has more to do with the fact that the instrument has predominantly happy memories. I learned to read music and play the recorder as a very young child in the community in which I grew up: a weekly lesson was one of the prescribed activities for my ‘age group’, and if you think that sounds like scarily organized creativity, then you’d be right. I bought myself a treble recorder for £9 when I was nine (a lot of money in those days – my Grandad had given me a pound to open a Post Office account when I was five, and it took me four more years to get the other eight pounds and all that while living in a cardboard box); and one of my happier memories from those dismal teenage years is playing endless recorder duets with Lucy Vigne Welsh, five years my senior, and oh so glamorous – I’ve not seen her for years, but I bet she still is…

Above all, what goes on in the room of the fragile rhino shows that one can create something sublime without needing to be a virtuoso or soloist. The musical whole truly is so much greater than the sum of its parts.

Goodbye Monemvasia

I seem to have many hours in recent days climbing up stone steps to reach once impregnable cities which are now in ruins.

  Mystras Castle

My overwhelming sense (as one climbs to the castle in Mistras, shown here, high above the valley where modern Sparta now lies, or the Upper Town of Monemvasia – where I’m currently staying – which once held 30,000 people and now has nine permanent residents) is of just how frightening the world must have been to necessitate living on top of a very high rock, and locking oneself in behind a succession of gates and then for safe measure, a further array of thick walls. And yet those gates, those walls, that height, failed again and again to protect the inhabitants. Even if an all-out military assault was deemed too wasteful by whichever power coveted the city, it was just too easy to lay a siege, and starve the people out. And so Mistras and Monemvasia were both kicked like a football between the Byzantines, Turks and Venetians – not to mention the occasional Corsican or Arab opportunist.

IMG_0620 The view from the Upper Town gate

And now Monemvasia is a Byzanto-Disneyworld. At least, the Lower Town is. The Upper Town is currently off-limits, as things gear up for its restoration. Workmen are building a terrifying hoist up the side of the sheer rock so that work can start. In just a week, they have nearly reached the top. But given the scale of the ruins, and the length of time those ruins have been left undisturbed, not to mention the sheer difficulty of reaching them – despite the hoist – it’s hard to know when the Upper Town will be accessible again. It was a magical place to wander: I can only hope that their is neither the money nor the will to restore it to Knossos-esque perfection. As for the Lower Town, and its nine permanent residents, building after building has been restored to within an inch of its life, all for the likes of me, wealthy tourists dipping in for a few days of peace and quiet.

I was last here in what feels like another lifetime, with my then young daughters, the self-styled Cat Girls of Monemvasia, who relished the freedom to wander around the streets without cars, whilst I relished the freedom of not worrying about them wandering. Now I find the cats at best irritating, at worst unhygienic, menaces, and the carefully manufactured silence of the cobbled lanes slightly unnerving.

cat picture A giant killer cat stalks the walls of Monemvasia

The surrounding sea retains its lure, however. Early this morning, I watched the sun rise over the waves crashing in upon the old, old walls. And the not-quite geometric lines of the buildings, crowding shambolically but purposefully up the slopes of the rock, have a beauty that I have rarely found elsewhere.


But enough is enough. I thought I’d stay here four weeks, but I’m off tomorrow, after only 9 days. I know it’s just plain wrong to be unhappy in paradise, but that’s the truth of it. I’ve tried to forge a connection with my surroundings, listening to, and thinking about, the music of the ninth century Byzantine nun, Kassia. And I’ve kept working, churning out the words. But I’m not sure the words make any sense and Kassia’s probably only going to get a paragraph in the book. So, despite knowing that ‘doing a geographical’ is never an answer (‘it’s not about where you are, Anna, it’s who you are’ – thanks for that my inner therapist), it’s goodbye Monemvasia.



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