Chifenti’s Little Oratory

There’s a little chapel in Chifenti which most people, I’m pretty sure, have passed by without even noticing it was there. Apart from the gothicky windows there’s not much outside to admit that it’s a chapel. Stuck at the end of a row of somewhat dilapidated buildings it looks equally abandoned.

However, just turn the key of the green door,

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draw the velvet curtains facing you and you enter into a veritably sweet and well-kept chapel. The oratorio del Carmine at Chifenti is a double-vaulted building with a lovely decoration of stars adorning its arches. The altar has modestly grandiose pretentions with its serpentine columns hinting at those ones in the colossal Bernini baldachino of St Peter’s basilica, Rome. The altar painting shows the Madonna receiving Saint Anthony of Padua, he of the child Jesus. Delighful angels crown the summit of the altar.

It’s a charming place to stop at whether one has religious inclinations or not. I sometimes enter its sacred precincts when there’s something on my mind that needs sorting out and, inevitably, I exit the chapel with a clearer idea of what I’m supposed to do about it.

We first discovered the chapel when we bought our house in Longoio in 2005 and felt it was right to give thanks to the deity that everything went smoothly in our purchase.

The holy water stoups are beautifully carved.

One word of warning, however: when you leave the chapel be careful of the maniacs driving at full pelt on the road just outside it…the Madonna’s help may not always be sufficient to safeguard your road crossing.

Inner Landscapes at Barga

If you were lucky enough to see David Manetti’s exhibition in the refectory of the old Clarissan convent of Santa Elisabetta, now the conservatory of music, near Barga’s Duomo then you would have entered into the mind of an artist who firmly follows a post-impressionist idiom with a wonderful clarity of vision, an appreciative respect for the techniques of past landscape artists and a real sense of the variety of environments which comprise our part of the world – the Lucchesia and the Serchio valley

If you weren’t so lucky then you’ll just have to feast on this selection of photographs of Manetti’s picture I took during my recent visit to Barga.

David Manetti was born in Lucca in 1968 and graduated from its Liceo artistico in 1986. In 1990 Manetti graduated from Florence’s Accademia delle belle Arti.

David started his career as a graphics designer and professional illustrator. He then entered into the field of painting developing there principally as a landscape artist.  His pictures are particularly evocative, conjuring up an interior scenery of the mind. They are essentially a visual counterpart of that famous wordsworthian phrase about poetry being ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity.’

I particularly like those pictures in which the painter concentrates on water and clouds. Clearly he has studied the great northern European tradition of landscape painting, in particular, Turner and the Flemish school. It’s significant that, in the absence of that inordinate demand for religious paintings in Catholic Europe, landscapes in protestant countries achieve an interior spirituality quite different from that of the Italian ‘vedutisti’.

Again, the wordsworthian ‘let nature be thy guide’ leads one to consider a meditation on nature as a truly religious experience, even when dealing with animals like cats.

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I shall follow David Manetti’s further excursions into the Lucchesia countryside with much interest. Through his paintings he has already enabled me to see some familiar places in a very different light – the Torre dei Guinigi, for example, with those trees growing from its top as if transposed from the forests of the mountains surrounding the city

or those secretive, neglected canals which once were major arteries of communication for the Lucchesia,

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or that Viareggian sea with a phantom of a three-master in the background: could that indistinct vessel be the ‘Don Juan’ caught up in the storm which drowned Shelley?

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These and other mysteries permeate Manetti’s sceneries. And even the linchetti and other phantasmagorical elfin creatures of the Garfagnana have a look-in:

Incidentally, the Nuns’ refectory itself is worth a look at for its simple but noble architecture and its collection of old paintings – to say nothing of the Della Robbia’s in the church itself.

Festival Shelley Comes to Town

A literary salon may evoke scenes of powdered ladies and gentlemen in a rococo chandeliered room with flunkeys at the door in the minds of some. Happily, of course, this is a hopelessly hollywoodian scenario.


The Festival Shelley, run by that indomitable couple Luca PB Guidi and Rebecca Palagi, has a much more informal and relaxed attitude to literary salons. Proof of this was last Saturday when the mini car-park outside that precious addition to Bagni di Lucca’s scene, the Shelley House Bookshop and Gallery, was cleared of cars and turned over to chairs with Shelley house becoming a stage to an open-air auditorium in a newly acquired piazzetta.

Rebecca talked eloquently about her great love for Keats and in particular concentrated on his letters which are truly the lake out of which the precious gems of his poems are discovered. It’s clear that Rebecca is deeply versed in her subject and, thanks to her enthusiasm, the English romantic poets will, no doubt, become rather more than just names associated with Bagni di Lucca. Rebecca did remark, however, that Byron was somewhat dismissive about Keats. But then he wasn’t exactly a very agreeable person except when he was planning his next amorous conquest.

There was also the chance by Joseph Bottone, an American with roots at nearby San Cassiano to read a poem from his collection ‘Wild Honey’. We look forwards to more poets participating in the ‘salotto’, both Italian, English and, perhaps, other languages as well.

Meanwhile, the Festival Shelley, which is now in its seventh year, has a full and fascinating series of events in several locations from Viareggio, to Bagni di Lucca to Milan to Rome

Here is its programme:

You can also consult the Festival Shelley facebook page at:

Last but not least the good news about the Festival Shelley is that it has now received official patronage – a true honour. Well done Luca and Rebecca!




A Choral Feast At Barga

The choral concert at Barga’s Duomo di San Cristoforo last Friday at 9.00 pm was organised by the Istituto Superiore d’Istruzione di Barga to raise funds for Amnesty International and was, thankfully, very well attended.

Four local choirs participated – each one very different in style and repertoire.

This was the programme.

Roberta Popolani directed the choir of Barga cathedral in six pieces of both a liturgical and folkloric character. The highlight of their performance was, in my opinion the contribution of the teenage clarinet player, Giorgio dell’Immagine who, true to his surname, produced an imaginative arrangement of Madre io vorrei which included, apart from his limpid playing, three flutes (one of which was a bass flute) and the charmingly effective contribution of two girls who might have just come out of their nursery class. (But then bedtime for Italian children are rather more flexible than those in anglo-saxon parts).

06252016 035A personal friend, Andrea Salvoni, still in his twenties and already a formidable choirmaster (he conducts our own choir at Ghivizzano,) has achieved a miracle of choral ensemble with the pupils of the Barga’s ISI (Institute of higher education) where he teaches.

The ISI choir rendering of John Rutter’s ‘The Lord bless you and keep you’ (blessing of Saint Francis) had the words enunciated very clearly (there must be a good English language coach at ISI) and the blending of the voices was perfect.

The same qualities permeated the other items but the choir’s biggest hit was the Gloria from the Misa Criolla which truly exploded with all its slightly melancholic brilliance into the farthest recesses of the somewhat cavernous Barga Cathedral acoustics. Nicola Soldani on percussion, Gioele Tomei on guitar with Niccolò Giambastiani and Andrea Salvoni on keyboards fully integrated themselves into the choral sound. For me the star was an extraordinary ISI student soloist, Caterina Pieretti whose voice was filled with both emotional strength and an extraordinary sound range.

Here is an excerpt from the Misa:

Argentinian Ariel Ramirez’ Misa was probably the first alternative mass to hit the Roman Catholic  liturgical scene after the Vatican council II reforms and its first performance in 1964 must have had an amazing impact which it has never lost to this day. Based on native folk rhythms and melodies, such as the chacarera and the carnavalito, the Misa established Ramirez’ reputation although it must be remembered that he wrote over three hundred other highly regarded compositions. It’s a pity that Ramirez died only in 2010 for he would surely have relished this Italian take on his fabulous Misa.


(Ariel Ramirez)

We entered into the realms of high renaissance polyphony with Gallicano’s own maestro-priest Don Fiorenzo Toti, an acknowledged authority on that great period of choral music which produced such geniuses as Victoria, Lassus and Palestrina.

I love Don Toti’s conducting style which is precise but authoritatively relaxed.His choir, culled from the mountains around Gallicano, must surely have some of the finest polyphonic singers in the Lucchesia and the final Bach chorale was simply gloriously sung

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The Joyful Angels Lucca Gospel choir needs no introduction to anyone who lives in our area. Its repertoire can be both thrilling and moving, truly infecting the audience with their appellation. Andrea was for a time an excellent pianist with the choir but pressures of work (and the foundation of his own ISI choir) forced him to give way to another accompanist, Ivan Magnelli who is clearly filled with a very natural jazz-blues soul and who accompanied magnificently with almost breathtaking virtuosity. He must have some of the fastest fingers in the whole Serchio Valley.

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After the highly pleasurable choral concert we were invited to the nearby conservatoire – formerly nunnery of Saint Elisabetta – where under the warm night of stars and the sound of cicadas we were treated to a rinfresco with the most wonderful variety of cakes I have tasted for a long time. It was truly a culinary midnight feast to cap the musical one we had been treated to.

A million thanks are due to the organizers and especially to Don Stefano Serafini the Duomo’s Don (and an ex-English language student of mine) for providing the environment for this superb night. I’m sure a goodly amount of funds were collected for Amnesty International, too.

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(Don Stefano Serafini, Barga’s Deputy Mayor Caterina Campani and Maestro Andrea Salvoni)

A Brexit Break-Up – Short Story

He’d booked a long-weekend in London. It would be lovely to escape from Italy’s stultifying summer heat and enjoy the roses in Regent’s Park and perhaps even attend an open-air Shakespeare play. Arriving at Pisa airport he started to queue up for passport control. ‘No, Siete nella fila sbagliata. Lei è ora un extracomunitario. Mi dispiace. Deve fare quella fila là per i paesi non membri dell’unione europea,’ commanded an airport official.

Jack joined the other queue which seemed so very long. It was filled with people from all over the world but mainly from the Far East and Africa so it seemed to him from their appearance. Jack thought he’d left enough time for the passport check. However, it was not to be. ‘But my flight leaves in twenty minutes’ he pleaded. ‘So does mine mate’, said another person with a Geordie accent. ‘We’re all in the same boat now.’

They both missed the flight. With no hotel booked and with, anyway, all local hostels filled to the hilt, Jack decided to try to sleep it out in the airport foyer until he could get another flight booked. No joy. At two o’clock in the morning a couple of carabinieri in their immaculately pressed uniforms with handcuffs dangling at their sides patrolled the airport concourse and asked him to go elsewhere until the airport reopened in early morning. ‘There is cleaning and maintenance to do,’ said one of the carabinieri in excellent English. ‘Why anyway are you here? Probably, you didn’t leave enough time for your passport control. You British had better realise that you’ve got to add a lot more time before checking into a European Union airport now.’

Jack left with his rucksack and luggage case and tried to find a corner into the nearby car park to wait until another muggy morning dawned. He woke to find his rucksack stolen. Fortunately, however, he’d kept his documents on him and his luggage case was miraculously still there.

Jack managed to book another flight to the UK. It did cost ten times as much as the one he’d lost out on but at least he was able to fly out and enjoy those roses in Regents’ park he’d so much looked forwards to.

As the plane flew over the English Channel the grey drizzly clouds opened out over Dover to reveal some strange new sights. Roads were being built over the white cliffs of Dover and a rectangular set of encampments appeared to be in course of construction. ‘O dear,’ thought Jack. ‘The French have really carried out their threat. They’re moving Camp Calais over to our side.’

Eventually, the plane landed on hallowed UK soil. ‘At least I’m in an independent UK,’ mused Jack, as he headed out of the airport into the East Anglian drizzle. Again, there was a delay with passport control. ‘Sorry, chief,’ said one officer. ‘Your passport is invalid for this country. It still shows EC on it and you’re actually classed as an illegal immigrant’.

Jack was taken to a small, stifling room and questioned for over two hours as to why his passport had not be exchanged for one befitting a country which was now out of Europe. ‘We can issue you with a new one so you can get in and see your rose garden but for a fast-track entry it’s going to cost you a pretty penny. At least we still have the pound here, though it may not be worth very much more than the euros you’ve been used to handle in your Tuscany dream home’.

Paying a substantial three-figure sum, Jack managed to get into the UK but then another sign loomed up. Customs control. Non-EU citizens here. Nothing to declare in green/something to declare in red. Jack thought he’d risk it although he had some nice Brunello di Montalcino bottles in his suitcase on him.

He went through the green sign only to be stopped by a burly Sikh officer. ‘May I inspect your suitcase?’ he politely asked. Jack had no option and seven bottles of the delectable vintage were discovered. ‘I’m sorry you will have to pay duty on this. Only six bottles are allowed. Furthermore, you may be subject to perjury as you lied about not declaring excise-due goods.’  At this stage Jack thought ‘thank goodness I gave up smoking a couple of years ago so no fags at least.’  He paid out more money as an instant fine and then realised he’d nothing left to get to London.

‘Perhaps I could hitch a lift’ he decided.

Picked up by the police almost immediately for trying to cadge a lift on the M11 he was issued with summons to appear at Bishops Stortford magistrate’s court the following month. ‘But I won’t be here,’ he implored. ‘You’d better be or else you’ll commit another offence according to the rules of the realm which you appear to have been out of for quite a number of years.’

‘But I did vote for leaving the EU,’ complained Jack, now almost in tears. ‘That’s inconsequential’, stated the sergeant. ‘Rules are rules and the law, at least in this country, is equal for everyone. At the minimum we could give you a lift to the nearest railway station and then you might even be able to get to see your blessed rose garden.’

Jack tried to phone one of his London friends but was just able to contact him when the money ran out because of the additional roaming charges he was now due as a non EU mobile contractual member.

The London sojourn was a mixed blessing. The Regent’s park roses were beautiful and wonderfully perfumed but the Shakespeare play was called off because for the whole day Jack was in London it rained cats and dogs.


‘At least I’m in an independent country’, he thought. He met his friend in the park and they decided to go to a pub and have a warm beer and a nice pork pie as a square meal to round things off and avoid that flat feeling which was affecting Jack even more as he hadn’t eaten for over ten hours. However he stiff-upper-lip thought: ‘there are some things that make you proud to be British’.

By this time Jack had very little money left. London was soooo expensive and he had been unable to qualify for his bus pass as he was no longer a London resident.

‘At least I’ve seen my lovely roses’ he pondered and managed with his last savings to get a flight back to his dream Tuscan home.

The return journey was equally fraught with additional time spent on controlling passports and with the luggage being given a thorough look-over. ‘What did they expect to find I’d brought back’ questioned Jack. ‘A load of frozen crumpets or a jar of Piccalilli pickle?’

Back at his dream home in Tuscany Jack found a whole lot of unexpected bills including a brontosaurian demand from the British income tax office which was almost greater than the amount demanded by the Polizia di Finanza Italiana. Double taxation agreements and all the rest of the Brussel sprout bureaucracy had truly gone to the dogs, inwardly moaned Jack.

He’d been renting his holiday home to Europeans from all over the continent and beyond but discovered that now they were somewhat retiring in staying in a home owned by an extra-communitario (i.e. a non-European immigrant). He’d put so much work in that place, called it his new home. It was his escape from the depressing greyness of Burkstall-under-Slime. He’d so much enjoyed pop concerts without the mud, the magic aperitivo hour, the delectable rinfreschi, the absolute fabulousness of the countryside and the openness of the inhabitants – such a change from the binge-drinking and Friday-night yobbishness of the British provincial centres.

The money eventually ran out. No-one would buy his house. Certainly not at the price he asked for it and for which price he stuck to his guns. Jack thought he’d better find a job somewhere – a tour guide or a handyman (but he was not much more knowledgeable than changing a light bulb for which he need two assistants – one to find a ladder and the other to hold it for him.)

Eventually, Jack decided to become work partners with his friend who’d escaped from extremists ravaging his remote central African location. Perhaps they could earn a fair survival by carting back trolleys with their euros stuck in them from customers at the local supermarket.  Bills piled up and up. No-one now came to his dream home. He was starting to receive fines for illegal swimming-pool construction and unwarranted modifications to his mansion. His friend, however, knew a well-organised drugs ring with impeccable mafia protection.

Meanwhile, the local Italians saw their sons and daughters ejected from those centres of promise and excellence in the UK they had so happily gone to as eager young people. A daughter’s contract with an arts auction house in London’s west-end could not be renewed. A fantastic centre-forward from Turin had to leave his Midlands club which was immediately relegated. Fashionista statements in Mayfair became unbearably dowdy. Covent Garden singers returned to nineteen-fifties mediocrity. It was heart-breaking to hear these stories.

And Jack’s heart began to break too. First he took to the bottle. It was his favourite tipple – grappa mixed with that ginger drink. He couldn’t start the morning without it anymore. Locals to the supermarket were also beginning to suffer financially as they had their sons and daughters returning from a country which refused to renew their contracts. So few customers now returned their trolleys to him. The local Misericordie were up to their heads with requests from the thousands of refugees from war and famine. Jack, after all, was a true Englishman with a grammar school education. Surely he could fend for himself. He was an expat, not a refugee, he insisted.

One morning the manager opening the local supermarket found a stream of red liquid issuing from one corner of the entrance porch. She followed it and found the body of someone she’d vaguely known as un ‘inglese dalla perfide Albione’. The wrists were slashed with a Stanley knife, a British invention but now ‘made in China’. In the body’s rear trouser pocket, stained with blood, was a British passport with EC still imprinted on its scarlet cover on it. Written with his blood on were the words ‘I voted to leave.’ The supermarket manager, who’d bought some roses for her mother’s tomb, took one out of her immaculately presented bouquet and left it on the dead body’s breast.


Divided between Body and Mind

If you wanted to know anything about Matilde – not the one who told such dreadful lies but the great mediaeval countess who built ninety-nine churches, the extraordinary Ponte Della Maddalena at Borgo a Mozzano and brought an emperor to his knees in winter snows at Canossa to ask forgiveness, then 2015 was the year to swat up on her. It was ‘Matilde year’ since the grand lady died nine hundred years before in 1115 at Bondanazzo in Reggio Emilia aged 69 – a remarkable longevity at a time when most women were dead before they were thirty. It’s said that eating a large amount of pomegranates helped to lengthen Matilde’s life. In fact, the pomegranate became her emblem:

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Throughout the country various conferences and exhibitions celebrated this exceptional woman who wielded the greatest power and influence at a time when the majority of her sex was regarded as mere chattels. Indeed, such was the fame of Matilda that she is one of only two women buried in Saint Peter’s basilica in Rome – the other being Queen Christina of Sweden.

In my posts at

and I talked about the extraordinary person of Matilde di Canossa, (described by one as the Angela Merkel of her time, although the latter’s  power seems apparently to have diminished over the United Kingdom as a result of the UK’s recent referendum).

The original conference was held at Borgo a Mozzano on November 15th last year and among the speakers was Emilio Tampucci, director of the education department at Borgo, who didn’t describe himself as an academic but whose knowledge of the subject, in his forthcoming book, was extraordinary.

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That book has now forthcomed and it is a highly enjoyable (Italian) read which really gets into the psyche of the formidable woman that Matilde was. The book is also beautifully illustrated with photographs of places associated with her.

The book’s late afternoon presentation opened in the courtyard of the palazzo Santini which now houses Borgo’s library. It was just as well we were outside since the weather has been stultifying hot thanks to anti-cyclone Juno. Mayor Andreucetti, as befits a government official with an academic background in history, gave a very full exposition describing the importance and the life of Matilde. He emphasised the fact that, despite her powerful position, she had essentially a sad life and, indeed, was of a melancholic disposition.

(Emilio Tampucci, Mayor Andreucetti and the presenter)

We, too, felt somewhat melancholic because a great speaker from the November conference, Domenico Maselli, was no longer with us. Domenico was one of the most important figures in Italian Protestantism, emeritus professor of Christianity at Florence university and emeritus pastor of the Valdensian church in Lucca. Without a single note in front of him, without a hesitation and with a superbly clear voice his account was nothing less than gripping. It was truly a joy to be able to understand everything Maselli said and to be wrapped up in his enthusiasm of the subject. Sadly he died on 4th March this year at the age of 82.

Emilio Tampucci’s book is a must for all those interested in Matilde di Canossa (and can read Italian). The book’s subtitle ‘divisa tra corpo e anima’ reveals Matilde’s constant battle between temporal and spiritual forces and is most charmingly and fascinatingly written.

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(Tampucci explaining Matilde’s Signature)

After the presentation there was a very tasty rinfresco and plenty of time to meet and talk to the many interesting and learned people present. At least it got Brexit off my mind for a bit. I wonder what Matilde di Canossa might have thought about that. As a Europeanist, not much I feel.

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A Purrfect Day

Hello I’m Whisky, Sam’s black and white cat. (PS Note how my name is spelled: whisky without the’ e’, which is only given to those liquids distilled in the USA and Ireland). My sister Cheeky lives with Francis and Sandra.  Here she is having a well-deserved afternoon cat-nap after catching a mouse in the morning. (She’s showing a bit of procatstination about what to do next, I’m sure).

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We’re twins and are both almost two years old now. I’m not sure if I like my sister very much. When we had to go to the vet to get our feline injections at the beginning of our lives we started a boxing match with each other on the vet’s table. I won, of course!

Anyway, I’d like you to help me get into the Guinness book of records because I think the age difference between me and my master/slave is over ninety-eight years. Now can any cat (or master-slave) beat that difference I wonder? It’s pretty clawsome! (If they can will they purrlease let me know.)

Actually, the real point of my little note to you is to remind you that on July 15th at 12.45 at the Circolo dei Forestieri, Bagni di Lucca, there’s going to be a lunch with my friend Sam Stych to celebrate his centennial upon planet earth. That’s right. Sam’s going to be one hundred years old. That’s quite miaownificent!

If you’re in the area you’re definitely welcome but paw-lease advise the Circolo management that you’re coming, either in person, or on  0583 805558 or on their facebook page at I’m sure you won’t need too much purrsuasion to show a paw.

Each one goes Dutch (or ‘alla Romana’) which won’t be difficult as a great lunch can be had there for just eleven euros including wine and coffee.

Now aren’t I a good cat secretary for Sam? No cat-astrophic spelling mistakes here I’m sure! Perhaps that should go in the Guinness book of records too. It could be quite a big meowment for me…

Svizzero’s Greatest Guest

One of Bagni di Lucca’s Hotel Svizzero’s greatest guests (both in mind and in girth) was Alexandre Dumas Senior – he of the ‘Three Musketeers’ and so many other swashbuckling romances. Rumour has it that the hotel’s front entrance had to be enlarged to admit the author’s  waistline into the entrance lobby. I wonder if his bed had to be strengthened as well…


Further distinguished guests have stayed at the hotel including a dear Irish friend. Regrettably, the hotel suffered decadence and has been for some time excluded from the tourist industry.

Imagine my surprise when I saw this garish sign the other day in front of it. The gates were equally painted with a brash turn of violet. The hotel, however, remained its usual neglected self. Just at that moment a very-well preserved veteran of hotel ownership in Bagni di Lucca turned up and I asked him what was going to happen to the Svizzero. He, too, seemed in the blue (or violet) about it.

Let’s hope that something positive happens to this building which has hosted such celebrities in that past and occupies such a central position in the road surrounding the town’s public gardens.

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As a matter of tittle-tattle Alexandre Dumas was the son of a white Frenchman and an African slave woman from Haiti. Napoleon appointed him as a general and Dumas’ latest book, ‘The Last Cavalier’, was only rediscovered and published in 2005. As with all his other productions it became an instant best seller.

Dumas wrote voluminously. A regrettably deceased friend of mine Robin Buss, had the task of translating ‘The three musketeers’ – he almost had to move out of his home since his translation proofs seemed to occupy half of his floor space! Last but not least, Dumas had over forty mistresses (though not all at the same time I hasten to add). His personal life was, therefore, as energetic as the plots of the wonderfully adventurous books he wrote.

Most important of all, Alexandre Dumas played an essential part in the Italian Risorgimento founding a patriotic paper called ‘Indipendente’ there. At the very least, the comune of Bagni di Lucca should erect a plaque on the hotel where Dumas relaxed during his summer holidays (and probably had a few more liaisons amoureuses with some of the local ladies).


Incidentally, Dumas was only interred in the Pantheon, that hallowed temple of French greats, as recently as 2002. It was a victory for all those who abhor racism in this world – Dumas was a literary Obama of his time.

As then president Chirac said when the great author’s ashes met their final resting place: “With you, we were D’Artagnan, Monte Cristo, or Balsamo, riding along the roads of France, touring battlefields, visiting palaces and castles–with you, we dream.”

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PS One of Alexandre’s illegitimate sons was the author of that wonderful novella ‘La Dame Aux Camélias’ which inspired Verdi’s opera ’La Traviata.’


Hot, Hot, Hot

It’s hot, hot, hot!

At last summer has descended upon us and we won’t have to witness our scraggy tomatoes wilting in inches of water, we won’t have to switch on our electric blankets at night, we won’t have to have nostalgic thoughts of an aperitivo under the ombrellone.

We can now look forwards to days on the beach (or the swimming pool), days looking at true blue skies and glorious sunsets, and evenings filled with the vocal acrobatics of nightingales.

Yes, it was a long wait and we were all cursing climate change but now l’estate è con noi. Evviva! In with the shorts and with the girls in their pretty summery frocks…and our garden’s becoming a treat!

Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn?

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Of Simon the Able Seacat

A further memory from my latest trip to the Great Wen:

Our journey from Alperton to Redbridge started from one of the earliest of the great architect Charles Holden’s stations for the London Underground to one of his latest.

Alperton station, dating from 1931, is built in a beautifully proportioned cube with clerestory windows and Bauhaus-type clean lines.


Redbridge station, delayed by WWII and only completed in 1947, has a main circular ticket office which reminded me of a miniature of Max Berg’s centennial hall built in 1913 in the then German city of Breslau and now Polish Wrocław.

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Both stations are masterpieces of modernist architecture and rightly listed as very special buildings.

However, pioneering and elegant as Holden’s designs are, this was not the main reason for our journey. Nor was entering into the rural charms of Redbridge – which happens to be one of London’s leafiest boroughs with over a quarter of its area wood and parkland – another reason. (One of these, Valentines park, contains a late seventeenth century mansion we’d seen some time ago when it was used as council offices. It then became a building at Risk but in 2007 was happily restored within a beautiful garden).

No, none of these things attracted us to Redbridge (named after an old brick bridge demolished in the 1920’s). We will undoubtedly enjoy Valentines Park on another occasion but for us the valentine park on this day was the PDSA animal cemetery in Ilford. This hallowed spot is no ordinary place which those of less sentiment might even deem cheesy. For among the loved animals buried there are twelve recipients of the Dickin Medal which is given to those four footed (and two footed too, for pigeons saved so many lives crossing enemy lines with their secret messages) friends who showed the highest gallantry in the armed forces during hostile situations.

The Dickin medal owes its conception to the inspirational Maria Dickin CBE who founded the PDSA (People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals) in 1917 to provide care and assistance for animals belonging to those who cannot afford standard vet fees. In 1943, aware of the gallant part so many animals played in war, Maria instituted the Dickin medal. In 2002 the PDSA gold medal was instituted for animals who have been equally heroic in civilian duties.

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The Dicken medal is inscribed ‘For Gallantry – We also serve.’ These animals did not ask to join, they never questioned why? They just did their bit without question, without reward, without complaint – purely out of that sense of devotion to duty and loyalty which is such an essential part of the sensibility of our loved pets and which, sadly, too many humans today lack.

I’ve already written about that amazing dog Lucca who was recently awarded the Dickin medal in my post at This year there will be a posthumous award to the French police dog Diesel, a Belgian shepherd, who, while on duty, was blown up by Islamic terrorists five days after the horrific Paris attacks last year in which one hundred and thirty people were killed.


The PDSA animals’ cemetery, after a sad period of neglect, was beautifully restored with a national lottery grant in 2007 and we were so glad we visited it this month in its idyllic refurbishment.

I wrote last April that:

‘On my next visit to blighty one of the first places I’ll want to visit is Simon’s grave in Ilford, London. The only cat to-date to be awarded the Dickin medal, Simon, even when injured by enemy fire, remained both an exceptional  morale-booster and a great rat-disinfester when in 1949 a British Royal Navy ship, HMS Amethyst, came under fire from hostile forces in the Yangtze river during the Chinese civil war and remained trapped for three months. Simon was almost killed when four pieces of shrapnel hit him from enemy gun-fire but, bloodied and unbowed, survived to return home to a hero’s welcome. During compulsory six-month quarantine laws still operating in the UK, Simon caught a viral infection as a result of his war wounds and died aged just two. He was buried with full military honours’.

Simon’s little body was wrapped in cotton wool and placed in a casket draped by the Union Jack of the country he so gallantly served.

Commander Kerans of the Amethyst, in his recommendation for the award wrote: “The large number of rats on board the ship represented a real menace to the health of the ship’s company. Simon rose nobly to the occasion and after two months the number of rats had diminished greatly. Throughout the incident Simon’s behaviour was of the highest order. One would not have expected him to survive the shell that had made a hole over a foot wide in diameter in a steel plate. Yet, he did and after a few days, Simon was as friendly as ever. His presence on the ship was a decided factor in maintaining the morale of the ship’s company.”

In 2007 the brave animals in the cemetery were commemorated and Lt. Commander (ret’d) Stuart Hett lay a wreath on Simon’s grave. Stuart Hett was part of the crew on the Amethyst in which sixteen royal naval men including the captain were killed in a battle between the Maoist army and the retreating Kuomintang forces. Upon his return the commander became Simon’s secretary and replied to the hundreds of letters this exceptional cat had received from his admirers.


I was so glad that I managed, with Sandra and Sandra’s mum, who is 95 years old this year, to visit this beautiful spot in leafy Redbridge. It was a truly moving  experience and my eyes were certainly not dry when I left it. Here are some pictures I took during my visit there.

And here are some pictures of the able seacat and his crew I gleaned from the internet. Many are courtesy of ‘Purr and Fur’

If you want to know more about Simon there’s a delightful novel called ‘Simon Ships Out’ written from his point of view by Jacky Donovan. Published in 2015 it’s available at (Kleenex tissues essential while reading it).

Incidentally, Paul Gallico (a great writer of cat-themed books) dedicated his famous children’s/adults book, ‘Jenny’ to Simon.

I believe that any loved animal deserves their own medal for devotion and for morale boosting. None of my blog posts have been written without at least one of my cats around and I doubt whether I could truly put pen to paper (or finger to key) without them. They all deserve their own little medals of recognition…