On floor twenty four of the Jin Jiang hotel tower in Puxu, the west bank and original centre of the world’s most populous city (twenty million plus), the view of China’s financial centre and showcase city is pretty spectacular.

We arrived here after a twelve-hour flight on Chinese Eastern airlines followed by an excellent meal in downtown Shanghai. As we drove down the bund, the old colonial concession quarter, I was able to spot some wonderful examples of art deco buildings several built by that great Hungarian-slovak architect, Laszlo Hudec.


These contrasted radically with what was on the opposite side of the wide river, the Liujiazu quarter with its amazing night skyline and Shanghai’s fastest developing area which includes the world’s second tallest building at over 2000 feet in height and the iconic pearl communication tower so fabulously lit up at night. It’s amazing to think that in 1990 Pudong was an area of paddy fields and villages.

The move to cities has been of exodic proportion in China and over half of the city’s population have migrated here from the countryside.

This is our first time to this country. There is so much to learn but there is hope that at the end of our mystery journey we shall return a little wiser.

Already I have discovered that my old school, Dulwich College, has a branch here, complete with red brick buildings and campanile! But with our limited and tight schedule I doubt I shall visit it.


One other connection I have with the city is through my bank: my old Midland bank became the HSBC (Hong Kong and Shanghai banking corporation.)
What will the Shanghai morning bring? No doubt many more astounding insights into a city which has just been a visionary name until now.

Hogarthian Idyll?

You blink and you miss it. And if you see it you think what a place to have a country retreat and an art studio…just along one of London’s busiest roads, the Great West, gateway to Heathrow airport!

Of course, it wasn’t like that over two hundred years ago and entering the garden door you come into unexpected peace.


There’s a lovely garden with an old mulberry tree and facing it a delightful Georgian cottage, the home until his death in 1764 of one of the world’s most original artists.


Britain’s first truly sequential artist (if one discounts Italian fresco cycles, that is); its almost Swiftian visual counterpart of the cruelty to humans and animals alike; its commentator on the seamier side of the often termed age of elegance, the brothels, the madhouse, the rivers of gin, the fraudulent speculations, exploitation and abuse of minors, the political corruptions, the financially convenient marriages (aren’t these blots ever with us today?). Indeed, this artist and engraver has given us an adjective to describe the world he depicted and morbidly but realistically satirized: hogarthian.


(The rake gets put into the madhouse)

Hogarth, however, didn’t just describe. He wanted social change and his generosity, especially towards the establishment (in the company of Handel, among others), of a home for abandoned babies and children – the Foundling hospital – and the care he took of his staff were way ahead of the often brutish attitudes of a century we praise for its refined architecture and modish ways.

Hogarth was also a great portrait painter and much in demand for his ‘conversation’ pieces. Above all, however, he was the first tragi-comic strip artist of the western world. Who cannot forget the story behind ‘marriage a la mode’ or ‘the rake’s progress’, for example?

The museum has none of the artist’s paintings but an excellent collection of his prints. The house has most of its features as they were during Hogarth’s time and also hosts fascinating exhibitions.


The one held in 2014 to commemorate the artist’s death we missed but during our visit there a couple of days ago there was a fascinating one on the artist’s relationship with his favourite dog, the pug, which is included in several of his paintings. In fact, Hogarth, likened his appearance to that of his precious pet!


There’s more on the museum with current opening times at

We can truly say it was worth every effort to fathom out one of London’s lesser-known delights and one of the city’s few museums dedicated to a painter.

I particularly enjoy museums of houses where people who had important influences on our culture lived. London has so many of them. Just think of Keats, Morris, Dickens, Johnson, Soane, Franklin, Carlyle, Sambourne, Leighton, Asalache, Goldfinger, Handel, Natsume, Chesterfield, Hendrix, Freud, to name but a few.


Pity the Poor Immigrant

In Birmingham, that, tourist-neglected, wonderful city in England which we visited last year, (see my post at we saw this touching picture in the city’s marvellous art museum.


It’s called ‘The Last of England’ and was painted in 1855 by Ford Maddox Brown (1821 –1893).  The painting shows two emigrants leave England to start a new life in Australia with their baby. These verses are by the artist:

…She grips his listless hand and clasps her child,
Through rainbow tears she sees a sunnier gleam,
She cannot see a void where he will be.

In Livorno’s civic museum, which we visited this week, we saw this painting which also depicts emigrants, this time leaving Italy. It’s by Raffaello Gambogi (Livorno 1874-1943) and dates from 1894. Again, there’s an atmosphere of separation and solitude with the family as the focus in the centre of the painting. The man has a little girl in his arms and is kissing her and another girl is holding onto his jacket. He will be the lonely emigrant in the country he is heading for. Who are the two women whose faces are hidden from view? Another woman is sitting on a trunk. Behind them there’s an extensive view of busy maritime Livorno at the end of the nineteenth century.


Presumably, if you’ve been to Lucca, you may have visited the emigration museum which is just to the right of the ducal palace dominating piazza Napoleone. It’s run by the Fondazione Paolo Cresci and is well worth a visit, also because part of it is sited within the charming chapel of Saint Mary.

There’s also an emigrant section in Coreglia Antelminelli’s ‘figurinai’ museum.

My wife’s parents were emigrants and so was my mother – all from Italy.

(In Knole Park, last century: my mum and I)

Last night’s TV news had this to show us from the ‘grave of the Mediterranean’: yet another sinking rubber boat filled with desperation. Italy is alone in this life-saving exercise. No other country in Europe seems to care, according to Prime Minister Renzi.


Both Sandra and I were brought up in somewhat straightened circumstances but we were still happy!


Little did we know then that we would eventually meet and finally become an item…

As Bob Dylan has (finally!) received the Nobel Prize for literature it may be worth quoting his ambiguous song about immigration:

I pity the poor immigrant
Who wishes he would’ve stayed home

Who uses all his power to do evil
But in the end is always left so alone
That man whom with his fingers cheats
And who lies with every breath
Who passionately hates his life
And likewise, fears his death

I pity the poor immigrant
Whose strength is spent in vain
Whose heaven is like ironsides
Whose tears are like rain
Who eats but is not satisfied

Who hears but does not see
Who falls in love with wealth itself
And turns his back on me

I pity the poor immigrant
Who tramples through the mud
Who fills his mouth with laughing
And who builds his town with blood
Whose visions in the final end
Must shatter like the glass
I pity the poor immigrant
When his gladness comes to pass



Poorly Patrolled Daughters

Who can come to London for a few days and miss out on a visit to Covent Garden? Combined with an evening at the Royal Opera House it is one of the city’s must-do’s.

Last Tuesday we attended the 368th performance of ‘La fille mal gardee’ , the oldest ballet still in repertoire, with Frederick Ashton’s charming choreography. We’d seen the ballet many years before and it was quite wonderful to come back to it especially as supernally gifted  Natalia Osipova was in the role of Lise, widow Simone’s furtive daughter who successfully avoids the clumsy advances of rich vineyard owner Thomas’ clodpoll son Alain to be finally united with her lover Colas.

What I hadn’t realised was that the ballet dates back to 1789 when choreographer Jean Dauberville was inspired by Baudouin’s engraving of a mother reprimanding her daughter over her flirtatious nature. At that time ballets would be accompanied by a pastiche of popular airs. There have been,  indeed, many different versions of both music and choreography through the ages. Musically, Lanchberry’s arrangement and orchestration of Ferdinand Herold and Ashton’s choreography have swept most of the other versions away although there has been a recent ‘period’ performance reconstructing the 1789 originally staged just days before the prise de la bastille (just as it was the last ballet to be performed before the Russian revolution.)

Who cannot forget the widow, danced as a characteristic ‘dame’ by Thomas Whitehead, joining in the famous clog sequence ‘en pointes’ or the maypole and ribbon dances  or the dance of the cockerel and his harem of hens (originally real poultry was used, sometimes with disastrous results when they fell into the orchestra pit) or the exquisite ‘Elssler’ pas de deux in the second act.

The audience threw away any trace of British reserve and the cheering and applause at the end of this gorgeous display of home-grown ballet was quite italianate. And with our well-sighted amphitheatre seats at just 24 UK Pounds each it was certainly a best-value night out in anti-brexit london.


Ps to pick up your pre-booked tickets a credit card is now not enough. One should print out one’s e-ticket or display it on a smartphone. Also the only entrance is from Bow street as a new building phase is in operation.

Trassilico’s Sweet Little Castagnata

Not all Castagnate have to be big affairs. There was a little confusion this weekend about which Castagnate should be where.

Trassilico is one of the most loveable villages in the Gallicano area and I was able to attend a miniscule but very friendly castagnata (chestnut festa) there.

I particularly enjoyed talking to the maker of the model of this metato (chestnut drying hut). He has built many such models including a mill.

There was also a very friendly cat called Ruffo:

I had a chat with one particularly knowledgeable local about the history of Trassilico. It used to be a truly important Estensi centre (i.e. under the rule of the Estensi family from Ferrara) and to this day does not enjoy being under the yoke of Lucca. It even was its own comune until 1947 and the recent merger of Vergemoli comune not with it but with Fabbriche di Vallico made my narrators’ blood boil. History in these parts of Italy isn’t something one just reads about in books. It is felt upon the pulse and there is real resentment against Luccan domination to this day!

I’ve already written about transcendental Trassilico. (See my post at )

There is however, always more to discover. The walks from Trassilico are some of the best in the Apuan Alps and I took one to the church of San Ansano, a little way outside town. Can you see the Monte Forato (the mountain with the huge natural arch) in the distance?

On the way I passed an old version of a fridge – a stone hut called a ‘casalino’ built into the side of a rocky outcrop to keep items like milk and cheese fresh.

Trassilico, in fact has four churches and finally I was able to find out why the finest is some way down the hill, It’s because in the fourteenth century there was a massive earthquake in the area and people decided to rebuilt their village further up on the ridge, leaving the magnificent church in isolation and only reachable by footpath!


The little church of San Rocco in the village’s main square is also worth a look (if it is open as on this rare occasion).

Trassilico can never fail to please and the view of the Estensi fortress from the other side of the settlement set against the startling backcloth of the Apuans is almost Himalayan in its feel.





The White Death Hits Bolognana

I came across this monument a few days ago when I decided I’d go through the town of Bolognana instead of by-passing it as is usually done.

It clearly refers to a great tragedy where several workmen working on a hydro-electric project lost their lives. This kind of death, which is all too common in Italy, is called ‘morte bianca’ – white death.

I need to find out more about what happened back in 1939. Perhaps the tunnel the workmen were excavating to channel the water down to the hydro-electric station collapsed upon them or they were blown up in a misaligned dynamite explosion.

Whatever the reason for the terrible accident the monument, which is divided into two parts – the original one and the much later one dedicated to victims of work-related accidents in general – , moved my emotions considerably. I thought the peace dove particularly beautifully done.


PS I have since been told that my hypothesis was correct. A tunnel which should have brought water from Gallicano to Turrite Cava Lake collapsed killing ten young workmen on the ENEL project. It was the night of 24th November 1938. All victims came from the local area. The original monument was erected in 1942. Although restored in 2015, I still think it needs a bit of gardening around it to bring it back to its full glory and dignity again.

PS When you get your next ENEL bill a good idea to avoid cursing it is to think of the past sacrifice of so many young men in bringing you an electricity supply.




All the World’s a Stage

I was so impressed last June by the Bagni di Lucca Teatro Accademico amateur production of Christina Comencini’s Vite, an adaption of Due Partite (see my post on it at ) that when I received an invitation to join the ‘Ciak’ amateur dramatics group I hardly hesitated. After all, I have always loved the theatre throughout my life thanks to a brilliant English teacher who I am glad to know (despite his experiences in teaching me….) is still hale and hearty, but have never actually acted on stage, largely because as a youth I was just so shy and, moreover, stammered my way through those critical growing-up years..

A friend who goes by the stage name of Eugene Williams has given marvellous performances of such classics as Strindberg’s ‘The Father’; he just decided at some phase of his life to learn to tread the boards without any prior experience – except as a pop singer and writer – which he has since gained enormously. His inspiration and the fact that Shakespeare died four hundred years ago finally incited me to stand inside the proscenium arch.

Clearly, I could never achieve such an amazing achievement as Eugene did when he acted a virtually hour-long monologue (which Strindberg’s ‘The Father’ is) but I would like to have at least a little some experience on the stage. After all, I’ve been a sort of actor just by being a teacher most of my life where the desk was the stage and the (captive) audience were the students. So I realise the communicative energy that must be transmitted not just by the teacher but by the students themselves without which nothing could really be learnt.

The amateur dramatics course, which goes under the name of ‘Ciak’, has proved so far an excellent learning experience. With such experienced hands as Guendalina, Michela and Claudio Sassetti who concentrate in different aspects of theatrical art I don’ think I could go very wrong.


(One of our drama teachers at the course, actor and author, Guendalina Tambellini)


Without boring you too much we’ve done stagecraft lessons on voice projection, improvisation, positioning (spostamento) and action (azione), expression, intensity, space and speed of action and much more. Obviously, one has to be pretty fluent in Italian to get the full gist but a lot can be picked up just by watching the others.


(Claudio Sassetti, our voice projection teacher)

There’s even going to be a Christmas show by us specially written by our stage teachers at Bagni di Lucca’s Teatro Accademico on December 21st.  I am assured I’ll have a part specially written for me. Many of you will guess what we’re performing since it’s so close to Christmas!

If you are still in Bagni di Lucca keep that date free and come and see us become stars (I trust) before your very eyes!

Do also read my posts on Amateur Dramatics in Bagni di Lucca at:


Living More Safely at San Cassiano

The inauguration of San Cassiano’s first defibrillator this Sunday was a very happy and well-attended event. I was amazed to find that Paul Anthony Davies and his wife Morena (who was born in San Cassiano) had managed to raise the near two thousand euros required to purchase the defibrillator in the space of just three months. Paul first got the idea last May. From a few initial donations a true avalanche of offerings began to pour in from all sections of the San Cassiano community.


This is a real proof of how it just needs the drive and perseverance of the right persons to achieve life-enhancing goals in even small settlements.


(Morena and Paul without whose inititiative San Cassiano would not have had its defibrillator today) 

The inauguration started with the blessing of the defibrillator by Don Franco, our parish priest, in front of the ravishing façade of San Cassiano church.


Speeches were made by the representative of the mayor and other dignitaries but, of course, the last and best words came from Paul and Morena who received a hearty applause from all present.

The buffet was served in stalls specially set up before the church square and was most delicious, ranging from pizzas to pastries and both hard and soft drinks The San Cassiano museum was also open with its delectable statue of the horseman (Saint Martin?) wood-sculpted by Della Quercia.

This was a truly sociable event attracting the many little ‘frazioni’ of San Cassiano into one whole.

The defibrillator will have training courses on how to use it and will be placed under a special alarm system by the side of the museum. The local branch of the Italian Red Cross plan to map out all the defibrillators in the area so that wherever one is one can know that in case of difficulty there will not only be the ambulance coming from Bagni di Lucca but also, much nearer at hand, the use of a defibrillator. In cardiac situations seconds separate life from death.

Truly the inauguration was a life-enriching event. One doesn’t have to be a particular age to suffer from heart conditions. In fact, the defibrillator could be used in situations where over-exertion by the youngest people in sports, such as mountain biking, could cause serious conditions as recent events have shown .

I, for one, feel I can sleep more safely tonight than ever before since I came into this lovely area of Italy with its community-conscious band of inhabitants.


San Cassiano Inaugurates its New Wonder Machine

Italian weather is rarely understated, unlike English weather, which is tempered by maritime conditions and the Gulf Stream.

Italian storms are of a Vivaldian intensity and stop as abruptly as they start, with virtuoso cascades, terrifying rumblings of thunder, landslides and dramatic lightning effects in between.

Here was the situation only a couple of days ago, best caught on these videos from our house in Longoio.

Today Sunday, however, we woke up to this,:

It was as if our whole Val di Lima had had a cardiac crisis with its meteorological conditions and that today everything has been beautifully cleansed, peaceful, blue and calm. Just the day to celebrate, thanks to the enthusiasm of the fund raisers, the inauguration of a machine which, especially because of our torturous mountain roads (never easy for ambulances to drive fast down), will most certainly save lives because it’s close by and acts quickly.

Today there’s going to be the inauguration (with blessing by the parish priest and the customary rinfresco afterwards) of the defibrillator at San Cassiano. (Defibrillation consists of delivering a therapeutic electric current – often called a counter shock – to the heart with a defibrillator in the case of life-threatening cardiac dysrhythmias and ventricular fibrillation which could so easily lead to cardiac arrest and certain death). Funds were raised locally largely due to the sterling fund-raising work of local citizens Paul Anthony Davies and his wife, Morena with the support of  the indefatigable Roberto (alias Coco).

There are already defibrillators at the villages of Montefegatesi and Tereglio so why not at San Cassiano? Well, there’s one there too from today!

The event starts at 3.30 pm at the square in front of beautiful San Cassiano church. You are cordially invited to be there if you are nearby.

Incidentally, you usually increase your appreciation of Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ by living in Italy. Here’s the red priest’s take on our storm: