An Evening with Arianrhod

In a grassy clearing in the middle of an ancient forest a bonfire was lit. In the centre of a ring of stones the flames began to brighten the encroaching twilight. At first the fire’s embers served a purpose as a barbecue. Together with an extensive spread of salads, rice, spaghettis, bread and cheeses the twenty-odd people gathered tucked into their sylvan supper.

Later, as night descended upon the assembly, the lambent heat helped to keep the warmth of a luminous day, for even at the end of May the temperature drops rapidly when the sun disappears. They waited for her who would be the evening’s focus. Suddenly on the edge of the nearby hill of Controni she appeared in all her silvery glory. The moon, goddess of primeval mankind, the Greek Artemis, the Roman Diana and the Catholic Mother of God, the immaculately conceived Virgin one, revealed her perfect, full transcendent orb.

As an invitee to the gathering I formed part of the circle around the fire. The moon now shone above its flames, luminous, mysterious. ‘La Luna e il falò’: the moon and the bonfire – a truly magical combination joined now by Hesperus, the evening star, the planet Venus. The constellations now appeared: Cassiopeia and the Plough prominent among them and pointing in their individual ways to the Pole star, slightly faint, but steadfast as ever and round which the galaxies as seen by us on spaceship Earth revolved.

To the right the laser-like intensity of Sirius penetrated through the dark forest braches. The priestess now initiated the ceremony of protection and purification: a ritual which has its origins in the genesis of mankind itself and which through the ages remains essentially the same, unchanged and changeless.

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At the Earth’s cardinal points of east, west, north and south acolytes, set back from the circle and before candles, invoked the four primal elements of earth, air, fire and water for safeguard and cleansing. The circle of love and affinity had to be protected against the opposing forces of hate and antipathy which for ever try to separate and combine these elements into a confusion of wildly and infinitely separate forms.

Only love can restore the primal essentials to their original form, reuniting everything and dissolving confusion and anarchy. Such is the world: for ever battling between the forces of good and evil, between love and hate, between union and dissolution.

We’d written the things we hated about our relationship to the world and ourselves on pieces of paper which we then rolled up. We combined our personal scrolls with woodland herbs and flowers like calendula, sage, rosemary and daisy and placed a ribbon round them. Each member of the circle then came forwards in a clockwise direction and threw their roll of negativities into the fire. After each person had done this the word ‘sia’ (‘let it be’ in Italian) was uttered.

A bowl of salted water, according to primordial ritual, was passed round. Each one of those present washed their hands in it, first the right and then the left, cleansing themselves Dualities were unified into a life-giving wholeness. Just as negative forces were removed so a positive offering was giving. Lavender was passed around and each acolyte took a small piece of the tenderly fragrant herb and passed it between their hands. What was left was then to be taken to own’s respective and buried in a patch of earth to feed and continue the mission of protection of all that is precious in life.

Around us the creatures of the forest night commented upon the ceremony. In particular, a civetta (a kind of small owl) was rather responsive. We felt hidden eyes of quadrupeds and avian focused upon us and intuitively sensed their presence.

We continued the natural nocturnal music with our own played on guitar, drums, bamboo xylophone, flutes and marimbas.

There is nothing quite like a walk in the forest night under the guardianship of the argent beams of a full moon. It is a quite transcendental feeling. We returned to our various homes, confident that now there would be a special defence against those malevolent forces that constantly try to harm and attempt to disintegrate our treasurable, personal worlds.

I remain grateful to Ennio whose remote plot of forest elfin-land we shared, the company I joined in and, above all to our priestess, Rebecca Lewis, who continues to facilitate the ancient and wisdom-filled rites of the ancient Celts and the Ligurians of the Apuan mountains who inhabited these mountains, rites full of empathic, natural magic.

Truly when the full moon is high above the night’s horizon it’s possible to experience live emotions lost in the mists of time and enfolded in mystery. Let us hold on to that which is life itself…


The next big occasion, so close to us now that the days are ever-lengthening towards their summation, is the summer solstice…

Here is Rebecca Lewis’ pamphlet for your reference for future events:



PS In case you were wondering. Arianrhod is the name of the Celtic moon gooddess


Lucca Awarded Highest Honour for Bravery

Yesterday Lucca was awarded a medal for bravery, the equivalent of which would be the UK’s Victoria Cross. If you are puzzled by the lack of the usual local news headlines in these matters then I should add that Lucca is a once four-legged, now three legged, dog who lost her front left leg as a result of stepping on an I(improvised) E(xplosive) D(evice) and that the award was given to her in London.

As part of the US Marine corps, Lucca, who is a cross between a German shepherd and a Belgian Malinois, had sniffed out thousands of IEDs and saved the lives of countless people both military and civilian during over 400 tours. Unfortunately, while on duty in Afghanistan in 2012 she stepped on an IED that had escaped her keen nose and was badly injured. Apart from terrible burns she had to have her front left leg amputated. But, at least her life was saved.


Now in retirement in California with her first handler Gunnery Sergeant Christopher Willingham, eight-year-old Lucca was flown to the Royal Brompton Barracks in London to receive the highest award an animal can obtain for bravery, the Dickin medal awarded by the P(eople’s) D(ispensary for) S(ick) Animals) and named after their founder. Lucca is the first US dog to have received the award.

I wonder how Lucca got her name? Was there someone in the USA who’d had family relationships with the city of Lucca?  I just don’t know.

All I know is that sixty seven animals have been awarded this highest honour since Maria Dickin (1870-1951), animal rights activist, instituted the award in 1943 to recognise the bravery of animals serving in war situations, beings who truly never reason why but do and die.

The medal was awarded fifty-four times between 1943 and 1949 (to thirty-two pigeons, eighteen dogs, three horses, and one cat) in recognition of actions of gallantry during the Second World War and succeeding conflicts.

The Dickin medal was revived in 2000 and the latest recipient is (posthumously) Diesel, the Belgian Malinois dog who worked with the French police to uncover the Islamist terrorists of the November 13th 2015 Paris bombings but was sadly killed in a shoot-out in the Saint Denis district five days later. He will be the sixty eighth recipient of the medal which carries the words ‘For Gallantry – We also Serve’.


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 shrapnel hit him from enemy gun-fire but survived to return home to a hero’s welcome. During compulsory 6-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.

If you want to know more about Simon there’s a delightfully moving 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.

Guggenheim in Florence

When Meyer Guggenheim, of Swiss-Jewish origin, landed on the new continent in 1847 his aim, like any immigrant, was to seek a better life. He literally struck it lucky with his mining company and by the end of the nineteenth century the Guggenheims were one of the richest families on the globe. Fortunately, their wealth came along with a philanthropic spirit. Solomon Guggenheim was particularly interested in art collection and started buying old masters. He then was converted to supporting contemporary American artists, His niece, Marguerite Peggy Guggenheim, was the daughter of Benjamin who famously sank with the Titanic. For him ‘women and children’ truly came first and he and his friend nobly awaited their fate slowly submerging into the icy arctic waters on their deck-chairs while sipping brandy and smoking cigars.

Although her father’s fortune was smaller than those of her uncles and aunts, Peggy became interested in the new American art scene and began to befriend a post-post-impressionist set of artists. In fact, it’s said that Peggy collected artists as much as she collected art. Some say that she’d actually had more men in her life than paintings.

Florence’s Palazzo Strozzi’s exhibition  ‘From Kandinsky to Pollock’, which opened on 19th March and ends on the 24th July, is placed in a particularly appropriate location since it was here in 1949 that Peggy Guggenheim held her first exhibition of new art which would eventually find a permanent home in her palace in Dorsoduro district Venice.

With the intimate consultation of Marcel Duchamp, famous for his urinal sculpture, and one of the most innovative creative forces in modern art (he also espoused Dada, Surrealism, and what came to be known as abstract expressionism – quite apart from being an excellent chess player) Peggy built up a collection within a relatively short space of time which included seminal works by such pioneers of artistic expression as Max Ernst (who became her husband for a short while) Man Ray, Pablo Picasso, Jean Dubuffet, Mark Rothko, Alexander Calder, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and even extending into Roy Lichtenstein.

Of Jackson Pollock I wrote these haiku after an exhibition of his work in London in 1999 :



 Neuron lines enmesh

in layer upon layer:

mind’s nucleus reached.


You will never paint

the car crash against the tree

when event is you.


White light, infinite

light, is life everlasting

like this and like this?


Labyrinth without

solution: no centre here

by galaxies’ edge.


Ariadne’s thread

guides your hand, catches your eyes,

seeks your heart.


City of my mind

contains alleyways of thought

within blue fences.


You taught me that life,

melting picture of the mind, 

has five dimensions.


Could you paint nature,

confabulate weird objects,

when nature is you?


This Florence exhibition will enthral lovers of abstract expressionism and will disappoint those who just like to look at figurative paintings. For me the highlights were the room dedicated to Mark Rothko, who slashed his wrists and died before he could see his paintings installed in Houston’s memorial chapel. His iconic works in the exhibition are very atmospherically back-lit and one could easily spend a whole day in this untypically uncrowded exhibition meditating on the essence of form and colour which Rothko so beautifully expressed.

Kandinsky  and Bacon and are also in on the act:

I missed, however, any paintings by Peggy Guggenheim’s tragic daughter Pegeene, who overdosed herself at the early age of 42 in 1967. I’ll have to wait to see her work on my next visit to Venice.


(Pegeene Vail Guggenheim 1925-1967)

After multifarious amours which greatly increased her own self-esteem (Peggy Guggenheim felt her nose was particularly ugly) one of the twentieth century’s greatest art patronesses, and the one who brought the old and new artistic worlds together in a very special way, died in her Venice palazzo in 1979. Next to her lie buried her ‘beloved babies’, the fourteen Lhasa Apsos which kept her company in her declining socialite world when she’d stopped collecting both art and men.


I thought at this stage that I too had a beloved baby in the form of a Lhasa apso which had accompanied me on my hikes in the Himalayas many years ago.

In the end we all die alone though, happily not lonely thanks to our babies which can also take the form of works of art and beloved animals.

Of San Marco, Joyce, Svevo and Plenty More

One of the pleasures of being a blogger is, of course, to link up with other bloggers with similar (or sometimes, very different) interests and viewpoints.

It dawned upon me that I have little time now to prepare my ‘lezione’ to Bagni di Lucca’s Unitre on ‘Le Esperienze inglesi di Italo Svevo’ i.e. The English experiences of Italo Svevo, due on January 21st In case you’re wondering what all this is about I’d like to point to two recent posts from bloggers whose quality of writing I regard as very high indeed and who have given me some direction as to what I shall be talking about.

One blogger is Ishita Sood who is particularly enamoured of the city which was the birthplace of Italo Svevo. You can read her blog at and I have nothing but praise for her articles especially regarding a city which ‘Lonely Planet’ has described as the most underestimated tourist location in Italy.


Ishita’s post on Trieste as Italy’s caffeine capital, the unforgettable charm and opulence of its historic Caffé San Marco and its association with James Joyce lead me to consider the great friendship which started up between the two men.


Originally Svevo (or to give him his correct name Ettore Schmitz – he changed it to Italo Svevo, not just as a nom de plume but also to reaffirm his dual Austrian-Italian background) had come to Joyce for English lessons Joyce being a teacher at the Berlitz school first in Pola (now Pulek) and then Trieste. But this teacher-pupil relationship blossomed into something much greater – perhaps one of the supreme creative friendships of the last century.

James Joyce had already confirmed his wish to be a writer and had written poems, plays and short stories. He needed, however, to get away from the constricting Dublin life, paradoxically, to be able to reconstruct it in even more detail in his forthcoming ‘Ulysses’ which reads like a giant social map of that remarkable city on the river Liffey.

How many writers seek to get away from their place of origin to write about it elsewhere in even more meticulous detail (and love) I wonder?

I can think of P. G. Wodehouse, an old Alleynian from my school, Dulwich College, who moved to the USA (Long Island to be exact) and, from 1947 until his death in 1975, never set foot in England again. It is believed by many critics that this actually improved ‘Plum’s’ writing since he was free to remember an England that had largely disappeared after World War II and was, all the more, able to give credibility to his own brand of inimitable humour within a legendary land of sensible butlers, great aunts and loveably silly young aristocrats.


Travel writers, it seems, need more than most litterateurs to live abroad. Leigh-Fermor, who a dear friend was privileged to meet and even cook for, was a prime example and there are many others one can think of.

Some writers move to different places not so much because they love their new location but because they couldn’t stand their place of birth. D. H. Lawrence comes to mind but then he still wrote so beautifully and so nostalgically about a country he’d forsaken years before, even until the moment of his death.

Returning to Joyce: it was he who encouraged the disillusioned Svevo to take up writing again after the complete neglect of Italo’s first two novels, Una Vita of 1890 and Senilità of 1897. They would meet at one of Trieste’s great caffés: la Stella Polare, Il Caffé degli Specchi, Caffé Pirona and il caffé San Marco. How I would have loved to be a fly on the wall in one of those venues where Joyce and Svevo would be discussing over their steaming cups.

The Caffé San Marco leads me to another blog I greatly enjoy reading. This is the art nouveau page at which talks about the extraordinary history of this most beautiful caffé which had been vandalised during the first world war by Austrian soldiers and was again very recently in danger but happily saved from demolition in 2013.

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Re-reading my own post on Trieste at prompts me to catch the first train there as the city is such a magical place. I would definitely take the famous Opicina tramway. again marvellously described by Ishita Sood at

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I remain fascinated by people’s views of another country. English language books on Italy abound in almost nauseous profusion but what about Italian writers’ books on England? There is, in fact, a great tradition to in this type of literature. Of more recent Italian writers I would recommend Severgnini and Caprarica for example.

However, there is little to beat Italo Svevo’s own reflections on a country he found so different from his own Trieste.

As some of you, who have read that amazingly seriously comic book, “The conscience of Zeno” may know, Italo Svevo, alias Ettore Schmitz, seemingly gave up his attempt to become a literary figure after writing those two abortive novels and accepted his brother-in-law’s offer to set up a branch of the family marine paint factory in Charlton, South East London. I taught for many years at a college in Charlton which was only a few steps away from the Veneziani paint works and just up the hill, in this modestly distinguished area of London, there’s the house, now adorned with the blue plaque customarily affixed to dwelling of famous people, where Svevo spent, on and off, over twenty years of his life directing the factory.


Svevo’s letters from London to his wife and relatives and his set of essays on what was then the world’s greatest imperial city make fascinating reading. Svevo had taken English lessons from his teacher in that cosmopolitan city, then under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, James Joyce, but somehow found it very difficult at first to understand English as she is spoke in London. Perhaps a shade of Irish brogue didn’t prepare him too well for the sharp machine-gun-fast utterances of inner London cockney.

Anyway, Svevo eventually managed to come to grips with a country he found so “differente” and actually grew to love it very much. He especially appreciated the escape from Triestine snobbery into the matter-of-fact working class camaraderie of a Thameside factory. He enjoyed London’s parks and the great art collections and was able to comment very usefully on the structure of British society at the time. Being also an amateur musician Svevo set up a chamber music group which was especially appreciated in the days before hi-fi and cd. Last but not least, Svevo was a loyal supporter of that great football team, Charlton Athletic, above whose stadium I also taught some of my own students.

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Only connect, as the preface of E. M. Forster’s ‘Howard’s End’ reminds us. Life is full of connections, some inevitable, others surprising.

Now let’s try to get down in writing everything I’d like to say about Italo Svevo’s connections within forty minutes for January 21st  and in impeccable Italian!


Man’s Best Friend Celebrated in Bagni di Lucca

Ever got lost in a wood? Or worse, ever had one of your children lost in a forest? Fortunately, for the last fifteen years in Bagni di Lucca there’s help in the Unità Cinofila Della Croce Rossa. What this means in English is that there’s a dog rescue service to help you find your loved ones if they suddenly disappear from sight in unfamiliar places.

This essential service celebrated its first fifteen years yesterday evening in the elegant surroundings of the Casinò. In the company of the volunteers who run the service, the local dignitaries

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and, of course, the real heroes, the dogs themselves. It was a truly pleasant evening.

Prizes and certificates were given to the volunteers and their dogs who are, of course, an amazing example of teamwork.

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A locally produced video film showed how important this service is. The subject was a little girl who got separated from her parent in the thick forests surrounding Bagni di Lucca. Fortunately, with the help of man’s best friend followed by volunteers of the dog’s best friend, the frightened girl was found, happily safe and sound.

Every year hundreds of people get lost here, especially during the mushrooming season, and often panic, perhaps falling down ravines and gorges, thus making the jobs of the volunteers even more difficult.

Anyway, always carry a mobile with you and if you get stuck or lost in the forests phone 112 immediately for the emergency services.

After the speeches, including one by mayor Betti (which was closely followed by this attentive dog)

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and the video, there was an exhibition with contributions of archival photos and some entries from local schools.

This was followed by a very delicious spread in the casino’s peacock room supplied by I Folletti Pizzeria.

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I am sure that this fund raising activity brought in a deserved amount of financial support and we were glad we’d been given such a good insight in a volunteer service which involves a lot of training, patience and tact.

Evidently, the best breeds for tackling dispersed humans are sheep dogs and one of the favourite of these, is a cross breed between a dingo and an Australian sheep dog with a bit of collie thrown in..

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(There’s another example, this time short-haired, in the first picture gallery here)

Lucca in London?

Desperately missing Lucca when in London? It can happen. Just the absence of a decent cup of caffé or no bucellato to dip into it can produce hallucinations and longings. Lucca is truly a second home for me and throughout London’s eclectic architectural mix there are elements that constantly remind me of this most beautiful of Italian cities, drawn by John Ruskin, written about by Henry James and admired by everyone. Even those close-drawn romanesque-like arches in a run-down nineteenth century non-conformist chapel can spark off memories of San Michele in Foro. And that’s before even a pint of real ale!

“Alighting” (that means getting off) from the District line at South Kensington this sudden urge to see a piece of Lucca I love immensely grabbed me and I headed down that sinister, long tunnel that connects the station to the museums.

A sign to the right indicated that here was an entrance to the V & A (Victoria and Albert museum) and I entered a long gallery, initially filled with some rather interesting examples of British 19th century sculpture. But this was not my goal.

An exquisite Della Robbia specified that I was now entering true civilization at last and, giving the desperately long queues at the “Savage Beauty” exhibition a wide berth, I entered one of the two museum cast courts which, after years of neglect, have been wondrously restored.

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It’s here that the economically-challenged traveller could gaze upon the beauties of the early Italian renaissance, high German gothic, Spanish cloisters, even such places as Scotland’s Rosslyn chapel, Florence baptistery’s “doors of paradise”, the Pisa cathedral pulpit and the monumental portico to Bologna’s San Petronio without even having to hazard a steam train journey.

Yes, there was a kind of “virtual” travel way back in the 1850’s and several of these casts executed in a variety of methods, including gesso and electroplating, date back to the Great Exhibition organised by Prince Albert in 1851.

If you haven’t guessed which hallowed shrine I was heading for in this incredible part of one of the world’s greatest fine arts museum then I give you a clue. She was just twenty-five when she died in childbirth leaving a great Lord of Lucca broken-hearted, and inspiring a sculptor whose own San Martino is so close to us here in San Cassiano, to produce a true masterpiece written about by the greatest Italian poets including D’Annunzio and Quasimodo.

la città dall’arborato cerchio,
ove dorme la donna del Guinigi 

(D’Annunzio, Elettra)

(Trans: the city of the tree-lined ring where Guinigi’s wife sleeps)

Here is Ilaria and her faithful carlino (pug) in all her copied glory produced (of course) by one of the firms of figurinai in the Bagni di Lucca region .sometime in the early twentieth century.

Ilaria (Hillary) Del Carretto’s simulacrum at the V & A has to be one of London’s greatest lures to (re) visit Lucca. I wonder how many of you reading this first saw the transcendent piece of early renaissance sculpture while wandering through the V & (4)

(The real Ilaria in Lucca cathedral)

I do Like to be beside the Seaside

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(It’s giaggiolo time again!)

With the continuing series of lovely days – starting rather cold at around two degrees centigrade but then developing into a rapidly warming crescendo to above twenty degrees what better place to enjoy the weather than at the seaside. This is what we did yesterday going to our favourite short-haul seaside place, Marina di Vecchiano near Migliarino. Situated in the midst of the remaining Mediterranean coastal macchia of umbrella pines and firs it offers the basics which do include a watchtower with staff ready to save unwary bathers (closed), a first aid post (closed), a beach bar (closed) and a bar near the main parking space (open!).

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What we had come to enjoy, however, is the warm ozone-laden sea breeze, the enchanting sound of waves lapping upon the shore, the arcane vision of the Apuan alps rising majestically behind and the amazing emptiness of the whole area before the summer madness begins.

The waters were just as warm (if not warmer) than that of many Welsh seaside resorts at the height of their summer season but I did not see much evidence of April bathers at Vecchiano. It was a great day, however, just to walk up and down the beach and relax in the soft sands caressed by a warm sun and a gentle breeze..