Mini-Series India in Longoio

Several people from Bagni di Lucca are surprised to know that we like to stay in Longoio during the winter rather than going to live in a town or city. Actually, the cold season is here much more acceptable than in Bagni di Lucca. At a height of almost two thousand feet we are located well up the valle di Lima and, therefore, get more sunshine. Also, damp is not so much a problem here as it certainly is in Bagni. We, on the other hand, wonder how people can survive by a river in the bottom of a valley at Bagni di Lucca. It’s quite often that the clouds are below us and we have to descend through mist and fog to reach the spa town’s poor inhabitants who are living in a temperature often five to ten degrees colder than where we are.

Winter is a good time to do bracing walks in the hills, enjoy cosy evenings by the fireside and, naturally, read a lot of books and watch videos. We spent February in Tamilnadu as winter, no matter how much better it is here than in Bagni di Lucca, is a good time to get away to some seductive tropical clime. (I hope you enjoyed our account and photos of the wonderful places we visited. Now that we’re back in Italy there will be plenty more pictures to sort out).

We miss India and winter is a good time to watch films about that fascinating sub-continent and to read books and, maybe, plan a future visit there. India’s film industry is now the biggest in the world as any aficionado of Bollywood will know. I suggest there are three main categories of feature film involving India. The first is Bollywood itself with its lively mix of action, love and dance. The second is the art film of which the greatest exponent is Satyajit Ray, especially his classic ‘Apu trilogy’ describing the growing up of a boy in Bengal.

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The third are films aimed particularly at a western audience and involving both Indian and western directors. David Lean’s ‘A Passage to India’, based on the Forster novel and dating from 1984, is a prime example of this genre. More recently, John Madden’s hilarious ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ of 2011 and its 2015 sequel, ‘The Second best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ in which a group of pensioners from the UK travel to India to take up residence in what they believe is a newly built luxury hotel, has entertained a world audience and also given sharp insights into a fast-changing country.

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On a more serious note, Danny Boyle’s ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ of 2008 related the trials and tribulations of 18-year-old Jamal Malik, an Indian Muslim from the Jehu slum, when he enters a TV quiz show. Here, again the situation gives an excellent chance to describe the incisive multifariousness of fast-changing Indian culture today.

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Looking at films first aired on TV there are more adventurous Indian web mini –series which stand apart from the usual conventions of Bollywood with their bolder outlook on life. Such are ‘Roommates’ and ‘I don’t watch TV’. Regarding miniseries in general I have my three favourite ones which tempt me back to the DVD’s I have of them.

Th first is ‘Queenie’ from 1987, relating the life of actress Merle Oberon and based on the book of that title by Michael Korda, the son of Merle’s main film director and husband, Alexander. The mini-series is particularly noteworthy in showing how chee-chees ,or Anglo-Indians ,were looked down on by both the British (who described them as ‘blacks’ and made fun of their sing-son accent and their pretensions in dressing up in European clothes and the Indians who saw them as boot-lickers of the Raj and not to be trusted in any independence struggle. In real life Merle Oberon pretended she was born in Tasmania and only at the end of her illustrious film star life (where among other films she played Catherine alongside Laurence Olivier’s Heathcliff in ‘Wuthering Heights’) did she confess to having been born in a Mumbai slum. Fortunately, the whole perception of Anglo-Indians has completely changed today. After all, who would think that such singers as Cliff Richard and Englebert Humperdinck and actors such as Diana Quick and athlete and politician Sebastian Coe would once have been looked down as being chee-chees?

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The second is probably the finest miniseries ever made for TV: ‘The Jewel in the Crown’, based on Paul Scott’s ‘Raj Quartet’. With a star-studded cast including Art Malik, Geraldine James, Saeed Jaffrey, Peggy Ashcroft, Charles Dance, Tim Pigott-Smith, Eric Porter and Susan Wooldridge, and the most immaculate attention to detail in scenarios and costumes, this offers the finest insight into a gone but not forgotten India at the end of the Raj. ‘The Jewel in the Crown’ is compulsory viewing for me at least once every two years and certainly warms up my Longoio winters.

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The third TV mini-series I love coming back  to is ‘The Peacock Spring’ based on Rumer Godden’s book of the same title and dating from 1996. This time we are in the post-independence India of 1959 when a widowed United Nations official stationed in Delhi, India brings his two daughters, Una and Hal(cyon),from England to live with him. In fact, the two are a ploy to justify his liaison with Alix, a chee-chee who becomes their governess. Tensions arise and Una, in turn, has a love affair with an Indian…. but let me not be a spoiler here. Again, the acting and scenarios are perfect and a very young Hattie Morahan and Naveen Andrews are bewitching.

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The three mini-series have the advantage for me in that I feel they are more effective on film than in book form.

Michael Korda’s book is, in my opinion, repetitive and without style. The film based on it certainly tightens the plot and makes it much more credible. Paul Scott may be a fine writer but clarity, both in plot and flair, are not his forte. Rumer Godden fairs much better and, certainly, her book deserves to be read, although it was primarily addressed to teenage girls (and their mums?)

I’m told by some the two seasons of ‘India Summers’ are worth a look too.

I am so glad that I have these miniseries on my shelf and re-watching them can while away the long Longoio winter evenings. In their separate ways they bring back the fascination of India – its wonders and its miseries, its highs and lows – they certainly make me think of a return visit to the sub-continent in the not too distant future!

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The Angel of Our Great Bagni di Lucca Library

For me the greatest repository of learning, culture and everything that is of the highest value in our civilization is quite clearly contained in libraries. To think that the baths of Diocletian and Caracalla in ancient Rome were not just places one went to have a good scrub down and pick up interesting gossip but were also centres of learning, discussion and reading; to realise that such places as Aquae Sulis in England (today better known as Bath)

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and, indeed, all the other great centres of Rome: Ephesus, Alexandra Constantinople and Ephesus were places both of cleansing and culture is, indeed, awesome.

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The library of Ephesus still stands. At least its façade does but where are those priceless collections of scrolls that lived there? Have we lost for ever 90% of classical literature? We have to thank the early Muslim dynasties for having transcribed so much of that which might have been lost to us today. It is, indeed, ironic that fanatics professing the faith have recently torched some of the most precious ancient documents in the ancient desert University of Timbuctoo.

In Bagni di Lucca we have both: baths dating to early time and one of the finest and most individual libraries in Italy, indeed the world. In my ‘camera oscura’ interview with Doctor Angela Amadei, the chief librarian of Bagni di Lucca’s unique collection, as part of the on-going Bagni di Lucca festival I was able to find out many detail about the wonderful library heritage our comune.

There had, of course, been circulating libraries in Bagni di Lucca way back in the nineteenth century. Books were borrowed, begged or bestowed on the many forestieri (mainly English-speakers) which visited the baths for health reasons or just to escape the unbearable heat of summer Florence. In the Circolo dei Forestieri the library was housed on its upper floor. Meanwhile the palazzo degli inglesi, better known as the Anglican church, had not had a sermon preached in in since the thirties when, because of gathering war-clouds, most Brits escaped from a country they loved with all their heart. “Tea with Mussolini”, that evocative film by the great Zeffirelli, gives us something of the atmosphere at that time.

Abandoned, and to some extent vandalized, the church was eventually bought by the comune in 1976 but much work was required to restore it as a habitation fit for books (and librarians!). This restoration continues to this day and only recently the original altar of the church has been rehabilitated and re-installed as pride of place in this amazingly renaissance-shaped but gothic-detailed building.

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In 2005 our much-appreciated, highly industrious and ever-helpful librarian, Doctor Angela Amadei, arrived on the scene only to find a mammoth task awaiting her. The books she had to manage in a space which is becoming ever more constricted are large in number and contain some very valuable items. The library, indeed, can be divided into two sections: books one can borrow, just by filling in a form and agreeing to abide to the standard library regulations, and the reserve collection which may only be consulted on the spot but from which photocopies may be had. Further to this Angela, through the library network in Tuscany is able to procure books which even our library does not hold, and at very short notice. I have availed myself of this service and have been impressed!

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Ian Greenlees (about whom I have talked in a previous post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/05/06/r-i-p-ian/ ) left the majority of his collection of twenty thousand books to the library, dedicated to the great local violinist Adolfo Betti,  giving a great gift but also causing immense problems for librarians. Angela is the only full-time (close onto forty hour a week!) librarian and she has been lucky in obtaining financial assistance from the region in her superhuman task of cataloguing a collection which contain rare item such as first editions of Dickens and the Brownings since Greenlees was a great collector of rare books. Already, one tenth of the collection has been catalogued and, when finally completed, it should be a great day for our comune’s library.

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Of course, libraries today are not just about silently browsing through shelves and borrowing something from one’s favourite author. They are increasingly becoming places for related social activities. Angela pointed out that the library of Bagni di Lucca is a centre for major conferences organised with the help of Pisa university on a number of incredibly interesting topics, starting, back in 2008, with the Brownings, who spent their summers here, and acting in partnership with Marcello Cherubini’s “Michel de Montaigne” foundation.

The library is a place for both classical and jazz concerts and it hosts a great winter film season (with English subtitle for those whose Italian language skills are not too developed) since Bagni doesn’t have its own cinema. As far as books are concerned, the number of English book is immense and fascinating. You are bound to find a volume to entertain, educate or elucidate among those rich shelves.

The library’s future is being built upon further projects. Already the parents’ evening, where children are encouraged to read as part of a Europe-wide literacy project, has proved most successful. The “silver mouse” project has given undigitised older citizens the confidence to use the computer to communicate, not only to their long-lost relatives, but also to help them write their own stories. I remember holding such classes when I was an I. T. lecturer in the UK and it’s great to know such projects are now advancing in Italy and at Bagni di Lucca.

How are new books selected for the library? It’s largely a collaboration between what the public want and what the librarian feels are books which will hold considerable interest. Funds are limited but Angela has given a great emphasis to children’s literature, especially those below the age of six.

Many of the commune’s children, when seeing our beautiful library for the first time, think it looks just like the library in Harry Potter’ Hogwart’s academy for it high ceiling and gothicky detail does indeed evoke that sort of atmosphere. It also links up with the Potter books’ author in her devoted encouragement to make the ability to read book a natural right for all children. Perhaps she might consider our own Bagni di Lucca’s library in her thoughts on the subject.

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There is a little problem with the library in the fact that, as a converted Anglican place of worship it is one big space and has no truly defined separate sections like the newly moved library at Borgo a Mozzano, for example. I am sure that a solution will be found to this problem and that a dedicated space devoted just to children will be found.

In the meanwhile, the library has an area that is superbly suited for large events, like conferences. Two important one are due to occur after the summer mayhem. There will be a conference on feminist aspects in nineteenth century literature this autumn and also a major item on that formidable woman of power the countess Matilde di Canossa.

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You can find out all about these amazing events and also further details at the library’ site which is at

http://www.bibliotecabagnidilucca.it/

and also at Angela on her facebook page at

https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100009608323935&fref=ts

There is also an important fact to mention. The old use of the library as an anglican church has a direct link to the protestant cemetery of Bagni di Lucca about which I have already written several posts, including one at

https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/09/15/chrysanthemums-for-the-end-of-an-era/

and also at

https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/06/29/some-corner-of-a-foreign-field/

plus the amazing find at:

https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/06/07/insect-man-re-discovered-in-bagni-di-lucca/

Angela described in considerable detail the miraculous recovery at the cemetery and the devoted task of restoring it (for which benefactors will be amply recognized by Prof. Marcello Cherubini, president of the Montaigne Foundation which has organized so many stimulating study events at Bagni di Lucca’s library and beyond).

We are so lucky to have such an interesting library and one run by such a pleasant and enthusiastic librarian like Angela, a true jewel in the crown of the local administration. As a member for close onto ten years I am so pleased to be one of the (free) subscribers. The library is truly a very important resource and a major reason for living in this part of the world!

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PS The Comune’s archive is held instead in the school opposite the library.

Camera Oscura

If anyone wants to know where the Camera Oscura, Bagni di Lucca’s Arts Festival new poetry space, is then it’s practically the first ex-shop one comes to on the right as one enters Ponte a Serraglio from Bagni di Lucca Villa.

Alternatively, it’s almost the last ex-shop one comes to coming from Ponte a Serraglio to Bagni di Lucca Villa on the left.

Why is the space called camera oscura? It’s not that dark anyway!

It’s because it used to be a photographer’s studio at the time when all those empty spaces were living shops giving life to a community which sadly has diminished or has gone elsewhere for their daily goods.

We’ve seen this sadness in the crisis that’s hit the English high street but it’s all the more poignant for a small and beautiful place like Bagni di Lucca, Ponte.

Indeed, the names given to the other exhibition spaces reflect their old uses: La macelleria (butchers) Spazio Daddo (old shoe shop) La Mesticheria (ironmongers).  (I still remember that shop in use back in 2005, and treasure the hammer and paintbrush I bought from it.)

“My” space has a little back room, presumably the old dark room (camera oscura), and a lovely alcove with a contemporary marble statue, comfortable seating and even a projector.

Decoration is minimal but you can enrich it by adding your own words about poetry on the walls and join company with greats like Wordsworth, Shelley and, last night, Mara Mucci, who will recite her poems tomorrow Thursday at 7 pm.

For a few days a year this space will resound to the words of that quintessential art form, poetry, and then relapse into silence like an ancient Roman triclinium which once heard the odes of Horace or revelled in Petronius’ Satyricon but which now only has bare, ruined walls which not only hide frescoes but also echoes of words which have become faint shadows of those who uttered them.

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What pictures emerged from these whitened walls

what portraits of newly-weds or daughters?

What parents faded in their yellowed shawls?

What years forgotten in icy waters?

 

And will these words also crumble away

written in a summer’s evening stilled heart?

And will our memories also decay

Like this shop’s long-lost photographic art?

 

Obscure room lighten up for me all your past clients,

bring me into the centre of your heart.

Show me both red dwarfs and hypergiants

mid the stars that set our planets apart.

 

The film projects upon a blanched background

 where nothing is lost and nothing is found.

From Vico Pancellorum to Infinity

Summer is not just a time for sagre or festivals with an emphasis on a particular food, whether it be tordelli, farro or biroldo. It’s also a time for arts festivals!

Last Sunday we took time off from the magnificent third year Bagni di Lucca arts festival to visit Vivo Pancellorum, an ancient borgo high up on the Apennines.

There’s a local annual arts festival there mainly centred in an old oratory which is full of some delightful creations from local artists.

The styles range from naïve to abstract to portraits to landscapes. The variety is quite amazing since Vico Pancellorum is a pretty remote mountain village in one of the furthest outposts of our Comune.

Here are some examples of what we saw. I’m sure that some of you used to the area will recognize who the artists are!

Art also spreads out into the steep narrow streets of Vico.

Later in the afternoon there was a conference, held as part of the study days organized by the Michel de Montaigne Institute of Bagni di Lucca, concentrating on the history of the village since the start of the eighteenth century.

All the speakers of the conference, coordinated by director of the Bagni di Lucca section of the Istituto Storico Lucchese Bruno Micheletti, were very well prepared and the subject of statutes, laws and beliefs of a past era gave a valuable insight into what life once was like in Vico – in many respects not too different from today especially as far as the required length of dog leashes when going through a vineyard was concerned!

Unfortunately, we had to curtail our conference before the end to get back to our camera oscura poetry space where a reading was given of a selection of my poems on the earth, planets and galaxies by me and Alessandra Pettitt.

In fact, two readings were given to the background of Sergio Talenti’s intriguing film with commentary and text by him and Debora Pioli about a biological computer which has contradictory problems about redefining the concept of infinity.

In the film there was a picture of the same Vietnamese train I’d taken in February 2014 when visiting that lovely country. I’m not sure what infinity had to do with it although the train journey on the reunification line did seem to go on for ever!

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Both readings were very well received. Here is just a tiny selection of what we read. The film seemed to fit rather well with them……

 

 

HORIZONS

 

Gigantic cliffs stand peaked like wings of gulls

and cut through sky of indigo. Two moons

lie hung upon translucent pregnancy:

this is the planet where there is no sound.

 

At dusk spiced crimson rocks drum granite chords

which penetrate hard entrails of stilled earth,

bronze sands vibrate with fluent overtones,

ionosphere drops ultrasonic waves.

 

Here is the summit and below hot seas

of sapphire circle coastlines, solarized

and drawn towards cerise-soaked longitudes:

the night is stretched out like a waking cat.

 

 

FIREWORKS

 

Interstellar flowers

of climactic aureole,

a thousand descents.

 

Dusk’s planetary

blossoms ejaculated

in cosmic heartstrings.

 

White efflorescence

of nocturnal waterfalls

burns through prescient eyes.

 

Spectral magma flux

smothers expectant body

in evening corset.

 

Transcendent coming

lights up autumnal half-smiles

of tropical fire.

 

Unveiling eclipse

cascades Byzantine showers:

deluged covenant.

 

Body pounds in space

earth trembles beneath my feet:

alien spaceships land.

 

Humming birds hover

and suck juices of the night

in rainbow flavours.

 

Galaxy’s cleavage

in kaleidoscopic sheath:

choir of silver rain.

 

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Bagni Di Lucca Arts Festival – Three Times Lucky!!!

It was a great opening and continued into an animated and highly social evening. I am, of course, referring to the first night of Bagni di Lucca’s arts festival, now in its third year.

Around six o’clock with the streets of Ponte a Serraglio turned into a pedestrian “island” the artists gathered together around the blue and white flouncy ribbon.

Mayor Betti after a short speech in which he praised Jaqueline Varela and her band of volunteers in re-creating a great cultural event, giving our comune prestige and fame, with flair, determination and dedication, cut the ribbon.

Then it was the turn for us to visit the exhibitions in rooms all converted into exhibition space from long-closed shops. The amount of work in rendering these places again fit for artistic purposes was immense. Battles against dampness were won, walls were repainted, and everything was made fit for purpose in a remarkably short time, again through volunteers.

There was so much to see and so many truly interesting artists to meet that I can only concentrate on a couple of rooms which grabbed me on the first evening. I’ll try to let you see the other rooms in later posts.

The marine-coloured strip covering three sides of this room and covered with black spots almost haphazardly grown on them, like patches of moss, revealed itself as a tragic metaphor for the thousands of refugees who chance the highly uncertain sea voyage from war-stricken countries just across the Mediterranean from Italy and instead drown in the deep at the hands of unscrupulous human traffickers.

The painting by artist Anna Darlington of Cembroni will change for both better and worse. Worse, because each day further spots will be added to signify yet more deaths in that terrible sea-change just south of Italy, for better because it will make more and more people aware of the scale of the human disaster that is now occurring so frequently that reactions can almost change to a mere shrug of the shoulders.

The other exhibition room which fascinated me was entitled “Leftovers – Utopia revisited”.  Austro-Russian photographer Chris Dematté captured haunting images of sculptures glorifying the progress of socialism into communism in Stalinist and post –Stalinist Russia. Many of these sculptures have either been destroyed or relegated to some obscure statue graveyard.

When in Kiev some years ago we remember the colossal features of Mother Russia which, apparently, has only been saved from the pick-axe not just because of its huge size but because it has become Mother Ukraine in the hearts of so many of its inhabitants when remembering that it was the Ukrainian forces who first marched into Berlin at the end of WWII. Otherwise, so many of these statues are just embarrassments to the cities they inhabit. Such is the price of totalitarianism.

It was interesting to note that an Italian fascist era war memorial statue on the opposite side of the street from the exhibition was spared this fate!

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There was, of course, plenty more to see and make one think at the Arts festival. But for me, the great joy was being able to meet the artists and talk to them about their ideas, aspirations, dejections and hopes.

The utopia of a better life in Europe for star-struck refugees now being eaten by creatures of the deep, the utopia of a fully communist state where money would no longer exist, the utopia that a utopia can actually exist……..all vanished in our ever-more dystopic world!

What do we have left on this planet whose shortening life we can almost feel daily in our own blood and bones? Again, the film by Sergio Talenti with the most stunning visual images and deeply reflective commentary spoken by Debora Pioli brought these truly universal preoccupations to mind.

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We are no longer strictly alone as a life-planet. 1,400 light years away there’s a place so similar to ours that we could almost intuitively see our other halves there. But 1,400 lights years is still a long time to travel and wait!

Art, the harbinger, the prophet of so many things to come, can travel faster than light, can bring us closer to each other, can make us think more deeply about things, many of which we’ve never really considered, can give us the energy to go forwards, may even give us the strength to save our planet.

These thoughts were rushing through my mind as the twilight closed into night and the beautiful fusion sounds of Mozait, the Italo-Mozambique band, started up in Ponte’s main square before a townscape changed magically into expectation, joy and increasing hope for the future on our own earth’s tortured, beloved, inimitable ambience.

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Tonight, Sandra and I will give some readings in the camera oscura room (where Sergio’s film was projected) starting at 7.30 PM. You are all welcome to come along and even write more things on the wall, words which may have inspired you or even troubled you but certainly which have made you think. For the word and poetry have entered this year into the festival for the first time and we would be so happy for you to be there tonight and enter into the dialogue, which, although, largely in English will be explained to those whose first language is Italian. Further events in this room are planned, all of which will be advertised here.

On Monday, for a start there’s another reading with Jenny McIntosh at 7.00 PM.