It’s a day of unspeakable horror in Paris, with journalists, satirists, cartoonists paying with their lives for their right to free speech. Conversation at the check-out in our little supermarket in town began solemnly. Non fanno che male, tutti gli estremismi (all forms of extremism do nothing but harm) it was agreed, with much ponderous head-nodding. It’s heartening to find that our locals are reasonable people, not given to ‘bloody Moslems’ rants.
But perhaps just as reasonably, they seemed to feel a need to bring even this horror into a dialogue that they could relate to. “Questi ragazzi, eh?” said one, putting all the world’s youth, from AK47-toting IS foot soldiers to the CdP football team, on the same level. “They’re totally out of control.”
This was a cue. It’s no exaggeration to say that most people in that supermarket have known each other all their lives. And they all went to the same school. “Do you remember that maths teacher?” asked one lady. “He’d call you up to the front of the class to test you, then if you got anything wrong he’d bash your head against the blackboard?” Gales of laughter. “And that other woman, what was her name? She wasn’t very big but boy could she hit.” More hilarity. “And you couldn’t go home and complain,” said Marcello at the till, “because you were quite likely to get hit even harder by your parents.” General agreement.
It would have been churlish of me, I suppose, to remind them that their generation – so well disciplined at school and at home – spawned the Brigate rosse and any number of other murderous left- and right-wing terror factions in Italy. And that really, the youth of CdP these days are not all that out of line.
Earlier this afternoon I had another great conversation, with Franco, the elderly stonemason who is building the low wall and steps around the pool where I’m working beyond Lake Trasimeno. We discussed the box he’s making to protect the water tank pump and irrigation mechanisms, the extra step we’re going to need down to the pool room and the little trap required to channel rain water away in the correct direction at one end of the pool paving. Then he stood for some time, peering at the steps he built before Christmas up from the pool level towards the house.
“I keep looking at those steps,” he said. “I can’t help thinking how very good they look. Does that sound presumptuous?” He looked somewhere between pleased and sheepish. I told him he was right: they were very good.
Then he backtracked, clearly worried that I might think he was trying to take all the glory. “Of course, they’re good because of your plan,” he told me.
“No, they’re good because you took my plan and made something special with it,” I told him. “There are plenty of so-called craftsman who might have taken my plan and botched it completely.”
I love working with people who are proud of their craftsmanship. I mean, it’s great to work with competent people, but competent people with true (justified) pride are even better – and the ones that answer to that description are generally rather old. I’m wondering whether it’s a trick you acquire as you grow older, or whether it’s something that the younger artisans of today have forgotten to leave time for, in which case it will be very sad, one day, when the old school has died out and I’m left with the ‘that job’s done, let’s get on to the next one, here’s my bill’ brigade. Not a joyous prospect.
Our stupidly warm weather gave way to a few finger-freezing days, with a little snow. It was just sufficient to put paid to my roses and make the artichoke plants droop. Then it stopped. This weekend we’re promised temps up to 20°. In January. Extremely silly.
As I watched over my friend PH in our hospital in town before Christmas I was quite aware that it was a displacement activity. Or perhaps that isn’t the term I want. I was channelling my desire (unfulfilled) to be in England, looking after a very special 94-year-old, an extraordinary woman called Rosemary Lowe-McConnell who I could feel was fading fast.
At the age of 24, in 1946, she was despatched alone with immense quantities of prehistoric equipment to study fish on Lake Nyasa to determine whether fisheries could be set up there to feed – essentially – the whole of the post-war British Empire. She left the man that she loved behind her (they both, eventually, married other people) and took on a very big world utterly on her own terms. With this same spirit she continued working on her beloved freshwater fish almost until she died. But her fish were just one, professional, passion. There was nothing that didn’t fascinate her – animal, vegetable, mineral or cerebral. She was indefatigable and inconceivably alert. And utterly devoid of malice of any kind.
When I last visited her, just before Christmas 2013, she gave me her diaries from the Nyasaland (Malawi) period, and we discussed a book. There’s so much in there.
For months we corresponded about it, me shooting questions at her and her trying hard, if selectively, to answer. Much of her writings are impenetrable, either because she couldn’t remember or because she didn’t want to, or simply because things that seem extraordinary to me seemed everyday to her and so she hardly thought my questions relevant. Then too much was going on in my life, and I let it slide.
Now I’m feeling too daunted to pick it up again, but I must. Her last message to me, written by a carer on December 17, said “Ro is being so well cared for and all the staff love her! Her room is full of Christmas cards from all corners of the world and looking very lovely! Ro is happy to hear that you are going to try and continue with the diary project which can’t be easy as there are so many of them covering so many years.” (Ro would have laughed at the exclamation marks.)
And so I must – take it up again I mean. As my tribute.