7 April 2017


What Damien Hirst has been up to.

We’ve been in Venice, partly to check out the rather delightful new Casa Flora rental apartment, and partly to check out what Damien Hirst has been up to for the past ten years.

The former was a pleasure: a designy addition to the Romanelli family’s Venetian accommodation options which felt comfortable and unfussily sophisticated and calm in a pretty busy bit of the city.

0407GThe latter was more troubling – though I admit it was going to take much to convince me that Damien Hirst is anything other than an artistic charlatan. There was an awful lot in this overwhelmingly phantasmagorical exhibition, but it failed utterly to win me over.

Of course I’m a common-or-garden punter rather than a contemporary art conoisseur, but I try to approach these things in an informed and open-minded manner (well, as open-minded as I can be about DH… and I was amused by his gynecologist’s surgery in a fish tank that time in Milan). But my verdict was: silly.

It’s odd reading the reviews of this first – immense – show he’s done in ten years. Praising or panning, they make many of the same points. The initial reaction to the ropey old ‘found an ancient shipwreck and polished up the pieces’ narrative that underpins the whole thing is: yawn, this feels tired. The ‘amazing fortuitous find parlayed into artistic masterpiece’ trope was done to death decades ago.

0407HThen just occasionally as I trudged around Punta della Dogana and then Palazzo Grassi, surveying these wild excrescences of Hirst’s mind, I would almost find myself (like most reviewers) sucked in, almost admiring the sheer size and shamelessness of it. Almost.

Some critics – Jonathan Jones of the Guardian most notably – fell for it hook line and sinker, letting themselves go with the brazen cheek of it. Not me. Time and time again something would pop up to make me think ‘kitsch rubbish: you’re fooling no one Damien’. I could almost see the smirk on his épater-les-bourgeois face.

All in all, it did very little for me, and certainly moved my soul far less than my long slow traipse around the Accademia this morning. I hadn’t been there for many years. I wanted to see what upheavals the gradual opening of the new wings had brought about. The answer, of course, was: hardly any because they don’t seem to have done much with their massive new spaces. A few of the made-over bits are being used to house second-rate things (I consider icy, lifeless Canova second rate, I’m afraid), with little or no indication from the long-established corridors that they even exist.

Downstairs in an area signaled only as the route to the loo, an exhibition about little-known Michele Giambono included, somewhat inexplicably, the most magnificent Enthroned Madonna triptych by Antonio Vivarini and Giovanni D’Alemagna. There’s a high built screen around the Virgin, child and attendant saints, but the hugely detailed, true-to-life vegetation that bursts out – lawn daisies and pimpinella herb at their feet, pears and apples on trees thrusting above the screen, lush rose bushes through window openings – is all-involving and truly (as the complete title of the work says) paradisiacal.


I came back to CdP to find progress on my town house. Already before I left I was hugely heartened by talk of needing bathroom tiles pronto. I hauled them out of my office/builders’ yard storeroom and up to the chicken house and left them where they were easily reachable by avid tilers, anxious to transfer them from country to town. Three days later, they’re still there but hey, I can accept that lack of celerity when the insulation has finally been put on the roof and the first floor ceiling is now beautifully white.

Really I should have had someone in to sandblast my ceilings and reveal the beams and bricks beneath the shiny chocolate gloss (beams) and dingy, chipped grey whitewash (bricks). But the thought of such mess and cost got me down. So they’re becoming white, all over.

The odd thing is, I thought a white ceiling would seem lofty and make the place look even bigger. Not at all. It seems to have brought the ceiling lower. Why is that?

Maybe it was just the evening light when I called in en route back from the station. Maybe the fact that the big trees on the other side of the road have miraculously clothed themselves in leaves in the three days I was away has changed the light quality. Who knows. It’s looking good anyway.

The holes are disappearing from floors and walls too, and I noticed that the configuration of the stairs is different, to take account of the fact that there will be no top tread – just a landing.

These all feel like finishing-up things. I’m not deluding myself. I know that my builder can make finishing-up move on an almost geological timescale. But I’m seeing glimmers of something like – dare I say it? – hope.


The other week at our town fizzy water dispenser, an elderly couple were filling their bottles. She was striking, her piercing eyes gleaming from a deep-tanned face with National Geographic furrows. She apologised for keeping us waiting. We said we didn’t mind at all on such a mild evening.

Ah yes, she said, but siamo ancora sotto la luna di febbraio (we’re still under a February moon). It could get very cold… at least that (she added as though slightly embarrassed at peddling old wives’ tales) is what gli anziani used to say.

So I looked it up. That was on March 25. The moon that was new on February 28 died out on March 27. The mild weather continued, however, until a couple of weirdly chilly days at the very end of the month. So much for what the anziani said. Which is a shame. There’s nothing I like so much as ancient country lore come true.


Our cleaning lady – Albanian, with many years spent in Greece – baffled L a few weeks ago with another folkloristico gem.

In a valiant attempt at small talk – L’s least favourite activity – he asked her if she had plans for Easter and when she said no, he said just as well really because it always tips down anyway.

Of course it does, she said, as if any fool kno. It’s in the hands of le tre streghe (the three witches). At which she set the vacuum cleaner in motion and left a confused L staring after her.

Which witches?

All my attempts at research have drawn a blank. (There’s some Scandi witch that rushes about with the devil at Easter but I don’t think Arctic folk tales hold much sway in Albania. And triple witching is something technical that happens on stock markets four times a year, but that’s unlikely to be causing the downpours). My path has not crossed hers since. I must remember to ask her to elucidate when it does.***


***I found her and quizzed her, and L got it wrong: not three streghe at all, but three vecchie – old women. These three run riot with the weather all through Lent and up to the end of Easter, after which they fade away. She didn’t know who they were, or where they went or why they existed at all. But that’s what her parents taught her, and she’s sticking with the story. (8/4/17)

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24 March 2017


Seasons clash: peach blossom & pumpkins

The A1 motorway just north of Naples is lined with seedy light industry with few signs of industriousness, and straggly retail parks more apt to make you accelerate away than stop and buy. But at this time of year it is also flanked by great fields of neatly clipped peach trees, their dark pink blossom hovering in a delicious haze, and by long stretches of verge bulging with clouds of blue borage – small compensations for a very long drive.

I was en route to Positano for a bit of planting in my project there.

It’s warm for the time of year here in Umbria, but in that neck of the woods it was ludicrous. Down towards the strip of restaurants on the beach (how wonderful to see Posi with just a sprinkling of very intrepid, charmingly animated visitors) was a Brugmansia suaveolens (Angel trumpet) in the kind of full flower that I wouldn’t expect to see before June. And the magnificent vegetable garden at the San Pietro is very much up, running and yielding the superb green things that made up my lunch – all of which is more than I can say about my new orto which is still looking forlorn and unfinished, redeemed only by a couple of rows of valiant onions and garlic.

I was totally happy to demolish my old vegetable garden and extend the carpark last December save for one little niggle: I couldn’t help feeling pain at the demise of the sad apology for a damson tree which had, against all the odds, provided the fruit for some of the best jam ever made.

It would have gone of its own accord: when Giuseppe touched it lightly with his digger it keeled over, the trunk a mushy sponge of rot just where it went into the ground. But it hurt. So I snipped off the vigorous water shoots it was sending out in its death throes and stuck them in good earth, some outside in orto #2 and some in pots in the greenhouse. And I watched. And watched.

0324EAround us now you can – I swear – hear furled-up leaves popping. Things that yesterday were bare twigs are now bursting. Clumps of dead aromatic debris that I haven’t yet found time to clip off now stick out of dense cushions of pungent leaf-lets. Obsessive checking of damson shoots was seeming futile. And then… tiny incipient leaves. Not all the water shoots have them (yet) but my chances of being able to duplicate, some years (decades?) hence, my wonderful damson crops have improved significantly. Or so I hope. The jury’s out, my research tells me, on whether they’ll stay true to form or whether some grafting would need to be done to get any fruit. It’s pot luck, it seems.

Spending so much time on the road – I’ve clocked up just shy of 1500km this week – has gone some little way towards shaking me out of my usual spring lethargy. Just when everything else is awakening, I tend to be dog tired and semi-brain-dead.

But still I manage to end up being pugilistic, and on a particularly short leash when it comes to moaners. I spend so much of my time defending Italy’s excellences against its home-grown detractors, pointing out its beauties and superiorities while they rail against its inefficiencies and inequalities, that it was refreshing to find myself working with gardeners on the Amalfi Coast who turned the tables on me. Umbrians complain, Campanians enthuse. Where people around here express disbelief that I should have abandoned the ‘civilised’ north for Italy (“whatever possessed you to live in this screwed-up country?”), down there they were heaping praise on me for my wise choice, as if it were incomprehensible that anyone would want to live anywhere else. Mind you, they do spend their days in paradise.

Up in my project in town they’ve been working on the roof. They’ve removed the tiles and are replacing the leaky skylights. They’ll add some waterproofing and some insulation and the whole place will be a bit less warm and less cold at appropriate times of year, or so I hope.

There’s something quite thrilling about clambering around on a bit of my property where I probably (hopefully) won’t have any reason to set foot for another 30 years or so. Being up there with the jumbly tiles and chimneys and antennas and what have you, it’s a different look-out.

It’s a strange angle: you can’t see all that much of town, but you can of course see things that are hidden from street level.

I noted with a touch of envy that my neighbours to the north have, in some less rule-bound epoch, carved out a tiny tasca – a little indentation-terrace hidden just below roof level. How I’d love to do that! But these days, they actually send drones zipping across the roofs from time to time to make sure no one’s fiddling about with the urban fabric without permission – and permission for such things in the centro storico is absolutely not forthcoming.

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6 March 2017


Last week our cleaning lady arrived looking very flustered.

“I didn’t think I was going to get here,” she said. “There’s a car blocking the lane. I only just managed to squeeze around it.”

We had come home about 7pm the previous evening; the cleaning lady arrived at 9am; barring an explicit invitation from us, sex, drugs and/or other nefarious acts are the only reasons anyone would have happened along our dead-end track under the cover of darkness. L went to investigate.

It was an old BMW, its bumper cracked and lop-sided, and and two of its wheels rammed into the deep storm ditch just up beyond what we still called Mario’s house (the Mario in question died a couple of years ago.) The car was unlocked; the registration papers were in the glovebox. The whole thing reeked of cigarette smoke and was badly in need of a clean.

“Did you check the boot to make sure there wasn’t a stash of weapons or a dead body in it?” I asked. I watch too many movies.

When I went up a little later no one had come to haul it out, which seemed to confirm our suspicions: around here if you’ve had an accident there’s no way you don’t know someone who’ll come along with their tractor to pull you out. So I called the carabinieri. I told them the number plate; I left my name and address. And that was it. Just after lunch the car had gone. No contact, no news. Nothing.

A couple of days later in a bar, I accosted our local maresciallo. I told him I’d rung about an abandoned car, and asked what had happened to it.

“Oh,” he said, “it was you. I don’t know. I was hoping someone would tell me!”

He went out himelf, he told me, and poked around, but he couldn’t find any car. Which wasn’t really surprising, it transpired, as he didn’t seem to know where he was meant to look.

“Oh, down there on the white road?! They told me it was up closer to town near the new houses.”

I pointed out that I’d left a very detailed description of where it was. And I’d left my name.

“Why didn’t you phone me?” I asked.

“Because I didn’t have a number.”

I said that I’d wondered why they didn’t ask me for a number, but just presumed that the number must show up on their phones. He gave me an incredulous look.

“You must be joking!” he said, as if such basic technology was unthinkably advanced.

Was it that awful pile of trash Carabinieri that made me suppose that our forces of law and order might be more efficient than they are? I think I saw a total of about three and a half minutes of the many seasons of improbable cop-drama that were filmed here in Città della Pieve, and that only to check that they hadn’t used our property without our permission: in my dreams I was hoping that if they did, I might get some money out of the production company to put towards restoring our house. In that fictional policing world they were always leaping into cars and screeching off to desperate scenes in abandoned barns, armed to the teeth and palpitating with passion.

I’ve now made a mental note to myself that, should ever anything really serious happen, I must remember to talk them through things very very slowly: repeat my address several times, explain calmly how to reach us, dictate our phone number and ask them to read it back to me. In real life, they clearly need as much help as possible.

As for the car, the owner must have found someone with a tractor after all.


Why do violets go with the adjective ‘shrinking’? There’s nothing shrinking about mine. Small they may be, but they’re hardly backwards about coming forwards: they’re colonising the whole garden.

Naturally they’re doing this aided and abetted by me. It doesn’t matter how far they stray into gravel paths and under the wheels of cars: I can rarely bring myself to pull them up. The result is little tuffets of deep purple all over the place. And today, in the damp and gloom of a rainy almost-spring day, they seem to have a special glow.
I’m going to guess that my wild friends are Viola odorata. How anyone could ever consider uprooting these ‘weeds’ and replacing them with their vile false-coloured relation, the pansy, is beyond me. Then again, my tolerance threshold for ‘weeds’ is high: before this rain set in I managed to squeeze in a couple of days of extracting messier, less loveable wild things from in between meadow cranesbill (Geranium pratensis), snake’s head iris (Iris tuberosa)… and my plants of course.

I also successfully planted my new asparagus trench. But for some reason, circumstances are conspiring to keep me from finishing my new vegetable garden. This is getting serious: if I don’t get a move-on we’ll have nothing to eat this summer. Broad bean babies are almost bursting out of their pots in the greenhouse, dying to be planted out. Soon the tomatoes and peppers that I sowed the other day will be clamouring too.

But what have I been doing instead of labouring in my orto? Well, flying kites on Tuscan beaches for a start. It has become a my-birthday tradition, this long drive across to the marvellous La Pineta restaurant in Marina di Bibbona. There’s something so special about the light on a beach in winter… especially when accompanied by a Michelin-starred meal.


0306aMy builders drive me up the wall. But they also, occasionally, bring a smile to my face. The plasterers are making their slow way down from the attic to the ground floor, gradually smoothing out the construction bumps. They come from Orvieto, these boys, and they come equipped with life’s important things. On the ground floor is a gas burner and a moka coffee maker. They have their priorities sorted.

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23 February 2017

There are moments, I have to admit, when my fellow townspeople make me furious. I stomped away in a rage one evening this week from a well attended meeting at which tutting, stony-faced locals watched as our mayor, various health-service related bods and the president of the Umbria regional government patted themselves on their collective backs about the major overhaul which is just about to engulf our little hospital.

Oddly, it wasn’t these long-winded politicos who left me fuming but the ordinary townsfolk: not one of them had a question to ask or a point to make at the end of the interminable speeches. But that was only because they were saving their breath for mumbled carping as they exited.

“They didn’t have a single thing to say.” “Well that was pointless, it’s all just a big con.” “Anything to make us pay more and give us less for our money.” “They never do anything except make our lives more miserable.” And so on and so forth. Ad nauseam.

Actually, pievesi, I’m going to argue that they did say a lot of things. Perhaps they were things that I should already have known. Perhaps they were things you really didn’t want to hear. But though I’m sure that a better look at some of the details of the big hospital changes would probably make me pretty angry too, the general premise is – regrettably? – quite reasonable. Our hospital (a hospital that locals, incidentally, do nothing but moan about most of the time) is simply too small to risk doing many of the major things it tries to do without putting lives seriously at risk. That is statistically proven truth. Ergo it needs to do something different, better.

Those official bods argued (I paraphrase, but this was the gist) that we need to see our hospital not as an individual entity but as part of an articulated, integrated region-wide health service, focussing on providing services to the particular demographic in our area, feeding those that need major-league interventions into large hospitals properly set up to deal with them. Here, we need to focus on first-response handling of emergencies, and on wide-ranging primary care, upgrading in particular the kind of care needed by an ageing population. Now, I’m not so naïve as to think that our hospital, when it emerges shiny and new from what they promise will be just 12 months (haha) of building work, will do all that in a seamlessly stream-lined fashion but… I personally can’t see any reason to argue with the general concept.

The rather wonderful Atul Gawande wrote a fine essay for the New Yorker magazine recently, arguing that it’s not emergency interventions but a slow drip drip drip of incremental care that should be the model for health services in an age when indexed data collection means that a complete life-long portrait of the health situation of every individual can be built up, providing a superb basis for targeted, tailored care when emergencies do arise. It seems to me that Umbria, with its focus on prevention and its decision to upgrade primary care at micro-local levels, is doing just this. From where I stand, it all looks rather laudable.

It was not so, however, for the attendees at yesterday’s meeting. Ask locals about our hospital in general, and you’ll set off an avalanche of gripes and recriminations. As I’ve mentioned on various occasions , I’ve found that the staff in our hospital – under-funded and thinly spread as they are – provide a remarkable service. Where would L be without the ministrations of our A&E? Just the other day C and I passed by to do some bit of bureaucracy and our dismay at finding we’d arrived too late must have showed: the man in the office told us to come back after lunch and he’d deal with our case anyway, completely out-of-hours.

There’s a huge well of humanity there which, as I said, meets almost exclusively with cantankerous negativity. There have been several occasions when I’ve feared that my spontaneous thanks for kindness and skill were going to make doctors break into grateful tears.

Yet people feel entitled. If they looked around them, they might see that the number of towns in this (or any other) country with not even 8000 inhabitants which can boast a fully functioning hospital are… very few indeed. They might perhaps realise how extremely privileged we are, and value it a little more rather than taking it for granted and abusing it at every turn. They might even take the side of the beleaguered staff and show some support rather than making their tasks more thankless.

Now that it’s going in its present form (there will be a few hospital beds, especially for social care patients, but the emphasis will be on A&E, minor procedures at day hospital level and specialist visits) people are up in arms. If they wanted something more, then a decade ago when the inexorable down-sizing began (and half the structure was turned into a money-making eating disorders centre) might have been a good time to man the barricades. As it is, I think we should be mighty thankful we have anything at all.

“Oh yeah,” said my builder the next day, “we’ll see how you feel about it when you have a stroke and you die on the 40-minute trip to the nearest big hospital.” (Our tiny stroke unit here has always been famously good, ranking ninth or tenth in the whole country by results.)

On a very personal level, he has a point. But he’s also doing the very thing that has got us into this mess in the first place. It’s a harsh rule, but reasoning as if we were an isolated case, and not part of an integrated system, will not help us in the long run.


This week is plaster week at my project in town. I was kind of thinking of plaster-spreading as the construction equivalent of the turf-laying moment in garden making – the moment that magically pulls together tragic confusion, transforming it into a hopeful scene of incipient grace and elegance. It isn’t. Yet.

Instead it’s looking less crazily indented and is spouting fewer bits of corrugated tube, but it’s unsatisfyingly patchier.

You’d have thought I’d have learnt to be patient by now.

But there’s something nicely end-approaching about even the most difficult of irrevocable decisions that I’ve been putting off for so long but now have to stop prevaricating about.

What plaster to choose, for a start. In our own home we were purists, opting for old-fashioned lime plaster with no additives – the same kind of thing that would have been smeared about here two, three or five hundred years ago. But that’s an expensive choice and in town, I’ve had to face reality and have new interior walls finished off with a less expensive cement-based product. Or at least that’s what I’m trying to have done, against the howls of my fundamentalist builder who has, however, twisted my arm to force me to use a lime option on exposed bits of original walls.

The long corridor into the house from the street is another thing I’ve tried hard not to think about through all these months. There’s damp all down its length, from floor level rising up about 80cm. This is inevitable in ancient buildings where stone walls rest on earth below. There’s every chance that the damp will reappear, whatever I do. But what to do?

A ventilated layer of plasterboard was mooted. But I don’t want damp oozing gradually over the years through plasterboard which is awash with noxious chemicals.

This is another of those cases in my house where false hollow-brick walls have been raised to hide the original stone and brick: I could have the false wall removed, and the old one plastered with anti-damp plaster. But this is very messy and very expensive.

I could just have the existing fine top-layer plaster scraped back a little, then put any old plaster on it – cheap but probably pointless.

So I’m opting for something which, according to my builder, I am probably going to regret. In ten years’ time. I’m having all the existing plaster chipped off to about one metre up the wall, and replaced with the type that claims to keep damp at bay. We shall see.

I am, on the other hand, planning to use plasterboard to encase my latest discovery, another hidden doorway of the type that pops into view any time you pull down one of those false walls. It’s beautiful – far too beautiful to bury in cement-based plaster. Someone restoring that house long after me will happen across this beauty.


We’ve had a fantastic run of what I think of as ‘stolen’ days – those blue, shiny February days which could just as easily throw snow and/or extreme cold at us but instead hearten us with bird-filled glory.

I rushed out and took advantage, getting going with my rose pruning and my pulling out of winter weeds. Little bits of my messy garden have returned to some semblance of order. There are stretches of grass which have been freed from their leaf cover (I’ve been truly lazy to date), scarified and fed. The little bed behind the chicken house has been liberated of the ever-huger Carex that I’ve been meaning to pull up for years, and filled with Hemerocallis and Anemone. And onion and garlic sets have been planted in the one corner of my new vegetable garden where I’ve managed to have the existing soil broken up and great wheelbarrow loads of good composty soil salvaged from beds in the old orto added.

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12 February 2017

0212b 0212a

I’m aching. How can I be so sore? This is what comes of closing your eyes to your garden for months. I’d been gripped by sloth, sticking far too closely to my adage that there’s nothing that really needs to be done in winter. Only the brightest, bluest days have tempted me out and even then, only briefly.

The result? One weekend spent installing a watering system in my new vegetable garden has all but done for me. This is pathetic.

When I had Giuseppe the bulldozer boy dig up part of the top carpark and part of the orchard to make the new vegetable garden, I worried that I was adding a risible amount to my planting area. Extending wasn’t the number one reason for the shift: the real problem with my old orto was that trees and undergrowth on our neighbour’s land had grown so dense that the area wasn’t getting much light. But a few more square metres than this bijou predecessor didn’t seem a bad idea.

Now that the area is surrounded by its Cor-ten borders, it looks vast. Funny how that happens. Each time I survey my creation, and reflect on my status as sole garden-tiller and weed-extractor, I think “oh gawd, what on earth possessed me?”

I’ve done some calculations. The area I now have is just over half as much again as my original vegetable plot and the overflow plot put together. That’s a whole lot of space. Then again, I won’t need to do the kind of intensive, shove-everything-as-close-as-you-can kind of cultivation that I’ve been doing all these years, so the yield may not rise hugely. But that still leaves a lot of potential weed-spree room. I’ve always been terrible at mulching to keep weeds down. I think the time may have come for a new approach.

The old orto is now a carpark. The overflow patch to the south of the house was destined to be returned to lawn (well, grass: lawn is too grand a label for my unruly sward).

But looking down on it from inside the house the other day, I had a vision of those lovely string-tied parcels of chubby asparagus crowns that I pick up and put straight back down again each spring in the contadino supply shop down in the valley. With great self-restraint, I tell myself each year: it’s pointless investing in asparagus crowns if you have nowhere to plant them. (The measly collection of plants I have up near the compost bins yields sufficient spears to make one or two risottos each season; most of them I just snap off and munch there and then.)

So that bed can become my asparagus trench. It’s a wee bit clay-ey down the far end for a plant that doesn’t like having too much water lingering by its roots, but I can work in some compost and create a bit of drainage. If I’m really on the ball, I’ll reserve a small corner of it for another of my vegetable non-starters: rhubarb.

I made the rather elemental mistake of planting rhubarb in dry, rocky soil in the fullest of full sun, where it never really stood a chance. Silly, really, as I love the stuff and it’s something that you will certainly never find on sale in Italy: there’s a rather nasty digestivo liqueur made of it, but the plant is so utterly identified with its traditional herbal medicine role as highly effective laxative that the tipple is difficult for Italians to take seriously.

I love it cut into chunks and gently simmered with a little brown sugar and lots of freshly squeezed orange juice. For the past couple of years a friend has given me generous bunches, some of which I’ve squirelled away in the freezer. That’s the odd thing about rhubarb. When warmer weather and longer days usher in a whole new range of fruit flavours – apricots, cherries, strawberries, plums and peaches –they taste just like spring and summer. Rhubarb, for me, doesn’t: it tastes like something comforting for a winter’s evening – a (so-called) fruit out of sequence.


There are times when my dealings with builders in my house in town might have been scripted by Samuel Beckett.
Builder: I’m a bit worried. (So what’s new? It’s rare to find my depressive muratore in anything other than a worried state.) There’s a big crack, all across the ceiling on the top floor.
This crack has been there, I know, since I bought the place. Through massive building works including removing beams, and through a series of earthquakes – far away but clearly felt here – it has remained unchanged.
Me: So?
Builder: I need to investigate. We need to know whether it’s the plaster or whether one of the brick panels inside is cracked.
Me: And if it is?
Builder: (Deeply concerned look, and shaking head.) I don’t really know. We might have to redo the whole roof.
My face must have given away what I thought of that costly sounding proposal. He changed tack.
Builder: What if there’s an earthquake?
Me: There have been several. And this isn’t a high-risk earthquake zone.
Builder: But what if there is? A big one?
Me: Every time the earth shakes, you tell me that the Big One will bring the whole creaking town down. A small crack seems irrelevant.
Builder: But you have to think about these things. And you have to consider, um, what’s it called?
I wait expectantly.
Builder: You know, um. Gravity.
I think I’m staring in disbelief.
Me: Gravity? Seriously? You really want me to worry about… gravity?
He’s beginning to look sheepish. There are limits to dejection, and even he knows that he’s crossed a line.
Me: Why stop at gravity? Have you thought about continental drift? What happens when the continents collide, eh?
Weirdly, my depressive builder is laughing.


I’m revamping the greenery of a long-established hotel in Positano. The Amalfi Coast is hardly just down the road, but the make-you-gasp beauty of the place compensates for the distances. And anyway, we land-locked Umbrians need a bit of sea air from time to time.

There’s work going on inside the hotel too, and the workers are a variegated bunch of locals, from the wizened sea-dog look-alikes to alarmingly young youths – their look part football rowdy, part character in a renaissance fresco.

On my last visit, one of these boys was creating elegant baroque surrounds for imposing doorways. With nothing more than a regular builder’s trowel and an occasional sweep of a correcting finger, he was coaxing lumpy cement into a thing of remarkable smoothness and beauty. I find that kind of dexterity mesmerising, especially when applied to a craft that has hardly changed at all over the centuries. Were it not for humidity in the building site, and the need to ponder plants, I could have stood there for hours.

I would have liked, too, to linger to watch the lady in one of the houses on the road up to town chopping wood, but it might not have been polite.

She’s wonderful, this particular elderly dame: about the height of my elbow and almost as wide as she’s tall, she can be found pottering around her garden most days clad in startling colours and a remarkable footwear collection – a hand-knitted bright fuschia cardigan and bright yellow crocs, an electric blue sweater and violet crocs, a deep red cardigan and turquoise crocs.

I can’t recall the precise colour scheme as I cycled by on that day last week, perhaps because it was the activity that struck me rather than the sartorial selection. One huge log stood upended on the front path; the head of a massive axe was embedded in it; and the signora was wielding – with a strength and accuracy that you really wouldn’t expect of a lady of such advanced years – a sledgehammer to drive the axe through the log. This was a woman for whom no challenge was too great.

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