Ash Wednesday

Miserere mei, Deus: secundum magnam misericordiam tuam.

Et secundum multitudinem miserationum tuarum, dele iniquitatem meam.

Amplius lava me ab iniquitate mea: et a peccato meo munda me.

The voices gently rise to the stone vaults and fill the 12th-century church, one of London’s oldest.  The congregation forms a queue.  Slowly, everybody advances towards the altar steps.

Quoniam iniquitatem meam ego cognosco: et peccatum meum contra me est semper.

Tibi soli peccavi, et malum coram te feci: ut justificeris in sermonibus tuis, et vincas cum judicaris.

Ecce enim in iniquitatibus conceptus sum: et in peccatis concepit me mater mea.

Ecce enim veritatem dilexisti: incerta et occulta sapientiae tuae manifestasti mihi.

The rector’s expression is stern, menacing almost.  I think I am supposed to look down in humility.  Instead, I stare straight into his eyes, searching for an echo to my thought.  “Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return,”  he says as his thumb traces a black cross of ash on my forehead.

I am thinking of the phoenix.  Of what happens after the return to dust.

Asperges me hysopo, et mundabor: lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor.

Auditui meo dabis gaudium et laetitiam: et exsultabunt ossa humiliata.

Averte faciem tuam a peccatis meis: et omnes iniquitates meas dele.

Cor mundum crea in me, Deus: et spiritum rectum innova in visceribus meis.

Ne proiicias me a facie tua: et spiritum sanctum tuum ne auferas a me.

The soprano pierces through the semi-darkness, and lingers high up before fluttering downwards, graceful, having made her plea for us all.

I return to the wooden pew, kneel, close my eyes and breathe in the frankincense.  Yesterday, Shrove Tuesday, I ate pancakes.  I realise that I haven’t decided on what I will give up for Lent.  I remember those friends who will probably give up chocolate, or alcohol, or both.  Not eating chocolate is easy for me, and, since I hardly drink, renouncing alcohol would hardly constitute a sacrifice.  Now cheese, on the other hand… Could I manage a whole forty days without cheese?

The futility of my thoughts suddenly makes me sad.

Redde mihi laetitiam salutaris tui: et spiritu principali confirma me.

Docebo iniquos vias tuas: et impii ad te convertentur.

Libera me de sanguinibus, Deus, Deus salutis meae: et exsultabit lingua mea justitiam tuam.

Domine, labia mea aperies: et os meum annuntiabit laudem tuam.

What’s the point of giving something up that you know you will go back to on Easter Sunday? Doesn’t knowing a privation is temporary make it too easy? Easy and pointless? Isn’t the true purpose of Lent to cleanse your soul for Easter? Will my soul really be purer without cheese or olives or whatever other anodyne habit I decide to break?

For Lent, why don’t we give up something less tangible and yet destructive to us and to others? Something we would work on eradicating from our minds and washing from our souls?

Quoniam si voluisses sacrificium, dedissem utique: holocaustis non delectaberis.

Sacrificium Deo spiritus contribulatus: cor contritum, et humiliatum, Deus, non despicies.

Benigne fac, Domine, in bona voluntate tua Sion: ut aedificentur muri Ierusalem.

Tunc acceptabis sacrificium justitiae, oblationes, et holocausta: tunc imponent super altare tuum vitulos.

How about we pledge to give up resentment?

We could train ourselves, little by little, to replace resentment with responsibility and forgiveness.  Turn the other cheek.  No, not to ask for another slap, but to remove whoever has struck us from our field of vision, from our thoughts, from our world.  To set ourselves free.

When someone upsets us, we could indulge in making up a story about something that just might have happened to this person that would explain his or her unpleasant attitude.  It doesn’t have to be true, only plausible.  And the self-storytelling might make us feel better.

How about we give up gossiping?

We could try never speaking of a third person except to praise at least one aspect of him or her.  Is there nothing good to say about him or her? There must be something, however small.  We could avoid divulging personal information about others.  Instead of using what we know about them as social currency, we could cherish it as a secret treasure.

How about giving up sadness?

We could choose an image, a tune or a thought that makes us smile and summon it whenever we feel the clouds gathering in our minds.

How about giving up fear?

We could try to imagine that we are safe.  Just making believe at first, until it becomes reality.  After all, we can’t make it real if we don’t imagine it first.  And if we can imagine it, then perhaps we can create it.

Quoniam si voluisses sacrificium, dedissem utique: holocaustis non delectaberis.

Sacrificium Deo spiritus contribulatus: cor contritum, et humiliatum, Deus, non despicies.

Benigne fac, Domine, in bona voluntate tua Sion: ut aedificentur muri Ierusalem.

Tunc acceptabis sacrificium justitiae, oblationes, et holocausta: tunc imponent super altare tuum vitulos.

How about we monitor the words that leave our lips and give up using them irresponsibly?

We could replace “Filthy weather, today” with the more accurate “It’s cold” or “It’s very wet” or “It’s very grey”.

When someone asks us how we are, we could discard “Not too bad” in favour of “Very well, thank you”.  It may not be true at the time, but people mostly don’t ask because they really want to know.  And “well” might make us feel better.

How about we give up believing we can’t and, at least for a while, try to imagine we can?

How about we give up the familiar comfort of darkness? There is a lot of darkness, I know.

Just one candle.  It’s surprising how much light just one little flame gives.

ScribeDoll

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A Writers’ Social

The Scene: A bar.

The Players: Novelists, children’s writers, academics, translators, journalists, biographers, and other assorted literary intellectuals.

*

“Hi! Nice to see you! Which way did you come?”

“Oh, it was bloody awful.  I drove down the [name of motorway] but there was so much traffic.  I guess because of the football… I didn’t realise [name of team] were playing at home.”

“I know, I know, it’s awful.  The other day it took me hours to get into town.  They were digging the road, you know the one…”

*

“Did you find that wallpaper you were after?”

“Yes! But then when I tried a sample it didn’t look right with the curtains.  You know my curtains with the lilies.  So I really don’t know what to do now.  I’m losing my sleep over it.”

*

“Where are you from?”

“–”

“Is your accent French?”

“–”

“What is it I hear?”

“I can’t possibly tell you what it is you h–”

“Are you South African?”

“No, Armenian.”

“Oh, how interesting! Armenian… that’s like Sephardic, isn’t it?”

“–”

“Or am I thinking Coptic? What is it I’m thinking?”

“I’ve absolutely no idea what you’re –”

“Armenian… Is it like… It’s on  the tip of my tongue…”

*

“It took me hours to find somewhere to park! [Name of city] is getting worse and worse!

“Where did you park, in the end?”

“You know the Arts Centre? Well, there’s that street right on the side of it… What’s it called? St-Something Lane…”

“Oh, yes.  You should try behind the cinema, next time.  I generally find a space there…”

*

“Will you have another?”

“Oooh, I shouldn’t… Well, all right, I’ll have another red.  A bit rough but it’s alcohol, it does the trick.  Aren’t you finishing your drink?”

“I don’t like it.”

“What is it, whisky? Are you going to just leave it? Such a waste.  Do you mind if I have it?”

*

“Oh, and you know, I saw him the other day.  His wife’s left him.”

“Oh, no! I hadn’t heard…”

“Just walked out.  To be honest, between you and me, I’ve always thought she was a bit difficult.”

“We must ask him over for supper.  Poor thing.  He’s having to fend for himself now so can’t concentrate on his book.”

“Oh, poor man.”

*

“And I saw their daughter the other day – I don’t think you’ve met her, have you?”

“No.  I knew they had a daughter.”

“Nice girl but had a drug problem in her teens.  Her husband’s got this promotion at work so they’ve bought this house in Yorkshire.  They’re knocking down half the walls and rebuilding it.”

*

“How’s your back?”

“Still really bad.  Living on Ibuprofen.”

“That’s not very good for you.”

“I know! Painkillers aren’t good for you in general, are they? The GP’s put me on this new painkiller.  Let’s hope it works.  My neighbour says she was on it.  Apparently, it really helped except that she then got so addicted…”

“Have you considered acupuncture?”

“Oh, they say it’s brilliant.  Yes, I must get around to it.  It’s on my list but there’s always so much to do, there just aren’t enough hours in the day! You know what it’s like… The other day, I had to drive into town to sort out my watch.  The battery died after only three months.  That took half the morning.  And then I had to rush to get a birthday present for…”

Scribe Doll

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A New Focus for the New Year?

I am just wondering if a shift of focus might help.

Practice makes perfect, so the more you repeat an action or even a thought, the more likely is that action or thought to become consolidated.  After all, wherever we direct our attention, there our physical and mental resources flow.  Everybody knows that.

Or do we?

It occurs to me that we spend a lot of our time and energy fighting against things we don’t want.  Perhaps more than necessary.  Perhaps more than building, nurturing, creating the things we want. So much of our focus and energy goes on being anti what we hate or dread that I question how much energy we have left on focusing on being pro what we actually want.  Do we have sufficient time and energy to focus on both with equal effectiveness? It’s a question that has been buzzing in my head for some time now.  Speaking for myself, I certainly do not.

Perhaps I’m mistaken, but I get the impression there are more marches and demonstrations against unwanted situations and wrongdoings than in favour of desired or just ones.  Of course, when something blatantly wrong happens, I feel that peacefully voicing your disagreement or sense of outrage is the right thing to do.  But once this opinion is expressed, shouldn’t the next step be to focus all our strength on building what we actually want?

When I was a small child, my mother had a UNICEF desk calendar with a quotation for every month.  One stuck in my mind, even though at the time I couldn’t understand what it meant.  “Problems, like babies, grow bigger with nursing.” I cannot remember who said it and only several decades later do I understand more fully the meaning and wisdom of this sentence.

It seems Mother Teresa once said, “I will never attend an anti-war rally; if you have a peace rally, invite me.”  Nobody could possibly doubt Mother Teresa’s commitment to world peace.  I can only suppose that the reason she refused to attend anti-war rallies was because she disagreed with the focus – however kindly and justly intended – of these rallies. The focus of any anti-something act is one of opposition.  Like pushing against something.  Could it just be possible – and that’s just an idea – that by pushing hard against it we unintentionally end up supporting it? Feeding it? Strengthening it by giving it so much of our attention that we somehow consolidate it even further?

Surely, for focus to be unwavering, then we need to choose very carefully – no, we cannot be both in equal strength – whether we want to fight what we don’t want or build what we want.

As a year of much darkness, ignorance, stupidity and senseless waste draws to a close, I am hoping for a 2018 with the following:

Replacing anti-Brexit stands with pro-Europe commitment.

Replacing every retweet of a bully or genuinely incompetent politician with a tweet about a wise, kind or simply happily comical individual.  Plants that aren’t watered wither.  Let’s stop fuelling destructive individuals with too much attention.  Instead, let’s lavish our attention on those we want to play more prominent roles in our society.

TV and Radio stations where 50% of news headlines broadcast good, encouraging items.  Yes, there are some, if news editors are willing to look.

Rather than anti-sexual harassment protests, pro-respect and gender equality rallies.

This list could go on and on and on…

One step at a time, we can shift our focus, and, consequently, change things for the better.

Together, we can do it.

So let’s.

I wish you all a very happy, healthy, wealthy, fulfilling New Year.

Scribe Doll

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Qi Gong

It’s the same every morning.  I negotiate my way out of bed and, eventually, brave the steep Munchkin stairs and stagger into the kitchen.  I put the kettle on, wait for the first crackling sound and switch it off.  I pour the water into a mug and go back upstairs, sipping it.  It’s pleasantly just short of hot, cleansing, comforting.  I open the curtains in my scriptorium.  The sky is still dark.  For a moment, like every morning, I am tempted to skip the next stage of my morning routine.  That lazy, sneakily undermining voice that says, “What’s the rush? You can always do it tomorrow.”

No.

Today.

Now.

Just for ten minutes.

I start deliberately shaking on the spot, sending the movements from my feet through my body and all the way up to my head.  I direct little jolts to every inch of my skin, every organ, every muscle, every vertebra, waking every nook and cranny.  I imagine I am one of those blankets Roman housewives would shake from their windows every morning, when I was a child getting ready for school. They would flap them vigorously.  To banish the dust, evict mites, fill the fabric with fresh air, toss out memories of bad dreams, liven the wool with sunshine.

I quake from toe to top, like a rag doll, loosening every joint, becoming aware of parts of my body I didn’t even know existed.  I banish stale air from the hidden recesses of my lungs, evict dark thoughts, fill my cells with imaginary rainbows, toss out all physical and emotional gunk and liven my muscles with a dose of resounding universal YES.

After a few minutes, once I have given every part of my body a good shake, I stop.  It feels wonderful, like being reset, with every nerve tingling and feeling alive.

Then I stand.  Knees soft, head floating into the sky, feet plunging firmly into the earth.  As the tingling subsides, I focus on my breath.  Regular, deep, inhaling from my belly, imagining sunlight filling my lungs.  Trying to think of nothing else.

Ah, I must remember to buy some cheese later –

Breathe.

I forgot to e-mail my friend, yesterday –

I gently bring my mind back to my breath.  Inhale.  Exhale.  Slowly.

If I can finish work by three, I could –

Never mind that for now.  Just breathe.  Slowly.  Regularly.  Let the belly expand, the lungs fill in full, then let the air out, no rush, sense the warmth spread through my body, grow in strength.  I suddenly feel taller.  Towering over the house.

At least ten minutes have gone by without my noticing.  This time, as the breath rises, it carries up my arms.  Effortlessly.  Naturally.  And so I begin the sequence of movements that constitutes the form of Qi Gong I am practising today.

Dragon and Tiger meet.

I’d tried different kinds of yoga over the years – many of my friends swear by its benefits – but it had never agreed with me.  For some reason, it made me feel ungrounded.  I also did pilates for a few months, but it felt like too much effort.  Then I discovered Qi Gong and it’s 70% rule of practice.  Always give it your 70%.  No more.  The interesting result is that I end up achieving far more than when I set out to give it my 100%.

Dragon looks to the horizon.

When I first started Qi Gong, I was suffering from yet another episode of adrenal exhaustion, or Yin deficiency, as my Chinese doctor elegantly puts it.  In other terms, your garden variety of burnout, with all its classic symptoms that make life seem unmanageable.  When you wake up every morning, and your heart sinks at the prospect of the day to come as though you have to climb Mont Blanc in summer clothes.  When I enthusiastically asked my teacher how long I should practise every day, he replied, “Five minutes.”

I frowned.  Didn’t he understand I intended to take Qi Gong seriously?

“Five minutes.  No more,” he reiterated.

Tiger crouches.

He was right, of course.  By setting out to do a five-minute practise session at home, I would inevitably end up practising for twenty minutes, then half an hour, and now nearly an hour every morning.  Of course, if, when I wake up, I were to tell myself that I would spend an hour doing Qi Gong, I would simply never start.  So, every morning, as soon as the nagging little voice of laziness and procrastination whispers, “Why don’t you leave it till tomorrow?” I cheat it by replying, “I’ll only practise for ten minutes. No more.”

Three months after I first started Qi Gong, my health was better than it had been for years.  When people asked “How are you?” I could actually reply, in all honesty, “Very well, thank you.”

Tiger separates her cubs.

I find that practising Qi Gong has also helped sharpen my focus in other parts of my life, such as work.  Also, the slowness of it is not only very grounding, but also surprisingly empowering.  After a few minutes of practice, I feel like a willow, soft but sturdy, swaying in the strong wind but not breaking.

Tiger pounces.

Most people I mention Qi Gong to don’t know what it is, so I explain that it’s the mother of Tai Chi.  Many react by saying they couldn’t cope with practising such a slow-moving exercise.  I try to tell them that it’s that very slowness that makes you feel so in harmony with life, that’s so empowering.  The trick is not to build a boat solid enough to withstand a powerful wind without capsizing – it’s to weave a sail of silk that can gather the wind in its embrace, so the boat glides faster and more effortlessly.  But, of course, different disciplines are suitable for different people.

Dragon and Tiger pierce heaven and earth.

Outside the scriptorium window, it’s now light.  My body feels like a friend, an ally, and I am looking forward to starting my day.

Dragon soars to heaven and brings back the pearl.

And, let’s face it, with movements that have such beautiful, poetic names, I’d certainly rather practise Qi Gong than do “press-ups”, “push-ups”, “weight-lifting” or going on a “treadmill”.  But that’s just my own, personal choice.

Scribe Doll  

For further information:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qigong

http://www.norwichqigong.co.uk

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Yellow

I need yellow in my life.

20171020_145400_resized_1Its unadulterated joy.  Its sunshine.  For me, joy is most definitely yellow.  Not lemony, with a green undertone.  Not a darker shade with a injection of mustard.  Not the distinguished, pale, almost ivory variety.  But brilliant, sunny, golden and unashamedly direct.  Like a smile.  Not a glamorous, camera-friendly smile but a grin that takes over every muscle in a face, and doesn’t give a damn about how the light falls on it, totally un-self-conscious, unbridled, full of teeth, wrinkles and dimples.  Like the glowing petals of sun-worshipping sunflowers in a Tuscan field.  Like the spring-heralding daffodils on a Cambridge College lawn.

20171022_172225_resized

 I have cut out the word JOY from sunflower-yellow card, and pinned it to the board above my desk.  Yesterday, I bought myself a bunch of yellow roses, and trimmed the stems at different lengths before arranging them in a cobalt blue, earthenware pitcher.  They catch my attention as soon as I come into my Scriptorium, ten buds looking in every direction, one of them brushing against the corner of my laptop screen.  My eyes yearn for yellow.  My lungs long for a deep breath of yellow.  My skin craves sunlight.  Over the past few months, I have been crocheting small, deep yellow lozenges.  One or two at a time, while watching television or listening to the radio.  When I have finished the ball of yellow wool, I’ll buy another one, burnt sienna perhaps, or forest green.  Perhaps by January, I will have enough lozenges to make a Harlequin scarf to brighten up the grey English winter days.  But whatever colours I choose, they will have to make a good team with the first, the original deep yellow, the burst of sunshine.

20171021_120053_resizedI find brown grounding and comforting.  Green makes me feel elegant.  Red is for when I’m not afraid to be noticed.  Grey is for slouching over my translations.  Blue is for calm, orange for inspiration.  And yellow is for rejuvenation, regeneration, for courage, for success.  For happiness like a cloudless, sunny sky.  For warmth, for strength, for courage.

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For the unstoppable joy of the sun.

Scribe Doll

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A Piece of Italy – I Mean Naples – in Notting Hill

Pasquale places cutlery next to my sfogliatella.  Pointedly.  “You Northerners probably eat it with a knife and fork,” he says, deadpan, and strolls to look out of the front door, his hands behind his back.

He says Northerner to me, Roman-born.  Slap-bang in the middle of the boot-shaped peninsula. “And how do you, Southerners, eat it?” I shout back.

He turns around, takes one hand out from behind his back, clumps his fingers together and lifts them up to his face.  “Like this,” he replies.

I put down my fork and pick up my paper napkin.  I raise the sfogliatella and bite into it.  Pointedly.

The exchange takes place in Italian and, seeing that those at my table who’ve been following it are now laughing heartily, Pasquale’s moustache stretches into a mischievous smile.  Unable to guffaw with a mouthful of crisp pastry and ricotta, I can’t, however, suppress a snort which sends a small cloud of icing sugar all over my chin.

I always ask for a sfogliatella when I have lunch or dinner at Da Maria’s – it’s the best I’ve tasted in London.  Just as I always expect to have at least two or even three hearty laughs with the owner, Pasquale.

“I’ll give you Northerner,” I say, once I’ve swallowed the delicious Neapolitan speciality.

At that moment, a middle-aged man opens the glass door, briefly letting in the traffic sounds of Notting Hill Gate.  “Here comes another foreigner,” Pasquale mutters.

They greet each other like friends, talk about football, then say goodbye with a hug.

“So where’s the foreigner from then?” I ask.

“Ischia,” he replies.

By now, my husband and my friends can barely breathe from laughing.

“Ischia! But that’s what – thirty kilometres from where you’re from?” I say, hamming up my Roman accent.

“Of course,” Pasquale replies, now unable to suppress his smile.  “That’s far enough from Naples.”

Of course.  How stupid of me.

It occurs to me that when I meet fellow-Brits abroad, I never ask them exactly which part of the country they’re from.  Or when I meet French people. Whenever I come across Italians, however, the innate campanilismo of that part of me that is Italian through nurture awakens.  Of course, when I encounter a fellow-Roman, the next question is invariably, “Which part? – Oh, I’m from the Tomba di Nerone area.”

The jokes between Norfolk and Suffolk inhabitants are nothing compared to the precisely localised civic pride of Italians.

In this instance, however, the campanilismo expressed by Pasquale and me is pure show, actively aimed at the gallery, who get the joke and giggle.

Da Maria is therefore not a piece of Italy in the heart in Notting Hill Gate, but of Naples.  There’s a Napoli Football Club scarf and memorabilia on the wall and a large TV screen for when supporters gather to watch a match.  There’s a figure of Pulcinella.  There’s a mural with a Naples street scene, complete with a line of washing waving in the wind, a Saint Gennaro, little boys playing football or eating the most famous local dish, pizza, Mount Vesuvius across the bright blue bay, and, overlooking the street from the balcony, two celebrated Neapolitans: Sophia Loren and Totò.

I’ve lost count of the number of years I’ve been frequenting this tiny café-restaurant, tucked in right beside the Gate Cinema, with tables covered in checkered tablecloths.  It must be nearly twenty years – since my friend L. introduced me to it – and she had been going there pretty much since they’d first opened, in 1980.  When I lived in London, L. and I used to have breakfast there most Saturdays, after a quick shop at the Farmers’ Market behind Waterstone’s, and before doing the rounds of the charity shops in search of either books or quirky, unique clothes.  We had dinner and a celebratory glass of red wine when Pasquale finally obtained an alcohol licence.

When H. and I moved in together, I introduced him to Da MariaHe decreed the pasta and pesto to be the best.  My staple is no longer on the menu, but as soon as he sees me arrive, Pasquale asks, “Pasta al tonno, right? With or without peperoncino, this time?” A few minutes later, my favourite dish is served.

The food is delicious and very reasonably-priced, but it’s the warm family atmosphere and the sense of humour-on-tap of the place that attracts a following among both Italians and Londoners, although I have also heard Polish, Arabic, French and Spanish spoken at the neighbouring tables.  Some locals lunch there every day.  If someone is absent for a while, Pasquale worries, asks around if they’re all right.  Enquires after them if they’re ill.    If they’ve had a professional success, he shares the news with other regulars.  “You know so-and-so who comes here at lunchtime, sometimes? He’s just published a book” or “She’s just graduated”, etc.

Now that we live in Norwich, whenever we’re in London for any length of time, H. and I go for a meal at Da Maria.  Pasquale greets us like the proverbial prodigals. If his wife is in the kitchen, she comes out and shakes hands.  If his son happens to be around, we want to hear how his studies are going, and ask about his plans.

After dinner, it’s often a limoncello for H. and a grappa for me.

And, at the end of a long day in a city that’s fast becoming a shrine to corporations and chains, a feeling of human warmth, of international bonding, for us both.

*   *   *

Da Maria is now under threat of closure.  All that because of a planned expansion of the Gate Cinema’s foyer.  In an area that used to be one of London’s quirkiest, where so many independent businesses have been eradicated by the faceless chains, Da Maria is one of the few remaining jewels.  Interestingly, it’s located in one of the capital’s wealthiest boroughs, Kensington & Chelsea – they of Grenfell Tower fame.  Below is a link to an  article from The Observer and a couple of clips from YouTube.  There is also a petition.  Please sign it if you have been to Da Maria, if you would like to go, or if you simply support independent businesses that are one of a kind.

Scribe Doll

Da Maria Website

Article in The Observer

YouTube Clips

What Happens When Napoli is Playing…

The Petition

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Idle Thoughts about Bank Holidays

I love Bank Holiday Mondays.  Even though I now work from home, so weekends and Bank Holidays are of little consequence to my timetable, I nevertheless get out of bed with a sense of anticipation, of mild excitement, at the thought that it’s officially a non-working day.  I feel very virtuous when I sit at my desk on Bank Holiday Monday, and only moderately guilty when I decide to take the day off.

Bank Holiday Mondays.  Here in Britain, these three days are tacked on to the weekend.  Why risk a holiday in the middle of the week, when people might also take the days in between off?  Still, a long weekend is eminently practical for all concerned, I admit.  Bank Holiday.  I wish there were names for these days, rather than something decreed by the closure of cold and now not very popular institutions such as banks.  It’s always made me feel a tiny bit uncomfortable.  A day when banks don’t trade, when there is no financial speculation, instead of a day to celebrate something or someone – be it a saint, the First of May, or the anniversary of independence.  I wonder if any other European country has nondescript, apparently random days off.  When I first arrived in the UK, I asked where these Bank Holiday Mondays had originated.  Were they former saints days? Pagan festivals? Historical anniversaries? No, people replied.  They’re just Bank Holidays.  It seems that in this country we’ve been ruled by banks for some time now… I can’t help but wonder if this is why Britain has among the lowest number of holidays in Europe.  Economy in all things! Waste not, want not.  A penny saved is a penny earned, etc.

My favourite Bank Holiday Monday is the August one.  I can’t really say why.  Perhaps because it’s the last Bank-sanctioned day off before Christmas Day, nearly four months later.  In Catholic European countries, there’s at least All Saints Day in the middle.  But we, with our staunch Protestant work ethic, work valiantly till Christmas.

Perhaps, also because, having been brought up in Catholic countries (although I am not myself a Catholic), where 15th August, Assumption Day, is a major religious holiday, I feel cheated unless I have at least one day off in August, albeit at the very end of the month.

People change, I guess.  When I was young, living in Italy, I would dread the approach of August.  The month when, just because of that one Assumption Day, the country seemed to sink into officially-sanctioned torpor for a whole month – and still does.  Ferragosto.  Why do you stand in the crushing heat, waiting for a bus for forty-five minutes? Because it’s Ferragosto.  Why are so many shops closed? Because it’s Ferragosto.  Why are all your friends away, either at the sea or in the mountains, leaving you to be bored to tears in a ghost city? Ferragosto.  My family could not afford holidays, so as a teenager, I hated the month of August with a purple passion.  The intense heat, the lack of social life and entertainment, the nationally-approved inefficiency of the City of Rome.  I couldn’t wait for the traditional, violent thunderstorms in the second half of the month, that heralded the end of this unbearable inertia.

In a way, something similar happens in the UK, when the end of November signals the start of general laziness, inefficiency and incompetence because it’s Christmas.

Now, nearly thirty years later, I find myself longing for Ferragosto in Rome.  As a freelancer who, noblesse oblige, never turns down work, I yearn for a government-approved month of quiet, of sleep, of doing absolutely nothing.  A whole month of lounging about, reading, writing, dozing in the sun.  I remember with unexpected fondness the streets outside the tourist-infested city centre almost totally deserted, the blocks of flats with the blinds of almost every window shut tight, the bliss of not hearing the neighbours’ TV because they’re away.  I long to have a lengthy afternoon nap, with the blinds half down, listening  to the maracas of a dozen cicadas rhythmically lulling me to sleep.  I have fond memories of lying on a reclining sun lounger on the balcony, until past midnight, staring up into the black, starry sky until I was no longer sure if I was falling into the stars or the stars falling on me.  And counting shooting stars.  Blink and you’ll miss it.

I miss being in a climate hot enough to eat watermelon.  Bright red, sweet as sugar, with large, black seeds I can then crunch – not the pathetic rubbery white ones of under-ripe fruit.

Above all – and especially in view of these three months of grey, wet, chilly transition between last spring and next autumn in Norwich, that you cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, call summer – I long for bright light in my eyes, and hot sun on my skin.

Scribe Doll

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