Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Heart In Winter

My desk in our little apartment.
Snow, blizzards & stuck indoors at 600 metres altitude puts a dent in the mood of a slightly stir-crazy Jonnie Falafel.

The thick duvet of snow laid over the landscape doesn't help my natural tendency to indolence! I want to stay holed up in this cosy apartment - tiny enough to be heated in it's entirety by a single wood burner – doing very little save concocting vast vats of soup from scrapings from the dwindling larder. Dried mushrooms, a few jars of sugo, some bottled vegetables, sprouting potatoes and gradually dehydrating zucchini. An adorable friend Filippo came to lunch on Sunday bringing a huge bouquet of ornamental cabbages. Two more days of this and we may have to soup them. No benevolent soul could get here to dine today.

The wind whines and complains around the chimney cowels and the sharp edges of the roof, but the snow tamps everything else. The valleys – giant echo bowls – normally amplify the sound of planes 7,000 mts above, but even that's muffled now. There are bats hanging under the loggia day and night, and little yellow finches pressing themselves into the gaps between the wall and the drainpipes beneath the roof over-hang. Sudden gusts of wind ruffle their feathers. Preoccupied with survival, they have nothing to sing about now. In the eerie silence one is acutely aware of the dull crunch of snow underfoot when venturing out to replenish the logs. Am I being followed? Stop. The footsteps stop. Look. Nothing. One set of steps traced through the powder white.

Cabbage Bouquet
The fluorescent-tube harshness of the light lends a drab hue to the stone houses. Those seduced here by the summer sun wouldn't recognise them. They felt these same stones exude heat on summer nights, they've witnessed the swift amber dawns, lazed in the syrupy late afternoon light or dined under a moon bloodied and pink. You wouldn't believe the moon now, with it's frosty unwelcoming stare.

Indolence indulges melancholy. Or is it the other way round? I don't want to read, I don't want to watch DVDs. I don't really feel inspired to do much of anything except stick close to the stove and brood. I might want to listen to the Tiger Lillies to ramp up the mood but instead listen to the churning mind raking over the coals to rekindle the embers of uncomfortable memories – disappointments, losses, former friends, mistakes and every rueful morsel of disgraceful behaviour gets chewed over. Parades of faces from another lifetime. What finally happened to her? What must they have thought of me? Why did I do nothing? It's too late to say.....

It's not like I don't have plenty to think about. I should be focused on our reboot of the mission next season which involves some big changes at Tenuta Savorgnano. We're off to England in just over a week and I should be planning for that, but I can't think about it today, when the mood colours everything. It just leads me to sour assessments of the impending consumer orgy we call Christmas. Did anyone read George Monbiot's recent article which mentioned gifts such as wi-fi controlled electric kettles, mahogany skateboards, souped-up cuckoo clocks and specially packaged balls of garden twine at £16 a piece!! And don't get me started on the mad economic system sustained only by spending on fripperies. It conjures the image of bored zombies plodding towards eco-doom.

Snow hits the hills
Paul says I should ring the Samaritans to whinge about my two houses in Tuscany. A friend says when life offers you lemons, make lemonade. I can laugh at the irony of the former but the latter riles me. It just sounds too off pat 'self-helpish' Straight from one of those books with strident covers pedalling mendacious pseudo-psychology. Think of opportunities and not obstacles. Oh purleeese! Pass the sick bag Alice.

I was the kind of kid who moped over moons and sat on the doorstep swathed in an old Naval overcoat to watch the rain detach bits of rough-cast from the house. I was given to wandering around the local cemetery to ensure the equitable distribution of flowers and almost weeping when I encountered a child's grave at the awful unfairness of it all. Children got slightly more than their due shares. Melancholy is my friend I don't want ironing out of my character. It's a masochistic disposition, a sweet malady, an exquisite pain. It's natural, it's not depression, doesn't require Prozac and is written through my soul like a stick of Blackpool rock.



Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Brief Encounter - Bob Dylan in Milan

For this month long jaunt through Europe Dylan has changed his modus operandi. He's eschewing the big barns in favour of a series of mini residencies in more intimate venues. This is the final night of a three night stand in Milans 2,340 capacity Teatro degli Arcimboldi in the University district.

Milan Duomo
I can appreciate that Dylan anoraks like me love it when he plays wildly varying sets each night, but this time around the advance web chatter is all about static set lists. In truth however, despite the well-earned reputation for winging it, the set lists have been more fixed for a few years now. Some miss the frisson of "anything could happen" extemporisation, but in compensation Dylan has been turning in solidly professional shows like this one for some time now.

The difference this time around that he's largely ditched the greatest hits. For me this is good news, for the casual fan it might be irksome. Anyone hoping for Like A Rolling Stone or Knocking on Heaven's Door will be sorely disappointed. Not content to coast on the 1960's legacy the bias is very firmly on more recent material. There's even a most unDylanesque plug for his latest album Tempest with no less than five of the nineteen songs drawn from that album alone.

The proceedings began abruptly almost bang on time. Suddenly the lights were out, no ceremony no intro. A few chords from rhythm guitarist Stu Kimball and out moseyed the maestro behind his band to a thunderous almost ecstatic welcome. A mixture of young and old, this might be the most enthusiastic crowd I've witnessed at a Dylan gig for many moons. Dylan stood for a few seconds at the central mic scratching his head and the band launched into a country-rockabilly Things Have Changed. He opened with this the last time I saw him two years ago in Firenze. The difference this time: he didn't mangle it. Vocally he was on focused and on form with not a single lyric flub and clear enunciation. The seal barking of the openers of the last ten years nowhere in evidence.

She Belongs To Me was up next. Set to the beat of a martial drum and with some melifluous guitar from Charlie Sexton this was gorgeous. Dylans vocal floated atop a cloud of rhythm and he played an understated and melodic harmonica solo that brought rapturous applause. Unencumbered by any other instrument Dylan really can concentrate on wringing musicality out of his delightfully eccentric harmonica style. I'm sorry if you miss his guitar. I prefer it this way.

Moving to the grand piano for a calypso inflected Beyond Here Lies Nothing, Bob wriggled and wiggled as he stood to play - it was that funky. The arrangement elevated a fairly pedestrian string of cliches into something worth listening to. I shuffled a bit in appreciation. Remaining at the piano for What Good Am I? (a worthy song that's been gathering dust twenty years until brought out for this tour) it suddenly struck me that this was the quietest Dylan gig I've ever witnessed... on stage I mean. The melody was carried by the band on this one with Dylan playing a counterpoint on piano: most accomplished.

Inside the plush Teatro degli Arcimboldi
I could've lived without Duquesne Whistle. The weakest song on Tempest, it's monotonous riff is interminable. Quite why he exhumed the minor country waltz Waiting For You (written for a film soundtrack) remains a mystery wrapped in an enigma. With their 1940's feel, maybe these songs were channelling radio programmes of his boyhood? Maybe it's the legendary perversity? I admire the chutzpah, but there was a definite drop in energy levels. This wasn't remedied by Pay In Blood an excellent song in it's lilting Tempest arrangement which was delivered here as a quieter number with a crescendo at the end of each verse that abruptly drops off the cliff. It just didn't work. It's an angry song, "Another politician pumping out the piss", but Dylan demurred from, "You bastards! I'm supposed to respect you?", with a lyric change "My conscience is clear, what about yours?". It's horses for courses. Tangled Up In Blue was notable for a new set of lyrics and for Dylan's piano playing which was the dominant instrument on this one. A very strong Lovesick with flawless harmonica work redeemed the the first set. Dylan spoke for the only time of the evening to tell us there would be a break.

He returned with High Water (for Charlie Patton) which began with some banjo plucking and got progressively heavier. A simply stunning piano driven Simple Twist of Fate followed. Musically this was the business. And then a clutch of recent songs sealed this as one of the best Dylan concerts I've seen in years. The rueful Forgetful Heart underscored by a bowed double bass and with some plaintive harmonica work was spare and intense. He reproduced the Tempest version of Scarlet Town perfectly. This sinister little number was enhanced by a great baritone and a vocal dexterity he hasn't mustered in years. Ditto Soon After Midnight where I swear he banged out Blueberry Hill on the piano during the middle eight! Finally the closer Long and Wasted Years is without exaggeration the best and most dramatic single performance in my 35 years of Dylan watching. Exhilarating! The encores All Along The Watchtower (complete with jazz piano interlude) and Blowing In The Wind were crowd pleasers that should be dispensed with and I thought of leaving then but I hung back....

Because earlier I had a close encounter with genius. Bob and I made the same mistake in trying to see Leonardo's The Last Supper during closing hours. There he was ouside the church of Santa Maria della Gracia.

"Bob, do you think you could play It's All Over Now Baby Blue on Monday night?"
"Mmm. I'll see what I can do."

What he actually did was a mighty fine Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall in the middle of the second set. Most unexpected. Okay Bob, I'll settle for that.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

The Hearts & Lives of Italian Men

Northern Male
Is the Southern Macho Male a Myth? Intrepid (mis)anthropologist Jonnie Falafel concludes his three and a half year study down among Tuscan men.

Shiny skinned and freshly showered they filed to the top table trailing the faint scent of soap and hair gel. Happy, healthy lads probably all under twenty five sporting designer wear - Lacoste, D&G and Hilfiger - but nothing too flashy. Smart skinny fit low-slung jeans revealing underwear waistbands and polo shirts in pastels with the collars turned up. Six guys comfortable in their own skins, quietly confident. They're talking about food and they're talking about their mothers with that Tuscan growl so low it emanates from the testes and not the diaphragm. Think forty a day for twenty years. That's the effect. Friends begin to arrive.

"Hello my dearest boys!" exclaims one holding out his left cheek for a kiss. One looks at his reflection in the mirror and begins preening his delicately coiffed locks. "How does it look Marco?", "Carino, molto carino," sighs his friend. This doesn't really have an English equivalent, but I suppose it would be something like 'it looks lovely' - in the way you might say a puppy looks lovely. Once everyone is assembled a strange thing happens (to English eyes). Twelve men are all touching each other and talking - hands on knees, chests, around shoulders. Nobody has yet drunk a drop and - I kid you not - one of these angelic looking young men is sitting on the lap of another and they are talking with their hands on each others shoulders. Nobody comments or thinks this is any more unusual than another lad who is rubbing his mates back.

You might imagine this is drag night at the Bearpit Club, Sansepolcro, but no... this is our local pizzeria and this lot are all part of a local football team and odds on at least ten of them will be 100% conventionally heterosexual. (One will be gay all the way and the other won't know if he's in Debenhams or Lewis's!)

Now I've heard - nay I've seen studies on the behaviour of young British men and apparently there are similarities these days. The way male lives are played out has changed enormously over the past twenty years all over Europe. Masculinity is morphing, becoming 'sissyfied'. British men of my generation are still generally uncomfortable witnessing this sort of behaviour, but it's normal to younger men. The difference here though, is that older Italian men are just as kissy/touchy-feely . In my first week in Italy I had my British three foot exclusion zone breached on several occasions by over-friendly men. Now I'm quite used to a neck massage while engaged in conversation about the outrageous price of tomatoes down at the local co-op. I've come a long way since since the extreme discomfort of a conversation with a neighbour who had one hand over my solar plexus and the other on my coccyx.

You'll be familiar with the cool unapproachable metrosexuality of the Milanese male - sartorial sharpness, manicured geometrically razored precision sideburns, eyebrows 'threaded' to within an inch of their life, moisturised and polished – the first time I stepped off the train in Milan I felt like Wurzel Gummidge and as far as the locals were concerned I might as well have been. I am so low maintenance!

You see the same sort of thing in Manchester and Soho. It confuses the gaydar - you can't tell the gays from the straights any more. But just like their rougher Tuscan compatriots they drink cocktails for aperitivi. The main aperitivo is called 'spritz' (but not as we know it, Captain) a day-glow orange concoction of aperol and prosecco drunk through a straw. It's looks hideous, it tastes worse and is a criminal waste of prosecco. But talk about camp. You see scores of men sitting in bars in the early evening lifting straws to their lips. I wonder if anything as effete as this happens on Old Compton Street or Canal Street where the last time I looked they were all swilling bottled Czech beer at all hours? Maybe I'm out-of-date and pink gin's in.

'Man dates' figure big here too. It's not uncommon to see two men having dinner together. Bars are populated by posses of men. You may argue that Britain was the same when it had pubs, but British male pub culture seemed more driven by misogyny, and bonds of affection - if there be any - well supressed. Italy really is a homosocial culture where men maintain very tactile and affectionate friendships over a lifetime. I don't know what young British men talk about in pubs these days, but it used to be a limited range of things – football, women, cars and how to get from A to B. The Italian repertoire embraces much more... Food figures big, cooking and eating. Their mothers (There is absolutely no stigma to being a mummy's boy at 45! Sadly the economic reality is that many stay at home especially if unmarried). The latest haircut. Fashion... and of course they do follow football too but it doesn't dominate discourse.

Gay Map of Europe
Yanko Tsvetkov's gay map in the mapping stereotypes series characterises Italy as "Straight Homos"! I don't know if the supposed 'homoflexibility' of Italian men is mythical, but the only evidence I have to go on is an ostensibly hetero neighbour who turned up in budgie smugglers and sat there legs akimbo in something like normal conversation, occasionally scratching his groin. The signals were ambiguous because furtling around in the nether regions is a pastime among Italian men – who, by the way, also see nothing amiss in just peeing at the roadside. Let it all hang out, anywhere! Maybe the fault is in my receiver rather than their transmitters?

Evidently a Southern Man
So is the Southern Macho Male just a myth? Well, not entirely. The gay one's are bucking the trend. Muscle bound and moustachioed they wouldn't be seen dead supping a spritz or doing anything else so suspect. Maybe in Milan or Turin gay men are confident to express exactly who they are, but it seems to be different down here in Tuscany. Along with a 'hyper-closetedness' – i.e. Don't mention the war within earshot of anyone – there's a tendency to signify traditional masculinity in appearance and behaviour. Bears have cornered the market in this little bit of Italy. Body bulk and body hair are what count. Given the amount of time spent in the gym I don't know how anybody has the time or energy for sex.

A bear friend was showing me his profile on Scruff the day (Scruff is one of those geo-locational apps for chaps who like chaps that helps you root out where other bears are hiding in the Tuscan woods). You could list yourself in a few categories, 'Bear', 'Leather', 'Althlete/Jock' and 'Geek'. I asked him what category I'd be in. "Geek" he answered without a moments hesitation, a bit to quickly for my liking. Oh well, for a pasty Northern European with a body as smooth as a baby's bum, I suppose it's a niche.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Owls Eyes Everywhere - Trip Advisor Tyranny

What's Trip Advisor for? Is Trip Advisor simply a benign review site? Is it too big for it's boots now? 

The conversation went something like this.
"We're thinking of booking, but I've read about the insects. Will there be insects?"
Biting my tongue I resisted, "It's Italy, it's August, 36 degrees as we speak, we live on forested hills. You don't need a crystal ball..." opting instead for, "insects, good or bad in your book?"
"Can't stand creepy crawlies. On Trip Advisor it says there are lots of insects."
And do you know what? It does in fact say this on Trip Advisor - but in one of the most glowing reviews we've received from a wildlife enthusiast who loved to photograph butterflies, moths and beetles. One gleans what one gleans from any review I suppose.

Tenuta Savorgnano: Mattia Marzotto
Trip Advisor has been on my mind a lot lately for one reason or another. Guests all mention it. It's review season and sometimes it feels as if a Trip Advisor email lands in the inbox hourly. Our reviews are universally good so there's nothing to complain about there. It's the other emails urging me to become a star reviewer by writing just one more review. Or asking me to apply for window stickers to announce to the hordes that happen to be passing our mountain hideaway that we have a Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence. Mmm. Or sending me code to put a Trip Advisor logo on the website, blog or embedded in emails. The owls eyes are everywhere. Almost every restaurant, shop, B&B and hotel I pass! What next? A Trip Advisor logo tattooed on my forehead? And now it's linked to Facebook, so I'm informed whenever one of my contacts updates their Trip Advisor travel map or writes a review!

Some emails 'update' me on places I've merely perused on Trip Advisor. Their algorithms are set so that if I click on other reviews by guests who've reviewed us, they update me on that place everytime it gets a new review! Confession time. I occasionally check out the competion or places run by folks I know. My curiosity unearthed an intersting fact. Unfair negative reviews are common. How do I know they are unfair? Because they breach the Trip Advisor guidelines for reviewers. Reviews that actually state the reviewer never stayed. Reviews that compare one establishment unfavourably with another in it's locality and poor assessments based on factors proprietors have no control over such as the weather.

For example, one review of a Yorkshire B&B was based on a enquiry phonecall by someone who called again to actually book but had been pipped at the post by subsequent caller. (How often we get enquiries from people who say they want to book but don't follow through. How long should one hold dates for people who simply don't respond?) It accused the proprietor of lying in order to accept a more lucrative booking! Another review of a place on the Italian Island of Ischia rated it two out of five because it rained during the stay! These are clearly unfair and yet Trip Advisor allows them to stand.

I spoke to the Yorkshire owner who told me she'd given up trying to get Trip Advisor to acknowledge that this deliberate attempt to damage business and cast aspersions on the owners integrity, was unfair within it's own guidelines, and remove it. For big businesses with large guest numbers the odd unfair review is easily masked by more favourable ones. The result for smaller establishments can be devastating. Little places like us are only as good as the last review.

The average punter doesn't know this. Once the first reviewer has dobbed you in, so to speak, Trip Advisor then asks you to claim your listing and pay for the privilege of being able to respond to reviews – more than £400 a year! What choice does an owner have? You either pay or lose the ability to manage your own reputation on the forum that's rapidly becoming the only game in town.

So what do we get for our money apart from the right to reply? Well not much really apart from a million ways to create more publicity for Trip Advisor... badges, posters, certificates, stickers – not sure if there's a T-Shirt yet! There are mugs. In more ways than one! We do get to put extra information about our place on our listing but it's obscure and not obvious where to find it. What you do get when you alight on our listing - a bit of a cheek when they're charging us – is assailed by adverts for other inns around us with price comparisons! Often these are linked to other booking engines like Booking.com or Expedia. These natuarally favour the big guys since they're commission based and won't even touch you unless your volume of trade is enough to make them a bob or two.

Jonnie Falafel contemplates Trip Advisor
Trip Advisor owns other sites too. Check for the ubiquitous owls eyes at the bottom of web pages. These are often booking engines where places like us also pay for listings. No conflict of interest there then! I can see the day coming when Trip Advisor has all ends of the travel and leisure industry sewn up good and proper. And we provide the free content egged on by status rewards like Pavlov's dogs.


Our reviewers have all been so kind. I appreciate the efforts people have gone to and reviews have helped establish us. But it can so easily work the other way. Like lots of people I used to think of Trip Advisor only as review site a source of information. But you have to raise a sceptical voice when it's becoming so dominant. What's Trip Advisor for? It's to profit Trip Advisor of course. 

For more information on the views expressed here see Trip Advisor Watch You can post reviews on other sites. For us sites like Happy Cow or Veggie Places are relevant.


Sunday, 28 July 2013

Channelling Nigella - Vegan Cannelloni

Nigella Lawson
Okay you win. I submit. This is strictly a one off! I never wanted to be a recipe blogger. There are enough good veggie recipe blogs out there. Check out my friend Nicole www.ricetteveg.com. Don't get me wrong, I love to create good meals and I adore eating them, but the idea of writing a recipe blog? Let's just say it's not my tazza di te, as they say round here. That measured precision approach to cooking of conventional recipes bores me into oblivion. But... enough people have asked for this.

I do everything by taste, feel and proportion. Not just cooking!! A dash of this a splash of that and a good tablespoon of the other. Everyone knows stuff like shortcrust pastry is half fat to flour don't they? They don't? Buy a cookbook for heavens sake! Guests shyly ask for recipes all the time. (The shyly part is probably because they listen to Paul's tales of my 'chefy stropps'.) But I want to put the record straight. I'm a pussycat in the kitchen and I purr like Nigella Lawson straight into camera while licking the hummus I've just scraped from the blender slowly, delicately, tantalisingly off my little finger and out of my moustache. Yum. Needs a soup├žon more lemon, a smidgen of salt. Forget grammes and millilitres. The only way I can write a recipe is like Nigella. If you've read How To Eat you'll get my drift.

So I begin channelling Nigella. The camera pans across the kitchen and alights for just a millisecond on my cute Brummie ass in tight maroon cords. Then it rises the length of my slender sinewy figure. You can see my nipples through my tight T-Shirt. It finds me beaming, lips glistening. I run my tongue along my moustache. Turned on yet? Cut to elevator music as I open the fridge and take out an enormous wedge of chocolate gateau and stuff it greedily into my cake hole. Scene set we're off:

Vegan Cannelloni


Tasty dish No. 1
From your big posh larder cupboard pull: Olive oil, Onions and vegetables (according to your own taste), Passata, Rice Milk, Garlic, Herbs, Lasagne sheets, Porridge Oats, Walnuts or Brazils, Sunflower or pumpkin seeds, Cornflour, Yeast Extract, Tomato Puree, Salt (if you want) and pepper.

Serves 6 (sometimes 4 according to how hungry/greedy people are)

For the white sauce you'll need a small onion - white or red it doesn't matter, a clove of garlic or more depending on your taste. Some olive oil. Personally I like enough to kill a beginner. Some cornflour and some rice or soya milk. Seasoning to your own taste.

If you've ever wondered what's meant by 'first of all make a roux' here's what you do. Add a good slug of olive oil to a pan. Add your onion and garlic chopped finely and cook for a few minutes. You can't be exact, if you like more allium pungency cook less than if you like the sweeter caramalised taste. Next add your cornflour and stir vigorously. If your going to make a large proper teacup full of sauce you'll only need a heaped teaspoon of cornflour. Cook the cornflour but don't let the mixture burn. Remove from the heat and gradually add your rice or soya milk. Keep stiring to avoid lumps but if they form give it a blast with a hand blender to smooth it out. Return to the heat and boil and it should thicken. Too thick? Add more milk. Set aside.
Jonnie Falafel

For the tomato sauce you need a small onion, some chopped olives and and and capers, some tomato paste and a half bottle of a good quality smooth passata. Add some oil to pan and heat. Add some chopped onion and cook until tender. Next add your passata, olives and capers and if you like extra tomatoeyness a tablespoon of triple concentrate tomato puree. Cook together for a bout 15 minutes. Done. You can of course vary the vegetables. If you use zucchini, peppers, mushrooms they will not affect the cooking time. Chopped harder vegetables like broccoli or carrot will need longer cooking. If you like herby flavours you should add the herbs with the onions and cook for a while before adding everything else.

Make an egg substitute which is going to bind your filling together and be the matrix for the main flavours. Crack a couple of tablespoons of linseeds in a food processor and whizz up with hot water. Set aside and it should thicken like wallpaper paste. To this mixture add a good heaped teaspoon of yeast extract (Marmite will do) and half a tube of tomato puree. Whizz up. It should be thick and brownish.

Tasty Dish 2
The filling. Fry a finely chopped onion and any finely chopped.vegetables you like. As before you can add herbs to your taste. Once cooked turn off heat and leave. In a food processor whizz up some porridge oats, with some pumpkin or sunflower seeds and add some walnuts. I like walnuts because of their fatty unctuousness, but Brazils work just as well. Hazelnuts have a strong flavour but you can use them. Peanuts just taste wrong. Mix these dry ingredients with your cooked vegetables. Add your egg substitute and combine well.

Now comes the assembly. Place filling on the cooked lasagne sheets in sausage like lines and roll up. Place each roll in an oiled baking dish. When the dish is full, pour over your tomato sauce then the white sauce over that. Cover with foil and bake at 170 degrees for about 20 minutes. Remove the foil and bake further until browned. Remove from the oven, cut into portions and serve sprinkled with chopped parsley.

It's ready for your guests to enjoy. I always save a portion and all the bit's that stick to the dish, cover it with cling film and bung it in the fridge. Then I string fairy lights all around the kitchen in case of night starvation when  I get up at 2 am and finish it off along with the rest of the chocolate cake. Gaviscon follows. Ciao a tutti.





Wednesday, 10 July 2013

All Your Children Here - Leonard Cohen in Lucca

Last night was Leonard Cohen's second stop of his never ending tour at the Summer Festival in the genteel Northern Tuscany city of Lucca. The first was in 2009. He made it to Piazza Santa Croce in Firenze in 2010.

"Draw us near
Bind us tight
All your children here
In our rags of light"

The Maestro
You know the story already. Back in 2008 Leonard Cohen took to the road again after a 15 year hiatus in order to remedy dire financial straits brought about when his assistant Kelly Lynch siphoned his retirement fund. When he stepped back onto the stage that spring for those early Canadian and British dates little did he know that Lynch had done him – and us – a favour. Reassured he still had an audience, the experience sparked a creative renaissance realised in 2012s Old Ideas album and triggered an appetite for live performance that he claims never to have felt before.

Lucca has it all – quaint charm, gentility and and sophistication, in spades. The grand Piazza Napoleone (so named because Napoleon once ruled this city) is a spectacular setting for the event and as we strolled to soak up the atmosphere we were fortunate enough to witness the 5pm sound check. A relaxed Cohen dressed in a loose fitting open-necked light grey shirt, but still bearing the trade-mark trilby, led the band through a bouncy I Can't Forget from 1988s I'm Your Man album and a cover of the recently deceased George Jones Choices, neither of which he performed that evening. He stepped back and watched attentively as Sharon Robinson performed a partial Alexandra Leaving and the Webb sisters gave their version of If It Be Your Will an outing. Bidding adieu Leonard explained that they were retiring to the dressing room to get something to eat before the performance proper.

The Afternoon Sound Check
A brisk Dance Me To The End of Love opened the proceedings as it has at every Cohen concert for the past 28 years. In terms of song selection the opening set has remained largely the same since 2008 with the addition of a couple of numbers from Old Ideas. Someone was asking if this wasn't getting stale, but the anorak in me is forced to point out that Bird On A Wire has reverted to it's original lyric, Leonard having dropped the pleading “don't cry no more/Don't cry, don't cry, don't cry no more/It's over/It's finished/It's been paid for” which has been a feature of live performances for a couple of decades or more. Musical or lyrical variations provided enough to keep me interested even though the songs remained the same. Special mention has to go to Lover, Lover, Lover which has an astonishingly powerful new groove and a very committed vocal from the man himself.

Of course I was thrilled to hear the Old Ideas songs since I'd never witnessed them in performance. Amen was faithful to the album with Leonard extemporising for emphasis. He had not merely “seen through the horror”, but seen through “this whole damn horror”. The sublimely intense Come Healing - which has reduced me to tears on occasion - was marred by some totally inappropriate audience participation. What sort of ego needs to whistle loudly in the middle of the subdued harmonies? Why did some chat through the entire evening, or spend their time texting or even talking on the phone? At one stage a guy in front of me with his back to the stage had a screamed conversation with someone in the VIP bleachers at the back and was more or less shouting into my face. I just don't get it. Dylan has the right idea. At recent shows he's asked audiences to put away these devices and allow everyone to experience the concert directly first hand. Maybe I'm just getting old and irritable, but audience milling and churning, which is a feature of these types of shows, really got in the way of my enjoyment of the first set.
The energy levels and the volume went up in the second set. Some of the less committed audience members had disappeared leaving those with an attention span, and a touching Sisters of Mercy was a live first for me. I'd witnessed a full band version of Chelsea Hotel #2 at Florence three years ago, here it was an acoustic incarnation. I'd forgotten Heart With No Companion had been resurrected. It took me by surprise. The brisk-paced country shuffle arrangement has always seemed at odds with the lyric to me (“the nights of wild distress/Though your promise counts for nothing/You must keep it nonetheless”), but it was so perfectly enunciated you couldn't doubt it.

I'm Your Man allowed Leonard to be court jester, offering to wear an “old man's mask for you” and doing some outrageous mugging while making his plea, “if you want a father for your child” pointing directly into the front row. His own weakness in this little story of power-play was made clear in the repeated, “you know damn well you can/I'm your man” On the subject of mugging and movements that echo meaning it's worth mentioning here that earlier during a solid performance of Everybody Knows that he placed the back of his hand beneath his nose when he got to, “Everybody knows you live forever/When you've done a line or two” making the cocaine reference abundantly unambiguous.

Tonight Hallelujah was so subdued I could tell that some people didn't recognise it until he got to the chorus and then it slipped by subverting what had become a sing-along on previous tours. People are so used to power house versions of this song that it's almost
universally misunderstood as an anthem of praise. He combined the original lyric with the later re-write so I think we got most verses of both versions. Quite how, “Love is not a victory march/It's a cold and a very broken Hallelujah”, or “It's not a cry you hear tonight/From someone who has seen the light” or “Even though it's all gone wrong/I'll stand before the lord of song/Nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah” translates in some folks heads as celebratory is mystifying. As puzzling as his reputation for writing depressing songs.

I'm not really a fan of Sharon Robinson's melodies on Ten New Songs, but her rendition of Alexandra Leaving tonight is the epitome of style and dignity. Her voice is incredible and she holds the crowds rapt. I can't find words to signify just how intense it was.
Sharon Robinson


We got our chance for a sing-along with So Long Marianne. The audience belted out the chorus and Leonard stood with a broad grin and remarked on our “pretty singing”. He really seemed to enjoy leaving it to us. Going Home, featured in the encore, had Leonard lingering over the opening, “I love to speak with Leonard/He's a sportsman/He's a shepherd/He's a lazy bastard living in a suit” and the audience lapping up the self-deprecating humour. He wrapped up the evening unsurprisingly with I Tried To Leave You. “Here's a man still working for your smile”, the sonorous bass intoned. This was my fifth Cohen concert in as many years and I realised I was working for his and it was more in evidence than ever. After his usual benediction “May you be surrounded by the blessing of family and friends and if you are not, may the blessing find you in your solitude”, we all headed for home happy.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The Massacre at Civitella

Piazza Lazzeri - Scene of Civitella Massacre
Sitting on a bench near the church in Piazza Lazzeri in Civitella, a picturesque hill-town half an hours drive from home. It's a pleasant mid-May day. Azaleas dance in a warm breeze and geraniums and poppies dazzle leaving green after-images. I can vaguely hear old time tunes from the rest-home up the the street, punctuated by the sounds of crockery and cutlery from behind shutters. There's not a soul in sight unless you count the cats sleeping in the flowerbeds.

It could be one of dozens of drowsy walled towns except that it's name will be linked forever to the unconscionable events of June 1944 – the Civitella massacre. Memorialised in street names, in the tiny museum dedicated to the victims and in numerous plaques and monuments; the facts are these.

On June 18th 1944, two German soldiers were killed and a third wounded in a skirmish with partisans in the village of Civitella. Fearing reprisals, the inhabitants evacuated the village and hid in woodland and farmhouses, but when the Germans discovered this they postponed punitive action. When the fugitives were returning and feeling secure once more, the Panzers carried out a well organized attack.

View of Val di Chiana from Civitella
On June 29th 1944, a holiday for the feast of St. Peter & St. Paul, innocent inhabitants awoke at dawn to their doors being kicked in. Some were killed in their beds. Men were then rounded up and taken out in groups of five to the piazza or the school yard and pitilessly executed with single shots to the back of the head. Villagers were forced to watch as each group was murdered. During that day 212 men, women and children from Civitella and two nearby settlements were killed. Ages of the dead ranged from 1 year to 84 years. Around 100 houses were razed by fire; some of the victims burned alive in their homes.

Walking around Civitella that fine May day, reading the memorials and accounts of survivors I was overwhelmed by a suffocating grief. The thought of all these ordinary people marched to this peaceful piazza in certain knowledge of their deaths. The disproportionate and mercilessly cold nature of the revenge.1 The scars of war are evident all over Europe, but to be honest I'd hardly given the Italian experience much thought. How lucky we were that no panzer divisions ever rumbled through British streets, we never witnessed the terror of an occupation and events like these.

Via Martiri di Civitella - Martyrs Way
Despite the horror, I felt the urge to delve a little deeper. To read the names and see the bloodstained identity documents, the head scarves, the baby vests and the little Catholic tracts carried by the victims. What a can of worms it turned out to be!

Mussolini had been ousted by July 1943 and an armistice negotiated with the allies in late summer that year at which point German forces occupied the peninsular and reinstalled Mussolini as a puppet leader. Firstly, I'd always thought of the resistance as a unified entity, as the “good Italians”, but this was far from true. The fascists of the Italian Social republic were far from spent in spite of the dissolution of the Fascist Party soon after Mussolini was deposed. In effect there was simultaneous occupation and civil war which complicates notions of “good Italians”. Many partisan groups were opposed to each other and used the cover of the situation to settle old grievances. Furthermore, partisan activity was not widely supported by the populace since it inevitably brought reprisals on them, and many believed they should have given themselves up when the Germans demanded. Partisans are blamed for deaths as often as Panzer divisions. Consequently, one sees these competing histories reflected in monuments, memorials and the writings of different groups in society.

Survivor Testimony
In Il Sangue dei Vinti (The Victors Blood) left-wing journalist Giampaolo Pansa attempted to give a fuller account of the fictions and factions of this era and was roundly condemned from all sides for challenging the idea of the resistance as uniformly “good Italians”. He's been labelled a holocaust denier, it's said he denies the ethical credentials of the entire resistance and that he places the Fascist and partisan causes on equal footing. His book signings are interrupted and he has received death threats.

But the fact remains that around 7,500 ordinary Italians were slaughtered in reprisals for partisan activity by Hermann Goerings' panzer divisions. If you come to Tuscany look into the history of the end of the second world war in these hills. Visit Civitella, visit the site of the concentration camp not even 10 kilometres from where I sit now. Listen to women in their mid-nineties talk about the rapes and intimidation. It complicates your thinking and informs the present in ways I didn't even imagine before. If you ever wonder why Iraqi mothers didn't welcome the liberating forces of democracy …. well learn the lessons of this history.
  1. Post-war investigation detailed in The Report of the British War Crimes Section of Allied Force Headquarters on German reprisals for partisan activities in Italy revealed that such attacks were carried out in accordance with the policy of Nazi Supreme Command. Documents (memos, orders etc.) found give very specific instructions on how reprisals should be executed and granted immunity from prosecution to individual soldiers from prosecution for any anti-partisan activities, “Wherever there is evidence of considerable numbers of partisan groups, a proportion of the male population will be arrested and, in the event of an act of violence being committed, these will be shot. The population must be informed of this.” Information notices posted in Italian gave more specific detail on reprisals, “for every member of the German armed forces.... wounded, fifty men will be taken from the place where the deed was committed and shot. For every (one) killed one hundred men, also taken from the locality of the crime will be shot. In the event of more than one German soldier or civilian being killed or wounded, all the men of the district will be shot, the houses set on fire, the women interred and the cattle confiscated”.
  2. I've just written a poem 'Civitella' which I can't publish in full because I've entered it in a competition. I reproduce the first stanza here and will post it on my poetry blog Crackle & Drag as soon as I am able.

In Italy's divided mind
Myth and maxim side by side
Memorials and monuments maintain
Allege, assert, contend
Insist, state, proclaim,
profess, defend, uphold
vindicate and justify.
Every factions fictions
Legends, myths, inventions,
Fabrications, romance, fantasy and lie.