Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Italy, Italy, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways I do… (and don’t!)

Abruzzo National Park, Italy
This is a big bruiser of a post, sorry - with lots of photos as well. We’ve just arrived back in Menton after a twelve day hurtle around Italy – in part to give my daughter Rose a little ‘taster’ of the place, and also because it’s right there and why the hell wouldn’t we? Well, not altogether true: I find that stories pop up in the most unexpected places, so it’s good to set forth and see what eventuates… and, yes, in the middle of an interminable drive from the Abruzzo National Park (more on that wonderful place soon) to Venice, a whole new book idea downloaded into my head from that secret story stash in the sky – complete with characters, scenes, themes, jokes and title… I spent an hour and a half frantically scribbling down notes on the back of scrap paper as it came to me. Except now I have to put it aside to concentrate on Heloise before I can get back to it. Frustrating? Yes, in a way, because I like it very much and it’s funny[1], so it’ll be a nice change from my usual gloom and doom. But I’m also still incredibly excited and am well on track to reawaken Heloise, so what could be nicer than to have two new projects to occupy my over-active mind[2]?
Now to the Italian trip, first stop Pisa. It was a treat to drive there this time (instead of by bus last time) and to discover that the actual town itself, away from all the circus of the leaning tower, has a really lovely medieval heart with river running right through it. We started my little Twitter game there – placing my book Dear Vincent in improbable places and tweeting about it. A bit of fun, which caused us much hilarity as we discussed possibilities over dinner one night (and took things waaay too far!) My personal favourite is this photo taken in San Gimignano , a real honey of a medieval hilltop village tucked in the paradise that is Tuscany, so perfect it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site. I’ve posted the other photos on my Facebook author page if you’d like a chuckle.  

NB: WE INTERRUPT THIS BLOGCAST WITH AN IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT: Just to spice life up, if you post your wackiest picture of Dear Vincent in an unusual place with a great caption to my author facebook page, you will go into the draw to win a signed copy (and great kudos, of course!) of my soon to be released book Singing Home the Whale.  This competition will run until the beginning of October (to give me time to return home to send out this AMAZING personalised prize!!!) So get your copy of Dear Vincent out and take it for a walk somewhere….

Shesh… enough of the self promotion already… So, from Pisa we headed to Florence, which truly is a beautiful place.  We stayed slightly outside the centre in order to accommodate the car and took a bus into the heart of the old town. With my immaculate planning and spot-on natural sense of timing, I managed to organise for us to be touring Italy just as the summer hordes started to descend and the place was awash with tourists just like us. And hot. Humid, thunderstorm hot. We had a quick wander around the area then plonked ourselves in an outdoor bar, where we were accosted by an enthusiastic young English woman who ‘LOVED’ NZ, had visited there and wanted to share all her stories and learnt lingo with us, aye mate! Loud-voiced and high-fiving (so not me), she certainly held our attention (and the dozen or so people around us) as we downed a welcome drink. 

Brian surrounded by sticky drips of gelato
By now, truth be told, it was getting late and we were more than a little travel weary, and, as some of you will know, I’m a very cheap drunk – in fact, in situations such as this, when I’m tired and haven’t eaten much, one glass of wine has the same metabolic affect on me as three or four dozen beers do on your average good kiwi bloke (hmm, actually, maybe more!) In my sozzled state we then traipsed around the gorgeous medieval streets of Florence as I convinced Brian and Rose that we didn’t need dinner as such (since we’d hoovered up our own portion of peanuts and olives, and then Loud English High-fiver’s as well), so therefore the most appropriate evening meal just HAD to be the delicious-smelling waffles smothered with gelato from the street vendor 
we just passed. They, too, must have been more than a little tired because they acquiesced, and we ended up standing on a street corner as the gelato dripped down our arms onto our clothes and then onto our feet to form a moat of dripped caramel around us. We valiantly tried to eat the waffles, we really did, but despite being ten bloody euros each (don’t tell the others) they were totally inedible once the first few enthusiastic mouthfuls had time to register on the taste buds. 

The next day we accompanied Rose on a guided tour of the Uffizi Gallery, and it was such a joy to see her well up with the same emotions as I experienced when I first went. To see those magnificent paintings in the flesh after loving them since childhood – Botticelli, Caravaggio, Michelangelo, da Vinci, on and on (far too many geniuses to name them all) – and to be lucky enough to have someone articulate, with superb background knowledge, talking about them – oh, it’s a truly magical thing. 

Looking down over Florence
Later that night we drove up into the hills behind Florence and looked down on it from afar, across the vineyards and the soaring cypress trees – one of those ‘pinch me’ moments that is a reminder of how incredibly lucky we are to be able to have such a privileged experience together. A gift.

We drove the ‘ecological’ route to Rome from Florence, exploring the Tuscan countryside in order to gorge our senses on the wild flowers, neat rows of grapevines, undulating hills, beautiful buildings and, of course, field upon field of sunflowers! Nothing says ‘happiness’ more than those glowing fields of vibrant yellow – Van Gogh yellow. Just as well. We needed such a respite before the roller-coaster that was Rome.

Taking Dear Vincent to Rome for the day
People had said that driving in Rome was challenging – and I’m not going to deny it! No rules, no warning – Brian deserves a medal! Our hotel was close to the Vatican, with a little outside terrace from which we could see the dome of St Peter’s glowing at night beside a full moon (which seemed a lovely mix of pagan/Christian symbolism!) None of us had been to Rome before so, with only one and a half days there, we opted to take a couple of guided tours in order to catch some of the highlights. We spent the morning learning about the Colosseum and amazing Forum complex from a lovely young guy who was a qualified archaeologist/PhD student – sweet and knowledgeable and I’m sure his unique perspective was a little different from the usual tourist banter[3]. He took us to the places he loved at each of these sites, then told us why he did. Both sites are gobsmacking. I’m not even going to try and comment further – I feel like I still need time to get my head around the age, scale and sheer brilliance of vision and engineering.

As we made our way from one tour site to the other on the very easy-to-use Rome metro, our day turned sour as Brian had his mobile phone pick-pocketed and Rose just managed to hang onto her wallet in the same brazen act. It was a sobering experience – and really disappointing to lose four months of photos literally from one minute to the next. Yes, we’d been warned – but I think it’s a measure of our luck in living in such a relatively crime-free, affluent country that we didn’t really take in the warnings as a concrete possibility (and it was primarily Naples we’d been warned about!) A bummer. But we spent the afternoon on a walking tour taking in some of Rome’s majestic squares and buildings (including the seat of government, where banners were protesting the ban on stem-cell treatment for the dying – interesting) before heading back to our hotel sadder and wiser as the heavens opened and lightning ripped the sky apart before our eyes.

Pope blessing Dear Vincent
The next morning we made our way to the Vatican – no self-respecting tourist to Rome could possibly ignore it – and as I walked around I found I had very mixed feelings. (Spoiler alert: if you’re a devout Catholic you might want to skip the rest of this paragraph so we don’t end our lovely
Idol worship
friendship here!) It is a truly magnificent place – and the artwork and treasures inside are overwhelming in their beauty and abundance – and I’m grateful that the church supported such talented artists through the ages and protected their work so that we can still see it today (I really, truly, genuinely am) but… what is held there (particularly the Middle Eastern and Eastern artefacts) are the treasures of other countries and other peoples – and they were essentially pillaged from those cultures and purloined for Rome. And it might be lovely that it’s held there in a pristine museum-like setting so people can see it – but people have to PAY to see it (except for one half day a month) – and this means the people whose country’s riches are represented there have no access to their cultural heritage and treasure unless they go there and fork out the dosh (this is not merely a critique of the Vatican museum – I feel this way about places such as the British Museum too – think Elgin Marbles!) It also seemed bizarre that for a religion that condemns the worship of any other gods or idols, they sure had a shit load of them represented in their collections! What makes them exempt from these so-called evil influences and not the rest of us? And the wealth of the bootie there – well, I’m sorry but I find it kind of obscene that this place holds so much wealth while, outside its gates, people are begging and struggling and picking bloody pockets just to make ends meet. I applaud the genuinely good moves that Pope Frances has made towards the poor, and a more open engagement on the myriad serious issues faced by the Catholic church – but, given that Christ railed against the money lenders and the accumulators of wealth, I find the riches in the Vatican (and in most of these astonishing churches in general) hard to swallow. I’ve never seen so much gold as I have during the last twelve days in Italy’s beautiful churches (except the last time I was in Europe – and our recent tripping around France!) Same issue. Same hypocrisy, in my humble opinion. Sorry. There you have it. Forgive my angry socialist heart.
Chilling with a good book thanks to a handy friend
This brings me on to Naples. Ah, Naples. Now, we had been warned that Naples was a den of iniquity, and that we’d better watch our backs – and also that driving there was madness. There seems to be a general agreement that Naples is totally under the fist of the Mafia and I have no way of confirming or denying that, but what I can say is that it appears (to outsiders such as us anyway) like a city in total collapse. In fact, it could well be the harbinger of what all urban centres might look like in the future as climate change kicks in, corporates[4] control all the wealth, social structures break down[5] and chaos reigns. The roads are cracked, potholed and overgrown with weeds, sidewalks similarly overgrown and strewn with rubbish (in fact we watched one couple walk up the road, deposit a bag of rubbish under a bridge, and leave again) and the trains look like graffiti-ridden hunks of rust on the point of derailment. There appear to be no road rules for either drivers or pedestrians, and I’d hate to have to walk anywhere at night. Now, it’s possible our judgement was affected by the dire warnings we’d been given and that if we’d been shown around by a local and taken to the right places we might have felt differently, but from the local restaurant that had nooses, guns and crossbows as its decoration, to the swarming masses we had to negotiate on roads as rough as post-quake Christchurch, I think it’s fair to say we were all relieved to get out of there alive!

We did spend half a day walking around Herculaneum (buried by the volcanic eruption of Mt Vesuvius, as Pompeii was, though without the crowds and better preserved!) which was a sobering and fascinating experience – although it would’ve been really helpful if we’d noted that the Italians call it Ercolano and we hadn’t spent two hours driving around in circles as the temperature soared to 37 degrees (until we all had a meltdown and tried to kill each other!) Ah, the joys of travel!

Past residents of Herculaneum
Worth the stress to see this amazing place
As we walked around this surreal place Mt Vesuvius loomed in the skies behind us, the sky darkening and thunder rumbling - a reminder that the dead still dwelt there, I am sure.

We were saved from our travel stresses by Rose’s inspired suggestion that we stay a couple of nights in the Abruzzo National Park, three hours drive north east of Naples. We stayed in a little village by a lake, amid the most stunning mountain scenery (beech forests, rugged mountain cliffs, medieval hilltop villages) and saw stags romping across the roads and fearlessly eating grass in the village, and fish leaping in the crystal clear waters of the lake. It was such a salve – and made me realise how much I treasure our little house at home, totally surrounded by green, and how vital it is to my peace of mind. All these cities are wonderful and heart-stoppingly magnificent, but it’s nature that I love.

After recovering our equilibrium in the mountains we braved Venice in full tourist swing – I don’t think I have ever sweated so much as when I was crammed into
With my favourite illustrator in Venice!
one of the boats as we traversed the Grand Canal – and though it was beautiful (how could Venice not be?) by then I just wanted to get back to Menton, eat some food that contained fresh fruits and vegetables (!), and slip back into my quiet existence of research, swimming and soaking in the calmness of our sea view. And so our last night away, spent at Lake Como (Italian haunt of George Clooney, though he seemed to have forgotten to pop over to say hello while we were there), was almost wasted on us, as we all pined for ‘home.’  

So there you have it – twelve action packed days with images that are still unravelling themselves in
my mind. Random odd memories keep popping up, like the used sanitary pad (fortunately not bloody) on the stairway as we entered the Vatican museum (a strange juxtaposition if ever there was one!) and the banner at Venice railing against the Mafia, and the touching notice up in the main square of San Gimignano, showing solidarity to the poor immigrants who are currently risking life and limb to flee to safer shores (possibly the very same who we see playing cat and mouse with the police at the border here, if they're lucky enough to get this far, or the fake watch/bag/jewellery/junk sellers who were chased around Venice by the police there in another little dance of who is powerful and who is not. )

So I’ll leave you with these thoughts, and all the rest of this big disorderly rant for now, and finally get back to my work! A bientot!
The notice up in the town square at San Gimignano - good for them!

My thanks to Rose and Brain for sharing photos with me.

[1] Maybe even sick funny, dear friends, which shouldn’t surprise those of you who know me well!
[2] Especially as I watch the (NZ) pre-election bullshitting, which depress the hell out of me
[3] At one point announcing in an emotional way that he ‘hated’ Mussolini and didn’t want to have to talk about him but was going to have to.
[4] It seems to me the Mafia is really just another multi-million dollar corporation, albeit an illegal one (and that’s perhaps an oxymoron given the level of morally bankrupt ‘legal’ corporate activity – think water privatisation in Sth America, for instance, or bloody LEGO teaming up with Shell to mine the Arctic)
 [5] or are disestablished, as they currently are in countries like NZ all around the world

Why we need fairy tales

Richard Dawkins recently generated some heated debate about fairy tales, claiming that they are bad for children. I was contacted by the NZ Book Council and asked if I'd like to write a short piece in response for their online site Booknotes Unbound (well worth a regular visit if you're interested in NZ writing). Here's my article:

 Many (many) moons ago, when I entered teacher’s college, I had the great privilege of being taught by master storyteller Jack Lasenby. His classes were unforgettable. He wove magic with words, retelling the fairy tales and myths of the ancient world. What he wanted us to understand was that these stories have a weight and a transformative quality that fires up human imagination and opens the mind, thereby creating a lifelong hunger for well-formed (and meaningful) written and spoken word. And that this hunger for powerful language – and this questing for the underlying meaning of life’s metaphors – was the greatest gift we could pass on to our students (and our own children).

I have never forgotten these lessons. In fact, they still whisper at me every time I sit down to write. So when The Times reported that Richard Dawkins, Britain’s self-appointed Saint of Atheism, had come out against fairy tales, declaring they were bad for kids, my hackles rose! What he said, according to the article, was that ‘I think it’s rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism … even fairy tales, the ones we all love, about witches and wizards or princes turning into frogs. There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog. It’s statistically improbable.’ What we would be better doing, he said, was to imbue our children with the ‘spirit of scepticism’. For instance, Winnie-the-Pooh was implausible: you’d never see bears, tigers, pigs and kangaroos sharing the same eco-system. As my Facebook buddy Loretta would say to such anal pedantry:  ‘FFS!’

Not surprisingly, Dawkins caused quite a stir. What was surprising however (given the man is certainly no stranger to controversy) was his speedy and fervent backtrack in the Guardian shortly afterwards. He was quoted out of context, he cried, and said that he championed the development of the creative imagination, though: ‘fairy stories might equip the child to reject supernaturalism when the time comes … [but] unfortunately it doesn’t seem to have had the desired effect in some cases because after children learnt that there is no Santa Claus, mysteriously they go on believing that there is a God.’

Ah, so here we get to the nub of his gripe: that we must not allow anything that might possibly harbour religious belief. And judging by the bipolar extremes of responses to both The Times and the Guardian articles1, most people were more interested in carrying on the ‘Is-there-Isn’t-there-a-God?’ debate than to actually explore the argument about fairy tales one way or the other (with a few notable exceptions). One can only assume the reason behind his hasty retraction is that even his supporters thought he’d gone a step too far and were starting to speculate that perhaps the Emperor’s robes were growing just a little too transparent …

I used to admire Richard Dawkins. He has an excellent mind and is extremely articulate. I read the God Delusion and agree with his basic arguments (even if he didn’t know when to stop!). But he’s become the very thing he has long lambasted others for: he has become a fundamentalist, allowing his world view to colour everything he says and does. I don’t say this lightly; according to the Oxford Dictionary ‘fundamentalism’ is defined as: a strict adherence to the basic principles of any subject or discipline. And in terms of religious fundamentalism it says: a form of religion… that upholds belief in the strict, literal interpretation of scripture. Dawkins (and those supporting him in this particular online debate) seems to be saying that because (in his opinion) one must not be fooled by the fakery that is belief in a supernatural being (i.e. God), one therefore should not indulge in any wandering into the world of imaginative fancy, for fear of being sucked into a deadly supernatural (aka religious) vortex.

Yet as a scientist he must know that the reverse is true. It is through allowing the mind to wander into thoughts and worlds not yet colonised by others’ theories or expectations that we have made the most spectacular leaps forward in knowledge and understanding. In fact, imagination and speculation have always been scientists’ friends. Archimedes, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Curie, Lovelace, Carson … all the brilliant thinkers who have given the world so much started with a thought that must have sounded something like ‘What if…?’ Discovery and invention are merely the imagination made real after fancy takes flight. In fact, Einstein said ‘If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.’ And perhaps it would be wise to add ‘and science fiction’ to that statement. The writers of this genre have been the first to imagine scientific and technological advances in everything from space travel to the mobile phone!

Maria Tatar, a professor at Harvard College, argues fairy tales are helpful in allowing the child to ‘work through so many personal and cultural anxieties, yet they do so in a  safe, ‘once upon a time’ way … [they] have a role in liberating the imagination…2’ In an article posted on the NY Teachers blog3, the authors champion fairy tales as vital to a child’s development by showing them how to handle problems, providing a common cultural language that crosses cultural boundaries, teaching the basics of story structure as well as critical thinking skills and moral lessons. Elsewhere, writer and child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim states fairy tales are important as a means of providing useful role-models when main characters demonstrate bravery, self-actualisation and the ability to triumph over adversity4.

When I really started thinking about why I think fairy tales should be included as a vital part of every child’s literary landscape, all the points mentioned above sprang to mind. I’ve seen the power of story used in a biblio-therapeutic setting to introduce other ways of thinking and being. As a writer, every day I experience the powerful forces of imagination, as it delivers up thoughts, ideas, realisations, characters, conversations and dreams that I could never locate without learning to trust that I can tap into this thing called my ‘imagination’ – a way of thinking separate to my logical, mundane mind. It is something far more creative, intuitive, exciting and magical (dare I say supernatural!) than the intelligence I bring to bear on everyday tasks. If fairy tales can help to unleash this powerful force in everyone’s minds then I say go for it! (I’ve met many a person who has said they wished they could think more creatively – and have yet to find anyone who’s said they wished that they did not.)
One of the most compelling reasons for keeping fairy tales alive in our culture is that they teach us about the possibility of transformation. Frog to prince. Beast to lover. Loneliness to love. This fosters hope; a way to keep the metaphorical wolves at bay. And I can’t help thinking today’s kids need a lot of that, given the world they’re faced with.

Of all the people who have written on this, Joseph Campbell has to be the one who understands it best, for it was he who analysed the many myths, legends and fairy tales of the world and discovered It’s only when a man tames his own demons that he becomes the king of himself, if not the world.’ How could Richard Dawkins not approve of that?
their unifying core. By identifying the mono-myth – that one universal journey that sits beneath all stories – he recognised that each person’s trek through life, their unique personal myth (or fairy tale, if you like) always centres on transformation and transcendence: that each of us must discover who we really are, not only as a being separate from all others but also how we fit into the world and the people around us. And he understood that this could only come about through tests, trials and challenges – the outcome of our own quest, if you like. Our initiation into adulthood. Our slaying of the dragon. Our escape from the beast within. ‘

This article was commissioned by the New Zealand Book Council and first appeared in the Sunday Star Times (Sunday 13 July 2014) then on the Booknotes Unbound website 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Cover Love - introducing my soon to be released book 'Singing Home The Whale'

I'm very excited about the up-coming launch of my new book 'Singing Home the Whale' - so much so I just had to share the cover with you to whet your appetite!

It's due to be released in NZ 5th September and I'll have a delayed launch (or two) when I arrive back in New Zealand. The first is planned for Wednesday 15th October at the marvellous Children's Bookshop in Kilbirnie, Wellington 5.30 - 6ish, when I'll also have the chance to talk a little about the great French experience! If you are in town do please come along. It's always nice to welcome a new book properly into the world (just as I'll be welcoming grandchild No. 1 on my arrival home as well!)

I'm proud of this book. It's very different from anything I've written before and has really pushed me as a writer. I hope you'll read it and love it as much as I do! And it's got the most amazing drawings by my daughter Rose Lawson in it! Go to the dedicated page on this site (see the link button above this post) and take a sneak preview!