Clive James’s Ape-Call

When I was growing up in the 1980s, my brothers and I were occasionally allowed to stay up late to watch Saturday Night Clive. This was The Daily Show before The Daily Show existed, where the host offered comedic commentary on current events. Although the humor was often relatively adult, my parents’ morality policing was relaxed for once because Clive James had a quality that my parents prized highly: Wit. In that unmistakable nasal sing-song drawl, he cast off crafty one-liners and launched into metaphorical flights of fancy. His sarcastic references to Thatcher, Reagan, Gorbachev and the Royals piqued my interest in world news by revealing that important adults could be devious, ridiculous and weak – i.e. human.



“On the world scene, President of the United States Mr. Ronald Reagan has reacted angrily to suggestions that he might not really have forgotten being told about the Iran affair. ‘I can clearly remember forgetting,’ he says. ‘I’ve even forgotten whose finger this is.’” (bit from The Clive James Show in 1987)


What I didn’t know then was that Clive James wrote poetry. When he retired from show business, he gradually shifted to full-time versifying. The first I knew of his interest was when I also started writing poetry as a teenager and saw one of his poems in an anthology, a kind of obituary titled “Johnny Weissmuller Dead in Acapulco”. Despite scoffing at the idea that a TV celebrity had what it took to be a poet, I had to admit that this one wasn’t all bad, especially the final stanza:


There was a chimpanzee at his funeral,

Which must have been someone’s idea of a smart promotion,

And you might say that dignity had fled,

But when Tarzan dropped from the tall tree and swam out of the splash

Like an otter with an outboard to save Boy from the waterfall

It looked like poetry to me,

And at home in the bath I would surface giving the ape-call.


So news of Clive James’s death, though long anticipated, was unsettling. I felt I’d neglected him, as if he were a great-uncle or an old teacher. I looked back at clips from those TV shows of the 1980s, but they only increased my unease. The jokes seemed stale, naturally enough, because humor doesn’t travel very well in time or across borders. But even allowing for inevitable verdigris, his witticisms seemed labored and his face alarmingly unexpressive: eyes so deep-set they were like two black holes over a spuddy nose and a slightly off-kilter smirk.




Knowing he was a poetry enthusiast, I wondered if he’d be more appealing on the page and decided to mark the occasion of his death by buying his Collected Poems. In a 2003 interview with Michael Parkinson, Clive James warbled about why poetry is different to other forms of writing for him:


…[It] is a way of staying in childhood, it’s a way of staying obsessed with language, as children are. There’s a beautiful couple of lines by Dylan Thomas in one of the poems he wrote towards the end of his troubled and confused life, and he was talking about being a kid and playing in the park in Swansea, and he said, “the ball I threw when playing in the park/has not yet reached the ground.” I think it’s wonderful, that’s the way he felt about his life. And when I read that, I thought, “I’ll never forget that,” and I never have. It’s one of the things that made me want to be a poet, to try and say something memorable and I think that is really what poets do, they try to put it together out of this tremendous sense of everything coming apart, which I’ve always felt.


As plausible as all this sounds, it’s not the whole story. Poetry for him was, at least partly, a way of getting hot women to pay attention to him, especially once his TV airtime had dried up. The reason I venture to say this is that he frequently says so in his poems (“Obscurity, in my view, is rarely a tolerable aim in the arts” he pontificates in a footnote to “Funnelweb”). “Publisher’s Party”, for example, is an admirably clear poem about a beautiful woman at a publisher’s party who chooses to seduce someone other than Clive James:


Lacking in social skills, licensed to bore,

He was the kind of bloke

A girl like her would normally ignore,

Unless, of course, he’d won the Booker Prize.

Alas, he had. I can’t think of a joke –

Only of how she lingered there until

He woke up to the full force of her looks;

Of how we rippled with a jealous thrill,

All those of us who’d also written books

Out of an inner need;

And now a panel-game of hacks and crooks

Had staked him out for her to stalk and kill –

As if the man could write, and she could read.


In “Literary Lunch” from Angels Over Elsinore, he delivers an old man’s gentle lament. No longer can he take the lithe young would-be in his arms; all he can do is pay humble homage to her beauty through sophisticated academic whiffling:


Reciting poetry by those you prize—

Auden, MacNiece, Yeats, Stevens, Charlotte Mew –

I trust my memory and watch your eyes

To see if you know I am wooing you

With all these stolen goods. Of course you do.


Of course she knew he was trying to get into her pants; she probably needed a publishing connection and had heard he’d shag a fire-hydrant if it wore a dress. This old-man shtick is, of course, disingenuous too. In an obsequious obituary to James in the Financial Post, Luke Slatterly recalls that at age 62 Clive danced the night away at a Sydney dance club, and boasted about making a bee-line for tango wherever he jetted to. Even when this Casanova of Kogarah ends up cadging a ride with ‘an attractive middle-aged blonde,’ Slatterly refuses to admit that James was a horny old goat, but rather a Higher Being whose nature was best expressed in the artistic medium of Dance:


James’s passion for the tango speaks, I think, to some of the qualities of the man. Not only the tango intense, languid, sexy, and intoxicating, it is also tragic, poetic, lyrical, abstruse, elegiac and melancholy, and has been described as a “sad thought that dances”.




At 64, this Sad Thought That Dances embarked on a torrid affair with ‘Ex-Model’ Leanne Edelsten (also an attractive middle-aged blonde), ‘ravishing’ her periodically until he was 71, leaving her breathlessly declaring, ‘The guy’s a legend…he’d leave men half his age for dead’. Edelsten may not be Emily Dickinson, but her evocative account of their trysts on Australia’s A Current Affair was arguably more memorable than Clive’s poetic oeuvre:


Edelston: We would always drink tea with a Cherry Ripe, so…

Martin King: A cup of tea? Before?

Edelston: Yes, always. With a Cherry Ripe. And after




Similarly indelible, like a diesel-stain on a doily, was the Daily Mail’s reference to a 2005 affair with opera singer Ann Howell:


She claimed that when he first ‘seduced’ her, he had been eating shortbread and invited her to ‘suck the crumbs from between my teeth’.


I’m sorry, but if I have to know about this, then you do too. Besides, it’s clear he wanted everyone to think about him doing such things. In his poem “The Nymph Calypso”, there’s a horrifying but all-too probable chance that he is casting himself as Odysseus, with Edelston, or some ringer, being Calypso begging him to stay on just one more night:


Old studs like you need youth to love. I’m it.

I’m always eager, and you’re still quite fit:

A last adventure to light up the sky.

I’ll tell my tale forever, don’t forget:

The greatest lover that I ever met.’

As for Penelope, he could depend

On her care for the time he had to live.


If Clive is Odysseus here, then ol’ dependable must be his wife, the Dante scholar Prue Shaw, who did indeed accord him a humane measure of care and companionship in his decade of dying–but only after throwing him out of her house. I imagine, even more than the incessant sexual boasting and humiliating tabloid stories, she was more offended by the sight of him daily tapping away at pretentious doggerel convinced he was writing himself into some sort of Celestial Syllabus. After 40 years of marriage to a giant literary ego, she can hardly have expected much, but that must have grated. He may be a fine essayist, I wouldn’t know, but his output in the poetry department resembles less that of Dante Alighieri than that of the hero of his poem “The Eternity Man”:


Before he died in 1967

At the age of eighty-eight

He had managed to write it five hundred thousand times,

And always in copperplate script.

Few streets or public places in the city of Sydney

Remained unmarked by the man with a single obsession—

Writing Eternity


One of James’s favorite tricks is to write about other more famous writers in order to siphon off a little of their fame, to derive some glory by association, like a dog covering up the pee of other poets with his own much smellier pee. One of his chosen dedicatees is Philip Larkin, and you can see him going through all the bullet-points: Things we all know about Larkin: stay-at-home, morose, vernacular, officially great. As a springboard into it, James describes the moment he heard of Larkin’s death, when he was touching down in Nairobi seeing all the wonderful sights. There are many, many stanzas about all the exotic things James sees and the implication seems to be that travel assists the imagination, so in this respect he definitely has the leg-up on Larkin, who was a sadsack who considered Hull the World:


In point of fact I swallowed Kenya whole,

A mill choked by a plenitude of grist.

Like anabolic steroids for the soul,

Every reagent was a catalyst –

So much to take in sent me round the twist.


He also mentions that he was filming a TV show, flying first-class and getting invited into the cockpit by the pilots. And yet, in spite of these obvious advantages, James is prepared to acknowledge that Larkin was a good poet. He magnanimously concedes defeat, though it’s a close call:


Yet even with your last great work ‘Aubade’

(To see death clearly, did you pull it close?)

The commentator must be on his guard

Lest he should overlook the virtuose

Technique which makes majestic the morose.

The truth is that you revelled in your craft.

Profound glee charged your sentences with wit.

You beat them into stanza form and laughed:

They didn’t sound like poetry one bit,

Except for being absolutely it.


The whole thing sounds like the sort of poem the town wag would read out at the local rugby club at a special anniversary piss-up. Archaic diction like ‘lest’ and ‘glee’, clunky thesaurus options like ‘virtuose’, the oxymorons like ‘profound glee’ and ‘majestic the morose’ – these signal Poetry with a Capital ‘P’, declamatory, public, pompous and amateur. It’s possible to argue that James was deliberately writing this way to emphasize his disadvantage, but I doubt it. I think he just didn’t notice details unless they wore high heels. Larkin deliberately spoke only for himself and did so as naturally as possible, saving any special effects not to say ‘Hey, look at me, I’m writing Poetry!’ but to draw attention to what he wanted to emphasize. You can see this in any of his poems, for example the first stanza of “Poetry of Departures”:


Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,

As epitaph:

He chucked up everything

And just cleared off,

And always the voice will sound

Certain you approve

This audacious, purifying,

Elemental move.


Larkin noticed the world around him all the time, James didn’t (unless she wore lipstick) …until he started dying. The poems he wrote after being diagnosed with cancer are different. They are slightly better, probably because he had more time to devote to writing them. They are also painful because they convey the physical and emotional suffering of someone completely unprepared for it. You can see a man used to having an adoring live audience having to deal with loneliness. You can see him floundering around trying to regain love, trying to appreciate little things and to show his family he cares about them. The poems are not very attractive–there is quite a lot of whinging and self-importance–but they are honest. 


The grand old man. Do I dare play that part?

Perhaps I am too frail. I don’t know how

To say exactly what is in my heart, 

Except I feel that I am nowhere now. 

But I have tempted providence too long:

It gives me life enough, and little pain. 

I should be grateful for this simple song,

No matter how it goes against the grain

To spend the best part of a winter’s day

Filing away at some reluctant rhyme

And go to bed with so much still to say

On how I came to have so little time. 


It turned out that he had more time than he thought he did, and he said a lot more than he thought he would. And as much as his poems get on my tits, I am glad about that. 




Two Days A-Roving in Venice

First Day:  St. Mark’s Square

There’s an awful lot to see in Venice but it’s possible have a spectacular day doing just two things: floating on the Grand Canal and visiting St. Mark’s Square. In fact, this is what we did.


map venice
The railway station is today in the upper left corner.


Arriving at San Lucia station in the morning, we bought two day passes, giving us unlimited access to public transport (ie vaporetti or ferries) for 24 hours. From the station it was just a few steps to a ferry dock and the next one came along in 10 minutes.

The public ferries may not come with a singing gondolier, but you have a choice of indoor and outdoor seating and you can still gawp at all the architectural magnificence. The previous week the city had been inundated by exceptionally high-water levels so there were signs of some clean-up, but over all it looked like business as usual. Tourists were visiting the museums, palaces and galleries and life was going on with impressive smoothness.




The buildings were in a variety of styles, predominantly neo-classical or with Arab arches and decorated with whimsical ornamentation, like twisted chimneys or beautiful mosaics or friezes. In the past, many of the buildings were covered in frescos that have since been erased by storms and the sea air.




I was especially pleased to spot the some-time residence of George Gordon, Lord Byron(1788-1824), who came to Venice in the winter of 1816. He lived in Mocenigo Palace with 14 servants, two monkeys, a fox, two mastiffs and (I believe) at least one parrot. Swam from the Lido to St. Mark’s Square, conducted multiple love affairs and studied Armenian on the monastery island San Lazzaro degli Armeni. He also wrote Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice (1821), a blank-verse tragedy in five acts set in 1355 and relating the story of the doge who was beheaded for conspiring to arrange a coup d’etat. You can read it here. Not only that, but Venice was where he started work on Don Juan.


‘The Execution of the Doge Marino Falieri’ (1825-26) By Eugène Delacroix


Arriving in St. Mark’s Square, I had expected to notice the basilica first. Instead, I saw the enormous white block of the Doge’s Palace, the seat of Venetian power for centuries. Next, I noticed the two tall pillars: one topped by St. Theodore, the city’s original patron saint, the other by the lion of St. Mark, the city’s adopted patron saint. Only then did I see the domes and colors of St. Mark’s, tucked almost behind the palace.




There is a story precious to the Venetians that Saint Mark once travelled to the ancient Roman city of Acquilea, and that during that time he made a little journey to the islands that would later become Venice. There (it is said) an angel appeared to him and said, “Pax tibi, Marce Evangalista Meus. Hic requiescet corpus tuum.” – “Peace be with you, Mark, my evangelist. Here will your body rest.” Sure enough, most of the saint now rests in Venice (Coptic Christians maintain that his head is still in Alexandria). For this reason, the symbol of Venice became the winged lion of St. Mark, which is usually depicted saying, ‘Pax tibi’. Even today, if you travel down the Adriatic coast, in towns like Durres and Corfu, you will see stone lions, remnants of the extensive power of Venice’s old maritime empire.


St. Mark and his symbol, the winged lion




The basilica of St. Mark’s was built by Byzantine engineers around 1094, as a copy of the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople. While the original no longer exists, St. Mark’s stands substantially as it did when it was first built, though a lot of ornamentation has since been added. The exterior is encrusted with beautiful pieces of polished stone, with shining mosaics and carving. The enormous interior is covered with ornamentation—golden mosaics, colorful mosaic floors, carvings and gem-encrusted furniture such as the glittering pala d’oro. Ruskin points out that it differs from northern cathedrals in many respects but particularly in its appreciation of color. He also points out that for an illiterate population it served the purpose of a kind of illustrated Bible.








Some of the city’s most famous musicians were in charge of composing music for this sacred space, including Andrea Gabrieli (1532-1585) and his nephew Giovanni Gabrieli (1554-1612) – you can still listen to the choral harmonies of ‘Maria Magdalene’ and the antiphonal brass majesty of ‘Sacra Symphonia Sonata Pian’e Forte’ . But if you want to get a really good idea of the basilica’s visual and acoustic splendours, you should watch this video of Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers of the Blessed Virgin , which was filmed inside the church and performed using period instruments and with consideration for the echoes of the great hall. Monteverdi (1567-1643) was director of music at St. Mark’s for three decades starting from 1613 and gained fame throughout Europe not only for his sacred music but also for madrigals and operas—his Orfeo is still regularly performed today.




I can’t help wondering if the Dutch diplomat and musician Constantijn Huygens was referring to Vespro della Beata Vergine when he wrote “[I] heard the most perfect music I had ever heard in my life. It was directed by the most famous Claudio Monteverdi … who was also the composer and was accompanied by four theorbos, two cornettos, two bassoons, one basso de viola of huge size, organs and other instruments …”. 

I was so excited about seeing the church that it seemed like a catastrophe when I couldn’t go in because of my backpack. John had already been swallowed up by the big door so I couldn’t call to him. Eventually I figured out that there was an arrow pointing me around the church. I followed it and came to another entrance, where an annoyed guard stopped me. I asked where I should put the bag and she said, ‘On the street, two doors along.’ I looked at the ‘street’ but it didn’t make any sense. I saw a high-end glass shop but it was closed. Dejected, I sat down and looked up at the carvings on the church’s exterior, waiting for John to emerge. In turn, he sat down with the backpack to wait for me, looking at some big seagulls and a couple of very lumpy purple lions.


John walks in the footsteps of the Doges


‘Secret Denunciations’ box


After San Marco, we decided to head into the Doge’s Palace. This was a vast palatial complex that included a lot of rooms where important things were decided by a bunch of important people. The head of these was the Doge, distinguished by a uniform of a horn-shaped hat called the corno ducale, a golden robe, special slippers and a ceremonial scepter. In the Correr Museum we saw a portrait of the Doge Morosini as well as his ornate corno. On the ground floor of the palace courtyard there was a gargoyle whose mouth doubled as a sort of snitch-box where the public could slip ‘secret denunciations’ of anyone working against the interests of the Republic. The palace featured a museum crammed with impressive paintings, a collection of old weapons in the armory, the giant Hall of the Great council covered with dramatic paintings including the largest oil painting in the world, Tintoretto’s Paradise, which is 22 x 7 metres.




The palace tour ends, appropriately enough, in the dungeons. You travel across the Bridge of Sighs, in the footsteps of a millennium of convicts, and end up in a warren of dark cells several stories high. At the bottom is a closed courtyard containing a pozzo – a stone cistern designed to collect and filter rain so that citizens would have drinking water.


A pozzo in every campo (which seems to be the Venetian word for ‘piazza‘).


After a couple of very hot chocolates (not the milky-cocoa kind but the melted-chocolate kind), we headed over to Museo Correr. This was a repository of maps, models, Doge portraits, foreign weapons, little bronze statuettes and a bunch of other stuff. In particular they were having a special exhibition devoted to Francesco Morosini (1619-1694), the Doge famous for his exploits in the Morean War. Exhausted, with a two-hour journey ahead, we decided to head back to the hotel.


The corno ducale of the hero Doge Francesco Morosini. You can also just see the head of his cat




Second Day: Cannaregio, Murano, Castello

The next day, John’s knee was hurting badly so he decided to rest it while I went back to see more  sights. This time I wanted to wander along the canals and little alleys, to go to the island of Murano and to see the Arsenale, where the great Venetian galleys were built. 

Setting out from the station, I was immediately interested in beautiful displays of cakes, including zaletti (cornmeal biscuits with raisins), baicoli (literally ‘sea bass’ because of their shape) and the so-called pan del doge ‘Doge’s’ Bread’. 




After crossing my first bridge I saw a little market, including a fish stall. One of the distinctive smells of Venice is that of fish cooking, so it made sense that they would buy this local staple as fresh as possible. 




Working my way through the little streets, finding lots of churches and bridges, I quite often found myself at a dead end, which was particularly disconcerting when there was nothing beyond me but sea water.




Although I didn’t end up finding the ghetto (to my knowledge), it was an intriguing walk with plenty of interesting things to see, including this group of spry oarsmen making their way out to the lagoon. 






At last, I came to the Campo dei Gesuiti, home of the huge baroque church Chiesa di Santa Maria Assunta. Nearby was the ferry station Fondamente Nove so I decided to head to Murano Island from there. Looking out from the shore I saw the Cimitero di San Michele, a cemetery island that contains the remains of Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Diaghelev and Ezra Pound. Ordinarily, this would be my kind of tourist attraction but the day was a little cold and dark for me already and I had a limited amount of time. 




So the next stop was Murano. Starting from 1291, glassmaking was confined by law to the island of Murano, partly to prevent the spread of fires on the main islands. The workshops on this island were responsible for several important innovations, including the invention of cristallo – glass that was transparent; milk glass that resembled porcelain; glass beads; chandeliers; high-quality mirrors and murrine technique using strings or canes of colored glass.




The Museo de Vetro (Glass Museum) on Murano island was an intriguing place that guides the visitor through how glass is made in the first place, then takes you on a chronological journey through the various innovations made through the centuries.



Other highlights of this island excursion were seeing the Basilica dei Santi Maria e Donato, a Michelin-starred restaurant, a man playing “The Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy” with glasses and a spoon, finding a tiny local library and learning that it happened to be the feast day of the islands patron saint, Maria della Salute. Oh, also eating an enormous pizza with raddicchio on it. 



It was already time to go back to Venice and see the Arsenale. I figured that from the time I stepped off the ferry back at Fondamente Nove I’d be able to get to the Arsenale in 10 minutes. This did not eventuate. Instead, I wandered hither and yon, over canal, into alleys, across campi increasingly perplexed. At one point I saw the back wall of the Arsenale, but that’s as close as I ever got. Finally, I ended up in front of a church that turned out to be the one where Antonio Vivaldi had his baptismal rites done. I decided this would be sufficient sight-seeing for one day, so I managed to track down the closest ferry stop. 




But this was not to be the end of my ramblings after all, as I took the number 2 ferry, which took me right around the long way between Giudecca and Venice. On the bright side, this meant I caught a tantalizing glimpse of the island where Byron stayed with the Armenian monks, Isola di San Lazarro. There is even a legend that he still haunts the island. 



In the end I was frustrated by everything I hadn’t managed to do, but also feeling very fortunate to have been able to visit such an unlikely place, which may not be here very much longer. 



Tuesday in Treviso

On Monday we arrived in the Veneto, Italy’s northeastern region whose most famous city, Venice, is still recovering from damage caused by record alta aqua levels. The region’s mainland boasts other cities Verona (see ‘Two Gentlemen of’), Padua and Treviso, which I spent yesterday exploring.


University students walking along a path by the old city walls


Treviso’s historic center is encircled twice: once by medieval walls and once by water; the Sile River defines its southern edge and a man-made ‘fossa’ or moat surrounds the rest. This moat is fed not only by the Sile but also the Cagnan Grande, which also feeds into a couple of small canals within the city.  This muddy river runs north-to-south and meets the bigger Sile at the old city’s south-east corner. This moment of confluence, a painterly spectacle where the Sile’s deep milky green pushes aside the wheaten brown of the lesser stream, makes a cameo appearance in Dante’s in Paradiso Book IX (lines 49-51) as the spot where one Riccardo da Camino was murdered whilst playing chess. For this reason, the bridge surmounting the spot is named ‘Dante’s Bridge’, though the murder story is soft-pedalled in official signs.




The watery nature of the city, with its weeping willows, river weed, water birds and ivy-covered houses creates a romantic scene. Swans, coots, cormorants and ducks were all paddling furiously and looked (I imagined) a little bemused by the force of the current. Wet pigeons sat glumly fluffed on branches sticking out over the river.

The streets uphill from Dante’s bridge feature medieval houses, pavement, convents, churches, piazzas and pretty shops. Here and there are remnants of frescos and old paintings. Including the town’s old Loggia dei Cavalieri, ‘the Knights’ Lodge’, which seems to have been a kind of open-air VIP lounge for knights during the thirteen and fourteenth centuries. Amazingly, its wooden beams still bear traces of the original highly colored paintings, including an upper frieze depicting exciting battle scenes.






I learned some of the history of this intriguing structure at the Museo di Santa Caterina (entry 6 euros). To my delight, the church connected to this museum featured frescos by Tommaso Da Modena, who worked in the mid-fourteenth century and is known for the first person to depict a man wearing spectacles. Poor old Hugh of Saint-Cher probably thought he would go down in history for being a Cardinal Bishop but instead he’s remembered for being the world’s first four-eyes.




Here, the frescos in question told the story of Saint Ursula, a British princess who set out on a pilgrimage to Rome with 11,000 fellow virgins but was murdered by Huns along the way. Da Modena’s fresco cycle actually belongs to another Trevigian church, the decommissioned Santa Margharita but for now they are displayed conveniently on easels at eye-level in Santa Caterina. I resisted taking photos but you can see details from the cycle here. I was unprepared for how engaging the images would be—the colours are fresh and bright, the figures are life-sized and also quite life-like. I particularly wondered at the delicacy of the skin, childlike in its color and translucency and rounded softness. And Ursula’s face is expressive and moving—clear-eyed, joyful and resolute. The scene in which she and her companions are murdered is an outrage not only morally but also visually—a complete departure from the peaceful, smiling balance of previous panels.




After seeing the church and a bit of the museum, I headed out for lunch. The day before, John and I had eaten at a little trattoria by the fish market. John had pork with broccoli-and-polenta cutlet and pomegranate sauce, while I’d ordered tagliatini with mixed seafood and radicchio, washed down with a glass of Incrocio Manzoni (dry white wine). This time I opted for the classic Venetian lunch of cicchetti, a kind of bruschetta topped with seafood and then a large cup of tiramisu, in honor of the fact that the divine dessert was created here in 1962 at the restaurant Alle Becherrie .



Going back to the subject of radicchio, this last vegetable is the town’s pride and joy. You can get variations of the thing in multiple manifestations, including as a cake. No I have not tried it; I think I’ll stick with tiramisu.




Doing some post-prandial moseying, I was amazed to find myself face to face with a pretty bad likeness of Mario Del Monaco, the hunky Marlon Brando of the ‘Golden Age’ of opera. He was Pollione to Callas’s Norma; Andrea Chenier to Tebaldi’s Maddalena, an optimal Othello, a raging Rigoletto! You could have knocked me down with a baton.


The OG Joker


It then occurred to me that John didn’t have anything to eat back at the hotel so I popped into a Pam’s and wandered the aisles marveling at local stuff like shrimp-paste sandwiches, jars of spiced-liver mix, prosecco and Bussolai Buranei (Venetian butter cookies).


S for serenissima


Once I’d done the shopping, I headed over to the bus stop. School had just finished and vast hordes of teenagers were heading home. I was leaning against a wall reading Stones of Venice by Ruskin when it dawned on me that two boys were ‘facing off’ not two meters away from me and the crowd of hopeful onlookers threatened to engulf me.

A short boy was approaching and questioning a taller one. The questions were of a loud, repetitive nature and, judging by the tone, amounted to ‘Do you want a piece of me?’. The taller boy seemed not to want a piece of him just at that moment, but stood firm, though his leg was shaking a bit. The shorter fellow then launched into a monologue liberally sprinkled with ‘cazzo’s and an invitation to ‘vieni con me’. A few onlookers initiated a chant, guttural and symphonic, that I recognized from my high school years as an exhortation to fight. But the dulcet voice of reason piped up from a bearded earringed friend of the tall guy.

Ragazzi, basta,” he reasoned—guys, enough.

The tension was so defused and a group of four boys, huddled nearby, discussed some internecine matter with the seriousness of Roman consuls.

Then my bus arrived and I got on, always a nice moment. The trip had been very satisfying.


a house on the Sile

My Memoir about Living in Saudi Arabia

Between 2011 and 2012 my husband John and I lived and taught in Najran, Saudi Arabia. It was one of the strangest, most interesting and intense experiences of our lives. In fact I wrote a memoir about it and in 2016 Astoria/Assaggi published it in Italian as Le ragazze di Rub ‘al-Khali: Un anno in una remota città saudita. Last year I published the English version Teacher, We Girls!  (available in a digital format for US$3.99).



Cover by friend and talented designer Jasmine Cha


Even though I left the Kingdom, I haven’t forgotten it. Indeed, even if it weren’t seared in my memory, it would be difficult to slip from my mind considering the events that have since unfolded there. In 2014 Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1000 lashes for the crime of blogging. For nearly four years now Saudi Arabia and its allies having been conducting a disastrous ‘intervention‘ against Yemeni Houthi–Najran Province itself has become war zone. Then, in 2018, there was the remarkable ‘mistake‘ of Kamal Khashoggi’s murder and dismemberment in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. In the same year, women in Saudi Arabia technically won the right to drive but, as the New York Times jokes ‘it’s complicated‘, as several women’s rights activists were jailed and complained of torture in detention. While Mohammed bin Salman is promoting himself as a women’s rights reformer, the General Department for Counter Extremism has released an animated video calling feminism an ‘extreme idea‘.


Loujain al-Hathoul, arrested and tortured for feminist activism


Considering all this excitement, I was surprised to learn that the Kingdom is planning to allow non-religious tourists into the country. A cautiously optimistic piece in USA Today, “Saudi Arabia tourism: As kingdom opens up to tourists, will people visit?” includes this extraordinary paragraph


Turning Saudi Arabia into a destination will take some effort. Visitors will need to take care to respect the country’s cultural norms, such as dressing more modestly when they go to the beach. The kingdom may need to adapt some of its rules to foreign visitors – perhaps relaxing its ban on alcoholic beverages. 


Imagining Curtis Tate writing this, I laughed and laughed and laughed. The poor guy probably thought he’d struck a nice balance–yes, there will certainly be some adjustments but let’s gloss over them and look on the bright side! ‘Dress more modestly when you go to the beach’–who could object to that? ‘Respect cultural norms’–eminently reasonable.

But when Curtis talks about ‘the country’s cultural norms’ he is talking about laws dictated by the ruling Saud family and enforced with ruthless determination, norms such as gender apartheid, indentured servitude, religious bigotry and child marriage. As a tourist you would need to ‘respect’ the view that the death penalty is an appropriate punishment for homosexuality, witchcraft, adultery, apostasy and–yes–the consumption of alcohol. In order to attract fun-loving backpackers, as Curtis gently suggests, the Sauds would do well to consider ‘relaxing’ such bans. 

The problem is perhaps that poor Curtis Tate just doesn’t know any better. How could he? He’s never been to Riyadh, let alone Najran or Qassim! And English-language journalists can’t provide a detailed report of what it’s really like to live there, because they can’t possibly know. Luckily, with tourism opening up, these naive optimists will have an opportunity to diligently correct their daft puff-pieces.

Meanwhile, in lieu of a Frommer’s guide, I offer them an excerpt of Teacher, We Girls!  In this section, the situation is that I’ve just arrived at the Najran University Preparty (sic) School for Girls and am meeting my colleagues for the first time. The school is surrounded by a high wall and the students and teachers are locked inside all day by armed guards. No one may leave the grounds until the school day is over.  


When I’d settled in I remembered that I was still wearing my black outdoor garb. So I stood up and unclasped my abaya to take it off. I was wearing a blouse and long beige pants underneath—pretty inoffensive, I thought. But when I did so, there were general gasps and I looked up in alarm.

“What is it?” I asked.

The neighbor to my left said in a confidential tone, “You must not wear trousers like this, it is not allowed. Only skirts and dresses.”

“Oh.” I quickly pulled the abaya back on, refastened the clasp and sat down feeling foolish and confused.

The to my left put down her pen, took off her glasses and smiled at me.

“There are a lot of rules. Don’t worry, you will get used to it. I have been ten years here already, from Pakistan.”

“Ten years! Are you alone?”

“No, I am here with my family. My husband works at the men’s college and I have a girl of three and a baby boy. He is fourteen months.”

“Wow, you’re bringing up kids here! Has it been hard, living here so long?”

“Yes, it is hard,” she gave a short nod and pursed her lips, a gesture that seemed to express ironic humor, acceptance and weariness all at once.

“What is the most difficult thing for you?”

“The most difficult is being always inside, like a cage. In Pakistan, I am from the countryside near Islamabad, I always used to walk in the hills. I was a good walker, very strong, and it made me happy,” she smiled, “but here it is impossible. I want to take my children somewhere, I go up to the roof of our apartment building and we walk a little up there, but it is not the same. You see my skin? This acne, the dark rings under my eyes…I didn’t used to have them. It is because of the life here, because there is no sunlight. And it is hard to lose weight, except for Mrs. Skinny Iffat here.”

The woman in aquamarine leered humorously and stuck out her tongue.

“A gift for you, Mrs. Atif,” she laughed.

“What about the students? How are they?”

Atif gave the matter careful consideration “They are very stupid.”


“Yes. Their level is low. They never do homework. They are noisy in the class and do not have manners. They believe we are their servants, not their teachers. And be careful, if one girl thinks you have insulted her—maybe you tell her off for being late to class, maybe she is in a bad mood—she will talk with her friends about you and they will go to the Dean and the next day maybe you don’t have a job.”


“Yes Ma’am?” Atif asked the door.

I looked over and saw Reem had poked her head into the room and was flashing her diamond smile.

“Meeting with the men everyone!” she announced.

All the teachers stood up and started moving out the door. At first this seemed perfectly natural, but then a thought held me up. Wait a minute…this is a GIRL’S school…in Saudi Arabia! Surely no men are allowed? And none of the teachers are putting on their cloaks and veils so they can’t be going outside!


Puzzled, I picked up a notebook and followed them downstairs, wondering what was going on. Had men really been permitted into the women’s campus? What was the point of all these restrictions if a man could just waltz onto female turf? Was Saudi gender segregation just a sham after all? Were we going to have some kind of orgy?

“Who are we meeting?” I asked the tall pregnant woman, who was wandering along in a dreamy way.

“Dr. Aasif, the Head of school.”

The women wandered to a tiny receptionist’s office just inside the main entrance, exactly where I’d seen the towering androgynous woman with the chin tattoos. When I got to the room, it was so full of people I could barely squeeze through the doorway. Reem was huddling over a telephone that sat on a desk in the middle of the room. Everyone else encircled her. There wasn’t enough room for everyone so couple of teachers went to stand outside rather than being squished. Reem wore a grave expression and hovered intently over the phone.




So that was why we didn’t have to cover up—the meeting was going to be over the phone! I felt a strange sense of relief. After all, the gender-apartheid system was internally consistent.

“Dr. Aasif is supposed to call at twelve o’clock,” said Reem. “Now it is one minute to.”

As time passed, we all stood there with a sense of nervous expectation. A few minutes after the time for the appointment, we relaxed into soft whispers, teasing and giggles. Well, most of us did. Reem looked to be wound up so tight that she might shatter from the internal pressure.

When the phone finally rang, Reem pounced on it and looked at us, pressing her finger to her lips in warning.

“Good afternoon Dr. Aasif, this is Reem,” her voice, which had previously been sharp and commanding, transformed to suddenly become very quiet and very meek.

“Yes, we are all here Dr. Aasif. Yes, all right, now I will switch to speakerphone.”

She asked him to hold for a moment as she said something under her breath then tried a switch.

“Yes, hello Dr. Aasif, can you speak please, just to test if it is working?”

We all looked at the phone waiting for the Great Voice. A tiny squeak was holding forth from the receiver, but the speakerphone was silent.

“Hello? Hello? Dr. Aasif?” Reem timidly tried to get Dr. Aasif’s attention, but he barreled right along, talking up a tiny storm. Reem started jabbing at the switch with more urgency.

It didn’t work.

“Dr. Aasif? Dr. Aasif,” but the voice kept squeaking. “Please! Doctor Aasif! The speakerphone is not working. One moment please while we try to fix it.” She set down the receiver and motioned to me.

“Kathy, dear, help.”

“Me? Um, I don’t know anything about phones.”

“Try dear.”

“OK.” I squinted at the switches, saw ‘on speakerphone’ and ‘off speakerphone’. The switch was definitely turned to ‘on speakerphone’. I twiddled the switch a few times but it made no difference. I shrugged and stepped back as Atif came forward to inspect it.

“Doctor Reem, it is broken,” Atif announced solemnly. Reem nodded, palely, as if being told a patient was terminal. She picked the receiver up again.

“Hello? Dr. Aasif? Are you there? Hello. I am afraid the speakerphone is not working. What do you suggest we do?” She listened as the voice responded.

“Yes,” she answered at last, “I see. Taib’. Dear Teachers, because the machine will not cooperate with us, you will need to come very close to the telephone and be very quiet, so all can hear. I will turn the volume up as much as it can go.”

She put the handset on a desk and sat with her head resting near it. Then she beckoned us to do the same.

For some reason, the other teachers shoved me forward, and I joined the other three women who were closest. As he spoke, we all tried to get our heads close enough to hear him without giving each other head-butts. The other teachers behind us visibly relaxed—there was no way they were going to hear anything. Even from my position it was hopeless; all I could make out were the long, long oratorical cadences of someone used to holding the floor. Reem seemed to understand some of it, and did an admirable job of inserting ‘Yes’s and ‘Mmmms’ but a vein in her forehead was bulging with the effort.

She must have understood some of it because at one point she wanted clarification.

“Dr. Aasif? Yes. But Dr. Aasif…Dr. Aasif…Yes of course, but Dr. Aasif, if I may…. I just want to…Dr. Aasif. DR AASIF! I would like to say one thing! Thank you.”

After an extremely long discussion about whether we ought to use green or red pens to mark exams, Dr. Aasif launched into a long speech whose topic I miraculously heard: it was ‘Professional Development’.

Just at that moment, though, a deafening wail came through the walls and seemed to shake the whole building. It was a guttural roar, as if from the bowels of the earth, respecting no physical barrier, massaging the kidneys with its force. After the initial shock, I realized that it must be the mid-day call to prayer coming from the brand-new mosque next door, which had at least five top-of-the-range loudspeakers propped on its turret.




Some of the teachers got glazed looks on their faces and began muttering to themselves. They were saying prayers. My shoulders relaxed and I prepared to stand up straight, thinking that the phone call would have to end now, for holiness’s sake. To my astonishment, though, Reem and the others were carrying on, heads nearly resting on the desk by the phone as if they couldn’t even hear the deafening blast.

I gave up. They could keep going if they wanted, but I wasn’t going to play along. I slumped against the wall and started doodling elephants on my notepad. I drew one with a speech bubble coming out of the trunk saying, “This is dumbo.” The other elephant, whose trunk was a bit too short and fat, replied, “I like nodles.” Elephant one countered, “That’s not how you spell noodles. It’s n-o-o-d-l-e-s.”

After another ten minutes of this carry-on, the phone conversation was nearly over. Dr. Aasif took yet another ten minutes to sum up and sign off, then Reem replaced the receiver looking flushed and weak from the stress. She did her best to mask her fatigue with a stately smile, and she raised her hands to signal an announcement.

“Dear teachers! You all know well that many minds are better than one! Here is your assignment: Write down all the points of the meeting that you remember. Then I will collect these notes and make a full account. Please, go and write it immediately while it is still fresh, and I will collect them in ten minutes!”

We all returned to the teachers’ room and everyone busily started writing notes. I looked at them in disbelief, then started to carefully and slowly write down the only two things I’d heard for sure: ‘Professional Development’ and the point about using green pens, which Reem had paraphrased for us.

When Reem returned, she came around our desks one by one, requesting our notes. I handed her my page.

“Is this all?” She said in surprise.

“Well, um, actually I couldn’t hear anything,” I replied.

She turned sadly but gracefully to the next person.




To read the rest of the book, click here

Chocolate Town

‘There will be chocolate everywhere,’ banners around Turin have been offering this cheering prospect for the last couple of weeks. Naturally, I wanted in on the action. On November 8, we headed for Piazza San Carlo to inhale cacao fumes.





Caffe San Carlo

John’s knee has been hurting a lot lately so while I went tripping around the stalls like Homer Simpson in the Land of Chocolate, he elected to stay at what may be the world’s fanciest café, Caffe San Carlo. 

According to their pamphlet, this café was the first place in Turin to get gas lighting and was frequented by such luminaries as Alexandre Dumas, the polar explorer Umberto Cagni, Marxist hero Antonio Gramsci, prime minister Giovanni Giolitti, painter Lorenzo Gigli and many others. 




Piedmont’s Pride




Taking pride of place was the famous chocolate variant in these parts gianduiotto, a mixture of cocoa, sugar and the ‘nocciola del Piemonte’  or ‘Piedmont hazelnut.’

Its name, according to this site, evokes a local story to do with Italian Independence, when two guys Giovan Battista Sales and Giovanni Bellone, set up a popular puppet show in Piazza Castello in the big market in Turin in the late 1700s. One of their characters, ‘Girone’ or Jerome, offered rustic criticism of society and was so popular they took the show on tour. Unfortunately, the Doge of Genoa (whose name was Jerome) objected to the tenor of their show, arrested them and burned their stuff. They recovered from this but back in Turin Napoleon’s ‘good behavior’ police also took issue with two offensive phrases in the Piedmontese dialect:


Liberté egalité fraternité, ij fransèis a van an caròssa e noi a pe“!

“Liberty, equality, fraternity, the French get a carriage and we walk for free!”

Viva la Fransa viva Napoleon, chiel a l’é rich, e noi ëstrasson

“Long live France, long live Napoleon, coz he is rich and I’m a lowly ’un”


Spectators at the trial were so amused by these lines that the infuriated judges sentenced the puppeteers to death. Luckily, the scamps managed to get away, finding refuge in Asti with the family of Giovanni Battista De Ronaldis, who’d been executed for inciting revolution. This gave the puppeteers the idea of creating a modern character who would explicitly criticize the political situation of the time, and Gianduje was born. This was a character resembling a cheerful farmer dressed in the costume seen below:




The chocolates named for this character were invented by the local confectionary Caraffel and first presented at the Carnival in 1865, when someone dressed as Gianduje threw them into the crowd.


Gianduja handing out candy


Sicilian Sweets

Sicily is pretty much the sweet capital of Italy so it was strongly represented, with stalls selling marzipan fruits (frutta da martorana), cannoli and torrone (nougat with nuts). Particularly popular are the sfogliatelle –layered pastries filled with something sweet. I bought two ‘little lobsters’ (arogostine) filled with pistachio cream.


Chocolate cannoli




little torrones, aww!



One of the most impressive things I saw was a life-sized model of one of the public fountains particular to Turin, which feature the head of a bull. This one is not only modelled out of chocolate but also pours hot chocolate!!



Delicious bullspit


And then there were these, artistically combining two of Italy’s great achievements, well three if you count the football…




Non-Chocolate Treats


You could swim in there but it would be scratchy


Cantuccini are what most of us call biscotti. The word cantuccio literally means ‘little nook’ but also, by extension, a crusty bit of bread that can soak things up. The traditional recipe, originating in Prato, involved flour, eggs, sugar, pine nuts and almonds. The barely wet dough is cooked twice for extra hardness and typically served after dinner with orange juice.

Another non-chocolate treat on offer were caldarroste, roasted chestnuts, which seem very exotic and festive to me because New Zealand didn’t tend to have them, at least not sold on the street.


chestnut roaster


All in all, the cioccolaTO (TO= Turin) experience was very satisfactory excursion, even for John who had a little piece of gianduiotto with his coffee. He even got to see some of the fun on our way back to the number 57 bus back home.