My musical hero

It’s no secret among people who know me that I have a huge admiration for the work of singer-songwriter John Prine. I became a fan relatively late in life after being introduced to his work by one of my senior dates. One positive benefit of midlife dating is that even if you don’t spark romantically you get exposed to new ideas. And when Bobby Opposite, during our epistolary phase, sent me a video clip of John singing Lake Marie in the West 54 sessions, I was hooked.

It is often commented that you either don’t know Prine or you love him. His songs were not played by radio stations and so never made the charts. But he built a loyal ever-growing fan base from the start of his career in the early seventies, not because of his voice, but because of his storytelling and lyrics. He wrote about the emotional landscape of ordinary people with an understanding and lyricism which, to my mind, is quite remarkable. In this way he spoke to and ennobled the blue collar workers of the Midwest and beyond.

Take, for example, his song Angel from Montgomery , which was made famous by Bonnie Rait. It is written from the point of view of a woman who thinks she’s older than she is, and senses that all her life chances are trickling away. Hearing Prine singing from this older female perspective make the lyrics all the more powerful.

I am an old woman/ named after my mother/ my old man is another child who’s grown old.

If dreams were thunder/and lightning was desire/ this old house would have burned down a long time ago.

Make me an angel who flies from Montgomery

Make me a poster of an old rodeo

Just give me some thing that I can hold on to

To believe in this living is just a hard way to go


My Lockdown Consolations

During lockdown I gained great solace from two activities both connected with the arts. The first developed naturally during Skype catch ups I was having with a colleague, Ed. We both lived alone, so while working at home we checked in with each other a few times a week to make sure we were managing the isolation okay. After a while it seemed a good idea to give some structure to our catch ups, and Ed suggested that we should look at paintings from the National Gallery together. I was very unconfident of my ability to appreciate art, so we used the Gallery Companium volume as a starting point for our ‘Art chats’.

The guide was written by Erica Langmuir (1931 – 2015), a former Head of Education at the National Gallery, who brought these paintings to life with her knowledge, insights, and a wonderful way with words. During these sessions we would select a painting to look at and discuss, and then read aloud the commentary by Erika – by then by we felt as if we were on first name terms with her. These silent moments followed by shared enjoyment and discussion were a great comfort in those bewildering days of the early lockdown.

My second solace was a musical one. Antonio Pappano, the director of the Royal Opera house, began broadcasting on Saturday mornings ‘From my House to your House’ – on Facebook. In these live sessions, he would play and chat informally over his grand piano and analyse a scene or an aria from an opera. This opportunity to have a series of masterclass on the intricacies of beautiful music became a compelling weekly appointment. In these live sessions, we were interacting not only with the maestro and the music, but also with opera fans around the world.

It seems to me that one of the unexpected positive outcomes of the pandemic confinement has been the gift of time to explore. There was something very comforting about listening to music or admiring paintings which have survived over the centuries and continued to be loved by new generations. It gave some perspective on the events around us and reminded us of the lasting nature of creativity.



The next time you go to Florence, you absolutely must go to Mario’s if you’re looking for traditional Tuscan food and an unadulterated passion for cooking it. This small fiaschetteria can be found just behind the covered market, and stallholders have been eating there for more than sixty years.

My friend Sarah (the one who knows where the bodies are buried*) and I spent a study year in Florence in the seventies. The word on the street was that the food at Mario’s was good and cheap, and so we ate there most days

Mario was always front of house, burly, rosy-cheeked, and with a magnificent Tuscan accent. La gola Toscana, as it’s called, is a phonological feature of the region which means that every C is pronounced as an H, so that Coca Cola becomes hoha hola. He presided at the till, a fine vantage point overlooking the market square, adding up bills, cutting bread and filling carafes of wine for his son Romeo to take to the waiting diners. Romeo was the very image of his father, only thirty years younger and ganglier.

While Mario was a ruspante free-range kind of guy, his wife was a signora, smiling and svelte in her blue overall. She was never without earrings and a discreet slick of lipstick, and the old guys from the market would quietly admire her as she serenely served up Ribollita. Everyone sat together at oilcloth-covered tables in one room which served both as kitchen and dining area. This was in the days before health and safety but there was surely no better quality assurance system than watching your lunch being prepared in front of you. The menu was simple but completely reliable. And it was an unspoken rule that when you had completed your meal you vacated the tables for other diners. Il caffe si prende in piazza.

I make a sentimental trip to the trattoria every time I visit Florence. The internet has brought Mario’s a new, international clientele to share its tables with the locals. These days, to eat there you have to get your name on a list. Sadly, you will no longer find Mario at the till, but Romeo, the image of his father in the seventies, is hard at it in the kitchen, and the business still runs in much the same way.

I was there again last month and very little has changed. The Ribollita is as good as ever.

* The Heights Bar and Grill. 4/12/2013


Sandfields library

Back in the day, even before the internet was black and white, we had the library. My favourite sanctuary when I was a child was Sandfields Library. It was right outside Glan-y-mor primary school, and once Miss Roderick the headmistress had rung the afternoon bell, my best friend and I would head over to linger over the books before going home for Blue Peter. This was an era of very little traffic and free range kids. Once inside through the heavy glass doors we would make our way purposefully to the children’s section and then turn left to the A’s and Bs to check out if any Enid Blyton books were in. There was always a bit of anxiety at this point as they were very popular, so we had to position ourselves proprietorially in front of the shelf to neutralise any possible contenders hovering nearby. I still can remember the joy of going home with a Secret Seven or Mallory Towers book.

It took a couple of years to work through the whole of Blyton oeuvre before I moved up to the adult section and continued the detective theme with Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh. I was assisted through this progression by Kath, the library assistant with pearly pink nail varnish and thick glasses, who would check out through the returns for me in case there was a stray volume that I had missed. In my teens I extended my reading to autobiographies and would supplement my addiction to black and white films with memoirs of Bette Davies and Joseph Von Sternberg.

But crime fiction was my first love, and throughout my life I have always turned to it for my escapism. When I was feeding my firstborn, instead of thinking beautiful thoughts, I worked my way through Ruth Rendell. In my later years I have derived much pleasure from more literary crime novelists such as James Lee Burke. His novels set in New Orleans manage to intersperse a sometimes violent plot line with lyrical description and moving insights into human nature.


Don’t sweat the hyphens

Letter writing these days is so unusual that it is seen as almost quaint, and there is loads to regret about that, but in these days of online communication a greater number of people may actually be writing more often.  The result of this opening up of the communicative arena is a more relaxed attitude towards formal rules of writing, and nowadays surely only dreary pedants would get their knickers in a twist about mixing up ‘fewer’ and ‘less’.

And yet all have our pernickety obsessions. The place I work in is involved in English language teaching and assessment; this means that all our materials need to be exemplary, and proofreading is a highly valued skill. But colleagues and I still lock horns from time to time about what and how to correct. Personally, I have strong views on the use of commas, which to my mind should be enough to make meanings clear without exhausting the reader (like one book I read about Motown music). And I am peeved on a daily basis by the superfluous comma in the instructions on our photocopier at work: “Please, wait a few seconds  after the machine has been switched on.”

My co-workers in the test development department seem to care deeply about the correct use of hyphens in their materials, whereas I gave up on those a long time ago. To me, they are handy for coinage but to be abandoned at the earliest opportunity once the word has entered the language. Would you write ice cream, ice-cream or icecream ? And does it even matter?

Of course, as always, context is everything. There has been some discussion in the media recently about the implied meaning of punctuation in text messaging. Full stops are a no no, apostrophes mark you out as detail-oriented and ellipsis is strictly for the over 60s …..


Tomorrow is another day

What I intended to do today:

  • Iron my linen dresses
  • Sort out cupboards and drawers
  • Take stuff to the charity shop
  • Polish up a data transcription
  • Walk into town and back
  • Open new bank account

What I actually did today:

  • Bussed it into town
  • Had lunch in Pret
  • Browsed for ages in Lakeland
  • Bought a chunky julienne cutter, and extendible window mop.
  • Bought two wildly expensive dresses and a funky necklace which they saywill take me anywhere
  • Took a taxi home

I did open a new bank account though.


The trickiness of being polite

Brits tend to place a high value on Ps and Qs. My mother trained me up to thank people for having me and to ask permission to leave tables.  When a neighbour whose approval she sought pronounced me to be at the age of 7 a child with ‘polish’ , she glowed with pride.

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Fast forward to the 1990s when, in my then incarnation as ‘La Mamma di Michael e Julian’  in Italy, I coached my boys in pretty much the same way. Their impeccable translation of these English politeness norms into Italian were admired by their teachers and occasionally prompted alarm in other mothers.  One rang me up after Mike had tea at her home to ask why he had said ‘Grazie di avermi ospitato’ on leaving. She was offended at the implication that languages without that phrase were in some way inferior. These things go deep, and now Michael’s son too is learning the power of politeness to persuade : ‘Can I have a Welsh cake please, Nana?

But politeness is always there in other cultures, it’s just different. In Italy it is customary to ask for permission, ‘Permesso‘ , before entering another person’s home, even if you know them well,  and this becomes automatically assimilated into your repertoire once  when you have been there for a while. Among people of a certain age, the polite you form, “Lei” is still used and I had a neighbourly and comfortable relationship with Signora M. opposite for 25 years without venturing into the more familiar ‘tu’ form.

English shed its intimate and polite forms of ‘you‘ a few  centuries ago apart from some regions. But since returning to the UK last year I have noticed a new  form creeping into the language: the use of yourself, usually in business situations as in ‘ in that case I will need a signature from yourself ‘. This is definitely intended to be polite form as I note all my younger male colleagues using it with me. God forbid.

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In a recent tv interview, Andre Aciman, the author of the novel Call me by your Name was unrepentant about his decision to make the main character just seventeen. It’s such a beautiful age he said, and I knew what he meant. My own romantic gene emerged at the age of 13, inspired by the fair-skinned paper boy who put the South Wales Evening post through our letter box every evening. A couple of years later it gathered momentum with my crush on the curly haired plumber who played air guitar to the Strawbs in the Briton Ferry Rugby club.

By the time I was seventeen the romantic gene was raging and I fell properly in love for the first time with all the joys of passion awoken and reciprocated. And when he gently dumped me for a physiotherapist two years later, I naturally booked into Heartbreak Hotel because that’s the downside of romantic genes.

So I get what Aciman meant when he said that seventeen is a special age, and if you think of it, so did many songwriters like Janis Ian, Stevie Nicks, the Beatles, and even Abba. But my favourite ode to seventeen year olds  has to be from Aretha.


Well loved tales

I pride myself in being open to new technologies (with the usual caveat, for my age and gender). I use my smartphone to organise my travel, pay bills, and track my exercise. My kindle app contains a well stocked library, ranging from academic articles, cookery books, to cheesy midlife romances. I am active on all the usual suspects in social media, and I think they can be extraordinary tools for sharing ideas, in the same way that coffee houses were in the 18th century.

But there are some types of reading where paper surely has the edge, and one of these is reading to a child, because it allows you to relive some of your own early reading pleasures (and naturally, the more dog-eared and coffee stained the book, the higher the affective value). Recently with my grandson I have been rereading the same children’s stories I read to his father and uncle.  Yesterday I dug out an Alfie book by Shirley Hughes, and my 31 year old son immediately sought out his favourite illustration from it.


No doubt when the time comes we will read Roald Dahl’s ‘Boy’ and I will almost certainly cry at the page when he receives the last letter from his mother. This has become a family tradition.

But what has really excited me recently is coming across in various second hand book shops the slim hard backed Ladybird readers of the 1960s. The other day I heard a mother reading the Magic Porridge Pot to her child in the doctors surgery and I was struck by the beauty of the illustrations and storytelling of those early readers. The real classics are written by Vera Southgate and now I am on a mission to build up a collection. How can the cartoonish illustrations of today compare with this evocative frontispiece of Rapunzel and the prince’s beautifully peaked hat?



Forward the pumpkin, flying flying 🎶

The writer Laurie Lee described birth as an ordinary miracle, and the same could be said of language acquisition. Everyone learns to to communicate verbally at some point, but it is still fascinating to observe toddlers take small incremental steps from first words to full sentences.

My small grandson is acquiring two languages in a naturalistic way, German at home with Mama and with Oma when she visits, and English from Papa and the community he lives in. And because languages and linguistics are my stock in trade, I am enjoying analysing this development of his speech. For example, I remember his early attempts to make a negative sentence by putting the word ‘not’ the end of the phrase as in “that way not”or “Nana’s arm not”. There was a definite logic to this strategy and although it wasn’t standard grammar his meaning was usually very clear.

Then came the (for me) the very enjoyable phase when he would notice evaluative phrases and reproduce them immediately. So, when I complimented him on his accurate positioning of a sticker in his workbook, “That’s perfect!” He would congratulate himself with the same phrase on his next attempt. My linguist friends would approve of his sensitivity to interpersonal meaning.

I am also delighted by his ability to pronounce difficult sounds in both languages. His gutteral ‘ ach’ ‘ would warm his Opa’s heart and the title of this post refers to an English nursery song our boy sang for his Oma in Berlin. I was impressed by his ability to reproduce the difficult consonant cluster ‘pumpkin’ so well, although I later found that he was actually singing. “Four little pumpkins” – a case of misheard lyrics.

My grandmotherly pride knew no bounds, however, when he saw snow falling for the first time and exclaimed ” Das klebt auf dem Dach! “! (It’s sticking to the roof) because that was a real sign of his developing language. The linguist Bernard Spolsky believed underlying linguistic competence to be demonstrated through creativity, or the ability to produce new sentences. This first sighting of snow prompted a small boy to do just that.