Thursday 25 July 2013

Home Thoughts from a Blog. Part 2

I finished my last blog by locating myself in Tirrenia, half an hour outside Pisa on the Mediterranean Coast. Which is, indeed, where I still am.

Nonetheless, this was meant to be sightseeing holiday so I have felt a bit guilty in spending every day just waking up; having a coffee and a brioche; going to the beach; waiting for mid-day; having a beer; eating lunch; sleeping; having another swim and then a stroll; drinking another beer; eating dinner and then going to bed. Possibly after another beer. Hugely guilty.

Alright, not that guilty. But nevertheless unfulfilled.

Alright, not that unfulfilled.

Nonetheless, I felt I should do something; visit somewhere. So I had resolved to go to Lucca for the day. I love Lucca although I haven't been there for perhaps ten years. It is a place of exquisite beauty with a perfect wall around which you can hire a bike and cycle on the flat and in the shade. And it is nor far away. Half an hour on the bus to Pisa and then another half an hour on the train.

But the very bus which takes you from outside my front door to Pisa, en route to Lucca, in one direction takes you directly in less time to Livorno in the other. And I've never been to Livorno.

So why bother with the longer journey, I thought? Let's see what Livorno is like.

Now, at this point I should perhaps have listened to twitter. Most of the advice I received there after inquiring as to whether I should go to Livorno might be summarised by the single word answer "Don't".
I did however get one "if you insist" tip for a restaurant and a reminder that it is one of the most left-wing cities in Italy, so that was enough encouragement for me.

With the benefit of hindsight I might compare myself to the foreign tourist, installed happily on Loch Lomond side, proposing a day trip to Clydebank. For Livorno has all the charm of Clydebank or, worse still, its
opposite bank neighbour, Greenock.

And it was largely shut, it appears because being a stronghold of the Left, and 25th July 2013 being the 70th Anniversary of the fall of Mussolini, all public buildings were closed in celebration. Including the "one thing to see", the Fortezza Medicea, where was situated (when it was open) the restaurant to which I had been recommended.

So I just kinda wandered about, as lunch approached, and the temparature rose, among restaurants that were either "chiuso per ferie"; "chiuso per lavori" or simply "chiuso per turno". And would probably have been shut for some other reason even if it wasn't their "turno"

By this time it would be fair to say that my thoughts were turning to the Bus Station until, like Beau Geste stumbling upon an oasis, I found an open trattoria. Where the food was brilliant. A primo of ravioli di pesce; a secondo of griglia mista di pesce; ananas; cafe. Wine, water, and a digestivo. Thirty Euros. If I could remember its name I would pass it on. Except then you'd need to go to Livorno.

While I was at lunch however Mike Elrick was in touch via twitter inquiring whether I might, for ideological reasons, acquire him a Livorno football top. For if the town has a left-wing reputation that is nothing compared to the reputation of its football team and its fans. They make the Celtic look like wishy washy liberals.

So, I asked the padrone, as I paid the bill and without requesting a receipt, where such an item might be obtained. This was met quizzically. So I explained that "il mio amico" was, and here I hesitated, "un comunista!" Now, correctly, I should have properly have said that he was a left social-democrat, "un partigiano d'il capo perduto, John Smith"  but my conversational Italian wasn't really up to that and my original formulation was sufficient anyway for smiles all round and a customer to be summonsed to give me directions.

Except this is where my Italian kind of failed me. I was, apparently. to go along Via Garibaldi to a shop called Magini (?). There was a bit more however that I didn't follow.

Now, there is a little known fact that the late Benito Mussolini decreed that every town above a certain size in Italy required to have four streets or squares with a particular appellation, one of which is Garibaldi. (The others are: "Roma"; "Vittorio Emanuele" and "XX Settembre".)

So the Via Garibaldi is usually, anywhere, a pretty important drag. And Livorno has done il Duce proud in this regard, even if it might not have a lot of other time for him. For the Via Garibaldi transpires to be the length of Great Western Road or Alexandra Parade. Possibly even the West Highland Way, for I never ever did get to the end of it.

Having walked for a mile or so in baking heat I eventually stopped in a cafe for water and directions. "Was there a sports shop selling Livorno shirts in this street?" I inquired.  It is only fair to say that by this point I was wondering if the helpful restaurant customer had been a supporter of Silvio Berlusconi (or Fiorentina) on the wind up. After some thought the man repiled that indeed there was. It was " Sempre diritto. Un altro kilometro, forse un kilometro e mezzo".

At this point I gave up. I returned slowly to the main square, where I arrived, bedraggled, about an hour later. Consuming the remains of my litre bottle of water on the way. But before I departed the town I had one last go. I approached some teenage boys as likely suspects as to where, nearer at hand, a Livorno top might be obtained. "In Via Garibaldi! They agreed. At the Negozio Magini." When I indicated that was perhaps a bit far they could not have been more helpful. "You can get a Number 2 bus" and directed me to the bus stop. And I eventually worked out the bit being said by the man in the restaurant that I hadn't quite fully understood.

So, needless to say, I did not get a number 2 bus and Mike will not be getting his Livorno top. He can either buy one over the internet or he can get a flight to Pisa, a train to Livorno and a number 2 bus.

I'll tell him where to get a good lunch.

Monday 22 July 2013

Home Thoughts from a Blog

I am on a Summer holiday on my own for the first time in 27 years.

It’s not been the best organised event in my life.

Less than a week ago it didn’t exist at all, except that I’d managed to organise a reasonable gap in my work diary for three weeks starting on Saturday past. The weather at home didn’t help in the sense that for the first time since 1978 (when we had a Labour Government, so that shows how long ago it was) I was tempted to take my chance on a holiday in Scotland.

But I remembered that holiday with some caution. On the day my mate George and I departed from Queen Street up the West Highland line, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, only for it to rain constantly for the next two weeks; for Uig Youth Hostel to burn down while we were on route; for us to nearly get hypothermia on Raasay and for us to be forced to listen to the 1978 World Cup Final on the radio as there were no pubs open, or even it appeared televisions functioning, in Stornoway on a Sunday. I’ve never had a Summer holiday in Scotland since.

So, panicked by that sudden recollection, last Wednesday, I bought a flight to Pisa. But I still arranged nothing else. For want of company, I’d take in the sights, I reckoned, starting with Pisa itself which, despite passing through many times, I had never actually visited.

But by Friday night even that had not been organised and I had concluded, at least for the moment, that I’d stay where I was and, after all, put to the test the old adage that “you can’t beat Scotland when you get the weather”.

Only I couldn’t get to sleep, not just because of the heat at home. I always go to Italy in the Summer. I had a flight arranged. Maybe I should just take a chance?

When I awoke abruptly at 5.30, my mind was made up for me. This was a sign. The iPod and the Kindle were already fired up, T-Shirts and the rest easily dumped into the Ryanair compatible bag and, an hour and a half later I was entaxied to Croy on my journey to Prestwick, thanks to the wonders of the internet arranging accommodation ahead on my phone as I went.

And by mid afternoon I was installed in a wee hotel in the warm South. The too warm South as it quickly transpired.

There is a reason the Italians don’t hang about in their cities in the high Summer. Pisa was baking. And, whether for that reason or otherwise, it also left me a bit underimpressed. The Field of Miracles lives up to its name, no doubt about that. The leaning tower would be immensely impressive even if it wasn’t leaning. The Baptistery is astonishing and, even as something of a connoisseur of Romanesque Cathedrals, I was nearly overwhelmed by that on offer in Pisa. Particularly with its added attraction of the black and white stripes.

But the rest of the town was simply too hoaching with.... tourists, I confess rather self-consciously. And seemed worryingly indifferent to them other than as a way of making an easy buck. People talk about the big three of Tuscany as being Florence, Pisa and Siena but, even allowing for the Field of Miracles, I’d place Pisa a poor third. Not much, if at all,  ahead of the supposed also rans such as Lucca and Arezzo.

Anyway, it was too hot. So by last night I had decided to head for the beaches. Which is from where I write tonight.

Till the weekend, I’ve got a wee hotel in a typical Italian seaside resort called Tirrenia. It’s brilliant. Well the resort is anyway. Nothing posh, it is certainly not Viareggio, but the typical mix of lidos, beach bars and trattorias “specitalita pesce”. There’s even a gigantic seawater acqua park which, if I was ten years old, would probably make me think I’d died and gone to heaven. I suspect however the “Spiaggia Siria” might be contemplating a closed season change of name.

I had a proper frittura for lunch. Not just prawns and squid but fat sardines and wee red mullet all cooked together in a light batter and all so much immensely improved for being served within sight of, and against a background smell of, the sea itself.

After a post prandial siesta, I had my first dip in the Med, the free beach being, as always, not entirely easy to find but worth the effort. The water, after all, is just the same.

And that’s how I now propose to spend my time till the weekend. Eating, reading, lying on the beach and taking in the sun. There will be time for a bit more sightseeing in due course.

I end however with a note of mystery. That’s about the Hotel here. I may investigate that and report further in due course.


Sunday 14 July 2013

I turn to poetry

It is revealed in today’s papers that Eck intends to ask some of our greatest writers to write the Independence White Paper. But why should he stop with writers, why not poets? And Indeed, why not the most famous poet of all to hail from the Nationalist stronghold of Dundee?

While the man himself would I am sure be willing to turn his efforts to the entire document, that would surely be unfair to the other wordsmiths on call, so my suggestion is that he should be restricted to the introduction. Here is his first draft.

An Introduction to the Independence White Paper by William Topaz McGonagall (aged 188)

Beautiful Independence Referendum called by the SNP!
As historic a historic moment as there will ever be,
For the Eighteenth of September Two Thousand and Fourteen,
Will be as historic a day in history as we have ever seen.

Oh, wonderful leader who has taken us to this moment
And wonderful people who make up this historic movement
For the cause of our liberation is not just stuff of dreams
It also has the support of Blair Jenkins, some Trotskyites and two thirds of the Greens

Woe on the roguish Unionists and their trait’rous Project Fear
Their negative scaremongering will never to true Scots endear
For them to succeed in their endeavours would be equal to a crime
And that would be remembered for a very long time

But all true Scottish Patriots will surely their efforts foil
Particularly if they remember our fish, our whisky and particularly our oil
And lots of other things as well, too numerous to even mention
And aren’t too concerned about affording the old age pension.

So, to you, our Gracious Sovereign is this proposal dedicated
For we will remain your loyal subjects, albeit in a way somewhat belated
And we’ll keep not just your head on the currency but the currency itself
And after every meal continue to toast your health.

And so my faithful readers my task draws to a close
With the thought that for a cause so great surely poetry is superior to prose
And it also has the advantage of carrying greater conviction
And less likely to remind you that the document itself is largely a work of fiction

Postscript. That's all from me for the moment. I’m off to Italy next weekend, so I’ll see you all next month.

Sunday 7 July 2013

What a difference a day makes

Last night I wrote an utterly miserabilist blog which I kind of now half regret. For today was no day for miserabilists.

At the Millennium there was a competition for the greatest ever moment in Scottish sporting history. And the winner, by a country mile, was Lisbon in 1967.

But, let's be honest, that was because there was no serious competitor.

After today there is.

And there was one particularly Scottish bit of today. When Andy lead, third set, 5-4 and 40-Love,  holding three Championship Points, only for Djokovic to get it back to Advantage in his favour, every single person in the Nation thought, just for one horrible moment, that this could be the worst Scottish sporting disaster ever. One that would make the Peru game fade into almost insignificance.

Only that didn't happen. This wasn't Liz McColgan getting run down in the last lap, or Gavin Hastings crying over losing to a last minute Penalty that should never have been. Or even Gary McAllister missing that penalty which, even to this day, I maintain should have been taken by Ally McCoist. This was different. This was Andy Murray.

I still can't quite get over the fact that in Tennis, by no means some obscure minority sport, the best player in the world, the world, was born just up the road. It's as astonishing as if my next door neighbour George was to knock my door to announce he'd won the Nobel Prize for Physics (and, by the way, I'd left my boot open).

And, equally astonishingly, it happened on the best Summer's day in living memory, albeit one on which we all spent a fair bit of it inside.

Afterwards, on twitter, there was a row about a flag. I have one criticism only about Eck and the flag. He didn't produce it soon enough. Surely it is part of the job of the First Minister of Scotland to support Scottish sporting competitors? If Andy had been Welsh, I bet you Carwyn Jones would have been there in a red jersey and carrying a giant leek, albeit still a bit hungover from the day before.

We Scots don't really take to the stuff-shirtedness of the All England Club. That's why we never warmed to Tim, not because he was English but because he was posh. If he'd been a Geordie or a Brummie things would have been different but we kind of also thought that if he'd had such origin it would have been unlikely he'd have been there in the first place.

So good luck to Eck and his flag. But he shouldn't have snuck it in. He should have draped it over his shoulders at the entrance gate and he should have waved it from start to finish. Because it is not the flag of a political party. It is the flag of Scotland.

And today has been a great day for Scotland.

Saturday 6 July 2013


This, I suspect, will be a bit of a ramble.


I had written a blog midweek about Falkirk, reflecting on my own efforts at trying to be the Labour Candidate for the Scottish Parliament there in 2007 and drawing on my experience of various other selection processes I have, invariably unsuccessfully, been involved in over the years.

I knew, as I wrote it, that it could never be published but I kinda thought that in an expurgated version it might form the basis for my Sunday effort. I've decided even that might be unwise but in the process I did turn up this this bit of history which was just too good to be ignored.

Anyway, Falkirk has not really been the main thing on my mind this week. That has been my holiday.

I read a lot of carers' blogs. I find many of them them moving, inspiring and helpful. But I was never really sure about writing about my own situation and I haven't done so since. I don't really write a carers' blog. I write (mainly) about politics and it seems unfair on my critics if they feel constrained in responding as robustly and offensively to me as I write about them because of some "off stage" element.

But your political, or working, life can't be entirely separated from your real life either. The personal is political.

Caring for somebody with Alzheimers is like bringing up a wean in reverse. They can do just a little less for themselves every day.

People like different types of holidays. Good friends of ours, every year, take a touring holiday where they set off with a rough itinerary involving a different stop each night. Other people like hotels or campsites where they can meet other people in abundance. Some others like to be as alone as possible with their loved ones on some far flung Scottish or Greek Island. Others still to be in an organised setting on a cruise or in a hotel. For some people the weather is imporant. For some at least (anybody who holidays in Scotland other than by reason of financial necessity) the weather doesn't matter.

I could go on with numerous further examples before even starting on the other considerations involved if you've got kids, never mind kids of divergent age.

Anyway, what I like, first and foremost, is the sun. But I also like somewhere where the food is good; and where there is something to see; and where you can go independently but where when you arrive you are settled in one place and where you can do as little or as much as you want to do once you are there.

And, creature of habit that I am, I also like going somewhere familiar or at least culturally familiar.

So, in the twenty five years we've been married, wee Mo and I have had precisely three Summer holidays, none of which were entirely satisfactory, anywhere but in Italy. And they have all followed the same pattern more or less: a car; a house not too far from civilisation and......well that's it really.

But I've kind of skipped past the most important bit of any holiday. You need somebody to go with. And this year Mo isn't well enough to go.

The first year her illness impacted on our holiday was 2006. I can be so certain because it was the year Italy won the World Cup. We were in the Salento, in the very South of the heel. And it was, such, early days. I needed a haircut, Mo needed shoes and the market was in town. So I headed off to the barbers, she to her shopping, and a Bar in the fishing village we were living in was identified as a later meeting place.

Only she didn't appear. Not there, not back at our accommodation, not for hours. Not anywhere until after the various levels of Italian Policing had required to be notified and she was eventually found, lost and dehydrated, wandering in a back street. Which is why, by the way, anybody ever dissing Southern Italians in my presence can expect a pretty direct riposte.

But that ruled out, in future, going anywhere completely new. So we retreated for two years to more familiar territory around Lake Trasimeno until her increasing habit of engaging complete strangers in conversation ruled out the usual set up of one apartment in larger accommodation shared by others. But then we found a house, miles from anywhere, in that same area, until the second year signalled to me that I couldn't cope with no logical conversation of any sort for two or three weeks.

So, for the last two years, we've gone away but asked friends or relatives to join us for shifts to help me out.

But now, even that is not a solution. I kind of knew last Summer when we came back but things have, in any event, got significantly worse since.

But I need a holiday. One year, when I was much younger, "political necessity" dictated that I did not go away and in the depths of the following Winter I realised the error that had been. If that was the case when I was twenty whatever then how much more would it be today.

So Mo's going into respite for three weeks and I'm at a loose end from 19th July.

(Don't think the respite thing is dismissive, I just can't bring myself to write about that)

But what kind of holiday can you have as a not even single man in his mid fifties?

When I was much younger again I did go off myself alone a couple of times to the Greek Islands but that was a different age. There were lots of travellers of similar circumstance and similar age. I never had much luck with the girls myself but you could always dream. On reflection, my recounting to them at the time of various Scottish Labour Party selection process outrages was probably a mistake. Today however, even without the politics, I'd be scared of being taken for a dirty old man.

Lisa, my colleague at work, found a website offering "Singleton Holidays for Guardian Readers" where, as she put it, even I'd struggle to get a shag. I don't know what that says for her opinion of the liberal intelligentsia but anyway I'm not interested.

Other friends have suggested I join their holidays, although frankly with the same enthusiasm as I would have had in making a similar offer to them had the roles been reversed. As the proverb has it, who really wants a spare pie at a wedding? (I think that's right)

So I'm a loss. I even toyed with just getting a car and a house in Italy and appealing for other people to join me.

And that's all I have to say.