Tuesday, 8 October 2019


Last.  It's a quirk of the English language that the word is a homophone that can imply both loss and something that endures.

I've just returned from the Ways with Words writing and art holiday at Villa Pia in the village of Lippiano up in the hills on the Tuscany/Umbria border.  I've been going for a week every autumn since 2014 but this year was the last one.

I've been reflecting on those weeks away and what they've meant for my writing.  The tutors have always been encouraging and inspirational.  I'm particularly indebted to Blake Morrison and Julia Blackburn on whom I inflicted a considerable number of poems.

I wrote 'U' and 'X' (Alphabet Poems) at Villa Pia.  'U' was prompted by the traditional Tuscan barrel tiles (or half tiles) on the roofs of the Villa and surrounding outbuildings.  The tiles are like drain pipes cut in half (length-wise) and are laid in alternate rows facing up and down.  The old tile makers shaped the clay over their legs to make the tiles slightly tapered so that they could overlap.  In 'X' I imagine an illiterate labourer being dispossessed of his land in one of the big houses in the village.  The soil and stones are a pale yellow, like Cotswold stone, hence the 'yellow mud' which clags the man's boots.

The fifteenth century Renaissance painter, Piero della Francesca, worked in this area.  I wrote 'Saint Mary Magdalene' after seeing Piero's fresco in the Duomo in Arezzo, and 'The Pregnant Madonna' after seeing the 'Madonna del Parto' fresco in nearby Monterchi.

One year I worked on 'A Comonty', my sequence of Shakespeare sonnets based on (mostly minor) characters in Shakespeare's plays.  I managed to pack all my clothes into a cabin luggage case that year and ended up slipping a fat paperback Complete Works of William Shakespeare into a duty-free carrier bag to avoid the need for a bigger case.  I abandoned Shakespeare before the return flight and he's still on the Villa bookshelves!

But there was more than writing and painting.  Fabulous scenery, delicious Italian food and wine, friendly and hard-working staff for whom nothing was too much trouble, close friendships and now, lasting memories.  Thank you, Kay and Steve, for making it all possible.

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