Monday, 15 October 2018

Sylvia Plath's Letters Volume 2 by Fay Bound Alberti

I have just finished reading the second volume of Sylvia Plath's Letters, published by Faber and Faber. They make for sober reading. The first volume, published in 2017, covered the period 1940-1956. In those, a smiling, bikini-clad Plath beams out from the front cover, while the pages are filled with the optimism and hope of youth. There are pockets of doubt and difficulty, the hint of rape and a suicide attempt, but also Plath's growing certainty of herself as a writer, a woman and an equal to the towering figure of Ted Hughes, with whom she is forever linked.

Letters, volume 1

It is evident from the book jacket that the second volume will be a more serious affair. Gone is the summer sun and the happy expression. Viewed from the side and in monochrome, Plath's expression is serious, her hair tied up in a no-nonsense style. In nearly 600 letters, we follow Plath's marriage to Hughes, their movement around the globe and the UK, her library successes and his more immediate recognition, childbirth and child loss, a breaking-down marriage and her suicide at the age of 30.

Letters, volume 2
To Plath, Hughes was a giant, a genius, a literary God. He must be fed steak for breakfast and waited on, his needs tended to. Yet she also resented her domesticity, her entrapment to the demands of her husband - first moving to Devon because he wanted space, searching for childcare in order to write,  and juggling the demands of that writing along babies, cooking, cleaning and tending to Hughes. The marriage was intense. It was also violent. She wrote to her psychiatrist that Hughes beat her when she was pregnant, causing her to miscarry their second child. 

In the foreword to the book, their daughter Frieda meets these claims head on. She writes in defence of her father, justifying his apparent violence towards Sylvia - which is also recorded in Plath's journals - on the problematic grounds that what was meant by 'a beating' is unclear (a hit, a swipe, a push?) and that her mother had been difficult, needy, disruptive. It is difficult to read this perspective, and to compare it with the plaintiveness of Plath's own journals, the constant fretting about existence that hovers at their margins, her need to do right, live right, be right. 

Yet it is clear in Frieda's foreword how difficult it must be to have parents so utterly in the public eye and simultaneously capable of creating division. Plath was better known after her death than in life, with her books The Bell Jar (a semi-autobiographical novel about a nervous breakdown) and her poetry. Her writing is said to have contributed to the development of the confessional style in literature. And yet it is Hughes who is remembered in Westminster Abbey, not Plath.

The Bell Jar, first published in 1963 
Plath's final letters were written just a few days before she died by suicide in her London flat. She had successfully moved back to the city after being left by Hughes (he was unfaithful with their tenant Assia Wevill, who, in a terrible mirroring would kill herself and her daughter in the same way that Plath died). Plath seemed to be getting better; she had been knocked by Hughes' infidelity and the subsequent rejection of some friends, and she struggled with Frieda missing her father. She was convinced that her daughter had 'latent schizophrenia', and she fretted constantly about her wellbeing. 

It took such effort on the part of Plath to reestablish herself, to find childcare, to push herself back into the London scene, that the exhaustion is apparent on the page. Her letters to people become repetitive as she tells one after another about Hughes' adultery and abandonment, the money he is to pay, his family's turning on her, her living in Yeats' house and how that was fate, and finally, the endless illness, colds and flu of her children. 

In the main, Plath's letters have an enforced jollity even when she is struggling. From time to time she was angry and critical with her mother, but she also felt responsible for her, writing to her sponsor, the American author Olive Higgins Prouty, not to pass on information that might cause Aurelia worry. Prouty had suffered with mental health problems too, so Plath felt she was an ally. Plath was convinced that Hughes wanted her to kill herself, something she refused to contemplate. 

But by the beginning of 1963, despite all her contrived hope and determination, Plath was sleep deprived, unwell, lonely and depressed. On 11 February, having previously convinced herself, and her psychiatrist that she was no longer a suicidal 'type', she left out a snack for the sleeping children, took precautions to seal the kitchen and gassed herself in the oven. 

23 Fitzroy Road, London, last residence of Sylvia Plath

Two years after her death, Plath's collection of poems Ariel was published by Ted Hughes. These poems, including the eponymous poem written on her 30th birthday, drew on the pain of abandonment and loss that had followed her marriage breakdown. This is the writing for which she is best remembered. 


And now I
Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas.
The child's cry 

Melts in the wall. 
And I
Am the arrow, 

The dew that flies 
Suicidal, at one with the drive 
Into the red

Eye, the cauldron of morning. 

Sunday, 14 October 2018

The Pleasures and Perils of Living Abroad - by Lesley Downer

My Idealed John Bullesses 
by Yoshio Makino 1912
London in 1900 was like New York today, a city where you craned your neck gazing up at the towering stone buildings while all around people rushed hither and thither, sleek and well-dressed, full of importance. At least that was how it seemed to a sensitive 33 year old Tokyoite called Natsume Soseki who arrived on October 28th that year. 

Tokyo too was prosperous and had its share of stone buildings, built largely by western architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright. But it was primarily a low rise city full of narrow streets of dark wooden houses with bamboo shutters and tiled roofs. London was not just huge - a ‘maze’, Soseki called it - but the heart of the greatest empire in the world, whereas Japan had only just had the insulting ‘unequal treaties’ with Britain and other western powers nullified. When the actress Sadayakko performed here, also in 1900, reviewers expressed amazement that someone ‘primitive’ (i.e. not European, let alone British) should seem perfectly sophisticated.
Fleet Street by James Valentine c 1890

Soseki (his first name and pen name) was a pre-eminent scholar of English literature and one of the first graduates of Tokyo Imperial University’s English Literature department. He had been sent to study for two years by the Japanese government, keen to learn as much as possible from the most powerful country in the world.

But he really didn’t want to go. For a start he had to leave his pregnant wife behind. He had a very small stipend and spent most of it on books, which didn’t leave much for rent. He stayed in a succession of shabby lodging houses - in Gower Street near the British Museum, Priory Road in West Hampstead, the ‘gloomy, squalid neighbourhood of the notorious slum Camberwell’, Tooting and lastly Clapham Common, the one place where he felt even remotely contented. 

Farewell photo before Soseki's departure
for London. Soseki is bottom right
From the start he was lonely and miserable. He hated the weather, the food and the tube, ‘the foulness of the air and the train’s swaying.’ He spent most of his time holed up in his room. The only English people he got to know were his landladies and their families.

When he did go out for a walk, he felt terribly self conscious about his smallness of stature. Everyone he met was ‘depressingly tall,’ he wrote. Once he saw an ‘unusually small person’ approaching and thought, ‘Eureka!’, then realised this person was still 2 inches taller than he was. Finally ‘a strangely complexioned Tom Thumb approaches, but now I realise this is my own image reflected in a mirror.’ In the park ‘herds of women walk around like horned lionesses with nets on their heads.’ He was struck by the fact that even tradesmen ‘are for the most part better dressed than many a high ranking official in Japan ... A butcher’s boy, when Sunday rolls around, will proudly put on his silk hat and frock coat.’

Behind his back he heard people referring to him as a ‘least-poor Chinese’, a very strange adjective, as he noted. He was also mistaken at the theatre for a Portuguese.

To improve his health his landlady suggested that he take up cycling so he set off for the horse riding area on Clapham Common where there would not be too many spectators. His efforts resulted in a series of comic mishaps with him nearly running down a policeman.
Soseki in 1912

Eventually he became so isolated and miserable that his landlady, doctor and fellow lodgers advised him to take a holiday. So he went to Scotland, where he made the discovery that British people didn’t go moon-viewing or appreciate moss and began to doubt whether the British were really worth the reverence in which they were held in Japan.

He did experience some kindnesses. A beefeater at the Tower of London went out of his way to show him a suit of Japanese armour, ‘presented to Charles II from Mongolia.’ He was in London when Queen Victoria died in January 1901 and his landlord lifted him onto his shoulders so that he could see the funeral cortege. 

Nevertheless all in all it was a miserable experience. ‘The two years I spent in London were the most unpleasant years in my life,’ he later wrote. ‘Among English gentlemen I lived in misery, like a poor dog that had strayed among a pack of wolves. I understand the population of London is about five million. Frankly speaking, I felt as if I were a drop of water amid five million drops of oil.’
Plaque at 81 The Chase, Clapham

But in fact Soseki’s lonely years were the making of him. He wrote about them wryly and humorously in several early works and went on to become one of the most beloved Japanese novelists of all time, author of Kokoro, Botchan and I am a Cat, among many others.

Yoshio Makino in contrast adored London. A artist three years younger than Soseki, he arrived a few years before him, in 1897, though there is no evidence that their paths ever crossed.

Makino particularly loved the mist and fog of the English landscape. He wrote, ‘London in mist is far above my own ideal ... the colour and its effects are most wonderful. I think London without mists would be like a bride without a trousseau ... The London mist attracts me so that I do not feel that I could live any other place but London.’

He lived in London for 45 years, mainly in Kensington, and did many paintings - of the Thames, Earl’s Court Station, Sloane Square, all studies in mist; of Fulham Road with a church spire looming out of the gloom, pavements glittering on a rainy night, shadowy nightspots with crowds of women emerging from brightly lit houses into a dark street. 

He also admired British women and painted many pictures of them. He called them John Bullesses (after John Bull). ‘Some John Bullesses bury themselves into such thick fur overcoats in winter. You can hardly see their eyes; all other parts are covered with foxes’ tails, minks’ heads, seals’ back skin, a whole bird, snakeskin, etc. ... But when they get into a house and take off all those heavy wearing, such a light and charming butterfly comes out,’ he wrote.

Soseki’s stay came to an end in January 1903 but Makino stayed on till 1942 when he was reluctantly repatriated. He spent the rest of his life trying to get back to England.

Quotations from The Tower of London, Tales of Victorian London, by Natsume Soseki, translated and introduced by Damian Flanagan, the great enthusiast of and authority on Natsume Soseki. Published by Peter Owen, 2005.

Lesley Downer’s latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, is an epic tale set in nineteenth century Japan and is out now in paperback.

For more see

All pictures courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, 13 October 2018

The Etiquette of Apples

by Deborah Swift
Jeanne Illenye - The Fateful Temptation

I have been lucky enough to be given a huge plastic bag full of apples from my friend's orchard, and have been busy cooking up stewed apples and freezing them, so I can enjoy them through the winter. Whilst looking up different recipes I cam across snippets of applelore, which I hope will give you a taste of apples and of Autumn.

The Latin malus means both “apple” and “evil,” which, according to some historians, is probably why the apple gained a reputation as the Forbidden Fruit, when most scholars agree the original fruit was probably a pomegranate, though Michelangelo’s Temptation and Fall on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel features forbidden figs. By the 17th century, the apple being the commonest fruit in Europe, the fruit responsible for man's Fall from Grace was widely believed to be the apple.

Victorian Costermonger

The first evidence of deliberate cultivation dates from the period of the Roman invasion of Britain, but by the 9th century records show that cider making was already well established, and the Norman French brought with them a number of new varieties of apple, including the Costard. This apple is no longer grown, but its existence is preserved in the word costermonger -- a seller of Costard apples.

In North America nearly everyone has heard of 'Johnny Appleseed'. During the late 18th Century he planted orchards right from Pennsylvania in the east through to Indiana in the west. According to legend, the indigenous population regarded him as a medicine man, because of his combination of enthusaism for nature and his religious devotion, which involved distributing tracts along with the seeds.

When eating apples at the table or in company, a range of 'apple etiquettes' became common. In Georgian times, coring the apple was done with a silver apple corer. When they first appeared in the 1680’s they were a long silver cylinder, with a scallop shaped cutting blade. Some rare examples have a hollow compartment at one end in which sugar, cinnamon and other spices to add flavour would have been kept. Gentlemen carried these, as it was fashionable for the genmtleman to assist the lady, and peel and core the fruit for her. Some had a handle that unscrewed, so the device could be stored in a pocket more easily. Apple corers in this form were popular until about 1820.
Gentleman's Silver Apple corer from 1690
Fruit was widely used as a dessert and special cutlery was used in the Victorian era to eat it. When fresh fruit was served, a small plate accompanied by a fruit knife and fork were exchanged for the dessert plate.

Above is a Victorian mother of pearl handled pocket fruit knife and fork, each with its own little leather carrying case.

There is a knack to peeling the fruit elegantly in polite company. Holding the fruit by the fork, the apple is stood straight up and peeled from top to bottom without being touched by the hands. When the entire fruit has been peeled, it should be carefully sliced into small morsels and eaten one piece at a time. I should think many people found their apple shooting unexpectedly across the table!

For more information on how to eat fruit correctly with or without cutlery, (including bananas and all sorts of other fruit) I recommend you go hereOf course I can't imagine many of us will feel the need for such extreme etiquette, but it is fascinating!
Still Life -  Balthazar Van Ast .17th Century
Happy Autumn everyone.

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Friday, 12 October 2018

The Great Courses

Some years ago, in a quest to lose weight, I took up running. Running, as many of you will know, is unbelievably boring - especially for those of us shaped less like runners and more like flat-footed sweet potatoes. I am also tone deaf, and like Horatio Hornblower, derive less pleasure than other people do from music. So my husband recommended The Great Courses by The Teaching Company; a treasure trove of lectures from US college professors.

There are hundreds of courses to choose from. The one I went for first was a History of Byzantium by Kenneth Harl (his courses are fantastic, by the way - particularly his Vikings one). Like a lot of people who studied history, my knowledge was patchy - good on the Julio-Claudians, hopeless post-Constantine. Good on the Renaissance, hopeless on the Enlightenment. Good on the Russian Revolution, sketchy on the French. You get the drift.

The Great Courses has acted as a sort of join-the-dots for my patchy knowledge of world history. The Harl lectures had another consequence - they brought me to writing historical fiction. I remember running through St James' Park, and listening to him talk about the Empress Theodora - the courtesan turned sixth-century Empress, and religious activist. I'd never heard of Theodora. I remember I stopped running, and sat on a park bench. Listening. People strolled by, pigeons fought over bread for the ducks, swans glided.

By the time the lecture finished, I had resolved to write Theodora's story. And reader, I did. OK, I did it badly, no one wanted to publish it, and then Stella Duffy did it better. But hey. My first novel, which I think of as akin to a Patronus Charm in Harry Potter - it helps to cast the spell, knowing already that you can achieve the spell.

In the fourteen years since, I've listened to loads of Great Courses. My absolute favourites are those by Garratt Fagan, an Irish born historian of Ancient Rome who taught in the US and died aged only 54 last year. This blog is a peculiar echo chamber, and perhaps its readers will understand the particular joy of walking somewhere beautiful, listening to a mellifluous and searingly insightful voice talking about the third century crisis in Imperial Rome.

In the old days, if you bought a Great Course, it came in a box set of CDs, with accompanying leaflets. We would burn them on to MP3 players. Now, I can download them onto my iPhone from my audible account (incidentally, this massively decreases the price of lots of the courses).

My husband, who is not tone deaf, is a huge fan of Professor Robert Greenberg's lectures on music, particularly his history of opera and his talks on Beethoven.

I don't run any more while listening to the courses. Partly because I really, really hate running. But also because I've been listening to a lot of philosophy, and you need to concentrate. Say you are running along, and Professor Lawrence Cahoone is talking you through Hegel's three stage dialectical interpretation of history, and you suddenly think: Oh look, a pigeon. And, bang, just like that you are lost in Hegel. To listen to these bad boys, you need easy access to the go-back-30-seconds button on your phone.

Here's the link: It's a treasure trove.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

A wander through the history of Iffley Village

I am lucky enough to live in the village of Iffley, about 2 miles from the centre of Oxford. One route  from the centre of Oxford to Iffley runs along the side of Thames, another traverses the ancient Meadow Lane that linked the village with the city from time immemorial. The third route is along the busy Iffley Road. 

Most people know of Iffley due to its outstanding Norman church, dating from 1160, with its exceptional wealth of Romanesque decorative carving, but it is much more. 

To quote the Iffley Conservation Area Appraisal:
“The ancient village of Iffley sits between the more suburbanised developments of Iffley Road (Donnington) and Rose Hill. Despite the increasing suburbanisation, Iffley retains a strong rural character and an extensive green setting to its west. The village centres upon a small network of lanes and pedestrian routes, with development spanning the 12th century to the present day.”
There is only one road into the village by car, so it has retained a sense of cohesion, and has a thriving community of residents. There are many groups of eager villagers united by their love of the beautiful Norman church, the village’s history, or by music or poetry. We have a community shop, run by volunteers. Each month there is a film night at the local thatched village hall, and there are often concerts or lectures in the church or hall. We even had French film festival in the  hall last month.

Iffley lies on the east bank of the Thames. The riverside land is low-lying, but it rises away from the river to a plateau about 250 ft. above sea-level, reaching 295 ft. at its highest point. The Church of St Mary the Virgin (completed in 1160) stands above Iffley lock on the Thames. The main street, Church Way, runs northwards from the church, and has lanes and roads branching off. On the river is the pretty Iffley Lock.
Archaelogical finds at Iffley span both the Palaeolithic (185 objects) and Neolithic (476 objects). Palaeolithic stone tools date from the period known archaeologically as the Mid Acheulian (between 250,000 and 350,000 years ago approximately), and were made by early hominids (Homo Erectus).

The Romans were there. Iffley village lies on the edge of what was an extensive distribution of Roman manufacturing sites related to a pottery industry of national significance. More exciting for me is that a number of Roman burials were identified near Iffley Turn, where I live. These may represent part of a cemetery on the edge of the manufacturing area, where the land slopes down to the flood plain. The cemetery is now covered by modern flats, but every time I pass by I think of the Romans who lived and worked nearby and were buried there.                                                                                                              
Then came the Anglo-Saxons. An Anglo-Saxon spearhead was recovered near Iffley Lock and this beautiful 6th century Anglo-Saxon garnet and silver-gilt brooch from Iffley is now in the British Museum. 

What of Iffley’s name? Apparently, it is a puzzle. In the chronicles of Abingdon Abbey (941-46) the place is called Gifteleia. It is referred to as Givetelei in the Domesday book (1086), and Merton College records from the 1290s refer to Iftele and Yiftele. By 1543 Lincoln College accounts refer to Ifley. The Domesday of Inclosures (written in Latin in 1617-18) mentioned it as Yeftley. But by the Civil War in 1642-46, the sound of the name was fixed, as there are written accounts of Iffley or Iflie. After that, only lawyers bothered with the T. 

The Ley bit is either from a Saxon word for cleared ground (it appears again in neighbouring Cowley), or a word for woodland where pigs grazed. As to the Iff, the origins are a puzzle, but a similar, related, Old English word. Gibitz means plover or lapwing, which neatly fits with cleared ground, where the birds are found.

In the Iffley Tapestry which hangs in the church hall, a lapwing takes pride of place.
There is a little more known of medieval Iffley. The Grade I listed Church of St Mary the Virgin stands among the trees and gravestones of the churchyard. Dating from 1160, it is one of the best preserved Norman churches in the country. 
St Mary the Virgin, Iffley.
The western elevation exhibits fine Romanesque zigzag carving around the recessed doorway. One of the oldest yew trees in England overhangs the medieval cross. 

The Rectory north-south block probably goes back to the 13th century, with additions in the 16th to the north range, while the east wing may be of 17th-century date. Our Vicar, Andrew, told me that they “live in the modern bit, the Tudor part.”

The local building stone of the old village structures is limestone that was taken from the hillside locally. Iffley stone was used at Merton College in the 1290s: not co-incidentally, Walter Merton (the founder) held Iffley manor at the time. Quarrying was on a small scale, but the former industry is kept alive by the name of Stone Quarry Lane.
Various old cottages in the village are made of this locally quarried stone. Tudor Cottage, one of the oldest surviving buildings in the village, dates from the 16th/17th century. The thatched cottage in Mill Lane is another made of local stone.


Not much remains from Iffley's medieval period, except the Church and Rectory. However, apparently behind Rivermead in Church Way (below)  is a barn-like building which “may be a rare survival of a medieval farm-house”. It is a “one-storied stone building with fragments of medieval tracery and later carved stone-work reset in the walls”. In a deposition of 1640, it is said that at the end of the 16th century it was named the 'parlour'; that it then had a loft above with “a little hearth in the middle which seemed for the making of fire”.   
From 1393, when Richard II’s queen gave Iffley to Sir Richard Abberbury, who transferred the village to an almshouse for 12 poor men of Donnington near Newbury. It was the Donnington Hospital Trust (which is still in operation) that exercised considerable power over development until after the Second World War. Thus Iffley had no ‘lord of the manor’ and this to a large extent protected the village from unrestricted development (and the church from later ‘improvements’).

The medieval township operated a three-field system, but traces of the ridge and furrow from these open fields have largely been lost since the fields were enclosed in 1830.
Iffley saw some disorder in the early 15th century, when armed bands from Oxford twice attacked the property of a landowner there. In July 1643 two troops of horse of the queen's forces were billeted in the village, and in the following year Parliamentarian forces were housed there during the siege of Oxford. But it was a sleepy little village for most of its history.

The appearance of the township was dramatically altered in the 19th century. Its fields were inclosed in 1830 and by 1852 it boasted 23 “gentlemen's households” (three of them clerical), a ladies' school and as many as seventeen tradesmen. The houses of the gentry (mainly tradesmen seeking higher social status) were set in large gardens and spread out between the old village and the Iffley Road. The Priory, Iffley's "Strawberry Hill" is an example of one of these.

Hawkwell House, now a hotel, is another:

At the beginning of the 20th century Iffley was still a village surrounded by fields. Its lanes kept their old names—Tree, Mill, Baker's, and Meadow Lanes – fritillaries grew by the lock, and the Oxford Road was bordered with meadows and may hedges. Communication with the city was provided by a horse-bus which ran half-hourly from Oxford and heavy traffic went by river barges.
Village life persisted well into the twentieth century. There were mummers at Christmas, May Day celebrations, visits of Jack-in-the-Green and travelling bears from Oxford. The feast day of the Iffley Foresters Club held in early July and it was the occasion of a fair. Another fair was held in September. Walking weddings and funerals were still the village custom and if it was a baby's funeral, girls dressed in white and carrying white posies were the bearers.
 It's all quite different now, but still retains that sense of being a rural village. There are many old houses, two pubs, plenty of green areas and, of course, the river. A lovely place.
Fritillaries in Iffley meadow


Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Cod fail - Michelle Lovric

I've done a lot of crazy things in cars on the terraferma of the Veneto. It always seems to go wrong. Some might say that I'm better off never leaving Venice. This post feels like a continuation of Not the Villa Pisani at Stra, in which your correspondent swotted up on said stately home only to be delivered to a completely different Villa Pisani.

This time I thought I'd done my homework properly. I'm currently on the trail of the historic trade route that brings dried cod from the Lofoten island of Røst all the way to Venice. I have written previously about the slightly salty start to the six-hundred-year-old relationship between the fishermen of Norway and the diners of la Serenissima. It started with a shipwreck in 1431 and the cod-lines have never been broken since then. But lately ‘stoccafisso’ or cod has become a talismanic plot device in my WIP. Venetian revolutionaries known as 'Carbonari' will use it when fermenting some trouble for their Austrian occupiers in 1818.

At any Venetian bar or restaurant, you can to this day eat Baccalà mantecato (dried Norwegian cod soaked in water or milk and then whipped up to a fluffy paste with olive oil). And of course it was the two islands of Røst and Venice that set up the whole unlikely business. Surprisingly, however, the mother-lode of modern stoccafisso research in the Veneto turns out to be on dry land.

In 1987, the Confraternità della Baccalà alla Vicentina (cod served with polenta) was established in the small terraferma town of Sandrigo, half an hour’s drive from Bassano del Grappa. A partnership brought together gastronomists and local personalities who resolved to promote the baccalà that was, they feared, in the process of disappearing from the Veneto.

Two years later, the plans came into effect. September 30 and October 1 of 1989 saw the arrival of the first stockfish from the Lofoten Islands to be cooked by restaurants and served to the public in a Saturday night supper and a Sunday lunch in Sanrigo. On Saturday afternoon those involved paraded around the town, which was bedecked with Norwegian flags, a sight said to have moved the Norwegian Ambassador, whose countrymen had donated 5 quintals of stockfish for the occasion. Sandrigo welcomed 10,000 visitors that weekend, too many to be fed the main meal. Many had to settle for a pasta seasoned with a "tocio" of baccalà. And for the last thirty years the tradition has continued, each year enriched with new activities and festivities. Innovative dishes have been added to the repertoire. Now you can get gnocchi and risotto with baccalà, croquettes with baccalà and many other dishes. There is even, God help us, baccalà pizza. According to the website, the baccalà festival is now one of the biggest and most important in Italy. In 2017 the 10,000 kg of the fish were consumed, a record.

Relations with the Norwegians have strengthened: thanks also to land-bound Sandrigo twinning with the island of Røst and to the ever-increasing presence of Nordic guests and students who, in alternate years, come to visit Sandrigo.

Given my current research, I was of course keen to see the festival of the baccalà. So to Sandrigo recently, in a day of limpid sunshine, hoping to catch sight of the promised processions, the handsome (surely!) Norwegian fisherman, to taste the many dishes prepared for the occasion and to generally enjoy the sagra. (A sagra is a festival usually devoted to a local food of some kind. As nothing much grows in Venice, except cruise ships and tourist inundations, we are deprived of sagre. So it was especially piquant to feel that I was about to get a little involved in this one.)

Naturally, I did my research on the website of the Confraternità. September 27th was listed as one of the active days of the festival. Personally, I was hoping to meet some Røstians whom I could visit next year when I do the Norwegian part of my research. I had a million questions for them.

My little party was encouraged when the first thing we saw in Sandrigo was a banner over the road, welcoming us to Baccalà Country.

 Then, with mounting excitement, we noted the Norwegian flags at every corner. At the excellent Sandrigo restaurant where we had lunch, wooden models of stoccafisso were piled in the window. We were told by our host that perhaps forty or fifty Norwegians were in town for the festival. He was curious too: ‘And why are you here, Signori?’

Siamo alla caccia di Pescatori Norvegesi’ we told our host. ‘We are on the hunt for Norwegian fishermen’. Under my breath, I added, ‘Tall, handsome ones!’

 But … on making our way to the sports ground which is the epicentre of the festa, we found only empty seats …

empty bars …

a huge pavilion set up for hundreds of dinners …

also totally empty …
The only person we saw in the whole realm of the cod was a solitary man on a bicycle.
As for Norwegians, not a one, except painted on windows of pizzeria.
(I am assuming that the tall one with the red beard is a Pescatore Norvegese).
also, the ones below with the Viking horns …

 We found the menus of all the different dishes prepared with cod …
and even a picture promising cod pizza.
But no cod, except these wooden ones at our restaurant:

It turns out that I was misinformed about the true excitements of the sagra. We should have committed ourselves properly to the cod and made a weekend of it.

We had already missed the previous Saturday’s show: TIRACCHE MATTE PRESENTS THE CRAZY GIRAFFE - a duo of jugglers grappling with the objects of everyday life. And Sunday’s Mediaeval Show with waders (?) and jesters.

Just two days after our visit, Saturday 29 September was to be one of the highlights, with pavilions of foods, tastings, and a Magic Night with street arts, including fakirs, tightrope walkers and fire-eaters, all accompanied by live music. And on the morning of Sunday, September 30th there’d be the Investiture ceremony of the Confraternità of the Baccalà in the presence of the Norwegian delegation from Rost, with flag-raising - national anthems and performances by the drummers of Conegliano Veneto and the flag-wavers of the Cerva di Noale, historical costumes, a parade of the Food and Wine Confraternities and of the Baccalà Club, followed by more live music and street shows. Monday 1 October was to be the GRAN FINALE, with the specialty of RISOTTO DI GRUMOLO DELLE ABADESSE … with baccalà. Since the 16th century, rice is a speciality of the small hamlet of Grumolo delle Abbadesse, between Vicenza and Padua. It was introduced to the area by nuns ('abbadesse') from the Benedictine abbey of San Pietro di Vicenza.

But by Monday October 1, I was long gone, sadly. I was back in London, having scored a comprehensive fail on my cod research. However, I do not count my golden day in Sandrigo as wasted. I could not have wished for more hilarious and sympathetic companions. I’d never been to Sandrigo before. We were shown inside the lovely Villa Sesso Bourdignan by its kind owners, who now live in the part of the building that was the original post office, being the home of the carrier pigeons who used to deliver the mail.

We also got to press our noses against the gates of this villa and glimpse its frescoes through a cracked keyhole.

Those of you who speak Italian, will know that its name translates as ‘Villa Sex Slave'. But in fact the ‘Sesso’ is a family name (We had earlier seen the villa of Camillo Sesso) and Schiavo is a locality. (Still!)

But sadly, now I am back in London, writing this. I’ll hope for better luck in Røst next June, where a Puffin Festival is promised … maybe … if I can get the day right … perhaps ...

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