In this blogposting…
*Robinson’s Grand Tour: Ninth Day
...will take place at 1100 on Wednesday 25 August at the Tanfield Railway. Nev has promised us a train ride (like last year). And I’ll be bringing along a special guest. So…
A splendid time is guaranteed for all.
(Please get in touch if you’d like a lift to the Railway.)
ROBINSON’S GRAND TOUR: NINTH DAY
SATURDAY 27 MARCH
Some day my true genius will be recognised. Decades after my ashes have been scattered unceremoniously onto a landfill somewhere, someone making the 2,000th edition of Who Do You Think You Are? will stumble upon this blog, or a scratchy old MP3 of The Nightshift and realise that, way back in 2010, there lived an unsung hero of cyberliterature and local light entertainment.
They will start campaigns to have blue plaques fixed to the walls of all 17 of the places I’ve lived. Statues of me in interesting and declamatory poses will appear in places I was most associated with: Peterlee town centre, Ilford Magistrates’ Court, Willesden Bus Garage…
Scurrilous biographies will be written and serialised in The Daily Star. Documentaries about my life and times will appear on BBC3 and be repeated endlessly on Dave and Blighty. I’ll become a deceased icon of my cultural environment, like Mata Hari, Lord Haw Haw or Dale Winton. Well, perhaps not Dale Winton.
And eventually, they’ll make a biopic about me. I can see it now. An innocent, doe-eyed young child actor - like that blond twerp in Oliver! - will play me in my salad days, growing up in the shadow of Blackhall pit heap, throwing rocks at passing trains and wolf-whistling Catholic priests in the undergrowth.
My gloriously creative life will be recreated in 3D, or even 4D (except for those Catholic priests). Future versions of, say, Johnny Depp or Kevin Spacey (or, most flattering of all, Sam Elliott) will dig deep into their cinematic souls and portray me as the sensitive, imaginative and pioneering spirit that I was.
This may sound to you like vainglorious claptrap being spouted by a fame-hungry tosspot who has considerably less talent than a baked potato. And you have a fair point.
In mitigation, though, all I can say it was these thoughts - or thoughts not dissimilar to them - that wandered idly and smilingly through my mind as I slowly woke up on that first morning in Florence. I opened my eyes and looked around my beautiful room in my splendid B&B. The pictures on the wall, of many different types and times and styles. The small sculptures and statuettes. The theatre and film posters. The huge, 17th century mirror. The asparagus ferns.
I sat on my bed, looked around and smiled again.
I walked over to the window and opened it. Five floors up, I was looking out over the jumbled rooftops of one of the world’s most celebrated cities. Some buildings rose higher than others and thus dominated what is, in fact, a fairly modest skyline; churches, palazzi and civic buildings, many with attached towers rising a little higher.
It was lovely to look at and over and beyond. Its peaceful lack of pretension means that the tree-draped Tuscan hills which surround Florence are visible in all directions and give the smiling onlooker - me - a sense of scale and space.
And, because the hills outside the city are so visible and so restful to gaze on, the view also gave me a sense of timelessness which actually took my breath away. It genuinely looked as if Florence had always been there. Or perhaps that the hills were ‘designed’ with Florence in mind.
Massimo brought me a cup of audacious Italian breakfast coffee and joined me at the window.
He told me that the view was, indeed, no accident; that the hand of ‘design’ was laying itself out in front of me, but hidden in the tangle of streets, alleyways and rooflines. And furthermore, that there was only one main criterion by which anything built in Florence had been measured since the late Middle Ages.
It must rise no higher than the Duomo, the Cathedral.
As we both looked west from our wonderful window, we were reaping the rewards of this far-sighted policy. There, about a mile away, rose the stupendous russet-red dome of the cathedral. The vista, which cannot have changed much in centuries, of this fabled, ancient city lent a definite air of unreality about the simple experience of looking out of one of its windows.
And that’s when the playful biopic idea occurred to me. If they ever make a film of my Grand Tour, this, I decided, would be the one scene I would like to be featured exactly as it happened.
I couldn’t wait to be out and amongst it all. I wanted to do some serious exploring. But M&S had a second musical card up their collective sleeve. As I was preparing to leave, they asked if I might be interested in a concert that was taking place that afternoon at the Teatro della Pergola.
‘Perhaps’, I replied, wary of over-organising my day. It is after all possible, I thought, to over-indulge the old musical passions. Why not give it a rest tonight? Why not ask them to recommend me a local restaurant instead?
‘The concert is entirely the music of Saint-Saens’, they added, nonchalantly.
Part of our wine-laden conversation the previous night had been about our favourite composers and I had been gesticulating wildly, and asserting rather drunkenly, that no-one had ever written anything to match the subtlety, beauty and intimacy of the music of my beloved Saint-Saens.
At first, I simply didn’t believe them. I thought that a Saint-Saens concert in beautiful Florence - while I was actually there to attend - was far too much of a coincidence.
But it was true. I rapidly re-prioritised my To Do list. Whatever else I did - and wherever else lay in wait to be explored and enjoyed - I had to get a ticket!
It should have been a simple matter. I should have made my way to the city’s central ticket office, bought my ticket for the concert and then - finally - I should have begun my exploration of the many sights and sounds with which Florence entices and beguiles its visitors.
It didn’t quite go according to that plan though. I caught a number 6B bus back to the station - the ticket office lay on the street right next to it. So far, so good. But as I turned the corner at the side of the station, my To Do list suddenly had to be re-organised yet again. For there, in all its pristine glory, glinting in the morning sunlight and beckoning to me to take a closer look, was the city’s latest pride and joy. A tram.
Trams are, of course, commonplace in Europe (and thankfully becoming commoner here, too) but this one was different. This one was virtually brand new. Florentines had been battling for years to have it built and there it was. And even though all modern trams have a graceful and elegant quality about them, I could tell immediately that this silver-and-red beauty was special. It had the stylish air of Versace or Galliano about it - sleek, unignorable and designed to within an inch of its life - as you can see.
At this moment, I realised that Florence had ‘infected’ my thought processes as it had already done to millions of others. I was comparing a tram to a catwalk model’s frock.
I’m not proud of this next bit. However, these scribblings have pretensions to be an honest account of my Grand Tour, so in the interests of historical accuracy, I feel I ought to lay bare the intellectual battle that raged within me at that moment. One one side, the Duomo, the Baptistry, the Campanile, Michelangelo, Brunellescchi, the Ponte Vecchio, sculpture, art and music lined up - better armed than they could be anywhere else in the world - against, on the other side, a tram.
The tram won hands down. I dashed into the theatre box office and bought my ticket for the concert (to ease my philistine conscience, I suppose). Then dashed back equally quickly, boarded the tram and rode it contentedly to its terminus at Villa Costanza, on the outskirts of the city, and back again.
People who make errors of cultural judgment of that magnitude are, as a rule, deserving only of pity, and perhaps some kind of mild, mind-altering medication. In mitigation, I can only say that, whatever city I visit, I try to find time to jump on a bus or a tram just to see where it goes. It’s a good way of getting out of tourist-crowded city centres, it gets you out into the ‘real’ city where people actually live out their lives - and you get to meet some of them into the bargain. There are some fascinating, if everyday, parts of Amsterdam, Seville, Paris and even Istanbul that I wouldn’t have seen were it not for my peremptory tram rides.
It was on this little jaunt, for example, that I got my first glimpse of the Tuscan countryside so beloved of the English chattering middle-classes. It looked lovely. Admittedly, if you looked out of the other side of the tram, all you saw was a shopping mall, but you can’t have everything.
By the time the tram had dropped me back at the station, and I’d had a bite to eat and a glass of wine, it was time to make for the Teatro della Pergola.
And that’s why, even after a full 24 hours in Florence, I remained untainted by its celebrated cultural delights as the lights went down and the curtain went up…
The lady sitting next to me was an 81-year-old Welsh expat pensioner called Alice. I realise how unlikely that sounds, but it’s true. I know it’s true because, when the performance finished, I tripped up on her handbag strap as I got up from my seat.
As we shuffled out of the theatre, she touched my arm and said something in Italian. The only reply I could think of, and which I rendered in a version of Italian which amounted to juvenile burblings, was to apologise for being English and for not understanding her. Her reply of ‘Never! I would never have taken you for English! Has anyone ever told you how German you look?’ in the rich, round tones of South Wales put the delicacies and gentle nuances of Saint-Saens clean out of my mind.
We continued talking back out on the street, in Florence’s gentle, late-afternoon sunshine. I couldn’t take my eyes off Alice. She was, without any doubt at all, one of the most beautiful older women I have ever seen. Her smile was broad and warm and her eyes twinkled. The lines on her face looked as if they were specially designed to enhance, rather than detract from, her beauty. Her outfit was a close-cut two-piece in various shades of brown, set off with a necklace and bracelet of wooden beads.
And so far, she’s the only person I’ve ever met who wears a ring made of wood. She looked stunning, and I told her so. When she accepted the compliment gracefully, I began to think that I was falling in love.
We walked slowly back towards the Piazza del Duomo, stopping often to laugh or be amazed. Alice was keen to hear about my Grand Tour and I was just as keen to tell her about it. I’m relieved to say that, for example, she agreed with me about Venice. ‘Venice’, she said, ‘is Woolworth’s. Florence is Fortnum and Mason’s’.
She seemed to have a vast store of aphorisms like that. ‘If love turns and smiles at you, smile back. Take his hand if he offers it. Walk beside him, not behind him’.
‘For Heaven’s sake, do not live every day as if it was your last. Live every day as if it was your first!’
‘Your friends are your table and your hearth; you go to them for nourishment and warmth’.
‘If you are doing something to kill time, that time is better off dead. Stop and do something else’.
Alice had married a waiter who worked in an Italian restaurant in Cardiff and had moved back with him to his native Florence. That was 49 years ago. ‘Why’, she asked, ‘would I ever want to go anywhere else?’
We sat on a stone bench at the foot of the Campanile. It was the first time I’d been this close to it, and I listened intently as Alice told me its colourful and flamboyant story. Designed in 1344 by ‘the wonderful Giotto’, 82m (270ft) high, with 414 steps to the top. ‘I’m besotted with it’, she told me. ‘Unfortunately, it’s closed at this hour. Otherwise, we could have climbed to the top and looked out over the city….’
I imagined myself struggling up 414 steps, gradually falling further and further behind this sprightly octogenarian as she once again indulged her love affair. I thanked the Fates for the lateness of the hour.
Eventually, Alice fell silent and just sat there next to me, looking up at the Campanile in sheer adoration. As I followed her gaze, I realised that she was right. It’s a wonderful building, fully deserving of her affection. And mine, too.
So there I was. Yet another dose of unconditional love to add to the day’s tally. Florence. Trams. Saint-Saens. The Campanile.
And Alice. After almost 50 years living her love-dream in this most Italian of Italian cities, her Welsh accent was as fresh and as pure as ever.
And, once in a while, I still wonder what it is about me that makes me look German.
But the day was not quite over yet. M&S had invited two French friends - Noam and Michel - to stay for the weekend. They’d arrived that day from Paris and I was invited to the dinner party, which took place in the cramped, cluttered and utterly delightful kitchen of M&S’s flat.
To be honest, I can’t really remember what we had to eat, except for Stefano’s positively stupendous tiramisu, the like of which I had never tasted in my life. It ought to be proscribed, with severe penalties for transgression, for its cream and chocolate content alone. Like so much else that day, it was unforgettable.
The conversation took a few remarkable turns, too. I found myself in the uncommon position of being envied for being English. I was in the company of two people who lived in Florence and two from Paris, all of whom were telling me how lucky I was to be English.
Much though I love England, this would have seemed rather perverse to me had the topic under discussion not been gay rights and the lives of gay people in Italy, France and elsewhere.
Although civil partnership, and even gay marriage, are now almost a commonplace in western Europe, Italy and France remain steadfastly opposed to any liberalisation of their laws. All four of my fellow-diners berated the insidious, and often quite blatant, influence of the Catholic church - although, as I pointed out, this does not seem to have affected Spain or Ireland.
It’s always sobering for gay people to remember, as we all did that Saturday evening, that, although our sexuality has long since ceased to be an obstructive issue for most of us in western Europe, being gay can still be fraught with almost unbelievable dangers elsewhere. In most African countries, gay people can expect long prison sentences at the very least. There are still 12 countries in the world, including Saudi Arabia, where the death penalty is routinely applied.
Back in my room, I opened the window once again and looked out over the city and to the starry sky.
It does no-one any harm to be reminded, once in a while, of how lucky they are; that they live in a country which has quietly (though belatedly) decided to accept them for who they are; and that there are countless millions of men and women who are forced to make a choice between ruinous self-repression or imprisonment, persecution and death.
Not all those who wander are lost...
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