Wednesday, August 20, 2008


Seven years ago yesterday my beloved mother Blanche passed away. Dick's recent post about Cornwall reminded me that the last holiday I spent with her was in St.Ives in August 1998. We were celebrating my birthday. She was then ninety-four years old and had recently begun to paint - her lively watercolour of the harbour lights from our hotel room hangs on my wall. We visited the magnificently situated sea-sprayed Tate as well as the various small art galleries squeezed into the narrow cobbled streets. Blanche had her cane or my arm to lean on but you would never have believed that this was a very old lady. Here she is, in her unmistakeably French ageless prime, at a St. Ives cafe table . The photo of the two of us below

was taken a few months before she died in 2001. (My hair, since you ask, was dark then, its original colour, and I'm still a brunette in my soul in spite of current fake blondeness, due to vanity and suchlike). Blanche wasn't born blonde either but her personality was definitely blonde and anyway I never knew her as a dark-haired teenager before she decided she was blonde in her soul. She never lost a girlish quality - not an attempt to remain girlish, like so many dolled-up botoxed ladies-who-lunch - but a genuine, unsophisticated, unvarnished youthfulness which all her travels and travails as the wife of a melancholy Russian never dented.


Tuesday, August 19, 2008


Slovenian is a language which consists mainly of consonants. This might explain why Slovenes don't smile very much at foreigners or say buon giorno, buenos dias, bonjour or good morning when you come down to breakfast or bump into them when swimming. Nevertheless I had a great holiday (birthday present from family) in Slovenia in the small and peaceful resort of Strunjan, a conservation area on the Adriatic coast.

My older sister Annie and I flew from London to Trieste airport and then went by taxi (against my wishes - I wanted to take three buses) to Koper and on to Strunjan, about an hour's drive in all. Crossing the border between Italy and Slovenia a few years ago, you would have had to queue for ages in a tunnel while passports were fussed over but now the only indication that you've left Italy is that the road signs become all consonants. The blue Slovenian coastline is stunning, as is the countryside, with more shades of green than I have ever seen on any palette. I'm not knowledgeable about vegetation but I know about colours and I assure you that every single variant of green was there, scintillating like Van Gogh's brushstrokes. Our hotel room was on the top floor of a terraced building up five flights of stone stairs and, under a broiling sun, with an average temperature of about 29 Celsius (84 Fahrenheit), the climb and descent several times a day was agony. However the view from our balcony made the pain worthwhile.

Annie (always up before any known species of early bird) would go down to breakfast at seven but I am a dawdler and by the time I was having my breakfast (self-service) she would be at the swimming pool of a spa-hotel ten minutes' walk away. I would stroll over there eventually, breathing in the delicious scent of pine trees, and lie on a chaise-longue denying and defying, like everyone else, the devastating power of the sun. Who can resist the lure of browned skin, the illusion that it erases the flaws of pale, flabby winter flesh?

Some folks who happily spend vast sums of money and time roasting their white bodies on beaches around the world to turn them as near black as possible see nothing contradictory in objecting to people whom nature has blessed with dark skin at birth. Is racism an extreme form of physical envy? I witnessed a clear example as I lolled around the indoor pool in the morning. A beautiful young African woman and her small cappuccino-coloured son suddenly appeared like a vision amidst the all-white or sun-camouflaged clientele disporting themselves in the warm salt water. Ignoring the dagger-stares, she and the boy walked along the pool's edge to the empty children's area, separated by a glass partition from the main pool and thus shielded from hostile eyes. As I don't understand a word of Slovenian, I couldn't tell what swimmers were saying but it was clear from their snickering that they were not well pleased with the intrusion of a genuinely dark person, especially one so gorgeous, into their artificially brown world. Not a single one of the bodies in the pool, suntan regardless, could hold a candle to the physical perfection of that black vision and when she emerged from splashing in the kids' pool and boldly entered the grown-up water, swimming away with powerful strokes, it was too much for them. A group of the snickerers got out of the pool en masse and marched towards the exit, outrage rising like steam from their nostrils. Later, I noticed an Italian, probably the boy's father, speaking in consoling manner to the African woman. They were obviously used to this sort of incident but not immune - how could anyone be immune to such indignity? I can't speak for all of Slovenia but we saw only one other black person and very few foreigners during our stay in Strunjan though we were told that Italians and Germans are usually the main tourists.

Our routine was pool and jacuzzi every morning then a walk to the beach - not a sand beach but a concrete walkway along the seafront, flanked by a pine-shaded grassy area where bathers rest or take refreshment in a couple of cafes. A very pleasant, family-oriented, un-pretentious ambiance where you can people-watch to your heart's content. I wanted to film the slow parade of un-selfconscious, calorie-rich physiques but it was impossible to point my camera unobserved so I've only brought back snippets of video which I will post when edited, plus a handful of still-photos. Herewith a selection and I'll put the rest on Picasa shortly.

There is nothing to do in Strunjan apart from swimming and walking (or cycling or tennis if you can make the effort) and this suited me perfectly but my sister is a restless soul so we twice took a bus to neighbouring towns. Neither of us liked Portoroz - a noisy, crowded, commercial beach resort but Piran was wonderful - an ancient medieval port with the most amazing polished marble piazza reflecting the blazing sky so vividly that the whole place seemed about to burst into flames. Unforgivably, I forgot to bring either my camera or my camcorder that day, but I did buy some postcards.

Notwithstanding the usual squabbling between sisters, the birthday trip was relaxing and mind-emptying, so much so that I'm having a hard time getting into any kind of organised or productive action. Must get cracking, especially since the end of this month is the deadline for a new article for Guardian Women - yes, I submitted another idea and, behold, it was accepted. I did the research before going away but now I've got to write the piece and that takes lots of concentration, a faculty the Slovenian sun seems to have melted. Not to worry: end of August in London is actually the start of winter so my brain should be back to chilled state soon.


Wednesday, August 06, 2008


Going away tomorrow for a week so I looked for something quick to celebrate my entry on this planet. I found that the painter Emil Nolde, some of whose work I like, was also born on August 7, though a bit before me (1867). Here are some good quotes from him.

“Clever people master life; the wise illuminate it and create fresh difficulties.”

“The artist need not know very much; best of all let him work instinctively and paint as naturally as he breathes or walks.”

“What an artist learns matters little. What he himself discovers has a real worth for him, and gives him the necessary incitement to work.”

Emil Nolde

(the painting on the left is by him. Not the mug on the right).