The chiffon prom dress was diaphanous and pretty like this one

The chiffon prom dress was diaphanous and pretty like this

IN a charity shop the other day I noticed a woman making a close inspection of the rail of long dresses. Most of them were swiftly passed over as she pushed the hangers along in a decisive way, but then she paused as one caught her eye. She unhooked the hanger from the rail to give the dress a closer inspection.

This gave me my chance, too, to glance across and notice it was a strappy, low-cut, peach chiffon number, quite pretty if you like that sort of insubstantial thing. I can only ever think of goose bumps when I see anything so diaphanous, but this woman obviously felt it could be just right.

I left her to it and concentrated on my quarry. When I reached the counter to pay for my let’s-be-realistic-about-our-climate-and-cover-everything-up denim shirt by Gap, a snip at £5.99, the chiffon-dress woman was in front of me, in conversation with the assistant.

“It’ll only be out of the shop for an hour,” she was saying. “It’s just so my daughter can try it on. It’s for her prom night. I’ll be back in before you close.”

Ah, prom night. The annual tyranny when Getting the Right Look achieves greater importance at schools up and down the land than Getting the Right Grade.

Whenever I see, hear or read anything about this now-annual parental torment I thank whoever is responsible for having made me so old that my daughter had left school before prom nights became a fixture.

And yet I did endure a sort of torment, albeit one that didn’t require me to help dream up a brilliantly original mode of transport to get my little darling to her date with destiny.

It was her end-of-school ball. Nothing as prosaic as a prom – this was a ball, no less.

Yes, of course you shall go to the ball, Cinders. Never mind that it is unlikely to be any different from what we called a dance in the dark ages, and never mind at all that you have nothing to wear. We can have enormous fun together as we seek something that meets the approval of you and your fashion-conscious, judgmental friends, not to mention your impossibly dowdy mother and father, when we only have enough money in the bank to pay for tonight’s supper.

Cinders and I drag into the nearest large town and ‘do’ the shops, enduring hot changing rooms and heartless mirrors. Of course my daughter looks lovely in everything she tries on – it happens like that when you’re 18, slim, with long, blonde, wavy, hair – and of course she thinks she is simply hideous and absolutely nothing is ‘right’. “Can’t you see that, Mum? It’s rubbish and I look awful.”

No, actually, I can’t, but whatever I say has no effect or, more often, the wrong effect.

We spend the day engaged in this soul-destroying activity, and by the end we have stopped speaking to each other. It happens like that when one of you is, as we know, 18, slim, with long, blonde, wavy, hair and the other is, as we also know, not any of those things, feels at least 100 and would happily settle for being Coco the Clown if it meant getting out of this hellhole of a shopping centre.

We do, at 5.29pm, with happy-at-last Cinders clutching a bag containing a plum-coloured piece of velvet that she insists is a skirt. “That cannot be a skirt,” I say, in my weary-mother voice. “That’s a pelmet. And anyway, who wears a pelmet, sorry, I mean a skirt, that short to a ball?” I splutter those last few words, which puts an end to all communication, even the raising of contemptuous eyebrows, for at least six days.

Cinders' ball gown - or velvet pelmet - was tighter than this but you get the idea of its complete unsuitability

Cinders’ ball gown – or velvet pelmet – was tighter than this but you get the idea of its complete unsuitability

The following Saturday we devote the day to finding a top to go with the skirt, and the Saturday after that it’s the shoes.

Over the ensuing year we manage to repair our mother-daughter relationship and the velvet pelmet makes a number of further appearances that have nothing to do with me, I’m happy to say, being well out of my sight at university. I believe it graduated with a low-grade degree in Politics, Philosophy and Extreme Shortness.

Now Cinders and I look back on that testing experience as a learning curve that took us both way off the scale – and back again.

Nobody warns you about the agonies of shopping with your teenage daughter. They just bang on about the other rites of passage: the tightrope-walk you take to achieve the potty-training miracle, the letting-go of the hand on the first day at school and the shoulder you provide through the heart-sinking ups and downs of friendships.

It isn’t easy being a mother, but I take solace from knowing it must be hell on earth being a girl preparing for a prom night, or a ball, in the company of a desperate woman who feels at least 100 and has aspirations to be Coco the Clown.



Walking the South West Coast Path

A Companion Guide

by Simon Butler & Philip Carter  (Pixz, £9.99)

Walking the SWCP book cover

A COMMON refrain that runs through my head when I’m out walking and I notice an interesting building or geographical feature is ‘I wish I knew something about that’.

I vow to look it up when I get home – and invariably forget.

For walkers on the South West Coast Path, myself included, there is now no excuse to remain in ignorance, thanks to a book that reveals secrets and fascinating facts about so much that can been seen along the 630-mile route, between Minehead, on the Somerset coast, and South Haven Point, on the southern edge of Poole Harbour.

Who knew, for example, that Durlston Castle, the curious sort of wedding cake atop the cliffs near Swanage and a pathside landmark that would certainly pique a walker’s interest, was originally built as a restaurant in 1890?

Thanks to this endlessly fascinating book, I can show off my wisdom to allcomers, wherever I might encounter them as I walk the path. I can tell them that Tintagel was the home of F.T. Glasscock, a man who made his fortune from custard, and that a hotel at Mount Batten, where the path heads east of Plymouth, used to be a guano processing plant.

Less arcane are the facts about the many churches and features of industrial archaeology that are encountered on the route. History and legend, folklore and irrefutable fact all have their place, too (even if the many exclamation marks do not).

The Companion Guide is based on Exploring the South West Coast Path, written by Philip Carter, a founder member of the original South West Way Association in 1973. Sadly, Philip died in 2011, after 40 years of passing on his enthusiasm for the path and helping to secure its use for generations of fortunate walkers.

In this volume, which reproduces the original foreword that Philip wrote for his book, Simon Butler has sourced illustrations that enable the walker to compare views of landscapes, towns and villages as they are now with how they looked in bygone days.

Aerial photographs are especially compelling and many show the path itself winding sinuously around headlands and coves as it takes its walkers along some of the most beautiful coastal countryside in Britain.

Whether your journey along the SWCP is the whole thing or just a few miles, this book will enrich the experience no end. Its format does not lend itself to being popped into a daypack or rucksack: it is too chunky for that. Better, perhaps, to read it before you pull on your boots and commit what you can to memory.

However you choose to use it, it will most certainly reward you.


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A surprising discovery in Sicily

There are quite a lot of sights, when you’re in Italy, that cause you to break step, do a second take, shake your head and shrug before moving on, with the vision playing through your head long after.

My visit to the Shrine of Our Lady of the Tears* (Santuario della Madonna delle Lacrime) in Syracusa, southern Sicily, was one of those occasions. The building itself is remarkable enough, a 90-metre teardrop-shaped edifice of grey concrete, fashioned also to look like a tented pavilion to shelter pilgrims, jutting into the sky and visible for miles around.

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Inside, silent, eerily empty when I visited, it is strangely like walking into one of those bleak and featureless multi-storey car parks where the architects have run out of ideas after designing a contemporary exterior. Areas of it appeared raw and unfinished (it opened in 1994 after 28 years of construction) and it screamed out for contrasting softness, perhaps some tapestry hangings, to alleviate the brutal starkness. But that’s how they like it, I guess, and who am I to pass judgment.

It was when I went down into the museum area that the real strangeness took over. There were different rooms containing displays of various relevant items, including some of the 5,000 votive statues unearthed nearby during the building work, but what stopped me in my tracks was the display devoted to modern-day offerings of thanks to the Madonna.

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These tugged so hard at my heart-strings I could barely breathe. In acts of pathetic gratitude to the Madonna for mercies bestowed upon them, people had handed in their crutches, medical corsets, callipers and leg braces – obsolete now, thanks to her gracious intervention in answer to prayer.

Perhaps the most touching, though, were the soft heaps of baby clothes, lovingly knitted matinee jackets, bonnets, bootees, mittens, given as proof that the Madonna had heeded pleas for the blessing of childbirth upon so many desperate couples.

After looking at photographs, letters, drawings, paintings and lovingly executed pieces of embroidery, I turned away to calm my emotions, only to see a display of dazzling white wedding dresses, so incongruous among such desperate pathos. Yet it turned out that these dresses had also been given in thanks to the Madonna by women who had prayed fervently to her that one day they might become brides. Their dresses told the rest of the story.

I was in that peaceful, emotion-charged room for only a short time, but it was long enough to learn what the very depths of gratitude can look like, and to find how strongly the images print themselves on the mind.

* The circular shrine was built to accommodate the growing numbers of pilgrims drawn to a small plaster image of the Madonna, from which, in 1953, in a simple Siracusan home, tears were seen to fall for five days, during which the Madonna bestowed more than 300 miraculous cures. The museum area of the building is mainly devoted to the miracle of the weeping Virgin statue and the objects associated with it.

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It is hard to believe that under this depressing mound of litter lies an important historical site.

There, buried under the grime and grot, is nothing less than the late-Roman tomb of a wealthy Christian family, dating from around 400 AD, containing two sarcophagi and decorated with frescoes of roses, wreaths, swags and peacocks.

The frescoes are similar to those in the catacombs of San Giovanni, where 4th century Christians took refuge from persecutors.

The mausoleum is in Viale Teocrito in Syracuse, only a few steps from the famous Paolo Orsi archaeological museum, but no visitors would know it was there because it has sunk virtually without trace, surrounded by grim corporation railings.

Over the years, the roads have been gradually raised around it, leaving it a good two metres below street level, as if it is some eyesore public toilet block.

Now, the traffic roars and blasts its way past above roof height, while buses that stop almost beside it carry passengers who afford it not a glance. It is opposite one of the entrances to the modern sanctuary, the Madonna delle Lacrime, yet I doubt that more than a handful of worshippers would be aware of its existence.

Those who do know about it are anxious for its value and historical significance to come to wider notice and to be accorded more TLC.

The mausoleum is named after Vincenzo Politi, the painter, antiquarian and archaeologist who discovered it in 1826. If he knew what a grim state his lovely discovery was in, he might be spinning in his own grave.

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A fine example of the art of non-translation from Italian to English, seen in the southern Sicilian town of Noto.

A fine example of the art of non-translation from Italian to English, seen in the southern Sicilian town of Noto.

Information boards in Italy rarely illuminate but they do serve as a showcase for reams of flowery Italian and as many paragraphs of impenetrable English translation. I use that word loosely. The challenge is to read them and not double up with laughter.

I have a theory about how these translations come about. They are the dastardly work of someone who has responded to a cry across a crowded office for help. ‘Hey, anyone know any English? Give me a hand with this.’ (That’s a rough translation of the original.)

The courageous person who steps up is confident they have a command of the English language good enough to turn dense Italian prose into the sort of language that the English-speaking world can recognise. This is meritorious, in its way, except that they are misguided. They merely employ a string of words and phrases that they remember from school and three months of working in Zio Pepe’s pizzeria in Coventry.

They have a predilection for words such as ‘immersed’, ‘characteristic’ and ‘suggestive’ which make the reader lose concentration while grasping to maintain a hold on reality.

These long screeds of quasi-English verging on the semi-lunatic offer more laugh-a-minute errors than if the piece had been run through Google translate – and that’s saying something.


Walking along a busy, dirty, going-nowhere sort of road called Via Elorina in Siracusa, lined with derelict buildings and some scruffy stores, an open space was revealed on my right, behind a length of paint-peeled railings.

A gate was propped open so I went in, my feet brushing through the long grass.

To my amazement, I found myself standing in the Ginnasio Romano, an ancient site that was discovered 150 years ago and is estimated to date from between 200BC and 200AD.

Theories about its origins vary, but a distinctly 21st century information board (I use the word ‘information’ very loosely) advised me that it could either have been a Roman curia, a kind of district office for the Pope, or a sanctuary of votive offerings to Oriental deities.

What an extraordinary place to have stumbled across. I walked around the small site, about the size of a football pitch, and was saddened to see it in an apparent state of abandonment.

A trimmed hedge of oleander down one side was the only sign that anyone had tended or even visited this extraordinary place recently. Yet of course it does draw visitors, of a determined mindset presumably, a fact which I discovered later on looking it up online.

How anyone reaches the Ginnasio Romano I cannot imagine, since my walk took me well away from the centre of the town and, this being Italy, there were of course no direction signs.

Little wonder that on Trip Advisor it is rated as 75th out of 95 things to see and do in and around Siracusa, yet it is beautiful in its way, unsung, unloved and so brimming with ancient history that it deserves far greater attention.

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Trigiani rev road Lost for Words The PO Girl Troubles

LIKE many keen readers, I belong to a book group. I’ve been with the same crowd of friends for many years, enjoying not just their company but their choice of books, too.

Or that’s my story if asked. But since you are asking, and no doubt expecting a truthful response, I don’t always enjoy the books.

I know one of the reasons for reading a book that someone else has picked for you to read is to have your eyes opened and your mind expanded by a different experience, being forced off straight lines and into new territory. That’s the theory.

In practice, my book group almost always plays it safe. Nothing too experimental or cutting-edge. No modern black writing, no exploration of feminist issues, nothing likely to challenge us too much. It’s comfortable stuff, in the main, so we get plenty of Margaret Forster (no complaints, she’s great, but do let’s move on a bit, please) and recently were tasked with grinding through to the end of a overly-long historical romance by Andrea Trigiani. I didn’t manage it, I’m afraid. In fact I didn’t even bother to get hold of a copy to start the heart-sinking task.

Before the groupies’ meeting where we were due to discuss the book, I conducted a brief debate with myself on what would be the best thing to do. Should I check out the reviews on Amazon and cobble together my own response from that research, or admit I couldn’t face it and risk being regarded as a book-snob?

I chose the latter, and wasn’t drummed out. In fact, I don’t think anyone really cared, which just goes to show how little notice they must take of me when I do express an opinion on a book.

My groupie mate Liz and I seem to be the only members who ever choose books written by male authors. A couple of my favourites, which thankfully everyone enjoyed when I chose them, were Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates (I could read it 100 times and never tire of its clever, chilling and penetrating spotlight on suburban mid–1950s America) and J.G Farrell’s Troubles, winner of the so-called Lost Booker Prize 40 years after it was written in 1970.

Liz introduced us to Stefan Schweig in his wonderful The Post Office Girl, and we recently read one of her choices, Lost for Words, a satire of the literary world, by Edward St Aubyn, which is an absolute little masterpiece of exquisite writing and memorably dotty characters. These books will, I know, linger with me for a long time, which is the best result one could wish for as a reader – especially a reader of someone else’s choices.