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Archive for June, 2012

The book group I belong to decided to mark the appointment in 2009 of the country’s first female Poet Laureate (Carol Ann Duffy) with a bit of a poetry-fest.

Instead of reading a book as usual in the three months before the next meeting, we each put together an anthology of 10 of our favourite and/or most significant poems, and the wonderful Sally put them all into one volume and printed off copies for us each to keep. It was Sal’s idea and it worked an absolute treat. It has been so fascinating to read friends’ choices and, of course, to have the full anthology to keep and enjoy for ever.

Who says book groups are just for drinking wine and gossiping? At ours, you can do those things and read poetry. Oh, and books.

 

These are my 10 poems of choice, plus one extra – because I can

You

Uninvited, the thought of you stayed too late in my head.

so I went to bed, dreaming you hard, hard,

woke with your name, like tears, soft, salt, on my lips,

the sound of its bright syllables like a charm, like a spell.

Falling in love is glamorous hell:

the crouched, parched heart like a tiger, ready to kill;

a flame’s fierce licks under the skin.

into my life, larger than life, you strolled in.

I hid in my ordinary days, in the long grass of routine, in my camouflage rooms.

You sprawled in my gaze, staring back from anyone’s face, from the shape of a cloud,

from the pining, earth-struck moon which gapes at me as I open the bedroom door.

The curtains stir. There you are on the bed, like gift, like a touchable dream.

 

Carol Ann Duffy

 This reminds me of that breathless, thrilling state of falling in love, when every thing and every sense is magnified, sharper and brighter – and nothing will ever be the same again. How else but through poetry, the most intense expression of emotions, could one possibly record one’s feelings?

 

Walking Away

It is eighteen years ago, almost to the day –

A sunny day with leaves just turning,

The touch-lines new-ruled – since I watched you play

Your first game of football, then, like a satellite

Wrenched from its orbit, go drifting away

 

Behind a scatter of boys. I can see

You walking away from me towards the school

With the pathos of a half-fledged thing set free

Into a wilderness, the gait of one

Who finds no path where the path should be.

 

That hesitant figure, eddying away

Like a winged seed loosened from its parent stem,

Has something I never quite grasp to convey

About nature’s give-and-take – the small, the scorching

Ordeals which fire one’s irresolute clay.

 

I have had worse partings, but none that so

Gnaws at my mind still.  Perhaps it is roughly

Saying what God alone could perfectly show –

How selfhood begins with a walking away,

And love is proved in the letting go.

 

Cecil Day-Lewis

• To me, this perfectly illustrates those misery-making rites of passage endured when one’s children attain adulthood, the memories of which do indeed still ‘gnaw at the mind’. All that letting go – no-one ever prepares us for it, but this poem goes a little way towards reconciling that terrible gulf.

Little Johnny’s Confession

 This morning being rather young and foolish

 I borrowed a machinegun my father had left hidden since the war, went out, and eliminated a number of small enemies.

Since then I have not returned home.

This morning swarms of police with tracker dogs wander about the city with my description printed on their minds, asking:

‘Have you seen him? He is seven years old, likes Pluto, Mighty Mouse and Biffo the Bear, have you seen him, anywhere?’

This morning sitting alone in a strange playground muttering ‘You’ve blundered, you’ve blundered’ over and over to myself, I work out my next move, but cannot move.

The tracker dogs will sniff me out, they have my lollypops.

Brian Patten

• Such a clever tale summarising the serious and the comic aspects of childhood. It has stayed with me, its pathos making me both smile and feel sad, ever since I had to recite it in on stage in Suffolk in 1980 in a revue on the theme of childhood in poetry and prose. The audience absolutely loved it, but it was nothing to do with me – all credit to the brilliant poet. This poem is all about memories – and little boys and wry smiles.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood

and sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveller, long I stood

and looked down one as far as I could

to where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

and having perhaps the better claim,

because it was grassy and wanted wear;

though as for that, the passing there

had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

in leaves no feet had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

two roads diverged in a wood, and I –

I took the one less travelled by,

and that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost

I feel this poem is very relevant as I have made so many changes and taken so many unexpected turnings in my life – invariably choosing the road less travelled. I am also glad to choose one American classic, conscious that so many others have been omitted.

Adlestrop

Yes, I remember Adlestrop –

The name because one afternoon

Of heat the express-train drew up there

Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed.

Someone cleared his throat.

No one left and no one came

On the bare platform.

What I saw Was Adlestrop – only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,

And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,

No whit less still and lonely fair

Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang

Close by, and round him, mistier,

Farther and farther, all the birds Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire

Edward Thomas

Train journeys played quite a large part in my life as a child in Cornwall, as to get anywhere further away than Plymouth or Exeter usually meant an interminable ride in a train. My sister and I sometimes took a train to school, before the Tamar Bridge was built, and the remote rural stations almost always had bare platforms, just like the one at Adlestrop. I love this poem for the images it creates and for the way it so effortlessly evokes summer’s lazy heat with the blackbird’s unmistakable voice rising into a crescendo across two counties. I also love the poem because it is written by Edward Thomas, one of my all-time heroes, who writes so lyrically about the countryside. My father once gave me a book that had been owned by Edward Thomas (it has his signature on the flyleaf) and I still swoon when I look at it and hold it.

Anthem For Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle

Can patter out their hasty orisons.

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;

Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,

The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;

And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?

Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes

Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.

The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;

Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,

And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Wilfred Owen

I can never read this without a lump rising in my throat and tears pricking my eyes. It is simple, beautiful, evocative and an utterly profound commentary on the futility of war. Within such poetic language lie the harshest of metaphors. It is even more poignant as the poet himself died just a week before the Armistice in 1918.

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud

I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine

And twinkle on the milky way,

They stretched in never-ending line

Along the margin of a bay:

Ten thousand saw I at a glance,

Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they

Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:

A poet could not but be gay,

In such a jocund company:

I gazed—and gazed—but little thought

What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude;

 And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.

William Wordsworth

This is a special poem for a number of reasons. My mother and I often recite it when we’re together, enjoying correcting each other at various points and rushing to fill in the gaps when one of us hesitates over a line. It invariably prompts us to recall the important part daffodils played in our lives in Cornwall, including the vast swathes of daffs and narcissi that were – and still are – a feature of the National Trust grounds around the house my parents lived in for 40 years. We then go further down memory lane as we remember the market garden industry in daffs that was an important part of the local economy in East Cornwall, and all the lovely people we knew involved in it. It is also a special poem because I had a huge crush on Wordsworth in my teens and I couldn’t choose my favourite poems without including one by him, especially one as beautiful and evocative as this. But above all, I choose this poem because it is the one I chanted over and over as part of my ‘distraction breathing technique’ (thanks to the National Childbirth Trust!) when I gave birth to my first baby, Claudia.

Remember

REMEMBER me when I am gone away,

Gone far away into the silent land;

When you can no more hold me by the hand,

Nor I half turn to go, yet turning stay.

Remember me when no more day by day

You tell me of our future that you plann’d: 

Only remember me; you understand

It will be late to counsel then or pray.

Yet if you should forget me for a while 

 And afterwards remember, do not grieve:

For if the darkness and corruption leave 

 A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,

Better by far you should forget and smile

Than that you should remember and be sad.

Christina Georgina Rossetti

Beautiful use of words and succinct expression of all they symbolise, but most of all I choose this because it is what my sister read at the service of thanksgiving for our father’s life. A second reason for the choice is that someone I knew 30 years ago was engaged in writing a biography of Christina Rossetti and I always think of him and remember him fondly when I read Rossetti’s poems. He was gay, I think – not usual in expat circles in the Far East – and life was not easy for him, but there was always fun to be had in his company.

 

Living Happily Ever After

We used to strike sparks off each other.

Our eyes would meet or our hands,

& the blue lightning of love would sear the air.

Now we are soft.

We loll in the same sleepy bed, skin of my skin, hair of my head, sweat of my sweat

— you are kin, brother & mother all in one, husband, lover, muse & comforter;

I love you even better without sparks.

We are pebbles in the tide rolling against each other.

The surf crashes above us;

the irregular pulse of the ocean drives our blood,

but we are growing smooth against each other.

Are we living happily ever after?

What will happen to my love of cataclysms?

My love of sparks & fire, my love of ice?

Fellow pebble, let us roll against each other.

Perhaps the sparks are clearer under water.

Erica Jong

Erica Jong’s poetry and novels had a profound effect on me at a particularly turbulent time in my life and I shall always be grateful for the empowerment they gave me. I love this poem. I love the simplicity of the words and the form, and the complexity of the images they create. Most of all, I love the fact that when I first read it, all those years ago, it made me ache with sadness, but now it makes me feel happy and secure. Such is the privilege of the smugly content.

Demain, dès l’aube

Demain, dès l’aube, à l’heure où blanchit la campagne, Je partirai.

Vois-tu, je sais que tu m’attends.

 J’irai par la forêt, j’irai par la montagne.

Je ne puis demeurer loin de toi plus longtemps.

Je marcherai les yeux fixés sur mes pensées,

Sans rien voir au dehors, sans entendre aucun bruit,

Seul, inconnu, le dos courbé, les mains croisées,

Triste et le jour pour moi sera comme la nuit.

Je ne regarderai ni l’or du soir qui tombe,

Ni les voiles au loin descendant vers Honfleur,

Et quand j’arriverai, je mettrai sur ta tombe

Un bouquet de houx vert et de bruyère en fleur.

Victor Hugo

I choose this poem because its pathos and romance still haunt me 40 years after being introduced to it during A-level French literature studies. It is one of the few poems in a foreign language that I learnt and can still (mostly) remember, especially when I am in France, when it always comes to mind. It reminds me of the great pleasure of French literature and that astonishment when I realised I could actually understand the language well enough to read a poem without needing it to be translated.

 

AND ONE I DIDN’T CHOOSE, BECAUSE I’D REACHED THE LIMIT, BUT I DO SO LOVE THIS AND I WANT TO SQUEEZE IT IN:

All You Who Sleep Tonight

All you who sleep tonight

Far from the ones you love,

No hand to left or right

And emptiness above –

Know that you aren’t alone

The whole world shares your tears,

Some for two nights or one,

And some for all their years.

Vikram Seth

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How to Split Up and Stay in One Piece – surviving divorce and relationship breakdown

ISBN: 9781905410293

(Published in 2008)

AGAIN, this involved a massive research exercise. About 40 interviews with experts on the subject (lawyers, therapists, divorce coaches and relationship counsellors) and survivors of separation and divorce were carried out via phone and email and face-to-face.

It was certainly a different way to spend a summer and as a result I could, and indeed frequently do, bore for Britain on the subject on the airwaves and in print.

However, as a ‘recovered’ divorcee myself, albeit now in one extremely happy piece with David, my second and last husband, I was pretty much painfully aware of how courageous so many good people had been in reliving and relating their experiences as case studies for the book.

I knew it couldn’t have been easy for them to answer such personal questions as ‘Why did your marriage go wrong?’ and ‘What efforts did you make to hold it together?’ All were offered, and most took, the chance to use an alias, and I really don’t blame them. The fallout from a broken marriage or shattered relationship is bad enough without it then being exposed on a public stage.

Once more, I encountered some wonderful people while working on this book, from sad but bravely defiant young men who’d loved and lost, to older women gamely trying not to be bitter, to thoughtful, savvy divorce coaches with their wise words of advice for recovery.

No, I had no idea there were such people as divorce coaches either, but it shows what an ‘industry’ this whole business of relationships has become.

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Earning Money After You’ve Retired – inspirational ideas to supplement your pension

ISBN: 9781905410224

(Published 2007)

IN the course of putting together 50 or more case studies, it was so interesting (and not a little humbling) to encounter a woman of 85 eking out her pension by working as an exercise class tutor, a former Royal Navy officer gamely taking on the challenges presented by life as a classroom assistant, and a retired executive still passionate enough about his hobby of fish-keeping to turn it into a little money-spinner to pay for holidays and extras.

One fact that emerged very clearly from my work on this book is that people are staying younger for longer, and I made this point when speaking in various radio interviews. This interesting generation, really the first wave of the Baby Boomers, are happy to keep earning but without the hard slog they’ve put in for the past 40 years. They have looked for interesting and enjoyable ways to supplement their pension and it was no surprise to me that I found them, almost without exception, to be happy and fulfilled.

While most enjoy the financial benefits, one woman spoke from the heart when she said she had taken on part-time work so that she wouldn’t be taken for granted as an unpaid minder for her grandchildren. Truly a generation still with so much to give ­– and plenty to say. 

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What Shall We Do with Mother? How to manage when your elderly parent is dependent on you 

ISBN: 1905410034 9781905410033

(Published in 2006)

ONE of the toughest phases of life comes when you realise that one of  your parents is becoming dependent on you. This book follows the stories of other people who have been there before, and offers advice and ideas for coping with the guilt, the emotional stress, the conflicting pressures on your time, and the family tensions that can arise.

It was a revelation to research and to write this book, since it shone a light into a number of dark corners. It showed up the often woeful lack of joined-up thinking in the NHS, the plight of many old people in soulless hospital wards, and the quiet army of the great unsung who just knuckle down and get on with caring.

I was both humbled and heartened to discover so many good people willing to share their often heartbreaking stories with me in the hope their experiences would help others.

REVIEWS

From the Amazon website:

When I read this book I laughed and cried in equal measure. A wonderful book, which I wish Rosie Staal had written a few years ago when my mother first showed signs of being dependent on me. It make me see that I am far from alone, and there are many out there whose situation is far worse. The book also made me face up to my hidden fears about my mother’s health. It gave lots of useful advice, even for someone like me with a stubborn parent. I am now passing the book to my daughters for them to read – to give them ideas on how to cope if I become dependent on them when I’m elderly! (Five Stars – reviewed by ‘Lis’)

I must admit that when I first saw this book I thought it wouldn’t be relevant to me for a few years, my parents are only in their 60s and decisions about their care seem a long way off. But the more I read, the more I realised that it’s vital to consider the issues raised in this book before any problems arise and emotions take over. What makes this book essential reading is the relaxed, funny and incredibly clear way in which it deals with complex emotional and practical issues. It’s like having a crystal clear explanation of your options from a good friend who’s been there and done it. Highly recommended. (Five Stars – reviewed by ‘Cityboy’)

From the Nursing Standard

‘Cute grannies exist in story books but only occasionally in real life.’ This controversial assertion gives an idea of where this book is coming from. It is about the real problems that can emerge in the relationship between adult children and their ageing parents. The best feature of the book is the advice offered for everyday practical problems. The book has a distinctive style . . . you will be delighted with the alternative approach to exploring some knotty problems. (Five Stars – reviewed by Ruth Sander, University of Portsmouth)

From the Blackmore Vale Magazine

‘This book offers a lifeline to all those out there struggling against this peculiarly 21st century dilemma – you are not alone. I only wish it had been around when I was grappling with the problems thrown up by an increasingly dependent elderly parent.’ (Reviewed by Jackie Spiteri)

From Pharmaceutical Physician:

What Shall We Do With Mother? is that most ideal of self-help books – anonymous but totally at one with your thoughts. It fulfils a friend’s role and as a bedside read in those moments of despair will be invaluable. Even five years on [after my own experience of caring for a parent] the book has had the power to make me feel that some of the things I did and didn’t do were OK.’ (Reviewed by Liz Langley)

From the Daily Echo, Bournemouth

This book would have made things easier and made us realise, as our jaws clenched when my bewildered mother shouted again, that we were not alone. Rosie Staal takes several case histories: the recently bereaved, the stroke victim, the Alzheimer’s sufferer, the newly cantankerous, the generally frail and through their own experiences gives their carers a voice. Whatever your elderly parent’s condition they have become dependent and your roles are reversed. You have all the responsibility but as a ‘child’ you have no authority. It is difficult to ask your Mum to stop shouting. Thoughtful and detailed . . . and a compassionate and comforting read, it is a book that more and more of us are going to need. I wish I had had it last September.’ (Reviewed by Frances Perkins)

From The Western Morning News:

‘Stuffed with useful advice and practical guidance this paperback confronts every aspect of caring for a dependent parent.’ (Reviewed by Denise O’Leary)

Print and broadcast:

Features on the book have appeared in the Daily Express, the Sunday Post (Scotland), the Jersey Evening Post, The Western Morning News, the Western Gazette, Limited Edition magazine (Somerset), The Blackmore Vale Magazine, Wiltshire and Hampshire View, the Salisbury Journal, the Bournemouth Echo, the Vale Advertiser and other publications. I have also broadcast on Radio Europe, Radio Solent, Radio Wiltshire and Vale FM.

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I am fortunate to live in a beautiful part of the world where there are limitless opportunities for walking in the countryside and for running, too. This great variety of terrain, from woodland paths to watermeadows to trailways (former railway routes), is all within a few minutes of home, and further afield there are ancient hill forts to puff my way up, countless acres of downland and, of course, the glorious Jurassic coast.

Here are some of the photos I have taken of uplifting sights while out walking. I see lovely things, too, when I’m running, but I don’t like stopping so a lot of good things go unrecorded.

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By Rosie Staal

(published 2003)

HOLIDAY memories are made of this: standing on a crowded platform trying not to be felled by battalions of schoolchildren armed with out-of-control rucksacks or drenched by a rainstorm while waiting for a train already ten minutes late. They are also made of this: being moved almost to tears by the sight of a deserted, moonlit Campo dei Miracoli at Pisa, the leaning tower jauntily cocking a snook at all the architectural perfection around it.

That’s holidays for you, and that’s Italy for you.

The country embraces its visitors and thrills them with its treasures, but it must get on with its own life, thank you, so it can’t make concessions, like swapping incessant rain for just half a day of sunshine or equipping the loos in the Uffizi with door locks and toilet paper.

We took it all in our stride and loved it.

My husband and I know the Marche region well and we have visited Venice, Sicily and Rome. How could we tick off some of the other places on our list of Italian ‘must-sees’? Last November, we decided to tackle a swathe of the country by train, freeing us from the tyranny of the car and enabling us to see more of the countryside.

The planning started when we found a ‘free flights’ offer on the Ryanair website. Paying only for taxes meant that for £12.50 each we could fly to Bergamo, a logical starting point. We settled on six other destinations: Milan, Genoa, Pisa, Siena, Florence and Bologna. We booked all hotels in advance and tickets for a flight home 13 days later from Bologna, this time with Go, for £22 each.

To take even more pain out of the exercise, we opted to leave our car at Tisbury station and travel to Stansted via South West Trains, the London Underground and the Stansted Express. We really did mean it when we planned this as a train holiday.

Almost a year to the day after we had visited Rome, where we breakfasted on the hotel’s rooftop terrace and walked through sun-kissed pages of childhood history books, we landed in Bergamo in torrential rain. The downpour continued all through our visit to this historic gem at the foot of the Alps and, indeed, for the next three days.

To get to Milan, we took the train. The station was empty. Where was everyone? Suddenly, we found out, as what seemed like the country’s entire school-age population swarmed on to our platform, rucksacks swinging like deadly weapons.

A station announcer burbled incomprehensibly and our fellow travellers let out a chorus of derision, catching our eyes and raising their eyebrows. The train was 15 minutes in ritardo and so now we were all on the same side, allies against the rail system and veterans of the long wait.

The height of the step up to the train almost defied belief. We had travelled on Italian trains before but never with heavy suitcases. This time, the manoeuvre seemed impossible. We made it, albeit with some loss of dignity as we grunted and heaved, and, with muscles zinging, we sat down to recover our normal heart-rate and enjoy the journey.

This routine, with variations in the length of time waiting on rain-lashed platforms for delayed trains, was repeated throughout our trip. By the time we undertook the final leg, Florence to Bologna, we were lifting our cases with relative ease. That particular train was the tardiest of them all: one hour late – for a one-hour journey. Train travel in Italy is a pleasurable way to go if you aren’t in a rush.

Views of the passing landscape were sometimes obscured by dirty windows and on occasions we had to sit in corridors when compartments were overcrowded. Only Siena had a truly awful station, a smelly, grubby mess that we were glad to leave behind.

Milan, big and bustling, meant getting to grips with the metro system as well. We walked a great deal, enjoying the big-city atmosphere and its smart, sassy, shops. Even under umbrellas, the Milanese look elegant. Their cathedral was to be the first of a succession of sights on this trip to make our jaws drop.

Next stop was Genoa, which will forever have a place in our hearts as it was here that the rain stopped, the sun shone and the temperature rose – along with our spirits.

We had given ourselves just 24 hours to feel the pulse of this lively city but it was enough to convince us that a return visit deserves to be paid, especially to appreciate the changes being wrought in anticipation of its role as European City of Culture for 2004. We found an edge and a verve to Genoa that excited us and reminded us of Barcelona. It is not a place of great beauty, but the sum of its parts is significant.

The journey from Genoa to Pisa was our longest at an hour-and-a-half. In Pisa’s Campo dei Miracoli, the stunning duomo and baptistry vie for attention until the eye lights upon the ridiculous campanile, the tower of a billion photographs, leaning over at an impossible angle as if to outsmart its sensible, upright neighbours.

We saw it all by day, in the company of the world and his wife, and we returned after dark to find ourselves quite alone. Under a dense, velvety sky, sprinkled with stars, the white marble buildings shimmered majestically – and still the wedding-cake tower stole the show.

The colours of Pisa – earthy and organic and of infinite variety, from muddy lemon to rich terracotta – were a contrast with the monotone limpid brown of Siena, where we arrived after changing trains at Empoli.

We knew we would like Siena but we could have had no idea quite how much. There was a great tranquillity about the place, a quiet, almost reverential calm pervading the narrow streets so that no-one raised their voices and even cars seemed to purr as they passed.

The great campo, scene of the legendary palio bareback horse races, made a huge impression on us by its sheer size and beauty. Here, too, we found a serenity that we will always associate with this wonderful city.

Two days in Siena were followed by three among the Renaissance treasures of rainy Florence. Enthusiastically, we ‘did’ the Uffizi, the Bargello and its fabulous sculptures, the Accademia, home of Michelangelo’s David, the Duomo, the rather disappointing Ponte Vecchio, a vast street market, a flea market and countless extraordinary churches.

With suitcases bulging we headed off for the final city, Bologna, and its much-vaunted 22 miles of colonnades. If Florence had brought heavy rain throughout our stay, Bologna seemed determined to compensate. It positively glowed – and so did we. Suffering from culture overload, we simply walked and walked.

Three days gave us a good flavour of this wonderful city, for good reason dubbed the food capital of Italy. The Piazza Maggiore was the setting for entertainments of all sorts, including a highly aromatic polenta festival where onlookers were rewarded with generous helpings. Friendly, welcoming Bologna provided a high point on which to end our holiday.

Our memory banks filled to overflowing and our affection for Italy and all things Italian strengthened tenfold, we flew back to Stansted and completed our journey home by rail to Tisbury.

• There are seven types of train in Italy, from local plodder to zippy espresso, and we took whatever was available. The fares ranged from €3.75 for the short Bergamo to Milan leg to €12.85 for Genoa to Pisa. Total travel costs in Italy came to €97.50 for the two of us – a bargain for our tailor-made holiday of discovery.

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Good sights

 

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A collection of oddball photos that belong here because they either intrigue or delight me, sometimes both.

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