Off the main sequence

Italy lead the western world three times: once as conqueror, then as teacher, and finally as chef. Using an astronomical analogy, the Roman Empire shone like the brightest star in the sky, then it faded until Italy blazed forth again in the renaissance and although it soon faded again, the residues of this period have continued to fascinate. Somewhere among them may be discerned the origin of Italy’s culinary dominance, exemplified by the pizza, which has truly conquered the world and is expected, by many, to last for the remainder of human civilisation.

The mechanisms that enable cultures to flourish and decay are not well understood. Egalitarians might believe that every country has its share of Leonardos, Michelangelos, Galileos and Palestrinas, but that they only shine out in exceptional circumstances of prosperity and semi-benign government.

Some argue that genius is fertilised by the labour of the poor and the leisure of the rich, and that indeed their fruits are purchased by exploitation of the under-privileged classes. This concept has been extended to include a form of self-taxation, in the institution of the National Lottery, where the profits are indeed used to fund many cultural activities that are only appreciated by the few, who also have the confidence to believe that these, and these only, are the things that will endure when the civilisation that produced them has vanished.

The Cinque Terre, on the Ligurian coast between Levanto in the north and Porte Venera in the south is the collective name for five small seaport villages.  Here the mountains reach down to the sea and the terrain is steep, rocky and unforgiving. The conditions of life that pertained there have been encapsulated in its most famous product, the sweet golden desert wine sciacchetrà, made from grapes that have been left late on the vine and further dried after harvesting to concentrate the juice. In consequence, yields are low and the wine extremely expensive. Access the the Cinque terre villages by road is difficult and not encouraged, but they are linked by the one of the great engineering feats, the coastal railway which provides one of the walker’s delights, the one-way walk on the spectacular coast path.

State secret


Right or left?

We don't know

and other questions

yet unanswered.

Hold the lens

against the porthole

when the plane banks

we might catch

the mystery that now concerns us.

Why this strange place

here against the mountain fastness?

Why this smooth part

where the hills start?

Humid valleys,

sunbaked vine slopes,

green-dark olives where the wind blows.

What has caused this wild excitement,

made the heart beat

and the mind race?

Words that baffle, startle, order:

"Take no pictures

in this airspace!"

The singing spider. A play for radio (1950) by Angus MacVicar in which the villain was heard, but not seen, leaving the scene of the crime whistling or singing  "La donna è mobile"

The singing spider

(Rio Magiore)

We were late.

There had been a strike

and why not?

(After all, they are people like us)

He lived there, but we travelled together

and I shall never forget what he said.

The point was, we arrived in the dark.

"Is there a train ? "

"Yes, they run every hour to where you are going."

But not on the branch from here to the centre.

We could, as you know, have waited all night,

and this is a land not meant to be cold.

I shall never forget what he said,

as we ate the fruits of the sea,

among shepherds who sang,

when even the music deceived

as the wine of their sadness

unburdened the mind with joy.

My heart overflowed

as the elegant woman beside me,

whose husband imported skins,

brushed crumbs from smooth thighs

and I failed to say

"Prego, allow me."

but not to remember what he said,

and I wished I could say the same

"I am ashamed of my people."

and then,

because even he could not bear so much guilt,

"I am ashamed of my countrymen."

But the light chilled, as though a faint shadow formed,

an imperceptible web, with a cold vibrant life,

or a fruitless vine, trellised overhead

was drinking from the dry earth.

Then I remembered again what he said,

"I weep for my people.

 I weep for my countrymen."

Cupbearers to the Gods


The conversation started, as it often did,

with questions and half-questions

to be answered with truths and half-truths.

"Why do you have such valueless money?"

"That is easy;

One lira  nearly the price

the producer is paid for the juice of one grape."

"But the water we drink here  can cost  more than that,

and grapes are made mostly of water."

"Yes, but you have to know this,

 that the vines, which cover the hills,

are worked only for love, by men beginning to dry,

and their wish is to make this one wine

that they call 'The wine of the gods.

made when the fruit is reduced by four parts in five

in the weak autumn sun.

and, what is more,

nowhere else."

"Then it appears to cost

almost as much as the gold it so closely resembles.

I must confess, I am lost. So far

we have something five times more precious than water.

They make never enough and have no wish to sell.

So why these old men at work among vines on the hillside

morning and evening."

"Something like this.

Their souls are filled with a strange yearning

and making ready to fly south."

Distractions in the Afternoon


Some things are meant to last

and some not,

though it is not always easy to see which.

This coastal path is undoubtedly wearing away,

even where it passes round three sides of an old house

built in an inconvenient place, but now falling,

where people flow each day, like a tidal stream,

where the kitten pounced and

to our surprise, succeeded,

then, as we neared,

abandoned its live prey.

Here was something never seen before;

a lizard's tail, threshing like a living knot

bending like a metal coil

taken entwined from a Christmas cracker,

that the very bright

could separate in less than a minute.

This, more living than the live,

had filled its role,

a two-backed monster

distracting in futile play

while life trembled somewhere else.

Also, as advertised,

(and this was something else not seen)

somewhere in Sweden

at every hour, on the hour,

two lovers would make love.

And at home (on the radio)

between half past three

and four,

a poet write a poem

on an original theme.



What kinds of arms have ever made Tiramisu?

Arms with golden skin and a light dusting of down,

cool and honey soft

that melt as butter cream and make me say,

Fold me in Tiramisu-making arms.

Now were you a man, that would be a different thing.

Leonardo knew about arms,

but whether the Mona Lisa was a man or not

we cannot know,

nor whether he, or she, had ever made Tiramisu.

That mystic process,

seeing the Lord in the kitchen

who has now appeared in a new guise,

temporarily transformed into soft Italian cheese

with a chocolate coat and saying,

I have prepared a table for you

and, though all cannot be here,

what right have you not to enjoy what I have made?

But perhaps it was not Him,

because here it is easy to confuse

substance and form.


were you a man,

with flesh not of sugar and spice,

not to my taste,

I would say

I am from the North

and there are many things I understand relating to death

and accept your kisses on both cheeks,

because this is not for the chaste,

but salt, or sweet, as men or women should be;

red and threaded on the string.

I would not relish to be served this by a priest,

but pray that you might kiss me on the lips.

Fold me in Tiramisu-making arms.

Falling star. 1987A was a supernova in the Greater Magellanic cloud at a distance of about 168,000 light years.

Falling star

(Monte Rosso)

Do you know the land where cliffs arise from the sea

and the lemon trees hold their fruit through the spring?

Do you know it

where the cliffs sweep down

becoming sand?

Dr Wilhelm Meier did, but

twenty-nine years ago

came to misfortune here,

either falling below, or cast against the shore

by a wave

that, soaring with hope, bore his soul away

and laid his heart to rest.

A doctor of physics,

he would have understood the thrill of 1987A,

when almost one hundred times the space from here to Christ,

an inner fire died,

and what had seemed solid

fell faster than Lucifer

and more certain,

then burned with a new heat,

that some say

gave life,

though not yet.

But that wave arrived on our shores,

for him, twenty three years too late.

The Franciscan Way

The Franciscan way is a group of high-level trails centred on Assisi and associated with journeys made by St Francis, and especially his return to die. During our visit, the city skyline was dominated by tall cranes, repairing recent earthquake damage. The theme of desolation was further compounded by finding a dual-language version of Eliot’s Waste Land in a bookshop in Perugia.

Se io conto,

Ci (solo) siam tu ed io insieme

T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land.

Time Share

When he walked,

the blaze of stars and galaxies

was not known as we know it now,

the many mansions almost infinitely multiplied.

He understood the call,

far from the market place,

announcing a prize

that all have won

and all required

is to be there

to see the mystery of grace

and taste the water turning into wine

after the hands have joined.

He understood our little share of time,

the divine welcome

and the cleansing fire.

Brotherhood of Man

All pilgrims here are seeking the divine,

but is there room?

How many souls does God need in his heaven?

At this point brothers, sweeping though the square,

their knotted cords flying,


each one of us will bring in many more.

as though a line of ants gathers the winter store,

But in the thaw

will all be washed away?

The knots,

symbols of life withheld or passion stilled,


and promise unfulfilled,

reveal the naked man beneath,

his path the sheep-track to the empty fold.

Preaching to the Birds

Brother and Sister Birds,

who give to man

the most that he can understand of heaven,

know that there will be a place for you

beyond rest.

The Lord has shown me this;

your lives are toil and care

(here the raptor dreamed of hurling flight

to meet his love and his desire)

and though your souls are free,

He, in his mercy,

has ensured that you are unaware.

You suffer night alone,

your nestlings fall,

or, fledged,

do not escape the predatory jaws.

Know then that He has told me this;

though never gods yourselves,

you may become

attendants to His throne

A stillness fell.

The flock, each tail-gland sanctified,

anointed every plume

with holy oil.

Desecration of the temple. The upper Chapel of the Basilica was being used to stage a solemn pageant, only spoiled for those who saw that the last scene included a shot of a poster displaying the words ‘Rothman’s King Size’.

Desecration of the Temple

All we know of him is painted here;

prodigal youth,




are all displayed, but today

although there are three ways,

along the central aisle

you may not pass.

A saintly man

with the russet beauty

reflected from these hills,

walked toward the altar,

thinking soundless thoughts.

Stern disciples cleared the holy way

and the lens took the long view.

Next, the progress of the precious feet.

But one, God’s fool,

(who, to be here, may have travelled half across the earth)

sullied the sacred path.

Did the blackbird, while St Francis preached,


sing a few loud notes,

then, in self-kindling glare,

fall silent,

but receive the saint’s forgiving glance?

Now the camera frames a king-sized golden calf.

and the sponsors of the soul

show themselves to the crowds.

The Franciscan way. One part of the path, falling into disrepair, required that the walkers clung on to roots emerging from a stony bank. In this poem the foxy form the emerged is Bertrand Russell who, for some important period of time, was a probably unwelcome third in Eliot’s menage.

The Franciscan Way

These hills wear away.

The stony path crumbles,

the bridge condemned.

Here the wayward,

or the unprepared, will fall,

clutching too late at twisted grasping roots.

Lucky are they who do not see a third

walking ahead,

the foxy form who came to steal the bride,

leaving the wolf

and the dried grain.

Feeding the Five Thousand

It is not known how birds savour the dry seed,

nor why men read the words of old books

whose battles are not theirs.

Nor is it understood why fire

brings flavours

that are not ours by right,

nor why birds sing and why man

makes his sacrifice of sung praise,

not burned meat.

Where the saint once walked,

songbirds are fed to shepherds.

Hillsides, save for shotguns,



elusive swifts survive.

In the sheep shed,

now a ristorante,

quails are piled, part cooked,

beside hot coals.

It is said that after red-hot needles

pierce their living eyes,

they see perpetual sunrise

and sing incessantly,

beguiling their still-unmaimed companions

into the net, or the limed twigs.

The Saint scattered rough bread.

The birds came and he preached the new dawn.

The birds of heaven sang.

The kestrel hovered,

his head bent down, like Christ nailed to an invisible cross

and his eyes magnified all beneath.

Carrier Pigeons

Of all his flock

these alone have kept the faith,

heirs to the flesh,

yet in the flesh made whole.

They carry the divine spark,

the olive branch that never dies

and, in the square,

ascending and descending

outline his golden form.

They, and their seed,

would blacken out the sun

but he has promised

there will be a place for all.

Though here

love keeps them all apart,

love will bring them all home.

Sea Valley in the Mountains

He walked high hills alone

and knew this Val-de-mare,

named when Lake Tiberius

washed around the base of Mount Subassio,

then retained by folklore,

rebuked the waves of passion,

stilled the seas,

and brought the peace that spread beyond these hills.

Something of him remains.

Dogs barked, as for pilgrims everywhere;

behind a shed a shepherd

cutting his father’s hair,

paused to see us pass.

The old man gleamed,

the light reflected in his eyes,

wide as the seas beyond a mountain range.

Children at their first communion

are not as innocent

and Holy Fathers sanctifying souls

with down-turned hands

are less benign.

Not everyone who comes will find this way,

and stand beside these shores,

shorn and prepared,

one step from God.


On this path he was carried home to die.

A storm hung round the mountain’s eastern edge;

the torrent beds were dry.

Friends guide the horse,

his earthly form

tied to his heaven by sacred crimson threads.

Lightning held its force.

Above them buzzards turned,

but birds that had no song for grief,

were mute.

He understood that every soul was one

and that one

passed through time’s door.

Vanity Fair

On a low balcony in Florence, a ‘God of Love’ blesses young espoused couples.

Recently carnated as an animated marble god

in bridal white,

with baby voice and grin,

playing with his toys,

he lines them up before him;

reads the secret of their hearts,

and with a single finger gesture,

confines it

to the everlasting past.

Leaf-fall in Nuoro

Mi ama!

Non mi ama!


skipping down the Corso Garibaldi

leads the laughing group,

each time,

with some flamboyance,

tears a page

from her fashion magazine,

and lets it drop.

Hard not to think,

If he loves you now,

it’s for your body.

If he loves you not,

it’s for your mind?


confident of confidence itself,

seems not to care

what might happen

when the leaves run out?



In Italy the code of honour ensures that the good is not all good and the bad not all bad. The word Agriturismo evokes, with characteristic subtlety, a blending of the humble with the sublime, and if this suggests a verbal deception, here even sleight of hand may not be what it seems.

 An Agriturismo is a farm dwelling approved for tourist accommodation. The quality is variable but we were dismayed to be taken to a room in what appeared to be an enormous, isolated, deserted factory and then given to understand that our rustic host expected us to take our evening meal in his small dilapidated house a kilometre or so away. Expectations were low, but only after the second course had been served did it become clear that this was going to be a quite exceptional display of generosity both of food and of spirit;  a long haul, requiring judicious restraint. Our subsequent best estimate of the number of courses served, excluding wine, was 12-14.

Vino ed acqua


The poor are always with us,

as we are with them.


(plate tectonics)

Hills of the north rejoice,

rivers and mountains sing

because this land

sailing on its magmatic sea

at two centimetres a year

encountered a southern shoreline.


(alluvial plains)

Yet while that meek subduction

raised, on its back,

ranges of raw rock,

rains etched and ice

expanding as it formed

shattered stone.

Scree slopes funnelled re-formed earth down

and rivers snaked over flooded plains

Vitello tornato

(mountain building)

What muscle could bend such strata

forming the concertina which will


herald spring?

Only in a furnace of red fire

could this be done

the hoofs,


the head down

and horns tossing aside

before the turn

and charge

that will follow

because this rage

has not yet been appeased.

 ‘ The concertina that heralds spring’ is from the popular song ‘Poppa Picollino (1953).

Moussa di prosciutto


Who can find all of the secret places

who can uncover that which has never been lost?

Not man! He is too upright!

He has lost touch with his roots

and must send out someone else

who knows the dark places

and can return

without words

to explain

all he has found.

Frutta Del Giardiono

( Fruit of the Garden)

Lord Jesus had a garden

and what little evidence exists

shows that he was mostly interested in wheat and fish. He

was acquainted with olives

And, maybe, anointed by their oil.

There is no reason to suppose

that the tomato,

the pomo d’oro,

double cause for man to fall again,

existed then.

No mention of its near immortal skin,


and this cannot be gainsaid,

it is here now

And together with the flesh of tuna fish

forms garden fruits which say

that he became the lord of all the land

and of the sea

that lies

in the middle of the eart


(The earth shaker)

As ye do,

so shall ye be done by.

Remember that beneath the earth

forces reside

that cannot be resisted

and never forget

that down in the southwest corner

something is simmering on the back burner

making irregular

but quite satisfactory  bubbles

and causing temporary craters

to form in the rich earth


in historical times,

and even within living memory,

boiled over.


(Secret history)

Bread and circuses must not be underestimated.

Wheat has conquered the world three times

from its birthplace in central Asia,

or on the shores of the Black Sea,

where genetic mutation,

tortuous as Genghis Khan’s rise,

turned the wild bearded grass into the golden king

and his seed

ground down

became bread.

But after that first empire foundered,

though leaving in its wake a heavenly host,

it rose again

and, with new learning,

craftsmen  moulded shapes

and sauces

that will endure for ever.

Then bloated with success

rediscovered roundness


delivered hot over the whole world

(wheels within wheels),

has become farce.


(City states)

We have travelled a long way now.

Our strength is starting to fail

I think we may not be able

to go any further

for these are the city states

more than a day’s march from each other

set apart like stars in a beautiful constellation.

Pollo arrosto  

(Death and transfiguration)

Who could scratch a living from this bare land

eking out subsistence, then fix us with his golden eye

which shows neither pleasure nor hate

in equal measure, while no trace of recognition escapes from it?

But those golden irises are not designed

for introspection and he will be undermined

by his own success. His scion rising up

and stretching out his wings

will overtake him, the Emperor,

King of all he knows whose reach must yet exceed his grasp

and who expects, after his crowning first, by force,

to maintain his hold over his own

by force, then by vanity,

which raises him up

and then brings him down.

Yet he is not false to himself.


(Forgiveness of sins)

We have crossed the summit,

descending into a green col.

This is a good place to rest,

but we must go on.

With each turn the valley broadens.

There is dust

and houses take up all the available space.

We can not stay here now.

Perhaps we can stay beside the lake.

Perhaps we have left it too late

and the sun will soon

be going down beside the mountains.



The plain is not as we expected.

The houses have ceased.

There is space for trees,

which was not the case on the precipitous slopes.

But here a man’s worst enemy is his neighbour

and from this we learn that a neighbour’s neighbour is a friend,

but not the kind of friend that you or I would like,

because all this goes back to the time of the blood feud

which itself may have had its origin in cherry picking time.

(Life everlasting)

This is the bread of life,

the golden staff made for all of us

at the beginning of all time,

and these are its guardians,

its high priests and its sacrificial virgins,

and we have come here to watch.

We observe that each act is governed by certain rules.

Even saints may seek some place out of the light.

We have seen the martyrdom of San Stefano

how many times,

and are not impressed.


This was no black on white;

no winter journey,

no tree,

hugged by its ghoulish host.

Dark Lady

lie with me,

touch my lips

and fill my veins with night.

Pane d’Oro

(day of reckoning)

Yes, there has to be a settling up

and who will pay?

It has to come,

the day of sorrows.

Reaching for his purse

the everlasting martyr,

first ignored,

in this

he can’t conceal his disappointment,

though attendant angels fly

and trumpets sound as if to say,

‘Something profound is going on,’

but he is not,


the centrepiece.

A little plate of biscuits comes.

He thinks,

Only ‘San Sebastien himself

has known

such pain this is going to be.

No wonder he is so revered.

He reads,

It’s not too bad at all.

They pass it round

and all chip in. Then

shall we leave a tip?

The wine says, ‘Yes,

we all are brothers here!’

and round,

in unison,

‘Leave that to me!’

Il conto


The new learning began here,

piano then forte,

but has died away

donating graffiti, the people’s art.

halo on halo, gold cast, scape goat,

cast down cast, cast out.

What was the motivation, tell me this?

Surely not to dream that truth could here

betray itself, no-one thought that.

No-one believed the statue,

bound in rock, would walk to stare at light,

or even, planning its next move, make certain,

in the circumstances understandable demands,


‘An army of us

is entombed in there’.

Then they replied at once

and with one voice,

Oh right!

and worked away

only to find,

only to find!

Well what?

Men are weak,

they know that

or think they do.

but pride will not let them concede

that they could be sons

of a weak God.

Consider, just for now,

his servant Job.

there was no-one like him,

none at all

and so the tempter took him up,

unto the highest place and said,

‘all this, that has been yours, is taken back,

because you thought that you

could not want enough,

after  the tears of the poor had assembled it

brick by brick.’

Hear them calling below,

‘we need it

we need it now to escape this place.

We can wait

if does not happen this week

It may be the next.

when the joy will increase,

or else roll over

until he, or she, comes along

who will walk away with it all!’

So he asked

is it better that many should give for one,

or one for many,

or can we have both?

You figure it out.

At this point it became clear

that the new learning

had been going along for quite a long time

and, although much remained to be done,

those who thought about it

looked down and said,

there are certain gains in maintaining the status quo,

because this is our land,

in which we are well pleased.

The evil men have done goes on,

downgraded to nuisance status,

men being boys,

each one,

a mother’s son.

and he good,

which most may not appreciate,




1 State Secret

2 The Singing Spider

3 Cupbearers to the Gods

4 Distractions in the Afternoon

5 Tiramisu

6 Falling Star

7 Brotherhood of Man

8 Preaching to the Birds

9 Desecration of the Temple

10 Feeding the Five Thousand

11 Carrier Pigeons

12 Sea Valley in the Mountains

13 Homecoming  

14 Vanity Fair

15 Leaf fall in Nuoro

16 Vino ed Acqua  

17 Salami   

18 Mortadella  

19 Vitello Tornato  

20 Moussa di Prosciutto

21 Frutta Del Giardiono  

22 Faggioli  

23 Crespelle  

24 Ravioli  

25 Pollo Arrosto  

26 Dolce  

27 Cerisi  

28 Espresso

29 Pane d’oro

30 Il Conto


The Altopiano of Castellucci

  September 2001.

The Altopiano, a dry lake-bed at an altitude 4500 ft., is a favoured destination for hikers, who normally approach from Norcia in the west and might not recognise the conifer plantation on the northern edge of this spur of the Sibilini mountain range as a map of Mediterranean Italy. The village of Castellucio, near the eastern edge of the plain, gives its name to the world renowned Castellucio lentil, here being harvested.