Posso avere una mezzo litro vino amabile per favore?

I love going away. I love Rome. So I took my wife away there for a long weekend the week before Christmas. It seemed the right thing to do, and so it turned out. We arrived at Fiumicino late in the morning, and as it would be different to getting the Da Vinci Express train to the city we decided to take a bus, which delivered us unscathed to the Termini station. A quick metro ride to the Piazza Barberini, where resides Bernini’s Tritone, forever in a deluge like an alabaster swan deity, and we were five minutes walk from our lovely hotel.

We decided to go and see the Trevi Fountain at dusk, and then wandered to the Spanish Steps and then around the city, taking in the rainbow highway of Christmas lights along the Via del Corso, the Via Veneto, the Piazza Colonna and streets nearby and various. We found a busy looking restaurant called al Piccheo back near the Trevi, and plunged in for our hunger was deep and grievous. The Peroni always tastes better in Italy than it does from the supermarket, so that was our preferred drink, with which we had seafood spaghetti, pesto linguini and a pizza with prosciutto. And Cappuccinos of course.

The last time we went to Rome we couldn’t get into the Pantheon as there was a service taking place, so on the next morning, after a hotel breakfast of coffee and cakes and pastries and light operatic arias unobtrusively impinging on our consciousness, we made our way there, passing on our way the Templo Adriano, a building which haunts me. It’s the facade of a temple, but it always strikes me as something which belongs in a dream rather than the real world. Anyway, we spent a while in the Pantheon, taking in the light and the statues and the space and admiring the nativity display, and I promised myself another return visit one day. Onwards we went, a few streets away to the Piazza Navona where the market was being held, and I had to try a plate sized doughnut, dusted with cinnamon. I had a stand off with a herd of pigeons, but emerged victorious and only slightly diabetic. There was a drumming band with a beautiful dancing girl dressed in blue and we dropped some coins into their collection cup. After admiring the fountains, we decided to go to St Peter’s as I wanted to climb to the top of the dome, which I’d been unable to do on a previous visit. Anita wanted to hang around at ground level.

But first we went to a pizza place where I had the finest Napoletana I’ve ever eaten, with juicy anchovies and tart little capers. And coffee. Always the coffee.

You get plagued by unpleasantly persistent Asian and African street vendors in Rome, who really began to annoy me when we tried to cross the Ponte Sant’ Angelo. I was trying to get some good photos of the statues of saints and angels which line the bridge, and I really didn’t want a horde of eager hands waving hookey scarves and handbags around and spoiling the view. Sharp words were exchanged. And I got the pictures I wanted. We made our way to the Vatican and went into St Peter’s and visited the papal crypts, always a top spot for a blinding day out with the spouse. It was her idea, anyway. She’s got a thing about the late John Paul II; you must remember we grew up when the Beatles were big. As it happened they’d closed off the section where he rests so that’s another reason to go back again some time.

I left Anita by the Baldacchino and headed for the stairway to the top. After 200 or so stairs you come to the main gallery, surrounded by a vast mosaic which encircles the void, and then see that you still have over three hundred steps to climb to reach the apex of the dome high above you. I climbed to the top and fell under the spell of a panoramic view of the city from the place where the Statues see all.

When we got back to the hotel late that afternoon, I couldn’t settle. Anita told me stop fidgeting and if I really wanted to get out on my own I better had as she wanted to have a long bath and then sit quietly for a while. So I went out for a long walk then took a couple of metro rides across town and went to the Coliseum to see it in the dark, and did some evening people watching. All good.

So that was Saturday. That evening we went to a place in the Via Sistina for dinner. I can’t remember what it was called, but I remember what we ate, and I remember the bill at the end of the meal. I started with spaghetti al vongole, followed by a juicy veal steak with rosemary potatoes and a mozzarella, rocket and tomato salad, and Anita had a minestrone followed by lamb chops and salad. We drank red wine, which was good. And then cappuccino, which was also good. The bill was worrying.

The next day was Sunday. I wanted to see the pyramid of Caius Cestius so we took the metro out to the Piramide station, and we found the pyramid to be almost completely swathed in scaffolding for a bit of refurbishment. Another reason to go back yet again another day, I thought. We wandered briefly around the neighbourhood and saw a car that had been crushed by a fallen tree. Something the Caesars never had to worry about.

When we got to the Coliseum for a daylight visit, we found that large areas were clothed in yet more scaffolding. We strolled around the building in a late autumn shower of rain, telling one particularly annoying Asian street vendor who chased us half way around the coliseum with a garish collection of dodgy umrella-ella-ellas ladie! to fuck off in three and a half languages. He eventually did so when my wife squared up to him in a threatening manner which did little for inter-racial harmony and understanding. As we left the Coliseum and walked alongside the Imperial Fori to the National Monument the rain stopped. The sun came out and it felt warm.

Have you ever seen the Roman National Monument? It is a vast building built entirely of gleaming white marble, dedicated to Vittorio Emanuel. I remarked to Anita that looking at the size of the building, there must be a huge hole in the ground somewhere, or at least a small mountain must have gone missing. “Looks like it might rain again,” she said. I though of the unfortunate street vendor and kept my thoughts to myself.

My wife had had enough of walking by now, so we went to Termini for a little lunch of pasta for her and artichoke risotto for me. Then back to the hotel for a drink or two, and after a while I decided to go out again as dusk looked like it might start falling soon, leaving her in peace for a couple of hours. I took the metro out to the Piazza Della Republicca, and as I emerged into the falling gloom, a vast cloud of starlings were wheeling in the evening sky, drawing swirling patterns of darkness against the deep blue. Crowds of people were standing and staring and it reminded me of Independence Day, but there were no huge alien ships hovering above us on a countdown to global destruction. Only starlings. Thousands of them. I went across the square into the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli i Martiri, a huge, cavernous space which was lit only in two small areas, a side chapel containing an intriguing piece by a Polish sculptor, and the main altar. I remained in an unlit chapel, soaking in the atmosphere and feeling kind of strange.

Then I made my way across town to the San Carlo Quattro Fontane, a little crossroads near the Quirinale, a place where it’s good to stand a while and absorb the history, and then up the Via 20 Settembre to the Santa Susanna area, and went into the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, for to gaze upon the statues and the paintings. It’s a small church, but it’s one of my favourite spaces. The Dream of St Joseph and the Nativity sculptures as well as the Ecstasy of St Teresa. I could have spent hours there, gazing and dreaming, but I was getting hungry. Food for the soul is good but the stomach must never be neglected.

We went back to al Piccheo for dinner. We started with charcuterie and grilled vegetables, then had pizza, I had gorgonzola and speck, Anita had tomato and rocket. We had Peroni again, and a good chat with a couple of the waiters. And cappuccinos. Always, always the cappuccinos.

Back into the night, a last evening stroll through the streets tinkling with light rain and glowing faces, and home the next morning.


Mirror Man

I walked over through the mist in the valley to see my dad this evening. I live on the side of one hill, and this being the South Downs, he lives on the side of the next hill along. It’s hills and valleys, ups and downs, just like the rise and fall of the desert dunes except it’s all grass and sheep around here, until you hit the greyness of the winter sea. There was the smell of coal smoke in the air, which always takes me back to my childhood. We couldn’t afford cigarettes, so we used to smoke coal dust and dried cow-parsley stems. It works wonders for the life expectancy, don’t you know.

I just finished reading Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Do you know, it’s a very good book. I’ve never seen the film, although I could easily fall in love with Audrey Hepburn, and I’d never read the book until about a week or so ago, when I noticed it had been published by Folio. So I had to get it, didn’t I? And I’m so glad that I did.

Yesterday morning I looked up at the shop door as it opened, and fuck me but I found myself in The Singing Detective. Almost. It was the local Senior Health Inspector and a sidekick, arrived to do the inspection and tell me what grade I’ve achieved this year. He suffers badly from a debilitating skin disorder, and was peeling. ‘Hey, you can keep away from the food prep table if you’re intending to shed any of those tatters of dead skin that are flailing lifelessly around your face,’ I advised him, after accidentally catching a glimpse of our already printed 5/5 window sticker which was carelessly tucked between two heavy folders in his closed briefcase while he changed into his special white coat, inspections for the use of. Even though he’d already decided on our score for the door, he spent nearly two hours with us. I told him that I’d heard recently about someone who used neat Domestos as a cure for Psoriasis. It cured the skin problem but as it was on his eyelids the sorry fucker went blind. Self medication advice. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. The SHI, reluctantly I think, told me that he’d persevere with the prescribed medication. You just can’t help some people.

Today a lady I know called Sue came in the shop. It was her birthday last week, and for the last fifteen years or so she’s had a multiple cream cake slash danish pastry slash gluten free flapjack for the fussy fucker in HR order, this year being no exception. She was bringing back the platters that I send the cakes on, she said, and then she told me that this might have been the last time she’d order her cakes, as she probably won’t be here next year. I noticed that next in the queue was Carole from the funeral directors whose premises are but seven doors along the High Street from mine. So I introduced the ladies to each other, suggesting that they have a chat about some possible future business for one of them and the lifting of a burden of worry about funeral arrangements for the other.

“But I’m only retiring,” said Sue. “We’re moving to Hassocks, so I doubt that I’ll get over this way very often.”

“Take each other’s numbers though” I advised. “You’re looking well now, mighty fine, almost hot, but you never know what’s around the next corner. Remember, as one door closes, someone’s windpipe might be trapped in the frame. And it may well be yours, Sue.” Oh, how we all laughed.

Tomorrow is Wednesday. The next day is Thursday. On that evening I shall be leaving here and heading Romewards for a short while. Wish me bon voyage as I leave, why don’t you?

For the Angels

I have the face where handsome goes to die. I sometimes look in the mirror and despair, remembering how when I was younger I looked like I had inherited the shades of my father’s dark looks. Strangely, as I get older, I am beginning to look more like my mother did in her middle age. Which isn’t really a problem as she was quite a beautiful woman, especially before she died.

I look in the mirror daily, sometimes to gaze in wonder but usually merely to have a shave. Always the cheeks, the chin, jowls (such as they are) and the ‘tache area. My face, in fact. Sometimes if any of the grandchildren are staying I will call them into the bathroom and let them watch as I shave my tongue. This will probably cause trauma and fears as they enter puberty, waiting in a state of terror for the first signs that their mouths have started growing internal hair. We live and learn. ¬†Occasionally I lather my nose and drag the razor swiftly over it, or else I pluck the ever increasing crop of hairs which grow there with my wife’s or my daughter’s tweezers, along with the stiff jagged whiskers which are increasingly sprouting just below my eyes.

The sculptor Bernini said that in order to create the illusion of nature’s shadings, you have to cut the place of that darkness out of the marble. And that’s what I do with the razor every day of my life. I tell you, if I were to stop shaving tomorrow, within six or seven weeks you wouldn’t be able to distinguish me from a five foot nine block of Travertine marble.

So, what have I been doing with my lifette recently? I needed to do my bit to help stimulate the national economies of Europe, so I started by going to Brighton the other Sunday – you may have seen me; I looked a bit like a slab of limestone dragging itself out of the Lebanese supermarket in Western Road with a bag of exotic vegetables, syrups and seasonings – and as well as buying Christmas gift vouchers from shops various for the staff in the shop, I decided to get me yet another new coat. I don’t need a new coat. But they are a minor passion of mine. Last year I got a lovely heavy Italian grey woollen tweed jacket with pockets int. and ext., which looks quite striking when I wear it with my multi coloured cashmere scarf and my grey Russian hunter’s hat. Good for cold weather and seducing Czechoslovakian winter coat freaks.

This year I found a slightly lighter weight ox-blood coloured cotton and corduroy job with a hood, ribbed internal cuffs and as usual, plenty of discreet pockets. I finally managed to choose it after spending three precious hours of my rapidly declining ¬†life searching clothes shops throughout the borough. It’s got a tartan lining. That was the deciding factor, along with a newly acquired sense of spiritual exhaustion and a near suicidal desire for a large sweet mocha. I’m listening to Eleni Mandell’s Afternoon cd right now. I recommend it, it will enhance the reading experience.

I dropped my phone on the stone step outside the pharmacy the other week and did something damaging to the internal circuitry which meant that the lower half of the screen appeared as if it was lurking behind a screen of horizontal wattles, minus the daub and the upright stakes. So, rather than see my mobile device slowly and inexorably metamorphose into an unstable medieval peasant dwelling, I decided to drag myself into the modern era and get myself a new phone, one that can access the internet, display interactive maps, play music and show television programmes. So I got me one. A Nokia Lumia thing. Because Allyse, one of my Saturday girls, has one and I was damned impressed when she showed me what it can do. My wife kept saying that if I were ever to submit to the onward march of technology and get a ‘proper phone’ as she puts it in her own sweet way, I’d wonder how I ever managed without it. I really really don’t like admitting to her that she’s occasionally right about these things. But she usually is.

Then, on Saturday afternoon when I got home from work I remarked that I really wouldn’t mind getting away somewhere for a day or two before Christmas. So my lovely, always right little wife Juanita said that she’d already booked a bit of time off from her job for mid-December, so have a look, go on Graham, do. But. Where could we go? We narrowed the choices down to Bath, Winchester or Edinburgh. Which would you choose, reader of mine? Anyways, me old skip, are you still with me? Saturday night came along as it tends to after Saturday afternoon has finished and she went off to work again, and I said I’d have a look on the internet and see if I could find a nice hotel in any of those three beautiful British cities.

I got my shop accounts finished and out of the way for the week and then started looking at hotels in Bath, Bristol, Winchester, Edinburgh and Dundee, purely in the interests of variety. And as I’ve had to desperately explain to my darling wife on more than one occasion in our long history together, one thing led to another, events took control of the evening and I ended up somewhere totally unexpected. She phoned me at 23.30 when she went on her break and checked her phone.

“Hello, I’ve just checked my phone.”

“Yes, my love? Are you on your break?”

“Yes. You used the family email address I see?”


“I got a load of confirmation emails on my phone. You’ve been busy. Rome? Hardly Edinburgh, is it? I’m not complaining though. But as I see that it’s an early morning flight we’ll have to go to Gatwick the night before and stay in the hotel there won’t we?”

“Already booked my love. That’s probably the only email that hasn’t come through yet.”

And it was too. I can be so fucking organised when I want to be. Flight, API, online check-in, hotel, insurance, train to Gatwick, airport hotel, all sorted out from my little home office and all it took was two cups of coffee. Rome’s a city that’s easy to get into from its airport. We’ll just catch the Da Vinci Express into Termini and our hotel’s two metro stops away, next to the Spanish Steps, so I didn’t bother booking a transfer. Though I nearly did. I love arriving at a foreign airport and looking around at arrivals for a stranger holding up an A4 sheet with my name on it. One day it’ll be the undoing of me, I’m sure.

I even went and got a haircut so as not to frighten passport control at Fiumicino.

Ricky was sitting alone in his salon, twanging tunelessly at the Strat what usually hangs out of reach above the mirror.

“Oh. It’s you, you hairy fucker. You alright?” For Ricky, this is a hearty welcome. “You want a haircut?”

“Why? You selling anything else?” I had to ask.

“No. You want the usual?”

“Yes please Richie.” There was a pause. An uncomfortably long pause.

“Well? How do you want your hair cut?”

“Richie, you’ve cut my hair seven times a year for the last twelve or thirteen years. I always have it cut the same. We see each other six days a week. Can you really not remember how you cut it?”

“Fourteen.” He crossed his arms across his chest and stared at me in the mirror.

“What? Fourteen what?” He’d fucking lost me.

“Fourteen years. I bought the shop from Kev in 1999. March 1999. I’ve got the contract here. I’ve been cutting your hair for fourteen years. See?”

“Which gives you even less reason to forget. Number three on top and-”

“Oh, yeah. Number two round the edges. Sit still, I’ll start. Going away again soon then?”

“Rome.” This was Monday. Word travels fast in a small town.

“Taking whatsername? Yewer wife?” Your always sounds like yewer when Ricky says it. He’s a cunt. The standard of conversation drops into the gutter when it includes me old mate Richie.

“Of course. What are you and Lorraine doing for Christmas? Anything?” The implication of course being that Lorraine would be fucking lucky if Richie even remembered that it was Christmas.

“Nah.” Richie always makes no sound like nah. The bastard. “She’ll probably fuck off to her family. I’ll go out on the boat for the day if I can get anyone to crew. I’ve told Alberto he can fuck off if he thinks he’s coming out with me again. He breaks stuff. And Gav’s a cunt. I won’t have him on the boat.” Richie shook his head, more in anger than in ruefulness or sorrow.

“That’s it then Richie.”

“That’s what then, me old mate?” he asked.

“Your entire circle of friends. Lorraine, Alberto and Gav. None of them can crew for you on Christmas day. You’ll have to sit at home on your own and watch the telly. Though Sticks was in my shop this morning complaining that he’ll probably be alone at Christmas too.” As Sticks, a man for whom conversation is a war of mass destruction, and broad beans are a passion, fully deserves to be. “I could always ask him if he’d crew for you? You’d both enjoy that I’m sure.” I wasn’t convincing myself. I didn’t stand a fucking chance with Ricky.

“Nah.” Cunt. “I’ll go out on the bike for the day. By myself. Lovely. Fuck me, look at the hair growing out of yewer ears. Do you want me to shave ’em?”

You see? It truly is the season of joy and goodwill.