Mary's musings

Mary Hoffman, author of over 90 children's books, including the Stravaganza series and Amazing Grace, has begun a web journal which will be updated roughly once a week. You can read more on

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Honey cats

Well, Padua was an eye-opener. It's called the city that has "a saint without a name, a cafe without a door and a field without grass." The saint without a name is actually Antony, because the huge domed Basilica, with the saint's completely over the top tomb (almost as bad as St Peter's in Rome), is known laways as the Basilica del Santo. Padua is odd in having a Duomo as well as a Basilica.

The cafe without a door is Pedrocchi's, an 18th century building which looks like a Greek temple and has glass between the pillars (this does include a door of course). The field without grass is Prato della Valle in the south of the city - a HUGE oval piazza based on the outline of a Roman amphitheatre.

Bex and I visited all three - the Basilica is particularly fine from the outside and has the famous bronze equestrian statue by Donatello of the mercenary Gattamelata (honey-cat). It was the first successful such casting since the Marcus Aurelius we saw in Rome in November.

Pedrocchi's is 2 centuries too late for the book I was supposed to be researching but that didn't stop us going there for coffee and pasticcerie on our last morning. Thr waiters were FANTASTICALLY snooty and insisted on being paid at the table, as if we were going to run away, but the goodies were very good. It was one of the university's graduation days and we saw a young (-ish) man with a laurel-wreath round his neck (Italian for graduated = "laureato"), being toasted in champagne by a large family group. And it was only 11am.

And we had dinner with an Italiian family in a beautiful apartment with a balcony overlooking the vast Prato della Valle. They were so hospitable and interested in everything we did and thought. "Is Tony Blair liked in Britain?" "Is it true you have many many words for toilet?" etc etc. They were fascinated that I was writing a book sort of set in their city. It was a large family group - nine with us - and there were many courses. They were lawyers, teachers, critics and one Art Historian, And they had a honey-cat of their own - a very friendly ginger called Arturo.

This week I re-read Katherine Roberts' absolutely marvellous "I am the Great Horse" - the story of Alexander the Great told through the eyes of his warhorse, Bucephalas. Also la Repubblica. What a great newspaper it is - lots of Arts coverage, great political stuff (Romano Prodi resigned while we were there) and good solid social and think pieces. There was a piece about the Joyce Hatto CD forgeries and one about Ken Livingstone getting cheap petrol; from Venezuela, so i felt quite up to date when I returned home!

I saw lots of frescoes - the previously unknown to me Giusto de Menabuoi, whose cycle completely covers the Baptistery of the Duomo in Padua. And the fabulous 700 year old cycle of Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel, which has been completely restored since I was last there. You now have to wait in a glass room for 15 mins to get yourself physically acclimatised before you get your 15 mins in the chapel. There was a de Chrico exhibition on in Padua but I simply couldn't wrench my sensibilities round to that after Giotto.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Stop some of the clocks

It's six years since we left London and I've never for a moment regretted it. I did fear that it might be a wrench leaving the house in which our children had grown up. But two have been back to live with us and the oldest has fond false memories of having grown up in this house, with her hammock slung between apple trees in the little orchard.

And we do go up to London on average at least once a week, most recently for me to meet independent children's booksellers and both of us to see Antony and Cleopatra. I like knowing how the city works and being able to find my way about it. But anything that has been intoduced since we left - Oyster cards for example - seem very alien.

And of course I've written 5 long novels, one picturebook, one set of re-tellings and at least one junior title since being here, so I feel productive in my green study.

Stevie was away at a conference for Valentine's Day. So Jess and I had a date - dinner at Ha Ha's! and the DVD of Little Miss Sunshine.

I'm off to Padua tomorrow, researching Stravaganza 4, which is set in the Talian equivalent.

Since my last blog, I've read Richard lll to clarify my mind about the performance we saw. Also lots of books to review for Armadillo - Troll Blood, Red Tears, and a huge long fantasy in proof, called City of Bones. This was written by Cassandra Clare, who cut her teeth on fan fiction and the hilarious Secret Diaries of the Lord of the Rings characters ("Still not king"). It's not often that fan fiction leads to publication but there seems to be a trend that way.

I saw The Devil wears Prada and thought Meryl Streep deserved her Oscar nomination. But it's an essentially weak premise; no-one as bright as Andie would have put up with her boss's nonsense for five minutes. There's a similar weakness in Little Miss Sunshine, in that Olive had already come second in the regional finals, with presumably the same routine that so scandalised the judges in California.

We also saw Antony and Cleopatra with Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter - both superb. The "set" was appalling, just splodges of paint on a backdrop. Any sixth form production would have been ashamed to mount such scenery. A big contrast with the production I saw at the National, with Alan Rickman and Helen Mirren. The critics hated it but it used the stage much more imaginatively than the RSC at the Novello.

We didn't agree with the interpretation of Octavius - nervous, compulsive, verging on madness - but for the rest it was very memorable.

I have heard wall-to-wall Auden today, because of his centenary; with both Radio 3 and 4 putting on programmes it was sometimes like an echo: Stop all the clocks ... Stop all the clocks. What a brilliant poet he was and how memorable: "Out on the lawn I lie in bed, Vega conspicuous overhead," "We must love one another and die," Plunge your hands in the basin/ Plunge them in up to the wrist/Stare, stare in the mirror/And see what you have missed." On and on - marvellous, accurate, as fastidious about language as he was careless about personal hygiene. And the radio played lots of Britten settings of Auden's words, like Our Hunting Fathers. An artistic marriage made in heaven, even though the men were so different.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Glass Bead Game

(I did post last week but it ended up in the ether)

A week and a half ago I took my youngest daughter to see Thomas Heatherwick's Bleigiessen sculpture in London. It's in the Wellcome Trust building at the top of Gower Street and they let the public in for a tour on the last Friday of the month. It won a competition to fit a sculpture into a thirty metre high space, with the stipulation that it would have to get through the door, as the building was finished. Heatherwick went one further and used components small enough to fit through the letterbox.

His mother ran the Bead Company and he remembered her making bead curtains when he was small, so he basically designed a thirty-metre 3D bead curtian. The sculpture is made up of large round glass beads strung on steel wires. The shape was determined by dropping molten metal into spinning water - a divination technique practised in Germany and called Bleigiessen, like tea-leaf reading.

The planning needed was mind-boggling. Jess took millions of photos from different floors and we staggered out reeling.

Since my last post, I read Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise, a Christmas present from another writer. It's one of the great unfinished works of the 20th century, only two parts written out of four or five because she was taken to Auschwitz in 1942; her husband followed a month later. Their two little girls were saved by their child-minder and survived. The older one has kept this leather-bound notebook of her mother's but never read it, thinking it was a journal and might be too painful, but it turned out to be this complete MS of parts one and two plus notes for the rest. She was working on it up to the last minute. So one of those cases where the context and history of the book is a parallel story of equal interest to the book itself. I had to brace myself to read it, fearing horrors, but it was just about copable with.

I saw a DVD about Jan van Eyck the fifteenth century Flemish painter, made by a friend. He was superb and a true inheritor of the spiritual depth of the Sienese painters of a century earlier. I really only knew the Arnolfini Wedding but there is masses of work extant.

We saw Richard lll at Stratford, completing the first tetralogy. Jonathan Slinger was absolutely amazing as Richard and the three and a half hours flew by. Can't wait for the second lot - it was such a good idea to keep the original cast as a repertory ensemble through eight plays.

Also watched the DVD of Thank you for Smoking, which had a really good script - so rare in Hollywood movies. But I dipped out of The Last King of Scotland, which the others went to. I knew I wouldn't be able to handle the brutality. My brother-in-law was in Uganda at the time of the expulsion of the Asians and helped a few of them - one came to live with my mother-in-law and became a family member, her first social occasion in England being our wedding.