Archive for September, 2010

Tuesday poem: ‘Send out your homing pigeons, Dai’

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010


Send out your homing pigeons, Dai,

Your blue-grey pigeons, hard as nails,

Send them with messages tied to their wings,

Words of your anger, words of your love.

Send them to Dover, to Glasgow, to Cork,

Send them to the wharves of Hull and of Belfast,

To the harbours of Liverpool and Dublin and Leith,

Send them to the islands and out of the oceans,

To the wild wet islands of the northern sea

Where little grey women go out in heavy shawls

At the hour of dusk to gaze at the merciless waters,

And send them to the decorated islands of the south

Where the mineowner and his tall stiff lady

Walk round and round the rose-pink hotel, day after day.

Send out your pigeons, Dai, send them out

With words of your anger and your love and your pride,

With stern little sentences wrought in your heart,

Send out your pigeons, flashing and dazzling towards the sun.

Go out, pigeons bach, and do what Dai tells you.

‘Send out your Homing Pigeons, Dai’ by Idris Davies is one in a sequence from ‘The Angry Summer, A Poem of 1926′ which appears in The Collected Poems of Idris Davies, Ed. Islwyn Jenkins and published by Gomer Press, and I’m grateful for permission to use it.

I love this poem, and I don’t even like pigeons – well, not city pigeons anyway: racing pigeons are a different thing and probably if I met one, I’d admire it. But most of all I admire this poem, and Idris Davies himself, the great Welsh socialist poet now best known for writing ‘Bells of Rhymney’ which was set to music by Pete Seeger in the late 1950s and has since become an iconic folk standard.

Davies (1905 to 1953) wrote poems about the South Wales valleys and about the coalfields – he began his working life as a miner at the age of 14, and later qualified and worked as a teacher. His work, in both English and Welsh, reflects the idealism and protest of a people during a time of great economic, social and religious change; in particular the growth and decay of the old iron and coal town of Rhymney in Monmouthshire. T. S. Eliot, who published Davies’s work at Faber, thought that the poems had a claim to permanence as ‘the best poetic document I know about a particular epoch in a particular place.’ I was introduced to this poem by my friend Frances Thomas, in whose 2010 poetry diary this appears. I love everything about it, including the contrast between the declamatory beginning and the intimacy of the last line’s whisper.

Do have a look at the other poems on the Tuesday Poetry blog.

Some things to miss about Italy now I’m not there

Friday, September 24th, 2010
  • The smell of dry pine needles when you walk on them. We twice visited a little Umbrian town called Asciano because of its small but wonderful collection of Sienese art, and both times we walked across a carpet of dry pine needles crossing a park. The scent takes me back to childhood because my sisters and I spent hours playing on a hill at the back of my grandparents’ house that was thick with dried pine needles. It’s a very Proustian memory smell which in this case carries a heavy tang of spicy heat, and the springy underfoot crunch is also delightful. The photo is of Sant’Agata, the church in Asciano where the pictures used to be, and where I first saw them more than 20 years ago, although now they’re housed in a glorious new museum.

  • Two-sided billboards. I’ve always been amused by the absurdity of driving along country roads in Italy and being faced with a large billboard advertising a restaurant or hotel in the opposite direction to the one in which you’re travelling – oftentimes it’s in the town you’ve just left. I’ve spent idle hours wondering how it was that someone actually paid for such a mad installation. Did the owners ever check to see if their ad was in the right place, facing the right way? But on this trip we noticed that the billboards are now mostly double-sided, so at least some potential customers are captured on their way past. Phew. The Italian domestic economy is saved for another day. I don’t have a photo of one of these billboards, I’m sorry to say.
  • The views. This applies particularly – though not exclusively – to the Tuscan and Umbrian towns and countryside, and you have to ask yourself how they do it. How is it that absolutely every view is beautiful, even in the towns? As in “every prospect pleases and only man is vile” (Reginald Heber, since you’ll probably want to know, from the From Greenland’s icy mountains hymn) except that in Umbria and Tuscany the young men are so often strikingly beautiful as well, as though they’ve stepped straight from a fresco. Not vile at all. I would hazard a guess that Bishop Heber never visited Italy. This is a view in Narni, just to make one tiny point among many.

  • Tomatoes. Yes, I know I go on about these a fair bit, but the wonderful thing about Italian tomatoes is the fierce summer heat that ensures they aren’t even slightly watery. They’re deliciously juicy, but when you cut one open, watery juice doesn’t run everywhere. Because there isn’t any watery juice, that’s why not. So the flavour is more intense. Ipso facto and QED, and I rest my case.

  • The Sienese storage buildings that you see at the side of minor roads throughout the region. I used to think they belonged to the electricity workers but I’ve been told (on reasonably good authority) that isn’t true. (AMM.NE simply stands for ‘Amministrazione’ so that doesn’t get you any further into solving the mystery.) I don’t know who uses them, I’ve never seen anyone hanging around or opening or shutting the doors, but the buildings are impossibly sweet – the paint colours are perfect; the size meets every aesthetic criterion; even the finer points of the spacing and alignment of type in the signage is beautiful. Italy, you win the style prize again.

  • Oh, and the figs. You knew I was going to talk about the figs again, didn’t you? The organic farm where we stay has three purple fig trees, two green fig trees and one white fig tree, and the fruit on all of those comes to perfect ripeness in the month of September when we stay there. (No coincidence, I assure you.) D.H. Lawrence wrote a rather predictably rude poem about ‘the honey-white figs of the north, black figs with scarlet inside’ and reminded his readers that ‘ripe figs won’t keep, won’t keep in any clime’. But they keep in our food memories, David Herbert: they keep there, safe and cherished, from year to year. Photos help.

Tuesday poem: Ode to tomatoes

Monday, September 6th, 2010

ODE TO TOMATOES  by Pablo Neruda

(translated by Margaret Sayers Peden)

The street

filled with tomatoes



light is





its juice


through the streets.

In December,


the tomato


the kitchen,

it enters at lunchtime,


its ease

on countertops,

among glasses,

butter dishes,

blue saltcellars.

It sheds

its own light,

benign majesty.

Unfortunately, we must

murder it:

the knife


into living flesh,



a cool




populates the salads

of Chile,

happily, it is wed

to the clear onion,

and to celebrate the union





child of the olive,

on to its halved hemispheres,



its fragrance,

salt, its magnetism;

it is the wedding

of the day,



its flag,


bubble vigorously,

the aroma

of the roast

at the door,

it’s time!

come on!

and, on

the table, at the midpoint

of summer,

the tomato,

star of earth,


and fertile



its convolutions,

its canals,

its remarkable amplitude

and abundance,

no pit,

no husk,

no leaves or thorns,

the tomato offers

its gift

of fiery colour

and cool completeness.

I am surrounded by tomatoes. We are staying on a small organic farm in Umbria, where the tomatoes in the veggie garden (free to guests) are ripe and bursting with flavour, and beg to be picked and eaten. Local friends also arrive laden with baskets of tomatoes, and carefully explain the names and nature of the many varieties. We sun them on the terrace to finish the ripening process and pile them into pretty bowls for a burst of late summer colour – that’s one group of them in the photo above. And we make tomato salads of every kind – with basil and fruity olive oil, with anchovies and pecorino or little black olives, and with toasted breadcrumbs and garlic. We eat tomato crostini with pesto, we bake and braise tomatoes, and still they come.

The most prized local variety, the Cuore di Buo (oxheart) is very fleshy and ripens to a deep pink rather than a red. My favourite variety is the kind which a tomato-loving friend ironically calls Tesco’s Delight because no supermarket buyer would accept such a craggy, lumpy shape. (This sort might officially be called a Roma? I’m not sure.)  But the taste – ah, the taste!

And so Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to Tomatoes” strikes a deep chord right now. I’m amused to recall how many poems deal so happily with food and food memories – William Carlos Williams’s plum poem, “This is just to say” , is just the first that springs to mind. I hope you enjoy this poem, preferably with a good tomato or three to hand. And do have a look at the other Tuesday Poems.

Better than the cheese or ham, I promise you

Friday, September 3rd, 2010

We decided to spend a night in Parma last week, on our drive from London down to Umbria. (Yup! It’s holiday time again, lucky us, and we’re back on the same little organic farm: our third visit, and loving it as much as ever.)

We’d never been to Parma before but we love the cheese and we love the ham, so honouring those with a visit seemed absolutely right. I even like Parma violets, despite their slightly sickly taste, although I know those haven’t been made in Parma for centuries. Anyway, what’s not to like?

And as it turned out we were spot-on about that – but only because of something we didn’t know about: the Baptistery of the Duomo in the old town. It took my breath away it’s so beautiful – and this in a country filled with astounding beauty of every kind.  The city had the good sense to commission an architect called Benedetti Antelami to build it in 1196, and the octagonal building is covered in pale pink marble from Verona. There’s a lovely statue of Solomon and Sheba outside, which you can just see in the photo above (I took it with my iPhone which doesn’t seem to be as good at focal length as it is at closeups.)

And inside there are 16 alcoves and an astonishing domed ceiling, all decorated with paintings and sculptures. Like this one.

The Michelin guides don’t rate the Baptistery worth the journey (which would give it three stars): it gets only two stars, which means it’s worth a look if you happen to be passing. I think the Tyre Man is mistaken.

Parmigiano is a truly great cheese with complex flavours, and that slightly salty, slightly granular texture has a lot going for it.  And Prosciutto di Parma is the king of hams – a silky, tender, melting jewel in the crown of Italian cuisine.

But the Baptistery! I promise you, seeing the Baptistery will make you forget about food. And in Italy that’s a tough call.