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About Writing “Medici Money”

You never know what may be coming through the e.mail. “James Atlas,” this says. “Proposal.” Is it junk mail?
I was working on A Season with Verona at the time, trying to get my mind round the way the Italians live football. The central paradox seemed to be an intense local loyalty, the ancient campanilismo, coupled with an anxious awareness that only money and foreigners can ever bring success. Dear Mr Parks, says James Atlas. Over many years, skip skip skip… your work with interest… yes yes… American publisher … well, good … now launching a series of books by writers about money.
Hmm, books by writers! There’s an idea.
But why about money rather than for money?
…suggest with your knowledge of Italy … (at least he’s not offering penis enlargement) … you are the right person to write a book about the Medici bank in the 15th century.
No! I stared at this e.mail. He couldn’t be serious. Imagine: Italian lives in England for twenty years and automatically becomes the right person to write about the cavaliers and the roundheads. I don’t think so. Continue reading

Cruel Clippings

Having moved house some four years ago, we receive very little mail through our old address. However, there is one correspondent I have been unable to inform of the change. Every few months an envelope is forwarded by the patient Italian postal service. It comes from London. My name is scrawled in an untidy print, perhaps left-handedly. Someone is eager not to be recognised. Inside there is no private message or indication of the sender’s name. Instead, ripped from some newspaper or other, in anger it seems, there will be a bad review of a book of mine or even, as happens from time to time (inexplicable honour!), a personal attack.

Curiously, this all began about eight or nine years ago, around the time I asked my publishers to stop sending me reviews. One of the advantages of living in a foreign country is that one can, to some extent, isolate oneself. I no longer wished to be elated by praise or tormented by ridicule, just to get on with whatever I was doing. No sooner had I breathed a sigh of complacent relief – Tim, you are above such things! – than along comes the first of these many anonymous envelopes with their unpleasant contents. I’m back to Earth again. Continue reading

The ‘F’ Word

‘What was that you said, Dad?’
‘Oh nothing Lucy.’
I’m at the wheel of my car in heavy traffic.
‘You didn’t say the ‘F’ word, did you Dad?’
Lucia is four. As it turns out these are two of the first full sentences she’s ever spoken in English. I’m proud of her. And embarrassed.
‘Idiot went on red,’ I explain.
‘That was the ‘F’ word you said, wasn’t it Dad?’ Continue reading

What actually is meditation?

That thought occasionally crossed my mind in the many years I disparaged the practice. I had no idea. The cross-legged statuesqueness of it and the beatific Buddha-smile were enough own to put me off. Whatever it was, it stank of prayer. Having escaped my parents’ evangelical aberrations, their exorcisms and speaking in tongues, I was more than happy with a world emptied of all things esoteric. You got busy and used your head and studied and wrote stuff, rational stuff, hopefully witty, and with any luck they would publish you and you would make money, you could afford a house, a car and children and you would become someone. Life presented itself as a task to which I felt I was just about equal, assuming I gave it absolutely all I had. There was no time for sloppy, slithery, New Age nonsense. Continue reading

We didn’t score

The notorious fans of Hellas Verona arrive in Roma, Stazione Termini, on their way to a crucial game in Naples. It’s 2001 when, amazingly, you could still smoke on a train.

7.40 am. Exhausted and hung-over after a long night on hard seats we were finally allowed out of our two locked, segregated carriages onto the platform at Termini, only to find ourselves under attack from a huge crowd of Roma fans departing early for a game in Bari. Nervous, our police minders made a rapid change of plan. We had been supposed to get on an eight o’clock train that stops at Napoli Campi Flegrei not three hundred metres from the stadium. But suddenly, coincidenza! Now we had to get on the quarter past seven locale to Napoli Centrale. The advantage was that the train was waiting right there beside us. That would stop us clashing with the Roma fans. But the guard was already blowing his whistle. The doors were closing. And no segregated carriages had been provided. All of a sudden the notorious Brigate Gialloblù were being hurried onto a packed train where they were actually going to mix with normal people. It was a startling development.
By a miracle I found a seat at a window opposite a pretty young girl. She was smoking in an absorbed kind of way, an exercise-book on her lap. Beside me was one of the fan leaders, Spada, and opposite him one of the younger boys with long black hair bursting out of his brigate cap. Seeing the girl, my new friend Scopa stops in the corridor. He flourishes a cigarette. “Got a light, signorina?” Continue reading

Valentine’s Day

Sunday is Valentine’s Day. But we already know that Matteo Viviani is giving Isabella Tosi a ring. ‘It’s gold!’ my daughter Stefi insists. She is very excited. Matteo and Isabella are in her class. But he is eleven, a year older than her, because he got sent down a class for failing all his exams. ‘They’re in love,’ Stefi simpers.
‘Rubbish!’ my wife snaps. We are both troubled by this precocity. TV commercials have been showing pre-pubic sweethearts exchanging expensive gifts. While the old are expected to stay younger, the young, apparently, must have adult aberrations as soon as profitably possible.
‘Hurry up, Papà, I need the bathroom.’
My son Michele, who at thirteen only recently stopped turning away in disgust when lovers kissed in films, tells me he has to take a shower. It’s a welcome surprise. Usually his clothes have to be sequestered before he will even consider it. But he seems pensive. ‘What an idiot,’ Stefi is, he says, ‘Drooling over rings and things.’ Continue reading


If Brahma is a more endearing creator than Jehovah it is because he wasn’t pleased with what he had made. The great god found the world dull and dusty. Death was the answer, suggested Shiva. Living forever, people were bored. A time-limit would galvanise, give dignity. But in that case some way of replacing the population would have to be found. Brahma brought together a few trusted fellows and explained what was required. The pleasure took them by surprise. What was that for? To put a fresh shine on the world, they were told. Otherwise it might get dusty again…

I’m always taken aback when people talk about the eroticism of food and drink, of sunbathing and massage. This is mere sensuality. Or avoiding the issue. No experience even remotely compares with true eros, with long and lavish love-making. It is perfectly understandable that people should imagine its having been tacked on to creation afterwards, so extravagant is the pleasure it brings, so far beyond what is necessary. Never does the world seem so freshly painted, so brightly enamelled, so new, for heaven’s sake, as after the best sex. But, alas, depending on where you’re up to in life, it may be full of new complications too. A lesser authority than Brahma’s would have issued a health-warning.
Continue reading

The Nobel Individual – TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT, 20 APRIL 2011

A writer is not famous today unless internationally famous, not recognized unless recognized everywhere. Even the recognition extended to him in his home country is significantly increased if he is recognized abroad.
This seems to be the right time and place to say a word about the accelerating internationalization of literature. Because the process affects what each of us writes, and indeed what each of us reads. And because in a small country like Holland, with a language that is not widely spoken, these developments are no doubt keenly felt.
In particular, I want to make a special effort to be honest and clear-sighted, not merely for the thrill of saying something politically incorrect, but because I feel the need to understand, for myself as much as anyone else, what we writers are doing when we project our words into the vast public space of global literature, who we are writing to, and what can be intelligently said in such a forum.
Along the way I must touch on two subjects, one under-publicized, translation, the other over-hyped, international literary prizes. From the disparity of attention given to these two questions much can be understood. Continue reading