Thankfully, Tony Blair was nowhere near my Sicilian holiday

Sicily is far removed from the gracious suavities of Tuscany. With the souk-like atmosphere of its markets and obscure exuberance of life in the old Cosa Nostra towns, the Mediterranean island is halfway to Muslim Tunisia. The British Tuscanites who descend on the hills around Florence during the summer holidays as part of their ‘Toujours Tuscany’ dream – Tony Blair, Sting, David Cameron – are thankfully nowhere in evidence. In our post-Godfather world no history of Sicily would be complete without mention of the Mafia. The word is said to derive from the Arabic mahyas, meaning ‘aggressive boasting’: for almost three centuries until the Norman Conquest of 1061, Sicily was an

Recent crime fiction | 9 February 2017

There isn’t a clear line separating crime and literary fiction, but a border zone where ideas are passed from one genre to another. Flynn Berry’s debut Under the Harrow (Weidenfeld, £12.99) is set well to the literary side of this border, but doesn’t shirk on the thrills of a psychological mystery. Nora Lawrence expects to spend a few peaceful days in the countryside, staying at her sister Rachel’s house. Instead she finds Rachel dead, the victim of a brutal murder. A previous, unsolved attack on her sister has left Nora with very little faith in the police, and she is forced to undertake her own investigation. But is she driven

High Life | 22 September 2016

Sicily   Under the watchful eye of Mount Etna the storied past of the island lies parched and yellowish, but as one gets nearer to the fiery growling giant the air turns cool, the sun glistening against black volcanic rock. Sicily is of two minds. Orange groves and beaches galore, then dank forests and the possibility of lava flows. Sicily’s history resembles its landscape: peaceful and religious; violent and vengeful. I first sailed to Taormina back in the Sixties, visited the ancient Greek amphitheatre and listened to Dvorak’s New World Symphony while breathing in the smells of history. It was an extraordinary spectacle: beautifully dressed people, a great Italian symphony

Is it art or science?

William Henry Fox Talbot had many accomplishments. He was Liberal MP for Chippenham; at Cambridge he won a prize for translating a passage from Macbeth into Greek verse. Over the years he published numerous articles in scholarly journals on subjects ranging from astronomy to botany. One thing he could not do, however, was draw well — and it was this inadequacy that changed the world. While on holiday in Italy in 1832, he became so frustrated by his failure to draw Lake Como satisfactorily using a pencil and a drawing aid known as the camera lucida — his efforts were well below GCSE art standard — that he resolved to

The rise and fall of Sicily

A few weeks ago, I looked out on the Cathedral of Monreale from the platform on which once stood the throne of William II, King of Sicily. From there nearly two acres of richly coloured mosaics were visible, glittering with gold. In the apse behind was the majestic figure of Christ Pantocrator — that is, almighty. The walls of the aisles and nave were lined with scenes from the Bible. In another panel, just above, Christ himself crowned King William. It was a prospect of the greatest opulence and sophistication stretching in every direction from this regal vantage point. The mosaics are in the manner of Byzantium, and probably executed

Best in show | 31 December 2015

Until a decade and a half ago, we had no national museum of modern art at all. Indeed, the stuff was not regarded as being of much interest to the British; now Tate Modern is about to expand vastly and bills itself as the most popular such institution in the world. The opening of the new, enlarged version on 17 June — with apparently 60 per cent more room for display — will be one of the art world events of the year. But, like all jumbo galleries, it will face the question: what on earth to put in all that space? Essentially, there are two answers to that conundrum.

The rarest blend of white and gold

This unusual book is beautifully written, produced and illustrated, but its subject — the small Slender-billed curlew — is strangely absent. In his ‘introduction to a ghost’, Horatio Clare explains that, when he was commissioned to tell the story of the western world’s rarest bird, it did, at least officially, still exist. This grail of the birding world, which he has never seen, he describes as a beautiful creature, a species of curlew plumaged in a blend of whites and golds, with dark spots on the flanks, slim and graceful of form, more refined than the plump common curlew, with a thinner down-curving beak which makes it look as though

Africa’s most wanted

It’s Saturday morning in the courtyard of the Al-Zawiyah detention centre on the outskirts of Tripoli and Colonel Nourdeen Mishaal of Libya’s Ministry of Interior’s Department for Combating Illegal Immigration is about to have his weekend ruined. The Colonel has delivered an impassioned speech praising his own government and exhorting the West to do more to help in the battle against the people smugglers responsible for the thousands of migrants arriving in Europe every week. He dismisses his regime’s pariah status (the Islamist government has no international recognition). If there is a problem with migrants, he states with the full authority of his office, then the blame lies with western

Beautiful, bedevilled island

The Arabs invaded Sicily in the ninth century, leaving behind mosques and pink-domed cupolas. In the Sicilian capital of Palermo, Arab rule was generally tolerant, its dolce far niente evocative of sultans, minarets, concubines and other jasmine-scented delights. Walking round Palermo today, however, one is assailed by less lovely smells. Parts of the city remain unreconstructed since the Allies bombed it in 1943: fire-blackened palazzi and rubble-strewn slumlands speak of the Mafia’s systematic ransacking of the public coffers. A still darker side of Palermo finds expression in the 19th-century catacombs of the Capuchin friary, situated near the Arab-Fatamid pleasure palace of La Zisa (‘the magnificent’). Some 8,000 embalmed corpses moulder

Ways of hearing

‘What gives your lies such power?’ asks the bewildered Sicilian leader in Szymanowski’s opera Krol Roger. The question is addressed to a charismatic shepherd, on trial for propagating a lascivious new religion of unbridled sensuality. Roger’s wife, Roxana, has already converted along with many of his subjects, while the city’s conservative and clerical factions clamour for the blasphemer’s death. But Roger resolves to see for himself. Or rather hear for himself. For although the shepherd’s uncanny beauty is clear for all to see, his real power comes from the music, whose snaking contour weaves its eerie magic round the listener and disorientates him, disarming power of judgment by replacing its

The people from the sea

 Lampedusa The young hang about in packs or speed around town, two to a scooter. Old women group together on benches around the town square in front of the church. The men continually greet each other as though they haven’t met for years. The likelihood is small. With fewer than 6,000 inhabitants, and as close to Libya as it is to Italy, Lampedusa is the sort of place from which any ambitious young Italian would spend their life trying to escape. Yet every day hundreds and sometimes thousands of people are risking their lives to get here. ‘Please tell people we have nice beaches,’ one islander pleads. And indeed they do,

An earthquake with a Baroque legacy in Sicily

Syracuse is a handsome place, steeped in a rich historical broth. At the tip sits Ortygia, an island offshoot, which has been the backdrop to many Mediterranean sagas: Hellenic, Christian, Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque — take your pick. By day, Via de Benedictis is filled with local men selling sea urchins, milky balls of ricotta and bunches of mint. At night, we went to the Piazza Duoma for aperitifs. The cathedral’s broken pediments and exuberant sculpture cast strange shadows on to the square and a zephyr blew. It was November and the place was empty, aside from a small boy on rollerskates and a dog. In summer it must swarm with

Prue Leith’s diary: I want to be green, but I’ve got some flights to take first…

‘Please God, make me good, but not yet.’ I know the feeling. As I get older and more deeply retired, I globe-trot more and my carbon footprint is horrendous. And guilt does not result in abstinence. The brain is persuaded but the flesh is weak. Years ago I chaired Jonathon Porritt’s sustainability organisation, Forum for the Future, and I remember holding a fund-raising dinner for rich Cotswolders and hoping no one would notice my gas-guzzling old car, toasty warm house, and melon with more air-miles than flavour. I’ve tried harder since then, but it’s not easy. A couple of years ago I converted my ancient barn into an eco-friendly house

Ancient & Modern: the rumour mill

Geoffrey Dickens’s ancient dossier of (alleged) paedophiles in high places cannot be found among the 138 miles of government files, and rumour immediately takes wing. The ancients knew all about rumour: phêmê in Greek, fama in Latin, both words relating to ‘speech’. In 415 bc, the Athenians sent an expedition to Sicily, and Syracuse was rife with rumours about it. In the Assembly, one speaker said it was all nonsense, stirred up by agitators wishing to create fear and thus gain power. It was a reasonable assumption: in 411 bc a revolution occurred in Athens as a result of rumour. Rumour has not lost its power as a modern political

Keeping it real | 9 April 2011

Italian food is about simplicity and seasonality, and in Sicily spring brings the fragrant lemon harvest – eagerly awaited in one corner of Devon. Hattie Ellis takes a trip to the mother country with a pioneer of real lemonade Do you remember when lemonade used to be just that harshly fizzy clear stuff you bought in big plastic bottles? Now you can find a fragrant, sweetly-sharp drink that’s the soft yellow of a summer’s evening. Often called Sicilian lemonade, it is similar to what you’d make at home. Add a slosh of gin, vodka or rum and it’s something else again. One of the best Sicilian lemonades is made by