The art of being a slob
On instant gratification and shower screens
For most of the past fortnight, I have been a slob. This is not what I planned.
I went to Umbria. I went, in fact, to a farmhouse in Umbria in a tiny hamlet that’s actually called Paradiso. If you’ve read my new book, you’ll know that this was my pandemic adventure, and one of the things that kept me going when life seemed grey and grim. Sunshine! On an Umbrian hillside! Vermentino! Crisps!
Because, with me, there are always crisps, and Italian crisps are perfectly palatable, if not quite in the league of your Kettle, Tyrrells or Torres truffle, which I have recently discovered and which, I have to say, are pricey, but delicious.
It is, of course, a dream come true. Who hasn’t dreamt of owning a property on an Italian hillside, sipping wine on a sun-drenched terrace and gazing out at a landscape dotted with olive trees, cypresses and the odd crumbling church?
If you’ve read my first book, The Art of Not Falling Apart, you’ll know that I’ve pursued a version of this dream once before. Fifteen years ago, I made an offer on a tiny Tuscan flat without even seeing it.
Luckily, I loved it. I can’t tell you how much I loved it: sitting in my little flat, reading, writing, eating gnocchi with freshly grated parmigiana, and then nipping along to the nearest town to sit in the piazza and sip Aperol Spritz. At 30 square metres, it was fine for one, cosy for two and clearly off limits for more.
We drove to Tuscany in the summer of 2020 and being there felt like a miracle. It had, after all, been illegal to leave the house for more than one walk a day, illegal, even, to sit on a park bench. Illegal for the plebs, I mean. Our leaders had clearly been doing exactly what they wanted. The Fixed Penalty Notices they have been given for their law-breaking are, they say, just like parking tickets.
(In Sunday’s Sunday Times we learnt a bit more about our prime minister’s approach to parking tickets. When he had a motoring column in GQ, according to its then editor, Dylan Jones, he racked up more than £4000 of fines he didn’t pay. Oh, and he didn’t even drive the cars. The mileage was recorded when the cars were dropped off. When they were picked up, it was the same.)
It was my partner who suggested we “trade up” for something bigger than 30 square metres and it was he who spotted the Umbrian farmhouse, on an Italian property website, when we were on our way home. Sixteen months later, we completed the sale. Yup, sixteen months. This is Italy, the land of Botticelli and bureaucracy. Getting the right paperwork is like getting the planets aligned.
The planets are now aligned. The heating works. Water comes out of the kitchen tap. My Tuscan flat is sold and what I got for it just about covered my half of Paradiso. It wouldn’t buy me a spare room in London, but that’s a quirk of geography and fate. Italy isn’t offering one-euro houses because it has a housing shortage in remote villages. It wants foreigners employing local tradespeople and eating in local restaurants. We foreigners want sunshine, beauty and some regular doses of la dolce vita. It seems a fair exchange.
The Umbrian farmhouse isn’t meant to be a holiday home. I was born in Rome. Italy is my other home. Brexit hasn’t exactly helped, but Italy will always be a kind of home. The plan in Umbria, as in Tuscany, is to write and work, as I do at home. Give me a laptop, give me wi fi, give me a pile of books and I can work anywhere.
The trouble is, I didn’t.
For months, I have been desperate to carve out time to get on with my next writing project. I had been busy with the podcast, busy with book publication, busy with the infinite nonsense of the freelancer’s life, the admin, the emails, the social media, the stuff you have to do, but that no one pays you for. Right, I thought. Enough, I thought. I’m not going to seek or do any work except what I’ve already committed to do, so I can get on with what I really want to do.
But I didn’t.
We are all allowed holidays, of course. It was lovely to wander round the local town, eat gelato in the sunshine, sip Negronis in the piazza. Lovely to walk up to the café in the nearest village, and drink cappuccinos as we gazed out at the hills. Lovely to see Lake Trasimeno and eat panini con prosciutto on the water’s edge. Lovely, legit and all fair enough when you have just fulfilled a long-held dream.
Lovely, too, to have the neighbours round for an aperitivo. We thought we were inviting them for a glass of wine. We got a packet of nuts and a tub of olives and thought we had bought some crisps, which we only found when we were packing up to leave. They turned up with a bottle of very good prosecco, a bottle of home-made strawberry liqueur and three trays of home-made treats: olive focaccia, parmesan bread, torta della nonna, panettone, Easter cake. All very delicious and all rather imbarazzante. Hello, we’re the English slobs next door who haven’t even bothered to open the packet of pistachios.
The English slob. That’s what I’ve been for most of the past two weeks. The woman who was born in Rome and has had a flat in Tuscany for fifteen years, who spoke Italian quite well when she was young, but hasn’t bothered to put in the work to get it back. The woman who claimed to be desperate to get on with another creative project, but instead spent hours a day Googling sofa covers and watching YouTube videos on how to paint furniture. The woman who tracked down ten books for what she thought would be her next writing project, asked her partner to put half of them in his suitcase, and didn’t open one of them.
The English slob. The woman who packed leggings for her daily runs, but only wore them because her jeans were too tight after feeling, for some reason, that it was her duty to work her way through the fridge. The woman who had decided that she would only drink three days a week from now on, but then drank at every meal except breakfast. The woman who decided that the most urgent task facing her, after discovering one of her boxes had gone missing in the move, was to buy a coffee machine. And who then bought one at Conad in Perugia, watched her partner spend an evening trying to make it work, and then spent half a day trying to take it back. The woman who got a call from the Jeremy Vine Show to talk about Partygate, which she normally would have loved to have done, but who said no because she wanted to go to Giorni Aldo in Sansepolcro to look at shower screens.
I’m back now. My books are unopened. I’m having lunch with my agent tomorrow and had planned to give her a beautifully written summary of my thoughts about my next project. I have nothing to give her. Niente. The neighbour’s dogs ate my homework. I cani dei vicini hanno mangiato i miei compiti. And I had to use Google translate for that, because my Italian is so rusty. See above etc.
Why am I telling you that I’ve been a slob? I’m not sure, exactly. Perhaps it’s partly catharsis. Perhaps it’s guilt because my podcast, and this newsletter, is called The Art of Work, and I feel I need to confess that it’s currently an art I appear to have lost. Perhaps it’s because I want or need a rocket up my posteriore. And perhaps it’s because I’ve realised that we really do all need some work in our life, in whatever form that takes.
I like sofa covers. I like coffee machines. I like eating, I like drinking, I like Googling painted furniture, but I don’t like any of these things as much as the feeling that I’ve written something good, read something beautiful, or even, dare I say it, earned some money. If you’re freelance, time is money. And I just flushed quite a lot of mine down a giant bagno.
Yesterday, I read a moving interview in the Guardian with Tracey Emin. She’s had a very tough time in the past couple of years, dealing with bladder cancer, radical surgery and thoughts about death. She has a new exhibition opening, but for quite a while she couldn’t paint or draw. “If I’m not making art,” she told the interviewer, “I don’t feel alive. A big part of me will feel dead: I’m not Tracey, I don’t exist. I felt so much better after this work. It’s like, ‘Ah – ah – ah – I’m alive!’”
That really struck a chord for me. I’m no Tracey Emin, but if I don’t do any of the things I’m good at, I feel as if I’m half asleep. And so, ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to wake up.
I have to wake up to do some book events this month. Do come along and say hello if you can!
This Friday, 29th April at 6pm
I’ll be at Tunbridge Wells Literary Festival at 6pm. Details here.
Friday 6th May at 8.30pm
I’ll be at the Swindon Festival of Literature. Details here.
Saturday 7th May at 8pm
I’ll be at the Aye Write! literary festival in Glasgow. Details here.
Sunday 15th May at 3pm
I’ll be at the Bath literary festival, in conversation with Mark Lawson and my dear friend and fellow memoirist Arifa Akbar. Details here.
Thursday 19th May, 12.30pm
I’ll be the guest at the Authors’ Club lunch at the National Liberal Club, London. Details here.
It would be lovely to see you.
I continue to be grateful for any kindness towards my book on social media, Amazon, bookshop websites, or that old-fashioned thing: real life. Whatever you think of Jeff Bezos and his monolith, Amazon reviews really do make a difference. You don’t need to have bought your copy on it to leave a review. Here’s how to do it.
I’m on Jeremy Vine Extra (in a real TV studio!) at 11.15 this morning (Tuesday 26th April), talking about stuff in the news.
I’m reviewing the papers on Sky News this Saturday, 30th April and then on 14th May and 28th May. Still in “the home studio” and still, alas, without professional hair or make up. Those were the days etc.