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It breaks my heart to see the town
I made my home four years ago,
Be to its knees brought cruelly down,
By an unforeseen foe, laid low.

Lines of listless people straggle
The erstwhile bustling shopping street,
Six feet apart, no speech or gaggle,
Silent, patient, shuffling their feet.

Some wait to get cash from machines,
For stores that will only take cards;
Some with trolleys in third world scenes,
Praying that shortages are past.

Coffee houses, bars, and restaurants closed,
Some may not reopen their doors;
Dark, empty shopfronts lie exposed,
Bleak images of a town floored.

The day cannot come soon enough
When we’ll be free to hug again,
Laugh and chat over coffee cups
And joy will overcome the pain.

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It had taken us eighteen years to heed the words of the Neapolitan composer, Ernesto de Curtis, and return to Sorrento. But even if the heat (it never dropped below eighty degrees, day or night) was challenging for this easily burned Englishman at times, it was great to be back.

During the week, we made the obligatory excursions to Amalfi and Ravello (sadly, on this occasion, seeing no more of Steinbeck’s “vertical town” of Positano than a distant one from further along the coast), Pompeii and Vesuvius (by sea and bus) and Capri by boat.

But it was Sorrento itself that I will concentrate on here. Toying initially with staying a little further afield, we decided to base ourselves in the centre, a few hundred metres from the bustling heart of the town in Piazza Tasso. The images below may not confirm that description, but that is due to the fact that most were taken early in the morning when the indigenous population were slugging their doppio espressos in their favourite tabaccheria, whilst the British were standing around in hotel dining rooms waiting for their bread to be toasted, a process that takes nearly as long as the arrival of a postcard back home.

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Framed by lively bars and restaurants, Piazza Tasso is invariably noisy and congested as humans, scooters, cars, coaches, bicycles, horses, miniature trains, those tiny pick up delivery trucks designed to squeeze down the narrowest of streets – oh, and did I mention scooters – all vie for space. But that is what we were seeking – – an authentic slice of Italian life, if inevitably infused with a heavy dose of Anglo-Saxon.

My countrymen and women were, of course, conspicuous by their pale skin, poor dress sense, refusal to even utter a single per favore or grazie and naive belief that cars and scooters were ever going to stop for them, even on the many crossings painted on the streets.

Sorrento is not a beach resort in the accepted sense – the coarse, dark sand at the foot of the mighty cliffs that front up Vesuvius across the Bay of Naples could not compete with Margate or Blackpool, let alone the Caribbean. But it does – admittedly at a price – provide a number of private beaches, primarily along the stretch of water between Marina Grande and Marina Piccola. There are also small patches of public beach scattered along this coastline which are packed by mid-morning with Italian families.

Our cabina (chalet, just about big enough for changing and storage), sunbeds and umbrellas at Leonelli’s Beach cost us a little under fifty euros, a price that would appear to have scared off most of the British visitors, judging by the preponderance of tanned and stylish Italians in our vicinity.

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It is secluded Marina Grande, however, to which I gravitate as often as I can. It requires a fifteen minute downhill walk from the town centre and more demanding hike back up, but it is worth the effort (only the Englishmen walk it, the locals – and mad dogs – tend to take the bus).

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Traditionally, Sorrento’s fishing harbour, it has become distinctly more tourist-friendly since our last visit. Again, bars, restaurants and a modest beach dominate this small area overlooked by a number of imposing hotels.

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But it does still have an air of authenticity. People, mostly elderly, still live in the apartments that fringe the harbour, washing hangs from every window, shrines greet the pedestrian on every corner of the steep, cobbled steps, cats skulk for fishy remnants, and nonno and nonna still sit together in front of the lovely Chiesa di San Francesco and watch the foreigners ordering their calamari and lachryma christi.

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It was the appropriate place, therefore, for our last evening meal where we ate at the highly rated (#2 of 225 restaurants in Sorrento on TripAdvisor), Ristorante Bagni il Delfino, sat on the glassed-in pier on the water.

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Shopping along narrow Via San Cesareo with its bunting draped across the street and the aroma of fruit, especially lemon, and vegetables, is one of the most popular activities for visitors, especially during the evening passeggiata. Ceramics, inlaid-wood, leather and jewellery are particularly sought after. Corso Italia, which runs either side of Piazza Tasso, has a more modern feel and is home to a number of noted Italian fashion houses.

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There is so much more to admire, including the restaurants and religious buildings, about Sorrento that I do not have time to cover because another port on another continent commands my attention. But I hope these photographs and short description have demonstrated why most of the people who visit the region are enchanted by it and vow to return.

 

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It is 10am on a bright, brisk market day morning in March in a town in the south of England.  I order a decaffeinated skinny latté from an eager young man in the one cafe that does not reek of grease, and take a seat outside.

On his way out to me the trainee barista trips over a discarded beer can and spills the coffee over the pavement.  He apologises and returns to mop it up, but fails to offer me another cup, and then is visibly irritated when, wholly unreasonably, I request a fresh one. That said, he brings a prompt replacement, seasoned with a further apology.

From the doubtful comfort of my three and a half legged plastic chair I scan the establishments around me – “Nails Palace – Professional Nail Care for Ladies and Gentlemen”, “Cash Generator – the Buy, Sell and Loan Store”, “Tanning Heaven”, “Tattoo xxxxxx Ltd”, “Cheques Cashed”, “We buy Gold – any Condition”, “Residential lettings”, “Betfred” bookmakers and the “Community Store”, run by the Salvation Army and offering “Heart to God, Hand to Man”.

“Eel Pie Island”, which specialises in  all day breakfasts, announces itself in large, yellow lettering to be a “Caf’e” (I doubt the apostrophe police saw that one coming). Upstairs is a dental surgery which, somehow, seems appropriate.

The “Hot 4 U Pizza, Chicken and Kebab” shop is closed, victim of too much competition in the fast food field, proof that you can have too much of a good thing. Breakfast for those not crammed into McDonald’s consists of sausage and bacon rolls and fresh cream puffs. Obesity seems a badge of honour.

The traditional gentleman’s barber shop is missing his iconic red and white striped pole. Nothing for the weekend here.

The local pub is also boarded up. A ragged, handwritten paper sign flaps in the light breeze. Somebody has inserted an “i” between the words “to” and “let”.

The compensation culture is in full swing. The frontage of the “Claim Shop” is emblazoned with a huge sign proclaiming “have you been involved in an ACCIDENT or suffered an INJURY through no fault of your own!!!”.

A council street cleaner fights a losing battle with bottles, cans, and food packaging, strewn over benches and pavement.  On the opposite side of the road a modern day Steptoe proceeds in stiff but stately fashion along the pedestrianised street, peering professionally in all directions for unwanted morsels.

The air reverberates in a veritable Babel. English is spoken, or rather shouted, liberally infused with swear words, but it is no more heard than is Polish, Russian, Arabic, Turkish or Punjabi.

Young gap-toothed men wearing baseball caps or hoods and gripping cans of super strength, but astonishingly cheap, lager, swagger past, trailed by tattooed teenage mothers already carrying their next child, barking at their toddlers who are committing the heinous crime of  being  ……………….. children.

As the weather is uncommonly mild, plain white vests, accompanied by sometimes matching sweat pants, appear to be the dress code of choice, at least for the men. Whilst this might be an attractive look on a young man with taut muscles in the right places, it does not sit well with balding, unshaven, middle aged men, stomachs bursting from a diet of gassy beer and burgers. Bare arms are bedecked with body art depicting snakes, eagles and pseudo-oriental slogans.

Their Staffordshire bull terriers, acquired for menace, encircle each other, doing nothing more threatening than sniffing at each other’s private parts.

And yet, I am observed quizzically, even suspiciously, by passers-by with my fancy coffee, book for reading and, especially, notebook and pen desperately trying to capture the vivid images around me.

The young mums congregate outside Gregg’s and Iceland to share a cigarette, compare frilly pram and buggy decorations and show off the clothes they have just bought for Bailey and Madison in Primark. As the conversation turns to X Factor and piercings, their progeny become increasingly testy, provoking screeching admonitions to “shut up…… now”.

Shoppers seek bargains in the many charity shops, notably Scope, Cancer Research, Oxfam, British Heart Foundation and Demelza (for children in hospice care), but the upstart 97p conv£nience store has recently closed, sent packing by the more established and cavernous 99p emporium.

In the bustling market the stalls selling inexpensive imitation leather jackets, shell suits and sweatshirts are doing a good trade.  Following close behind are those offering household goods and toys, jewelry, watches, mobile phones, rugs and carpets, curtains, handbags, purses and luggage – the selling point in every category being cheapness.

Country crooners from the fifties dominate the airwaves from the two stalls specialising in CDs and DVDs. A local driving school and the RAC try to rein in passers by, but most people here do not drive. Surrounded by fast food outlets, the centrally positioned greengrocer is still highly popular, as is the plant stall.

The meat wagon man is not so successful despite his saucy entreaties to “come on girls, don’t be shy, give my lovely meat a try”. A further invitation to feel his pork loins goes similarly unheeded. Despite his impressive discounts, a middle aged couple try to barter with him to no avail – another sale lost.

An octogenarian sea dog (this is a naval town, after all), dressed in a tweed jacket and waistcoat that displays several medals, shuffles past pushing a shopping trolley. Woe betide anyone who gets in his way, for a wheezy verbal volley and a clip from his walking stick will befall them. He sports a flourishing white beard reminiscent of Uncle Albert’s in the TV sitcom, Only Fools and Horses.

A slowly warming sun glints through the trees as I drain my latté and head for The Works in the hope of picking up a bargain book to add to the already overstocked shelves at home.

Florence this is not. Nor is it Bath or Edinburgh. But it is a area of contrasts. Despite having some of the worst school exam results in the country it boasts four universities, and the local sports centre has been refurbished and rebranded as an Olympic training venue.

If the picture I have portrayed here only depicts one side of that, it is because that is what I see on this March Monday morning.

And, as someone infinitely more eloquent than I said “it’s alright ma – it’s life and life only”.

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The scene is a large supermarket in the south east of England at 6pm on the eve of Christmas Eve.  A constant and grating loop of seventies pop songs is playing instead of a school choir or Salvation Army Band.

Helpless men between the ages of 18 and 60, who would prefer to be still in the pub, shuffle outside The Perfume Shop and La Senza, summoning the courage to approach the giggling female assistants in their last minute hunt for that perfect present that might, at least for now, persuade their wife or girlfriend to see them in the light that they did when they first met.

A middle aged couple are doing their last minute food shopping for the “big day”.  Although they have already bought many of the Christmas-specific items – party food, snacks, chocolate – they bicker over whether they have enough to satisfy the army – alias the man’s father – who will descending upon them tomorrow, and the neighbours who will be calling in for drinks on Boxing Day afternoon.

Why are we getting bottles of apple and orange juice when we know that Jean likes wine and Peter will want a beer?  We don’t drink it and we are going away on Tuesday (the husband is forced to repeat this over the increasingly manic strains of Noddy Holder).

You say that, but that was last year – they may not be able to drink alcohol any more, they’re not getting any younger y’know.

(“So here it is, Merry Christmas”).

And why do we need to get sweet biscuits and pork pies which neither of us eat, and will only end up going home with my dad?

(“Everybody’s having fun”).

Well, he can take them home then can’t he, it’s not a problem.

(“Look to the future now”).

And we don’t need the extravagance of a Christmas tablecloth and napkins, I for one am happy to eat off a normal one.

But it’s Christmas and I want it to be special, and that’s the end of it (the husband ponders whether The Perfume Shop accepts returns BEFORE Christmas).

(“It’s only just begun”).

We will leave them now to plan their Christmas Eve search for parsnips and brussel sprouts, both of which have been ransacked earlier in the day.

A teenage couple with a small baby are trying to arrange a short term loan that, judging by the girl’s industrial language on her mobile phone, is meeting with as much success as Joseph and Mary’s efforts at securing a room at the inn.

In a quiet corner of a busy café, whilst her weary, shopping-laden mother sips a caramel macchiato, a three year old girl, oblivious to everything around her, with eyes alight and blonde curls swaying in unison, sings a medley of Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus is Coming to Town and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.

So here it is.

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Have you ever passed people in the street, or stood behind someone in the queue in a shop, and overheard a snatch of conversation that has intrigued you so much that you wanted to hear more, but could not as they had moved on as quickly as they arrived?

One place in which you may hear hundreds of such snippets in just a single day is the shopping mall, particularly in the build up to Christmas when the numbers of its parishioners escalate.

The Bluewater shopping centre in Kent is the fourth largest in the UK in terms of retail space, and the sixth biggest in Europe. The following quotations were all overheard by myself on a trip there on Monday 19th December. Some are amusing, others intriguing and some just plain weird. The common denominator is that I neither heard what was said before or after – those words, the context in which the comments were made – are lost forever.

Whilst you might be thinking that my behaviour bordered on the creepy side, I should state that acute observation of people is a fundamental requirement for any writer. Moreover, Former Press Secretary to President Lyndon B. Johnson, Bill Moyers, claimed that eavesdropping was the only place in which you could truly “delve into the life of our times”.  And with not one person either casting me a quizzical look or uttering a cross word during this exercise, I must have some talent for it!

I had originally intended to “explain” each comment by reference to the location in which it was made and the gender and approximate age of the speaker. But I think the majority  speak for themselves.

I have confined the number to 20, though I collected many more (which I promise not to inflict on you unless you insist):

1. I’ve got to get one that’s got a slit all the way down.

2. Because my calves are quite big I had to have the zip adjusted last year.

3. I’ve gotta try and find one that hasn’t got that mark on it.

4. Shall we ‘ave a look in ‘ere while we’re ‘ere?

5. Mum, come and look, come and look, they’ve got a Bristol.

6. Billy, you run off one more time and I’ll cancel Santa.

7. Forty five quid? I could make that for a tenner.

8. If I don’t get me money back I’ll kill ’em.

9. I’m tellin’ ya, it’s Southern Comfort ‘e likes, not Jack Daniel’s. 

10. I can’t afford presents like that. I’m at Uni.

11. I bought ‘er some books off Amazon. She don’t read but they were SO cheap.

12. Time for lunch. So what’s it to be – sushi or McDonald’s?

13. Alfie, there’s a spare table over there. Quick, get it!

14. I’ve bought all this lot and I’ve hardly started on my list.

15. Oh…. my…. God, it’s got a Hollister!

16. See, I told ya, Bluewater’s way more poncy than Lakeside.

17. If we keep going we’ll end up outside.

18. After all that, I need Starbuck’s.

19. That’ll do. I can’t be bovvered to look any longer.

20. We can’t go home yet, we’ve still got Mummy’s present to get.

I think a number of those comments would be heard in any other shopping mall in any other town on any other day because, understandably, they reflect many of the preoccupations of modern life – money, obsession with appearance, thraldom to designer names, tainted by desperation in many cases. The only surprising omission was any reference to The X Factor, The Only Way is Essex, and many other alleged celebrity TV showsor what manufactured and over-hyped song would be the Christmas Number 1 – but maybe I just struck lucky.

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