The Italian Connection

What is the Italian connection? It seems that the English have always had a love affair with Italy. This was particularly exemplified during the 18th century when the concept of the Grand Tour was first in vogue. A privileged young man was not considered properly educated unless he had undertaken the Grand Tour of Europe in which Italy with its rich historic and artistic heritage was considered a central feature. Today the English are still drawn to Italy by the temperate climate, fantastic food and what is perceived as a more relaxed lifestyle.

During the nineties, at the close of the twentieth century, I travelled to Italy to have mandolin lessons. Now ten years later, in a world where it appears normal for young people to have gap years and to travel around the world, it doesn’t seem so unusual to travel such a distance to study. At the time, however, it seemed an extraordinary undertaking. There wasn’t yet the advent of cheap air flights and my first journeys were taken by train. In the very beginning even the Channel Tunnel hadn’t been opened so I was travelling on old rolling-stock interrupted by a brief sea crossing on the ferry. It would take 24 hours to travel to my destination. I would arrive early in the morning and spend the day studying at the Conservatoire of Music at Padova (Padua). In the evening I would embark upon my homeward journey, taking another 24 hours before I reached my front door.

People have constantly quizzed me about this experience, puzzling over the details. It was indeed unorthodox. To begin with I was an adult with a family and work commitments. I had already trained as a musician and a teacher, and although I was already engaged professionally in performing work as a mandolinist I knew I didn’t have all the answers to my questions about playing the mandolin. Slowly I observed that the answers to my questions were elsewhere in a different country, the home of the mandolin, Italy. When the opportunity arose, apparently by chance, I began to commute to Italy on a monthly basis, usually for a weekend, sometimes for longer periods, and these journeys lasted for four years.

When I was fourteen or fifteen I read a book that, in a moment of serendipity, had fallen off the shelf in front of me in the local library. The book was called As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee. I was absolutely entranced by this story of Lee’s travels through Spain with his violin. It seemed all at once romantic and exotic, intriguing and inspiring.

I had never imagined when I read that book that years later I would have my own story to tell and that I would write my own book about my travels with the mandolin. In my book, The Mandolin Lesson, I detail the experiences I had travelling to Italy. For a time I had two parallel lives, one in Italy and one in England. I begun my journey thinking I was going to learn about playing the mandolin but gradually this becomes a journey about another way of life. I learnt about the culture, the dress sense, the food and its preparation and so, so much more. My whole house became Italianized — I was even cleaning as the Italians do! Eventually I realized that what had started as a journey in music and had then become a cultural exploration had now become yet another journey, an inward journey, a spiritual journey.

The Mandolin Lesson was a life changing experience. In order to find out how to play the mandolin in the Italian manner I had to learn basic instrumental techniques, but I also needed to understand the Italian psyche and ultimately my own.

If you would like to read an extract from my book then please click here.