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Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson on Shirley Guiton, Slightly Foxed Issue 13

Mooring Lines

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In the early 1960s, Shirley Guiton was attending an international conference in Paris. Her mind was not entirely on the discussions in full spate around her. She had just received a telegram, which stated briskly: ‘Found possible property Torcello come at once.’

‘I do not know how I got away from Paris,’ she later wrote. ‘I was certainly not popular with my delegates. But I caught the train to Venice that night.’ And so began a ridiculous, romantic adventure.

The following morning, Shirley met her agent in teeming rain and together they made the half-hour crossing to Torcello. After a squelching, often dangerous struggle through marshland, they
reached a tumble-down cottage, whose western wall bulged over the lagoon. ‘The bricks were gnawed hollow by the winds, the roof was half-stripped of tiles and the remaining floor boards sagged under piles of evil-smelling debris. A great fig-tree sprouted where the kitchen had been. This was all that remained of a great Cistercian monastery with its chapter house, dormitories and refectories. Among them had stood the church of St Thomas of the Burgundians. By gradual degrees it had all come down to this.’

In 1972, Shirley Guiton’s account of what she did next, how she coped with the dreaded Soprintendenza of Venice, and with the builders and gardeners and interested Torcellans on her island, was published, with lovely illustrations by John Lawrence, price £2.50 in hardback. John Julius Norwich, who knows a thing or two about Venice, enthused; and Michael Foot stated firmly: ‘She has achieved what Mary McCarthy assured all and sundry was impossible – to say something about Venice which previous visitors had not said before. These pages are touched with Venetian serenity and illuminated by the eccentric lights of the lagoon.’

They were right to be enthusiastic. This was years before A Year in Provence or Driving over Lemons reminded readers that they, too,

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In the early 1960s, Shirley Guiton was attending an international conference in Paris. Her mind was not entirely on the discussions in full spate around her. She had just received a telegram, which stated briskly: ‘Found possible property Torcello come at once.’

‘I do not know how I got away from Paris,’ she later wrote. ‘I was certainly not popular with my delegates. But I caught the train to Venice that night.’ And so began a ridiculous, romantic adventure. The following morning, Shirley met her agent in teeming rain and together they made the half-hour crossing to Torcello. After a squelching, often dangerous struggle through marshland, they reached a tumble-down cottage, whose western wall bulged over the lagoon. ‘The bricks were gnawed hollow by the winds, the roof was half-stripped of tiles and the remaining floor boards sagged under piles of evil-smelling debris. A great fig-tree sprouted where the kitchen had been. This was all that remained of a great Cistercian monastery with its chapter house, dormitories and refectories. Among them had stood the church of St Thomas of the Burgundians. By gradual degrees it had all come down to this.’ In 1972, Shirley Guiton’s account of what she did next, how she coped with the dreaded Soprintendenza of Venice, and with the builders and gardeners and interested Torcellans on her island, was published, with lovely illustrations by John Lawrence, price £2.50 in hardback. John Julius Norwich, who knows a thing or two about Venice, enthused; and Michael Foot stated firmly: ‘She has achieved what Mary McCarthy assured all and sundry was impossible – to say something about Venice which previous visitors had not said before. These pages are touched with Venetian serenity and illuminated by the eccentric lights of the lagoon.’ They were right to be enthusiastic. This was years before A Year in Provence or Driving over Lemons reminded readers that they, too, could forsake the grey skies of northern Europe and find the sun – and a collection of locals who would make excellent copy for the books they might write. A publishing industry would blossom, much like Goethe’s famous lemon trees. Shirley was, in a sense, there first. Her description of how the property came into her hands would have been thought worthy of Boccaccio or Goldoni. Seven families had a claim on any proceeds from the sale of the house. They were summoned to the agent’s office. ‘There I sat listening, through the door, to yet another repetition of the seven families’ claims and counter-claims and the bitter raking over of the muck of old family quarrels. For three hours my agent sat quietly listening to the rise and fall of querulous voices, solo, in duets, trios and quartets and chorus, plaintive, pleading and furious with one another.’ The agent refuted all their arguments, made his final offer – and they signed. Over the next few years, Shirley created a garden, a vineyard and an orchard. Then, in November 1966, came the Great Flood which devastated Venice, and, inevitably, Shirley’s house. She lost only 150 vines, but she discovered that artichokes cannot stand salt water. And so she started again. As we leave her, she offers a delectable description of her orchard: ‘There are cherries (early and late), apricots (early and late), peaches (both white and yellow, early and late), nectarines, plums (particularly greengages), six different kinds of fig, quinces, a mulberry, a medlar and a kaki because I had never seen one; nuts in profusion (walnuts, almonds, and cobs) . . .’ Only cooking apples had to be imported from England. Shirley Guiton wrote another book after No Magic Eden. A World by Itself is about the Venetian lagoon. This time there were more charming illustrations by John Lawrence, but the price was far higher – an exorbitant £4.95. What makes a first-class travel book? Of course, the author’s empathy with place and people. A sense of adventure and discovery. A fresh and original view of even the most hackneyed and over-frequented place. Perhaps, above all, love. Torcello is a curiosity: once a powerful town, destroyed by malarial mosquitoes, now on the tourist route after the glass-blowers of Murano and the lace-makers of Burano. It boasts a superb basilica, a fine parish church and a celebrated restaurant, the Locanda Cipriani, frequented by Hemingway and Nancy Mitford, Princess Margaret and Churchill, though not all at the same time. And, deep in the countryside, is the house that Shirley Guiton rebuilt. In due course, she moved to Asolo. But her final paragraph in No Magic Eden sums up her feelings for her first Italian home: ‘In spite of my comings and goings I have a great affection for this place, and as it has no roots in the past I welcome mooring lines to the future. There is the garden and the vineyard which will grow lovely with time and there is a hint of interest in the overheard comment of a little boy: “I’m glad she will give it to us when she is dead.”’

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 13 © Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson 2007


About the contributor

Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson has been a publisher, a writer and an occasional reviewer. His books include Inglorious Rebellion (about the Jacobite risings), Blood Royal (about the first four Georges), and That Sweet Enemy (about France). He is a literary agent.

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