For the last four years I have been escaping to Le Marche to write my novels.
You might think the tranquil pace of life in Amandola or Force is a world away from the historical civil wars, revolutions and chaos of China that are the subject of my books, let alone the China of today that is hurtling towards its economic Valhalla on testosterone.
Absolutely it is – and that’s why I leave Beijing for as many months of the year as I can to bask in the beauty of a mountain view and a countryside that has hardly changed since the Crivelli brothers painted it in the 14th Century.
For the last three years I have enjoyed the hospitality of Oreste Curi and his family at Amandola’s Paradiso Hotel. My little room looked directly over the church towers and roofs of the old town and above them towered the snow peaks of the Sibillini. Sometimes the mist came down and we were in an island on top of the world. Every quarter hour a church bell rang, somehow emphasizing the silence. Where else in the world can a writer disappear into the solitude necessary for creativity and be inspired at the same time both by the beauty of Nature in all its rawness and the knowledge that an old civilisation is present around you, visible only by a step to the balcony? There is no better Muse than that.
This year, the house I was renovating in nearby Force was ready and in the summer we moved in. Here too there is history in every room – in the frescoes on the upstairs ceiling, in the depths of the cellars where the original stone of the citadel protrudes through the brick. From my study window I can see the whole region from Conero to the borders of Abruzzo laid out before me like a patchwork quilt, and blue on the horizon is the sea. At dawn it can be beaten bronze as the sun rises majestically through royal purple layers of cloud. After sunset the lights of the surrounding hill top towns twinkle and merge indistinguishably with the stars.
And very quickly we found ourselves welcomed into the life of the village, with its artisans beating copper or fashioning iron as they have done for centuries, with its festivals – tables laid out behind the square to celebrate the taste of truffles, or watching amazed in the old town as creatures on stilts dressed as angels or devils dance to mediaeval folk tunes. In our street we have our own festival. Every summer, with our neighbours, we lay out trestle tables on the cobblestones between the houses and load them with food and wine, then we talk, drink, dance and sing until dawn.
And is this removed from the historical novel writing that brings me here? It IS History. Living History. And Continuity. And Inspiration. A feast for the imagination and the soul – as well as the palate.