A Postcard from Palermo

7 March 2014

Palermo, taken by Anna Beer

Visiting Fellow Anna Beer is writing her next book and has chosen to do this in Palermo, Sicily. In this post, she tells us about her current research and why she decided to leave Oxford in order to write…

I’m a long way, and not just in terms of distance, from Oxford at the moment, spending a few months in Palermo writing (or trying to write) my next book. In a sense, though, I feel I have a lot in common with a number of Kellogg and Continuing Education students I have known over the years, people who have managed to carve some time out from their usual activities, and devote themselves to what really interests them – whatever that may be. It takes some doing, I know.

I’m working on a book that I hope will celebrate the achievements of individual women composers through the last four centuries of European history. The book brings together a whole bunch of long-standing activities and passions – music, obviously; writing, even more obviously; thinking about women’s lives in the past (which was the impetus for my book on Bess Throckmorton, wife to Sir Walter Ralegh); thinking about the material conditions necessary for the creation of ‘great art’ (which was one of the ideas behind my biography of John Milton). Yes, it’s a big subject, but intensely rewarding to uncover more about some exceptional women’s lives and works. And yes, it takes me well outside my academic comfort zone: I’m not a musicologist, just someone who enjoys playing and listening to music. But not only do I have a ready-made sound-track for my daily slog at the computer (today it was the delightful music of Marianna von Martines, who flourished in eighteenth century Vienna, and was promptly forgotten after her death) but there is something exciting if terrifying about exploring new creative and intellectual horizons.

But why Palermo? Again, I feel like a Kellogg student, only in reverse. Particularly for mature students, coming to Oxford can be a chance to escape into a world of study. The ivory tower has its uses. In my case, having studied, lived, worked in Oxford on and off (mainly on) for coming up to thirty (gasp….thirty?) years, I need to get away from the place, especially if I am going to make sure that I write in a way that will appeal to readers outside the academic world.

But that only explains why I’ve come away from Oxford. If the truth be told, I’m in Palermo because I am foolishly infatuated with the city. It’s filthy and chaotic, it has a recent history that does not bear thinking about, and which I cannot begin to understand, and even the weather is a bit rubbish at this time of year. But there’s something about this dirty, beautiful (and dirt cheap) city that appeals – and it’s not just that I can, for once, afford to indulge my taste for good food and really good wine. When I work out just what it is, it will probably be time to come home. In the mean time, I’ve a book to write…

If you’d like to know more about what I’m doing, do take a look at my blog http://shadowofthecourtesan.wordpress.com