Michelle Lovric Talks To Bookbag About A Tale of Two Markets

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Michelle Lovric Talks To Bookbag About A Tale of Two Markets

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Summary: Michelle Lovric, author of Talina in the Tower popped in to Bookbag to talk to us about two markets which she knows well and the sounds which bring them to life.
Date: 27 Februry 2012

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External links: [www.michellelovric.com Author's website]



LISTEN! – A TALE OF TWO MARKETS – Michelle Lovric

In London I live by the famous Borough Market, and in Venice I shop at the world-famous Rialto Market. I don't go just for the food. In both places, you hear far more witty banter than you do in the grim-faced queue for the Issue Desk at the British Library. Indeed, at both markets, you often hear more witty banter than you do on television shows allegedly devoted to witty banter.

Why all these ley lines of wit running along the melons and the meat? Perhaps it is not so surprising. If the pen is mightier than the sword, both the pen-man and the swordsman have to eat. Food is power. At historic markets, food and power are juxtaposed. Both the Rialto and the Borough markets occupy strategic parts of their cities. The Borough Market has always been hard by London Bridge, the gateway to London – the only access from the south until the eighteenth century. Rialto has always been the commercial core of Venice.

Somehow, I cannot keep these markets out of my books. The central murder in my novel The Remedy takes place at the Rialto Market. Valentine Greatrakes, my London criminal, keeps his Venetian emporium there too. His London base is Stoney Street, by the Borough Market. In that novel, the main Venetian character, a noblewoman fallen on hard times, is forced to take up residence by the Borough Market, while Valentine travels to Rialto to pursue his love and his business. The resultant comedy of wrong perceptions is an important part of the storyline. And my children's novel, The Mourning Emporium, is partly set in the environs of the Borough Market during the cold winter of Queen Victoria's decline and death.

Talina in the Tower, my latest children's novel, is partly set in a garrulous multi-species courtroom that floats above the Rialto Market – a higher authority, so to speak – with the climactic moments played out in a confectioner's called Golosi's ('The Greedy Ones') that is based on a real Venetian shop, the Antica Drogheria Mascari, where ziggurats of spice make your nose twitch and jars of delicious things line shelves up to the ceiling. My book is set in the 1870s, so I filled Golosi's with contemporary sweeties – Barberry Drops, Pistachio Pralines, Marsh Mallow Syrup, Angelica Comfits, Neapolitan Wafers and Jujube Paste. The shop also provides the one condiment that my villain, the Ravageur Grignan, cannot resist: Golosi's Spiced Mostarda, a fiery yellow chutney. And my cat-lady Signorina Tiozzo goes to Rialto, of course, to beg liver and fish guts to feed the inhabitants of the Ostello delle Gattemiagole, a smelly sanctuary where she accommodates Venice's feline waifs, strays and bully-boys.

As I have said, for me a market is not just food but words. I feed on the noise. When I run writing workshops in Venice, a visit to the Rialto Market is always on the programme. First of all, I ask the writers to listen to the noise: the competitive cries of the traders, the slap of fish on ice, the thrashing of the eels, the rhythmic shucking of the artichokes down to their pale green hearts. There are so many transactions taking place there: between customer and vendor; between new and old; between life and death. If you shut your eyes, the reservoir of writerly raw material actually deepens.

Another market that intrigues me is the so-called 'DarkMarket' – the cyber-crime clan of sophisticated credit card fraudsters and identity thieves who formed their own private internet community. Before they were infiltrated and closed down, the gnomes and goblins of the 'DarkMarket' apparently enjoyed a corporate jolly in Odessa. Imagine the conversations there, conducted in guttural voices by these trolls of the web. And the rivers of vodka consumed. And the plots hatched. I can hear it all, including the rowdy toasts, the thuds of wads of dollars, the hairy fists slammed on the table. You see, even the 'DarkMarket' is about noise.

So radio to me seems a perfect medium to explore a market. Personally, I love radio documentaries, and I nurture a persistent fantasy about a programme called 'A Tale of Two Markets'.

As our own Mary Hoffman has pointed out, great fiction is often pivoted on the question 'What if?' (Another wise writer friend, Sarah Salway, always poses the question 'So what?' about any given text, ensuring that the answer is 'something we really desire to read'.)

So what if we interviewed my mate Tony-the-fruit-and-veg from the Borough Market? I usually do the matrimonial shopping alone, so Tony espouses a theory that I have 'done the old man in' and that he's buried under our terrace. Tony's always a bit disappointed when my husband makes an occasional appearance: 'You're all right then, mate?' he asks, dubiously. And then there's Jim, the beautifully spoken Irishman who presides over one of Borough Market's best bun and bread stalls. Not only does he purvey the moistest Eccles cake you're ever likely to sample, but Jim also does a lovely line in 'Roll up! Roll up!' When I was writing my Irish Valentine Greatrakes in The Remedy, I had Jim check him out for false notes – to eradicate what he cheerfully diagnosed as 'Hong Kong Paddy'.

And so what if my fantasy radio producer and I also interviewed some of the market-stall holders at the Rialto in Venice? Let's record their cries – they still perform them. Let's get a chorus going – they still compete. Let's translate … and let's bring Jim and Tony over to talk to their Venetian counterparts. And let's hear Tony and Jim compare their market to Rialto. What would they make of a pomodoro cuore di bue tomato, for example? (The tomato that looks like a badger that's been run over and then flayed.) Or the gaping shark on the fish stall? Or the monstrous shrieking gulls fighting over morsels of eel? The screams of the women as a rat scampers between the stalls? Imagine what street poetry we'd hear Jim and Tony speak.

Me, I could give a bit of historical context about the Venetian food trade. Perhaps I could talk about the Rialto, and its colourful history. And a Borough historian or trustee could talk about the market's background.

But it's still the sounds of the markets themselves that interest me the most. The mingled timbres of the noises emitted by men, women and birds of prey, the exotic names of the fish on Venetian tongues, the laughter, the cries.

And what if we orchestrated a 'cries' competition between Jim and Tony and their Venetian counterparts? Would the radio wrinkle its nose at such a cacophony?

In cases like this, history is better on the radio than on television, because the radio is like a book, allowing listeners to create their own mental pictures, uncluttered by the detritus of modern life, like the symbolic and actual television aerials that spoil the view and remind us where and when we are, that distract us in the most historical settings. Even Venice has its Macdonalds and its Disney store; it takes an act of will (and the last tourist coach leaving) to re-see (and re-create) the Venice of 1872 or 1675.

But you can hear centuries past in Venice – or London – any time you close your eyes and think.