Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Yet another XMAS book round-up.

Sorry folks, it's yet another Christmas book round-up! This year, thanks to my monthly review column in The Times, and my chairing of judging panel for the Historical Writers' Association (HWA) Gold Crown award, I think that I have read more than 120 works of historical fiction. That is a hefty dose of swords, togas and corsets. This is an entirely personal, subjective taste of my favourites.

Some of these books were technically published in 2016, due to the way the awards were structured. But let's not quibble. There were some incredible books out there, by some talented writers. Rather than the usual structure of these lists, I thought I'd give a chronological flavour of my favourites this year.

Ancient Greece.

OK. So I'm starting with something entirely cheaty here, because these books have been out a while. But this was the year I discovered Christian Cameron's Long War series. Starting with Killer of Men, this covers the Persian Wars, through the eyes of Arimnestos, a Platean warrior. Cameron has that rare gift of making history seem vividly real. Mary Renault meets CS Forester

Ancient Egypt

Emily Holleman continues her spirited portrayal of the House of Ptolemy in The Drowning King. This is a beautifully written and fascinating series – and if it feels a little melodramatic, blame the source material. It deserves a wider audience.

Ancient Rome

Ben Kane is one of the masters of Roman military fiction. I have loved his most recent trilogy which began with a massacre of Roman legionaries in the Teutoberg Forest. In March, he brought the series to a close with Eagles in the Storm. Lucius Tullus, who survived the original massacre, is determined to discover his legion's lost eagle. Arminius is refusing to let the dream of crushing Rome die. An enthralling end to the series.


For the Odin-lover in your life, the obvious choice is the complete works of modern skald, Giles Kristian. His book this year, Wings of the Storm is the last in a trilogy about revenge and honour, as Sigurd Haraldson seeks to avenge his murdered family. Violent and compelling, with one of the best battle scenes I have ever read.

I also very much enjoyed Theodore Brun's novel A Mighty Dawn. Part Viking, part fantasy this is a big, fat and entirely satisfying fireside read.

Middle Ages:

Kingdom Come by Toby Clements is the concluding book in a four-part series about the War of the Roses which should be required reading for all fans of historical fiction. It is 1470. Katherine and Thomas, the ordinary couple whose lives have been buffeted by the ongoing war amongst England’s nobility, are drawn back into the fighting. A fitting end to an unmissable series.

SD Sykes continued her wonderful medieval crime series in City of Masks. Her hero Oswald de Lacy is pulled into a new mystery, but this time in the deceiving, beautiful surrounds of Venice.


Disclaimer: I adore Sarah Dunant. But I particularly love her two books about the Borgia family. Beautiful, dense prose and an extraordinary story collide in the second one out this year, In the Name of the Family.

Second disclaimer, as much as I love Sarah Dunant, there is a second writer of Rennaisance Italy who is just as good but does not get as much oxygen. If this fascinating era of art, money and power is your reading heaven - and how could it not be? - read all the works of Philip Kazan immediately.

Early Modern

Bernard Cornwell rather bamboozled his fans this year by bringing out a book with no swords, no battles, no blood and few beards. Fools and Mortals is the story of William Shakespeare's younger brother - a jobbing actor in a lively, theatrical London. Funny, playful and great fun.

Angus Donald kicked off a new series with the utterly delicious Blood's Game - the adventures of a young and peculiar hero in the court of Charles II.

And I wrote one too set in Cromwell's London - The Tyrant's Shadow. It's not bad.

Eighteenth Century

Squeezing in (it is set in 1799!) is Andrew Martin's new crime novel Soot. A shade painter is found dead, and a young debtor is released from gaol with a mission to find the murderer. Inventive, erudite and vivid. We were also treated to Birdcage Walk, the last novel by the late, great Helen Dunmore: a stunning portrait of a failing marriage and the sad erosion of the great ideals of the French Revolution.

Nineteenth Century

I was very taken with a debut Australian writer, Lucy Treloar, whose book Salt Creek portrays a family's struggles in the wilds of South Australia. A riches to rags tale, which takes a stark look at racism and failure. A second Australian debut was Sarah Schmidt's fantastic See What I have Done, a dark, claustrophobic and macabre take on the infamous Lizzie Borden murders.

The HWA prize for histfic went to Ian Maguire for his tale about whalers, The North Water. I urge you to read this brutal but brilliant story about murder and man's descent into darkness. Also on the shortlist was The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, a wonderful book about ideas and monsters set in the Essex marshes.

Early Twentieth Century

This year I discovered Abir Mukherjee, who writes marvellous crime novels set in colonial India. In A Necessary Evil, Captain Sam Wyndham becomes embroiled in the political wrangling between a tenacious colonial Government and the Indian princely states.

World War 2

Stephen Uhly's Kingdom of Twilight was translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch and released in January. An unflinching snapshot of the war and its aftermath, in which the shooting of an SS officer by a young Polish Jew reverberates through the decades.

Sarah Day's outstanding debut Mussolini's Island revealed the little-known story of the fascist oppression of gay men. Her well-drawn protagonists are sent to prison island where they must grapple with betrayal and fear.

I also loved William Ryan's mesmerising novel The Constant Soldier, another HWA Gold Crown shortlistee. Inspired by the pictures of the Auschwitz rest-camp, where genocidal SS officers enjoyed jolly downtime, this is a heartbreaking, haunting novel.

Some of the best historical fiction reads have also been amongst the most feted and publicised this year: among these are Robert Harris' Munich; Jennifer Egan's Manhattan Beach and George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo. What have been your best reads of 2017?


Monday, 11 December 2017

A nursing tragedy: the massacre at Radji Beach

'So we marched into the sea and when we got out to about waist level they then machine gunned from behind."

It was at lonely Radji Beach on Banka Island that Australian nursing’s greatest tragedy occurred.

Sixtry-five Australian nurses and over 250 civilian men, women and children were evacuated on the Vyner Brooke from Singapore, three days before the fall of Malaya (now Malaysia). The ship was discovered by Japanese aircraft and was strafed and bombed. It sank in Banka Strait on 14 February 1942. Of the sixty-five nurses on board, twelve were lost at sea. Twenty-two of the remaining fifty-three who survived the sinking were washed ashore on Radji Beach, Banka Island.

Matron Drummond and the other nurses gathered together on the beach, and were soon joined by a lifeboat containing twenty-five British soldiers. When a party of Japanese soldiers arrived they all surrendered. Most of the nurses were wearing the Red Cross brassard (sleeve band), and all were in uniforms of some sort that made it clear they were nurses. They assumed that they would be treated as prisoners of war in accordance with the Geneva Convention. They were wrong.

The British soldiers were ordered to walk up the beach. Once out of sight, they were bayoneted to death. The Japanese soldiers returned, wiping their bloody bayonets, and told the Australian nurses to walk into the water and stand in a row facing the sea. Whey they did so, they were machine-gunned from behind. All except one died.

Sister Vivian Bullwinkel, before her embarkation.

'So we marched into the sea and when we got out to about waist level they then machine gunned from behind. I was hit in the sort of side, left side, and the bullet went just straight through and came out on the front. The impact of that and the waves, together with the fact that I thought once you were shot, you know, that you’d sort of had it, I overbalanced into the waves and just sort of lay limply there. To my amazement, I remained conscious and found that I wasn’t dying at all. Then my next fear was that the Japanese would see me moving, because by this time I was being violently sick from having swallowed a fair amount of sea water …" (Vivian Bullwinkel) 

Sister Bullwinkel was shot above the hip, but survived by pretending to be dead and allowed herself to drift to shore when all the Japanese soldiers had left the beach. 

On the beach she met an English soldier, Private Kinsley, who had also survived the massacre by feigning death. She tended to his severe wounds for 12 days in the jungle until, starving, they surrendered to the Japanese.  Kinsley’s wounds were such that he died soon afterwards, but Bullwinkel managed to survive another three and a half years in various Japanese prison camps. 

The thirty-one other surviving Vyner Brook nurses, who had not drifted to shore at Radji Beach had been assembled in Muntok as prisoners of war with around 600 other prisoners, all survivors of the 70-odd ships fleeing Singapore that had been sunk that week in the Banka Straits. There were a number of wounded, and the Australian nurses cleared a dormitory to use as a hospital and began treating patients. They had no idea what had happened to their comrades, and assumed they had drowned. Then Vivian arrived.

"Well, once I got there and realised they were taking prisoners I sort of felt that all my troubles were over. All I had been wanting during this time was to get with people and be with my own countrywomen … I heard somebody say, ‘It’s Bullwinkel’. That was sort of the end. I then immediately burst into tears. (Vivian Bullwinkel)"

She told the Australian nurses what had happened, but they were all sworn to secrecy so that the Japanese would not be aware that there was a witness to the atrocity.

Where the bullet came out, Vivian Bullwinkel shows the holes in her uniform, Fairfield, Victoria, ca. 1975 [picture] /

After two weeks in Muntok, the group was transferred by ship to Palembang in Sumatra, where the Japanese attempted to persuade the nurses to join a brothel. When they refused, they were sent to live in appalling conditions with Dutch women and children at the other end of the town. Sanitation was inadequate, mosquitoes tormented them and food was scarce:

"We could smell decayed vegetables and bad Chinese cabbages long before the truck bringing them arrived in the camp. Every now and then a piece of wild pig, called a ‘moving mass’ by some bright soul, would arrive and be thrown on to the roadway, where it was immediately surrounded by dogs. We were not allowed to call the dogs away. The drill then was for a Japanese guard, to cut it with his penknife into so many pieces—one piece to each house … Our ration for 24 people would not cover the palm of a hand." (Betty Jeffrey, White Coolies, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1954)

Berry Jeffrey, 1941 (Australian War Memorial photo)
In December, the women were moved to Palembag jail, and conditions deteriorated further as they were moved from camp to camp. Wherever they went, rations were scarce and there were few medicines. 

Movement of the Australian nurses. (Image from http://muntokpeacemuseum.org/)

By now, they were severely malnourished, and in February and March 1945 four nurses died of malnutrition and beri-beri.

"A lot of people shouldn’t have died; they weren’t any worse off than I was. In fact, they weren’t as bad as we were because we often did their heavy work in the camp, whereas they got out of it somehow. But they died just the same, possibly because they didn’t do those things.
We had to work on practically no food, but it was a kind of mental attitude, and your friendsthere was no doubt about thatyou kept each other going. The POWs have a saying: ‘the spirit that kept the spirit going’. That was true, you had to have that will to live, you had to have companionship, you had to have the will to do things, you had to be able to cope." (Mavis Hannah)

Mavis HAnnah was a staff member of the 2/4th Casualty Clearing Station (CCS), and was the only nurse from the 2/4 CCS to survive the sinking of the Vyner Brooke and subsequent captivity.

In April 1945, the nurses, together with other women and children, were packed into the holds of a small ‘bumping little launch’ for a 26-hour sea journey to Sumatra. By then, many were severely ill with malaria, dysentery and beri-beri, so that those who were unconscious or too ill to walk had to be carried on stretchers by the ‘fittest’ of the women. 

"From the food, the other very important thing, of course, was maintenance of health, and this was very difficult to do because we had no preventative medicine in any way. Malaria was rife, dysentery was rife and towards the end of the three and half years, of course, beri-beri became prevalent and this was very distressing. Funnily enough, we didn’t seem to have very much in the way of toothaches or the need for surgery until towards the very end of the three and a half years. I think we had one broken limb, which sort of knitted itself. The babies that were born in camp after we had been taken prisoners survived. They lived on rice water and, for the first 12 months, they really looked beautiful children, but after that … they suddenly aged very much and although they had these small limbs, their faces looked very old." (Vivian Bullwinkel)

Four nurses died at the isolated prison camp at Loebok Linggauone of them three days after the Japanese surrender on 15 August 1945.
Portrait of Lieutenant Wilhemina Rosaiie Raymont, 2/4th CCS. Sister Raymont died of illness on 8 February 1945 in Sumatra.

On 17 September, one month after the Japanese surrender, 24 Australian nurses were at Lahat aerodrome, waiting for their aircraft to arrive from Singapore and take them home. The matron-in-chief of the AANS, Colonel Annie Sage, stepped onto the tarmac with Sister Jean Floyd, one of their colleagues from the 2/10 AGH, who had managed to escape safely from Singapore. Colonel Sage looked at the emaciated group before her. 
‘But where are the rest of you?’ she asked.

Sisters Jenny Greer (left) and Betty Jeffrey recovering in a Dutch hospital in 1945.

After their release: the remaining Vyner Brooke nurses.

nla.obj-147729124 National Library of Australia

Vivian Bullwinkel giving evidence at the War Crimes trials, Tokyo, 1946

[The above is taken from my book: An Illustrated History of Nursing in Australia (National Library of Australia). To be published 2018.]

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Suicide by greed: the monsters looming over Venice - Michelle Lovric

Anyone visiting Venice in the last ten years will have suffered the unsettling experience of seeing what appears to be a small ugly modern city moving slowly above the rooftops of the city. The scale is so preposterous and the aesthetics are so ludicrous, compared to the ancient city, that it’s easy to believe that the looming behemoth is a hallucination. It’s not. In fact, you will have just seen one of hundreds of mega-cruise ships that annually pass dangerously close to the Piazza San Marco in order to supply its privileged passengers with their iconic view of la Serenissima. To be fair, most of those passengers probably have no idea of the damage being done so that they may enjoy this fleeting experience. If they did, cruise liners would surely not be swarming into Venice's historic byways like vast white locusts.

The mayor of Venice accuses photographers of using zoom lenses to exaggerate the dimensions of the new generation of mega-cruise ships. That's not at all necessary, as was demonstrated in the 2015/16 exhibition "Venezia e le grandi navi" by Gianni Berengo Gardin, one of Italy's pre-eminent photographers. This video on YouTube (also above) shows with forensic clarity just how the cruise ships tower over the churches, streets, palazzi and inhabitants of Venice. I urge you to look at it before reading on. In the very moving commentary, the photographer describes seeing his first mega-ship as a punch in the stomach, and the phenomenon in general as a visual pollution, and a tangible threat to a fragile city.

I see a sad irony in this maritime incursion. Venice survived every other attempted invasion by sea, including that threatened by the Badoer Badoero’s fleet during the Baiamonte Tiepolo conspiracy of 1310. The shallow waters of the lagoon protected the city for thousands of years, as only Venetians knew the safe, deep channels. Even Napoleon did not bother with a sea-borne attack on the island, preferring a swift campaign of brutal psychological bullying. Instead, Venice has quietly, almost willingly, fallen to a wholly commercial invasion, handing over the secrets of navigation to the big cruise companies. The situation has worsened over the years because of the interessi (financial interests) embedded in Venice’s infrastructure and a tragic, incomprehensible lack of muscularity in the state’s response to the problem.

The impact of mass tourism has without doubt contributed to the exodus of Venetians from their city. The population has decreased by 100,000 in the last sixty years, to just over 54,000 people. Meanwhile, the figure for tourists is reckoned to be 32 million, few of whom contribute anything at all to the policing or cleaning of the city or the restoration of her monuments. Cruisers eat and sleep on their floating hotels, bringing little to the struggling city’s ecosystem apart from their bodies clogging the narrow alleys.

Meanwhile, in 2016, the Europa Nostra programme identified the Venetian lagoon as the first of seven seriously endangered places. The World Monuments Fund placed Venice on its ‘places to watch’ list, precisely because of the impact of mass cruise tourism. And UNESCO has threatened to strike Venice from its Heritage Sites if something is not done soon to remove the cruise ships from the bacino of San Marco and to control the unlimited influx of tourists. In fact, it’s only the threat that’s useful in exerting pressure. The actual removal would eliminate any power UNESCO might have because it seems, from the way the problem's being managed, that the mayor does not care whether Venice is on the list or not.

the logo of the organization fighting to divert
the megaships from the ancient city centre
But Venetians are no longer prepared to be quiet about the cruise liners. There is now a protest movement: NOGrandiNavi. Articulate, frequent, vivid protests by its members - often in colourful flotillas of small boats - culminated in a referendum about the issue earlier this year.
Overwhelmingly, the city voted to stop the invasion by the mega-ships. Sadly, the will of the people has not been translated into action. But that's not the end of the story ...

Barbara Warburton Giliberti
Recently I had the pleasure of meeting Barbara Warburton Giliberti, a citizen of Venice for 40 years, and a teacher of English at the University of Ca’ Foscari. She serves on the committee of  NOGrandiNavi. I was very grateful for this opportunity to raise all the questions that many people put to me.

Can you say exactly what the cruise ships bring to the city? As a result of their berthing here, do churches get restored? Is any domestic habitation improved so that Venetians can stop fleeing their city? Where does the money go?

What the cruise ships bring to Venice? Only problems. Venice makes no money at all from the cruise ships. The passengers clog the town that’s already over-full. The only possible gain could be that some passengers arrive the night before departure and spend one night in a hotel waiting to embark the following day. But very, very few of them do so. There’s been a proposal to make a small charge for each passenger, so as to be able to do some cleaning up, restoration or renovation. That idea quickly died a silent death and nothing at all came of it.

What are the costs paid by the cruise companies?

The costs the cruise companies have to pay are shockingly low, given the profitability of bringing their customers to the most beautiful city in the world. Moreover, these payments are to private companies, not to the municipality. Some time ago VTP (Venice Passenger Terminal) was partially owned by the municipality and partially by the cruise ship companies. Then the mayor was strapped for cash and sold off the public part, which immediately fell into the hands of the cruise companies who are now total owners of the maritime station and the wharves there. They will do everything they can to exploit their investment and to ensure that the monster cruise ships continue to cross the bacino of San Marco and berth at the maritime station. If another port were to be constructed outside the lagoon – at the Lido, for example – there would have to be an international competition and there are very many foreign companies who can do much better work than Consortium Venezia Nuova at much lower prices. So CVN are trying to block the Di Piccoli/Duferco plan for floating wharves at the Lido, the only proposal to have received a positive opinion from the Valutazione dell’Impatto Ambientale, a government committee that evaluates the environmental impact of major public works.

What do the companies actually pay for?                  

Costs of technical/nautical services in millions of euros: Piloting 3.8; Tugboats 5.5; Mooring 1.2; Loading of fuel 1.6; loading of drinking water 1.6; Removal of liquid waste 1.6; Removal of solid waste 0.9; Wharf costs: guards 9.8; security 3.7; Luggage movement 10.9; Food provisions movement 1.2; various 0.5; total 41.8. None of this is paid to Venice, as I have explained. It all goes to private companies with an interest in the status quo.
And what danger and damage comes from the cruise liners? Have there been any studies done on the environmental impact? I understand that shoreline retreat has been found in the canal between Malamocco and Marghera, and that this is attributed to the cruise liners. What else has been discovered?

There are many dangers connected to cruise ships:
a) Erosion of the lagoon itself. With each passage, the very fine silt is churned up and doesn’t have time to settle again before the next tide washes it out into the open sea. There’s no sewage system in Venice: the weeds, algae, mud and microscopic creatures act as a natural filter to keep the water clean. If you get rid of them, then Venice will have to invest in an incredibly expensive sewage system. World expert on marine engineering, Professor Luigi d’Alpaos, says that if we continue at this rate then there will be no lagoon in ten years’ time. It will simply become part of the sea.
b) Erosion and vibration. The vibrations along with wave motion are wrecking the foundations of the Venetian palaces. The huge ships displace such an enormous quantity of water just by being in the water. When they move forward, even if only very slowly, the water rushes in behind them to reach its original level and this has disastrous results not only in the path of the ship but in the side canals as well.
c) There is a supposed ‘Blue Flag’ agreement, on a voluntary basis, where the companies say they will use clean fuel. This is simply not true. They use cheap fuel with a high content of dangerous substances. These substances are emitted as thick, black smoke from the stacks (we have dozens of photos) and cause damage not only to human beings but to the monuments: marble turns into chalk and the next rain washes away yet another layer. There are very efficient filters that can be fitted to the stacks to remove these particles. But, of course, there’s a cost involved. The German organisation NABU has been here many times and has measured the various levels of air pollution. It has emerged that Venice, with no cars, is the fourth most polluted city in Italy. It is as though we were living next to a steel or cement factory. The cruise ships themselves create a dangerous level of air pollution even when they are in the open sea. It is also true that the public transport system in Venice, the vaporetti, should also have filters fixed to their engines (buses in Berlin are obliged to have them, why not here?) but again a deaf ear is turned to that request. With regard to humans, the very fine particles enter the blood stream (the skin and various mucus layers are no barrier at all) and cause heart disease, respiratory diseases, Alzheimer’s, miscarriages.
d) When the ships are moored at the maritime station, the engines are never turned off because they need to produce power for the air conditioning, the lights, the equipment and so on. The residents of that area cannot use cell phones, computers, TV etc. because of the electrical interference. The noise level of keep-fit classes, late-night parties and discoes is a disturbance of the public peace. Some local people have given up on repairing their roofs, which are subjected to continual vibration. Tiles simply fly off.
The sign on the this protest boat reads 'Home is a Right'
e) The cruise liners are monstrous. Venice was built with wooden ships powered by oars in mind, not these 450-meter-long giants weighing hundreds of thousands of tons. Even when the port was built, it was for much smaller ships. No-one imagined this trend for bigger and even bigger ships.

Wherever these ships go - the Caribbean, the Arctic - citizen committees like ours have sprung up spontaneously. All are saying the same things: these ships are too big to come near the land; they are destroying the very beauty the bring people to see.

 To give us an idea of the scale of the problem, how many cruise passengers come to Venice annually?

Here are the figures for the last few years:
2014 488 cruise ships 1,733,839 pax 88 river cruises 16,702 pax total 1,750,541 pax
2015 521 “                  1,582,481 “    89 “                    18,561                1,601,042
2016 529 “                  1,605,660       96 “                    18,670                                1,624,330

To these totals, you must add the Hovercraft statistics
2014    328 ships 91,125 pax
2015    297 ships 85,564 pax
2016    330 ships 93,501 pax

And these figures do not include the thousands of crew who also pour out of the ships. So we are speaking of around 2 million bodies arriving on these vessels every year. These totals must be seen, remember, in the context of Venice’s 54,000 citizens.

The Costa Concordia disaster made real the possibility of a mega-ship grounding and capsizing as a result of human error. Could such a thing happen in Venice? What would be the impact? How long could it last?

The Costa Concordia, which ran aground off the Isola del Giglio in January 2012.
Thirty-two people died.The captain, who admitted a 'judgment error' was jailed
for manslaughter. It took over three years and cost £1.5 billion to remove the wreck.
Photograph by Roberto Vongher, Wikimedia Commons
In Venice, mega-ships like the Costa Concordia come so close to shore. All it would take is a sneeze or a fit of coughing at the bridge, and we would all be in peril.

If there were to be a disaster similar to the Costa Concordia, the results would be even worse. We have asked for a simulation to be carried out to demonstrate that there’s not enough space for the fire brigade boats to point their hoses correctly. We’re still waiting for a reply.

These ships have no brakes. You cannot stop a ship of this size in just a few yards. It would continue to career forward, smashing whatever it came into contact with. And the accidents that do happen get swept very quickly under the carpet. The press is kept well out of the situation. For instance, some time ago, one of the so-called ‘fingers’ (a piece of loading equipment) was crumpled due to a wrong manoeuvre. Fortunately, it was only a finger. Another time, due to extremely strong winds coming down from the mountains, one of the ships lying side on to the wind wrenched a capstan out of the wharf and the mooring was no longer safe.

Some of our protesters are very witty. Above, you see one of our boats playing on the name of the ill-fated Costa Concordia.

And here's a little film 'My Ship will Go On', created by Frullatorio who re-set and re-dubbed the shipping world's most famous moment of impact. 'My Ship will Go on' was shown at the NOGrandi Navi meeting on December 4th. It doesn't really need translation. Suffice it to say that Leo and Kate discuss moving the cruise terminal to Marghera, while one of the ship's officers boasts that there's plenty of room in the channel and that two cruise ships could easily pass at the same time with modern technology. And when they crash into San Marco, one sailor observes, 'Oh well, it was old anyway.'

Tell us about NOGrandiNavi. When was it formed and how does it work?
NOGrandiNavi was formed about twelve years ago. It has no public funding whatsoever. All the work is carried out by volunteers. Over the last couple of years, we have been working in close contact with Ambiente Bene and Venezia è Laguna. Our financial resources come from donations and the sale of small souvenirs (T-shirts, key-rings, shopping bags, umbrellas, caps, banners). We have ‘social’ pizzas or dinners. With our increase in numbers, we’ve started to specialize – mailing list, press office, website, translations, videos, press collection – as many as possible of the newspaper and magazines articles published on any day are made into a file that’s circulated to the mailing list. This specialization stops all the work falling on the same shoulders. We have lawyers and notaries who are members and they do all the legal work for free. 

What do we do? We try to be present at all the meetings where items regarding the lagoon or the cruise ships are discussed. A summary of the discussion is made and circulated to the mailing list. We organise public debates with authoritative speakers, illustrated with power-point or slides. We prepare dossiers of a technical nature that are distributed not only to the mailing list but also to the members of the local municipality, so they cannot say they didn’t know what was happening. We invite NABU to come and check the levels of pollution.

What forms have your protests taken over the years? I see that your latest poster is for an event to deal with the lies that have been told. Very creative use of a cruise ship as a Pinocchio nose!

This poster uses a cruise ship as a Pinocchio nose. It's for a
 meeting in which the committee undertakes to clear up all the lies
that have been told about the cruise liners.
We organize protest marches that are very lively, colourful and noisy. Blockades are set up with our very small boats to delay the departure of some of the ships. We distribute flyers with maps and illustrations of the various areas involved. We have stalls to collect signatures. We’ve been hosted on a radio programme that enabled listeners to ask us important questions directly. We give interviews to television and radio stations from all over the world. We send letters to local, national and European authorities setting out our position and contesting the false information often given by the various lobbies.

We make a lot of noise, and we wake people up on a Sunday, but we are never violent. Our members are aged between three months and ninety and include some extremely authoritative figures: for example, an expert on administrative law and an ex-member of the municipality with an inside insight into its functions. We receive support and help from marine engineers, industrial designers, environmental scientists. But we value all our volunteers. Families come along to our events, bringing children in their strollers. We always provide a safe creche. After all, we are fighting for the future of these precious Venetian children so it’s important that they are part of it.

It is vital for us to stay visible. We have already captured the interest of newspapers and television networks all over the world. Many citizens of Venice take part in our protests. Journalists come to see – and we make sure it’s worth their while: we give them a show.

Meanwhile, many Venetians display their ‘NOGrandiNavi’ posters from their windows and balconies. Here are some other protests:

The 40 Ladroni protest: This protest played on the story of Aladdin and the Forty Thieves. NOGrandiNavi protesters shut themselves inside an improvised floating cage decorated of photographs of individuals who might be said to have certain ‘conflicts of interest’ when it comes to the grandi navi.


The Berengo Gardin exhibition was quite a story at the time. The whole thing had been organized to be held at Palazzo Ducale, all the invitations had been printed and sent out; all the posters had been printed. Then, at the last moment, Mayor Brugnaro found out what the exhibition was about. He immediately withdrew the permit. Not only that, but he also banned all the other Venetian museums from holding the exhibition. There was an uproar, as you can imagine.

However, the Ordine dei Giornalisti promptly offered their offices (near San Polo and dreadfully small rooms) as a temporary measure until FAI (the Fondo Ambiente Italiano – similar to Britain’s National Trust) could prepare the Olivetti shop in the Piazza San Marco to host the exhibition. Can you believe it, but Brugnaro made the tactless decision to come to the opening in San Polo (complete with police escort, bodyguards and entourage) – only to be welcomed with well-deserved disparaging comments.

The Campanile protest (above left). Some protesters bought tickets to the top of the Campanile. They secreted about their persons some tightly folded banners. At the top, they unfurled them.

Diving protest. Each of the brave divers in the picture received a very heavy, punitive fine for breaking the city bye-law that prohibits swimming in the historic waters – no doubt intended as a deterrant. It’s curious, isn’t it how the Municipality imposes such enormous fines on an organisation that is basically crowd-funded? It appears to be doing whatever it can to put pressure on our resources. Ironically on the very same day, the Municipality itself organised a swimming race along the Canale di Cannaregio to San Giuliano. None of those swimmers was troubled with a fine.

How to avoid being fined for swimming in the historic waters? Protesters wearing animal masks affixed a poster to the hull of one of the cruise-liners.

The masks represented animals in danger of extinction – just like Venice. With highly visible
protests like this, passengers can no longer be unaware that the monster ships are unwelcome so close to the city.

We use red smoke to draw attention to our cause. The police say our little boats are ‘a danger’ to shipping, so we make sure we are highly visible – unlike the poisonous emissions of the mega-ships

This past July we organised a referendum – in only 9 hours we collected more than 18,000 signatures (all detailed with name, identity card or similar) and more than 97% wanted the large cruise ships kept out of the lagoon and wanted a total ban on new excavations.

 The mayor refused to accept the verdict saying that he had been elected and he would say what could be done and what not. Another of the services provided that day was a team of ladies who brought round lunch and drinks for the people collecting the signatures; some of the gazebos ran out of voting cards several times and the people waited there in a queue for more than half an hour in the blazing sun because they absolutely wanted to vote. Some of the other stations had planned to open for a couple of hours but the crowds kept coming and they stayed open all the time. Next time we will organise far more stations on the mainland – so many Venetians have had to leave Venice and now live in Mestre, Marghera and the surroundings but are still vitally interested in what happens in Venice.

We’ve made downloadable postcard. Artist Vince McIndoe inserted a hand-painted cruise liner into the background of a Canaletto painting of Venice to show the incongruity of scale and aesthetics that makes the grandi navi so preposterous in a Venetian setting. This shocking image brings it all home. Some cruise liners have up to twenty decks – compared to the usual five floors in a Venetian palazzo. This postcard is designed to be sent to Graziano Delrio, the current Minister for Infrastructure. We don’t know how many he has received. But he’s unlike to share that information with us.

In the last few years, several different proposals have been put forward to deal with the Cruise lines. Can you summarise briefly?

 1. Excavate the existing Contorta Canal to take ships to the industrial area of Marghera, on the coast of the Venetian mainland.
2. Excavate the existing Vittorio Emanuele canal to bypass the historic centre and take boats to a new terminal in Marghera
 3. Floating wharves at the Lido where the mega-ships would berth, either at San Niccolo or the Mose site at Alberoni, with smaller and ecological boats to bring passengers to Arsenale. This is the plan we favour.

What do you say to accusations that NoGrandiNavi's aspirations might cost Venetian jobs?
Of course we don't want to deprive working Venetians of any employment that's derived from cruise tourism. We just want the mega-ships to arrive and leave from a place that's not so perilously close to the irreplaceable historic centre.

In fact, if the Lido plan were adopted, the workforce would double because those already working at Stazione Marittima would remain there for the smaller cruise ships and luxury yachts while new jobs would be created at the new floating berths at the Lido. There would also be an increase in staff necessary to transfer those passengers wanting to visit Venice using the re-fitted, modernised, ecologically friendly motonavi.

The topic of the loss of jobs is only one part of the lobby pressure aimed at influencing public opinion. It is totally false.

 And in November, there was an important meeting …?

Here is the official version: the government meeting itself was perhaps illegal because it is stated that the president must be the prime minister, and this was not the case. Several Ministers who were supposed to be there were not, in fact, there and sent substitutes. At the moment of signing the final document, four of the five present left the room and didn’t sign anything. What is the outcome? Mega ships will continue to cross Venice lagoon and pass in front of San Marco for many years to come. The excavations proposed for the Vittorio Emanuele canal have been squashed. The project for the supposed new terminal in Marghera does not yet exist in a satisfactory form, and even when it does exist, it will have to pass the Committee for Environmental Impact – a hopeless case. The Harbour Master said years ago that the Canale dei Petroli could not accept a mixture of cargo and passenger traffic because of the safety problems and he’s not going to change his opinion in the near future. The whole of the proposed area is subject to the Seveso Directive from Brussels and I can’t see them letting anything as bird-brained as this pass through.

The electric company have been turning a deaf ear for years to the request to re-site a very problematic syphon that needs to be moved if the mega ships are to pass to Marghera; the trade unions are totally against the new Marghera terminal, which will block future development of the commercial port. Several businesses, now working profitably in the area and using the proposed wharves, don’t want to give them up. The only slightly positive aspect is that the proposed new terminal at the Lido, the only one to be approved by the Environmental Commission, is now formally on the table as an alternative. The final result? The NOGrandinavi Committee will need to continue working strenuously to make sure no dirty dealings go unnoticed.

And the new story that emerged later in November?

On November 17th, Senator Felice Casson pointed out to Parliament that the Special Law for Venice was enacted to protect the lagoon, not to encourage and further the expansion of the cruise ship companies and that the meeting earlier in the month was totally out of line.

 What can people do to help?

When we have our demonstrations, we always have stalls where people can buy T-shirts, bags and hats that help finance our activities. We used to have a kiosk but the rent became unaffordable.
Is your merchandise also available online? 
We hope to organise this soon.

Is there anything else people can do to help?

Our biggest issue is the fact that we, private individuals, are battling against organisations that make millions from the cruise ships. Although all of us give our time, energy and services for free, we still need to pay the fines incurred by our divers, the court costs when they are prosecuted, the costs entailed in producing our souvenirs and posters, hiring meeting halls. Donations can be made very easily, by PayPal or credit card via this link

You can join our mailing list. You can make your feelings known by a tweet to @graziano_delrio or on his Facebook page Graziano Delrio, or send an email to the mayor of Venice at sindaco@comune.venezia.it.

Thank you so much for this interview, Barbara, and for all the time you've given to answering my questions.

Michelle Lovric’s website
Images from the NOGrandiNavi website.
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