The horse of kings

The Pura Raza Española is a very special horse. Originating from the Andalusians that were appreciated by the Ancient Romans, it became famous world-wide from the 16th century, a living expression of Spain’s Golden Age.

No ordinary horse. The Pura Raza Española (PRE), also known as the Andalusian, is a remarkable breed, for centuries considered as the finest warhorse but also the epitome of equine elegance. Their speed and manoeuvrability is accompanied by an exceptional temperament, calm and apparently oblivious to any sense of danger. Their regal, high-stepping carriage made it a favourite amongst Europe’s royalty and aristocracy, as can be seen from innumerable portraits in which the noble personage is mounted on a Pura Raza Española. They have been portrayed by Leonardo da Vinci, Velasquez, Van Dyck, Rembrandt and Rubens.

Cinema presence

The Pura Raza Española’s athletic ability is astounding. Still today they are used as bullfighting horses. But they also excel in dressage, jumping, driving and as working ranch horses. They enchant horse lovers with their looks, a beautifully-proportioned head on a powerful, elegantly arched neck, with a generous crest, and long, sometimes wavy mane and tail. Usually grey, other accepted colours are bay, black, chestnut and the lighter hues. Not surprisingly, they have progressed from the battlefields of centuries past to contemporary stardom at the cinema, ridden by Russell Crowe in Gladiator and Mel Gibson in Braveheart. They also appeared in Interview with the Vampire, The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Chronicles of Narnia. A Pura Raza Española horse also features in the largest equestrian statue in the world, at El Paso airport in Texas, depicting Spanish explorer Juan de Oñate y Salazar. The rearing stallion is an incredible 11 metres high.

Pura Raza Española horse
The horse of kings – Pura Raza Española – article published in Le Grand Mag

Sports instinct

The breed has reached the annals of sporting success. At the Atlanta 1996 Olympics, the Spanish dressage team reached the finals for the first time, and it took part with three Pura Raza Española horses. At the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, they finished 7th, and at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, the team won the bronze medal. One of the horses, Invasor, took part in all these editions. The breed excels in the Spanish Doma Vaquera, a sort of dressage inspired by the work of vaqueros who work with herds of cattle in Spain and Portugal. Iberian cattle can be unpredictable and even savage, and a horse that can instantly perform a side-pass, or hit a gallop, or stop and swerve instantly, can save the vaquero’s life. In Doma Vaquera competition, horses and riders perform the movements without cattle, evoking the unexpected situations that can occur on the ranch, requiring exceptional balance, obedience and agility from the horse.

A long pureblood history

Man’s aesthetic appreciation of horses has ancient roots, going back to the Ancient Greeks. Though originating from horses present in Andalusia since time immemorial, the Pura Raza Española was the result of a breeding programme conducted in order to create a new breed with certain well-defined traits of appearance and character. On 28 November 1567, King Felipe II ordered the Royal Horse Master in Córdoba, Diego Lopez de Haro, to buy 1,200 of the finest mares and stallions from the provinces bordering the Guadalquiver, in order to obtain a horse corresponding to what was considered as equine perfection. For over 30 years, the breed was developed in this city, originally intended for exclusive use by the Royal House, and soon becoming an emblem of the Spanish Empire. The project was a good expression of the Renaissance, a period in which horses and riding became aristocratic pursuits, no longer linked exclusively to military considerations. The horse became an object of beauty. But this new artistic sensitivity amongst the nobility was usually not matched by their riding skills, and the docile temperament of the new breed was particularly useful. In 1600, French riding master Salomon de la Broue wrote, “In a comparison of the finest horses, I would place the Spanish horse in first position, considering it the most beautiful, the most noble, the worthiest of being ridden by a king.”

Prestigious supporters for the breed

It was only natural that the Spanish royal family should give specimens of the Pura Raza Española as gifts to other European courts. As a result, it was crossed, and its genes contributed to the origin of other breeds such as the Lippizaner, Lusitano, Paso Fino, Neapolitan, and some of the German warmbloods such as Hanoverians, Oldenburgers and Holsteiners. Today, there are about 180,000 Pura Raza Española horses world-wide, and the breed is represented by the Asociación Nacional de Criadores de Caballos de Pura Raza Española, ANCCE (National Association of Purebred Spanish Horse Breeders), which holds the stud book, “Registro Matricula de Caballos y Yeguas de Pura Raza Española,” instituted in 1912 and marking the origin of the horse’s name, which was chosen to reflect the wave of national pride or “Regeneracionismo” that followed the disastrous Spanish-American war of 1898. From then on, the breed’s prestigious reputation has been carefully protected by Spanish institutions. King Felipe VI of Spain is honorary president of the board of the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art Foundation in Jerez, an institution dedicated to the protection of the Pura Raza Española since 1973. The role had previously been held by King Juan Carlos for almost 30 years.

Stars of a dedicated trade fair

Over the course of 500 years, the Pura Raza Española has undergone moments of crisis as well as fortune. Over the centuries, many of the bloodlines were diluted by crossbreeding, and in the 19th century, many horses were stolen during periods of war in the Iberian peninsula. The survival of the breed is in great part due to the Carthusian monks who bred them from the late Middle Ages on, and who succeeded in hiding small herds that could then be used to renew the breed. In 1832, an epidemic had a disastrous effect on Spain’s horses, and once again, only a small herd of Andalusians survived, at the Monastery of Cartuja. After the selection of the new name Pura Raza Española, exports of these horses was restricted until 1962. Today, it is a firm favourite amongst horse lovers, adored for its noble, docile temperament, willing to please, exceptionally intelligent, capable of forming powerful bonds with their owners. They love attention and they love showing off. Every year, they are celebrated at SICAB, an international trade fair held in Seville, dedicated entirely to the Pura Raza Española, with over 240,000 visitors. The thousand horses present also enjoy it: after such a long history, they take stardom in their stride.

Article published in Le Grand Mag, 2019


Space tourism

The flight to Mars is now boarding at gate 34…

A review of some of the projects designed to take ordinary people into space. This article was published in LUXOS Spain spring/summer 2014, before the crash of the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo VSS Enterprise on 31 October 2014.

“Sooner or later, we must expand life beyond this green and blue ball—or go extinct.” Elon Musk has done a great deal to help preserve our planet, by developing sexy electric sports cars with Tesla, solar power technology, and concepts for hyper-efficient mass transport systems. But he is convinced that the human race should have a Plan B, in case of inadvertent destruction of our planet by an asteroid, a miniature black hole or a killer virus, and that this back-up plan could be by colonizing other planets, and in particular Mars.

In 2001, he had the idea of sending an experimental greenhouse to the red planet, containing a miniature ecosystem, but he soon realized that he faced a problem: the lack of viable interplanetary commuter rockets. In 2002 he founded SpaceX, Space Exploration Technologies, to solve the problem. The company won commissions from NASA, and in 2012 its Dragon spacecraft successfully docked with the International Space Station (ISS). The stage is set for manned trips to ISS, and SpaceX has won many other contracts for the launch of satellites and other space missions, principally by virtue of its ability to provide a low price-per-payload ratio. One of the features of SpaceX’s approach is its vertical take-off, vertical landing system that reduces payload but greatly reduces total costs, making commercial space flight more competitive.

Falcon 9 and SES 8 lift off from the SpaceX launch pad at Cape Canaveral
Falcon 9 and SES 8 lift off from the SpaceX launch pad at Cape Canaveral

“If you can reduce the cost of a flight to Mars to around half a million dollars, I think enough people would buy a ticket and would move to Mars to be part of creating a new planet, part of a founding team for a new civilization. Even if just one in a million people decided to do that, that’s still 8,000 people. That’s the Mars business model.”

Richard Branson is working on sub-orbital space travel, with his company Virgin Galactic. “This will be a trip like no other. Our spacecraft have been designed so that each of our passengers will have the room and the freedom to enjoy the amazing sensation of weightlessness. Large panoramic windows will allow you to see clearly the curved earth over a hundred kilometres below, and the colours of the fragile atmosphere protecting our valuable planet,” said Branson. His project is based on a rocket, SpaceShip 2, with two pilots and six passengers, carried up to the height of 52 kilometres by a large jet plane, White Knight II. The carrier plane then releases the rocket, whose engines take it up to an altitude of 110 kilometres, therefore in space according to the conventional definition of where space begins, 100 kilometres up. The passengers can enjoy weightlessness for about 6 minutes before having to strap in again for the descent and landing. The whole flight, from take-off to landing, lasts about two and a half hours. Tickets are already on sale, and by June 2013 about 600 people had paid the $20,000 deposit on a total ticket price of $250,000.

Close-up of SS2 during the first rocket-powered flight

It will be an exciting ride. Brian Binnie, who piloted the X-prize-winning flight of SpaceShip 2, described the massive acceleration of the rocket after it detached from the mother ship, pinning him back into the seat, and the tremendous noise as the spaceship powered out of the atmosphere. Then suddenly, the dramatic and absolute silence of space. “At that point, it’s like someone has pulled back a stage curtain for your eyes only, and you’re looking at this black void of space,” said Binnie. It’s a mystery, but you get a sense of its majesty as well. There’s a panorama like you’ve never seen.”

Space XC is another company offering a brief taste of space, with flights in their Lynx Mark II spacecraft, in which there is just one passenger who flies alongside the pilot, and is in constant contact with the action. The cockpit canopy is generously sized for good views of space, and the Earth. Differently to the space shuttle and Virgin Galactic, there are no disposable carrier rockets, or mother ships. The Lynx Mark II is small, relatively light, and so takes off, ascends steeply, breaks the sound barrier after 58 seconds, and reaches Mach 2.9 after 3 minutes. The engines are switched off at an altitude of almost 60 kilometres, and the craft continues moving towards space on a parabolic course, reaching the 100 kilometre mark and remaining in space, weightless, for about five minutes. During the descent, there is a period of about 20 seconds when you will experience 4G, during a pullout manoeuvre to reduce speed. After this, there is a leisurely glide back down to the spaceport in Curaçao or Mojave. The whole flight lasts about an hour. Space XC say that the spacecraft is environmentally friendly, built of lightweight materials and powered by bio-fuels. The rocket engines are designed for over 5,000 flights. Safety is enhanced by the fact that the pilot can turn the rocket engine on again even during the gliding phase of the flight. Tickets cost $100,000, with flights to the 100-kilometre mark planned from late 2015.

There will be a cheaper option to get this privileged view of our planet. World View is working on the idea of using a massive helium balloon to take a capsule gently upwards. No special training is required, and, in the stylishly-appointed capsule for six passengers, you’ll reach the altitude of about 30 kilometres. So technically you’re not in space, and you won’t experience weightlessness, but you’re at the top of the atmosphere, and you’ll see the curvature of the earth, like Felix Baumgartner did in his epic balloon-jump. After a couple of hours, the pilot vents some helium from the balloon, which begins a slow descent. The balloon is then released, and a parawing takes the capsule back down, with a landing on skids. Flights are planned from 2016, at a price of $75,000.

LUXOS Spain spring/summer 2014

LUXOS Spain spring/summer 2014


The day the Lunar Rover got a parking ticket

Gene’s Lunar Rover has been parked on the moon for 42 years without any particular administrative problems, but Milan is a whole different kettle of fish. On 28 October 2014, Cernan was driving the electrically-powered Lunar Rover – the one that he had driven for 35 km on the moon in 1972 – in Via Montenapoleone, Milan, when a traffic policeman pushed through the crowds, block of tickets and pencil ready, and wrote a parking ticket. But it was all fine, because the traffic policemen were there to provide security for Cernan and the vehicle, present for the inauguration of the new Omega boutique at number 16 of the famous shopping street. Cernan parked adroitly and neatly (not in “Milanese style” on the pavement), disembarked, and held up his left wrist. “This is the watch that went to the moon.”


His watch is of course an Omega Speedmaster. He said, ““The Speedmaster is the only thing we took the Moon that had no modification whatsoever – it was right off the shelf. What’s interesting about my first one is that it’s beat up, it’s never been cleaned, it’s never been repaired and to this day I can take that watch and wind it and it keeps time as well as the day I got it. And I’ve walked in space with it for two and a half hours and worn it on the Moon for over three days.”

Gene Cernan was the last human to set foot on the moon. He spent three days on the lunar surface, and when, on 14 December 1972, he climbed the ladder back into the Lunar Module, it was a poignant moment for him and for the story of man in space. As far back as 1970, NASA and President Nixon had decided to cut short the Apollo series, for which missions were planned up to number 20, in order to concentrate on the Space Shuttle and other programmes. While Apollo 17 was returning to Earth, Nixon said in a statement, “This may be the last time in this century that men will walk on the Moon.”


For Omega, the mission to a boutique in Via Montenapoleone was also a lengthy and complex task. The brand needed a larger space, and found it at number 16, when the Lorenzi family, who for decades had run a store selling knives and shaving accessories, decided to sell to Swatch Group. The boutique is a bright and pleasant space, with curving display units in light-coloured wood and plate glass. All around, the vast Omega heritage, not just watches, but jewellery, James Bond, George Clooney, and the conquest of space.

Celebrations continued in the evening, when Milan’s Science Museum (Museo della Scienza e della Tecnologia) inaugurated their new section dedicated to space. The interactive exhibition includes some original objects, including space suits and gloves, and a fragment of space rock. Eugene Cernan was accompanied on the moon by geologist Harrison Schmitt, the only scientist in the Apollo programme, but this piece of Taurus Littrow Valley was collected by Gene Cernan. In 1973, President Nixon gave it to the Italian government, which in turn gave it to the Science Museum in Milan.

I had the opportunity to speak both to Stephen Urquhart, President of Omega, and Gene Cernan. I couldn’t resist asking Mr. Urquhart about Omega and its privileged position as the only watch officially chosen by NASA to accompany manned space missions. “The watch was chosen as a backup, and it was only towards the end of preparations for the Apollo missions that the people at NASA realized that they needed a watch of this type. In Apollo 13 the watch played a pivotal role in timing the engine activation necessary to get them back on course. They used it to perfection, it wasn’t an easy thing to do under that stress.”
Omega’s close connection to the exploration of space is an important marketing tool, and today this is accompanied by other modern techniques such as product placement. I asked Mr. Urquhart about the significance of films such as Casino Royale and Skyfall.

“You mention the names of the films, I mention the name of the character, Mr. Bond. James Bond, even when the films are not that great, has an aura about him. It’s striking that even though the films are set in the present, the actual story dates back to the same era as the race to the moon, in the 1960s. If you buy a watch today, you are looking for sophistication, efficiency, pleasure, and James Bond is the same thing. James Bond is a story and a dream, and mechanical watches are also a dream and this is why they are coming back so strongly. They have that emotion.”

Gene Cernan is an Omega ambassador, and he could also be described as a motivational speaker, such is his enthusiasm. His message to young people is: “The dreamers of today are the doers of tomorrow, they will make the impossible possible. It happened in my life. I lived on the moon for three days.” He described how his initial dream, as a youngster born in 1934, was simply to fly planes off an aircraft carrier, and how one day he received an unexpected call saying that the navy was interested in recommending him to NASA for the space programme, and would he like to volunteer? “If I would have ever told people that I would have thought that ten years after I graduated, I would be walking in space around the world, they would have put me in an asylum. So I’ve always said, nothing is impossible.”

Gene described his relationship with his Omega watches. “This is the watch I flew in space with three times. I wore two watches, one for timing, and the other one I set for the time in Houston, Texas. I would look at the earth, and I would think, ‘the sun is rising on Texas. My daughter has gotten up, eaten her breakfast, she’s catching the school bus.’ Then I would look at the watch later, and it would be 7, 8 or 9 o’clock in Texas, and I would say, ‘hey, my daughter is eating dinner, done her homework, saying her prayers and going to bed.’ That watch was my security, like Linus’ blanket. It was a window through which I could see into my real world.”

At the press conference for the presentation of the new Space and Astronomy section of the Science Museum in Milan, sponsored by Omega, journalist and curator Gianni Caprara asked Gene whether he thought the next destination, Mars, was a real possibility, and whether he would go. To resounding applause, Gene Cernan replied, in his characteristic Texan drawl, “I’d leave for Mars tomorrow morning!”

This article was first published on, click here to read it there

Read more about the new area of Space and Astronomy at the Science Museum in Milan
Read more about the Omega Speedmaster and other chronograph watches


10 reasons why cycling is good for you

Image courtesy of Leonardo da Vinci, Codice Atlantico, Biblioteca Ambrosiana
Image courtesy of Leonardo da Vinci, Codice Atlantico, Biblioteca Ambrosiana

It has its down sides. When you get to the office, you need to freshen up and perhaps put on the fresh shirt that you’ve brought with you in your bag. Your bag has to be a backpack. You’ll get a few bumps and grazes over the years. But all considered, you’re better off cycling. Here are my top ten reasons why.

1. You feel better and get fitter. This is obvious, of course. After a few months, your heart rate at rest will have dropped from the normal 72 to about 60. This is something that I find amazing, that the ancients chose a measure of time that corresponds exactly to the heart rate of a fairly fit individual. If you’re in a city, you’ll be inhaling car fumes and stuff, but learn to breathe in through your nose and you’ll filter out the worst. And doctors say that the benefits far outweigh the risks caused by pollution.

2. The bicycle replaces a psychotherapist. If you’ve had a rough day in the office and you’re enraged with your boss and your adrenaline is racing, after half an hour’s vigorous pedalling you’ll get home and nothing of that rage will be left.

3. Repairs and maintenance are cheap. I am an ex-car-owner, and one of the things that I love about going to the bike repair shop is that changing the tyres costs just a few euros instead of the hundreds that the car used to cost.

4. You are riding the most efficient machine in the world. A bicycle is the most efficient way of converting human energy into motion: it’s four times more efficient than running or walking. And of course it is incomparably more efficient than cars, buses, aircraft, even trains. 96% of the force that you apply to the pedals is converted into propulsive energy, and the only thing that keeps your speed down is the air resistance that increases more rapidly as speed goes up: it’s proportional to the square of your speed. A fairly fit person on a bike, using his or her own muscles, can beat Usain Bolt, using his muscles (without a bike). A hundred calories can power a man on a bike for 5 km; the same energy will propel a car for 85 metres. A bicycle is about 58 times more efficient than a car.

5. You discover eye contact with drivers. It’s always a nerve-racking moment when you’re on the road or a roundabout, and you’re wondering whether that other car speeding towards you is going to stop at the stop sign. That’s when you appreciate the eye-contact. It’s something you get on a bike more than in a car because there’s one less windscreen.

6. Parking. In a city, using a bicycle can be much quicker than a car just because you don’t have t spend ages looking for a parking space. This makes it easier to stop off and take a look at a shop window or a museum or anything else that catches your eye.

7. A bicycle replaces those little blue pills. This is for you guys: I know you don’t have any problems in this area, but people who do would well to take up biking, because with all the extra bloodflow in the inguinal region, the need to pop Viagra will soon be a thing of the past.

8. You’re part of the real outside world. If it’s daytime, you see the hemisphere of the sky, the clouds, you feel the breeze and the scents of plants, shrubs and trees with the changing seasons. At night, you are under the stars and bathed in moonlight. In winter, you can enjoy the incredible silence of a white world, and cycle enchanted through a falling cloud of scintillating crystal flakes that have become dislodged from a branch caressed by the wind.

9. You’re doing your bit. This isn’t something that I think about, but on a bike you’re more eco-friendly. No fumes, no oil burnt. Sorry, but there can’t be much that’s more stupid than transporting half a ton of metal just to carry one person from one part of the city to another.

10. A healthy tan. Even in winter, people in the office are envious. “Where did you get that tan?”


Officialdom in Italy

20141106-215248.jpgThis is the true story of how I applied for a place at an Italian academy of fine arts, quite a long time ago: 1980, when I was 19. Things have changed a lot in Italy since then – well, a bit – but it is an example of the way in which a certain piece of office equipment is considered an essential part of bureaucratic procedures in that country.

I had been travelling around Europe in search of an academy that I liked, and having visited the one in Perugia, I asked the secretary if I could apply there and then. No, she replied, all applications from foreigners had to go through the Italian Embassy in the respective country. So I journeyed back to the UK (I was hitch-hiking: in those days it was still a feasible means of transport) and went to the Embassy in London, with all the school certificates that they had told me were needed. There were two people in the office, a dapper man with a perfectly-trimmed beard and an immaculate suit, and a slim woman called Elisabetta with dark hair who chain-smoked an Italian cigarette brand called Merit. She looked through all my documents and looked up at me with a frown.
“Non va bene. There is something missing. Un certificato di buona condotta.” I looked puzzled.
“Mario, come si chiama in inglese?”
“Certificate of good conduct,” said Mario.
“I don’t think we have that here,” I said.
“We need it for your application,” said Elisabetta.
“But how can I give you a certificate of good conduct if it doesn’t exist here?” I said.
“You can do it like this,” said Mario, “go to your parish priest, ask him to write a letter on his official letterhead, in which he declares that you are a good person and haven’t been engaged in criminal activities or arson or anything like that, and ask him to sign it. That should be enough.”

So I went back to my home in the heart of the Suffolk countryside, and next day visited Reverend Rodney Owens (who had also been my school teacher when I was much younger) and asked him to write the letter.
“Mmm, I don’t have any printed letter paper…”
“Don’t worry, just put your name and address at the top, that should be enough.”
The vicar took out a white sheet of paper and a pen.
“Er, Mr. Owens, do you mind typing it? You know, it’s for the Embassy, it has to look official.” So Mr. Owens took out his Remington and obligingly typed out the letter, signing it at the bottom.

The next day I went back to London with the missing document and showed it to Elisabetta. She read it, frowning, and turned it over, and then over again.
“Non va bene. There is something missing.”
“Oh no. What did he forget? The vicar, I mean.”
“There is no rubber stamp. Near the signature, there has to be the official stamp of the parish. Without it, the authorities won’t accept it.”
I had no choice but to take back the home-made certificate and travel back to Suffolk. The next day, I went to the vicarage.
“A rubber stamp? No, we’ve never had one. Whatever would we need one for?”
We were silent for a moment, wondering what we could do. Perhaps I could forge the imprint of a rubber stamp, like the prisoners-of-war in Colditz? But that, I thought, wouldn’t be good conduct, and so the certificate would be a contradiction, and it wouldn’t really be fair on Mr. Owens who had already signed it.
“I know what you can do,” said Mr. Owens, “go to the Town Hall in Ipswich and ask them to put their stamp on it, I’m sure they won’t mind.”

So I thanked the reverend and caught the bus to Ipswich and walked to the Town Hall. I enquired at the entrance and was asked to go to an office upstairs, where I explained the problem to a few clerks.
“That would be no problem at all,” said one, “except for one thing. We got rid of all our rubber stamps last year, because all our procedures have been changed, what with all the new computers.”
I must have looked very disappointed.
“Hey Bill,” he said, “do you know where they took all that stuff? Or did they just chuck it away?”
“Ooh no,” said Bill, “they would never do that. Hang on, I’ll ask Jack, he’ll know.” He picked up a phone and dialled a number. He had a brief conversation with Jack and put the phone down.
“Problem solved. They took it all to the museum. Do you know the Ipswich Museum, on the High Street?” I nodded, it was just down the hill from my old school. “If you’re quick, you’ll get there before it closes.”

I thanked them, ran downstairs, ran up Lloyd Street, turned left into Tower Ramparts, on up High Street, and into the Museum, a brick building. I saw a man on duty near the door, and explained my story, starting from the Accademia di Belle Arti di Perugia, moving on to the Italian Embassy, and then to the Reverend Rodney Owens. “And so,” I said, “it would be great if you could find one of the rubber stamps that came from the Town Hall and stamp this letter from the vicar.”
The man stood with his arms folded, a serious expression on his face.
“Young man, do you really think that we can open one of our display cabinets and use one of our precious exhibits just to put a stamp on your piece of paper?”
My hopes once again changed to disappointment, but only for a moment. His face changed to a grin.
“Go on, I’m only kiddin’, course we’ll let you use the rubber stamp, heaven knows how many documents they’ve stamped, if they do one more, there’s no damage done. And they’re not exhibits, at least not yet, anyway. Hey, George, keep an eye open here for a bit, will you? I’ve got to go and find an exhibit from the future.” He led the way through the main hall, where much of the space was taken up by an enormous dinosaur skeleton. The cases against the wall contained a selection of fossils. “Rubber stamps, soon they’ll be extinct just like these ammonites and the brontosaurus.” I felt like saying that I wasn’t so sure of that, but stayed silent. At the far end of the hall, he took a cardboard box from a cupboard, opened it, and began to rummage through the rubber stamps inside, some with turned wooden handles, some flat. “Hmm, not this one… not this… ah, here we are. Ipswich Borough Council, complete with emblem. Oh, that’s lucky, there’s an inkpad as well. Shall I do the doings? Where’s the piece of paper?”
I took out the letter and gave it to him. He placed it on a table, opened the inkpad, pressed the rubber stamp onto it, raised his hand high, and then paused. I waited, wondering why he had stopped.
“I suppose I’d better test it first. Just to see whether there’s enough ink.” He looked around for another piece of paper, and found a leaflet for last year’s Suffolk Show. He stamped it and examined the result.
“D’you think that’ll do?”
“That’s fine, thank you,” I said, and he inked the stamp again, applying it vigorously to Rodney Owen’s letter with a thud.
“Thank you,” I said again, putting the letter away, greatly relieved, even though I was unsure whether my home-made certificate would satisfy Elisabetta and Mario at the Italian Embassy. I left the museum wondering whether the stamp had to be a certain shape or size in Italy, or a special colour. Mine was a very dark blue, perhaps they wanted it black?

The next day, I was back at the Embassy, waiting anxiously while Elisabetta examined the Certificate of Good Conduct written by the undersigned Reverend Rodney Owens and bearing the official seal of Ipswich Borough Council.
“Mario, pensi che vada bene così per il Console?” She took the certificate over to Mario, who put down his paper, glanced at it, took a second quick look at the stamp near the signature, and nodded.
“Sì, va bene.”
Elisabetta said, “Yes, it is fine. Welcome to Italy!”