Wednesday, 31 January 2007


This is a homage to Christopher Smart and to his "Cat Jeoffry/For he is the servant of the Living God".

Click on the image to embiggen.

What's civil about this?

The government is still arguing about exactly what to do with all these people who just don't want to get married and breed. And not only the government. The Italian president, ex-communist Giorgio Napolitano, threw in his tuppenny-hapenny worth a couple of days ago, announcing that the Vatican's views on PACS, or civil unions, should be taken into account. If this was a conciliatory gesture, it backfired. The episcopal council yesterday said that no compromise was possible, the traditional role of the family was sacred, marriage was an absolute value, etc. The usual position, in other words, and why not? Isn't grunting what pigs do best, even exclusively?

With 56% of Italians now in favour of civil unions, the opinion of God's ferret and his merry gang of sex-obsessed septuagenarians is daily less significant. The problem's within the government itself. Mastella, Minister of Justice, refuses to endorse the bill as a matter, apparently, of conscience after a career based on the most shameless political expediency. An anti-abortionist called Paola Binetti whines on about family, family, family, as though marriages will crumble at the merest whiff of visiting rights in hospital. (Hey! Why go to all the fuss of getting married? I can watch you die without it!)

Meanwhile, the two women responsible for drawing up the bill, because of course it's women's work, are arguing about how long a civil union should last before one can inherit the pension of the other. They're doing a Sugar and Spice routine, like police interrogators. Sugar says five years is long enough. Spice says fifteen, but may come down to ten. Will this be applied retroactively? I don't think so. Great news to couples in their fifties or sixties, who may have been together for decades, like my friend Dan and his partner.

And how long do widows/widowers (I'm talking the real thing here, obviously, the genuinely ex-married) have to be together to qualify? Not one fucking day.

Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Tiny bitter-sweet unions

This sign has been put up at the entrance to the Jewish quarter of Fondi, where I live, as part of a council drive to attract international tourism to the town. The missing word in line three of the English translation (for want of a more precise word) is ghetto. I wonder who felt the need to deface it, and why.

But the real question is who on earth did this translation? Surely the nephew of someone in the council. This is low-level nepotism, but you can find the same kind of thing at Fiumicino. I'll be keeping my eyes open.

Oh yes, the title of the post refers to an item on a Chinese restaurant menu in Rome. The Italian was cipolline in agrodolce, better translated as small onions in sweet and sour sauce.

The last time I saw Richard

...was Rome in 1984. He'd recycled himself as a tout for study holidays in England, with a windowless office in the basement of a travel agency near the station and a Battle of Britain style moustache (or maybe he'd always had that). He'd found the job through some family connection so plus ça change... He'd lost the haunted look he had on Capri and acquired a jaunty air that went with his new status as salesman.

He was living in an illegal structure on the roof of an abandoned new brutalist building that had once housed the Rome offices and showroom of Alfa Romeo (and is now the home of the Faculty of Letters of the university I work for). I remember dark blue carpets running up the walls, though that can't have been the case, and one of the first home computers I'd ever seen, with a program for landing planes on it. It had the air of a fuck pad, though not much fucking went on in it as far as I could tell. The word I'm looking for, to describe both Richard and his flat, indeed his life style at that time, is louche, tinged with sadness. We had a drink one evening on what he called his terrace, an expanse of untreated concrete roof surrounded by derelict factories, raised dual carriageways, railway cuttings.

Richard wouldn't believe I was gay, not really gay. I didn't have what he called a 'gay mouth', the infallible test apparently, a pursed
affair, like Charles Hawtrey saying Matron. I had a boyfriend called Ian at the time, whose surface sweetness concealed a worryingly anarchic streak, as though Andy Pandy had a belt of explosives under his pyjamas. He looked a few years younger than he was (23), and Richard disapproved. The fact that Ian didn't have a gay mouth either only confirmed his feeling that I was being taken for a ride. (I wasn't.)

He changed his mind one evening in an Irish pub called the Old Goldoni, behind Piazza Navona, when Ian and I, hopelessly drunk on a mixture of wine and Guinness, began to neck for all we were worth, rolling across the table and onto the floor.
Despite being a converted theatre, the Old Goldoni wasn't really the place for this kind of behaviour but the only person who seemed to mind was Richard, who'd bonded with the owner in a laddish way and felt we were disgracing him, as I suppose we were. We ended up in the Four Rivers fountain in Piazza Navona that night, narrowly escaping arrest. I don't know what happened to Richard after that.

Monday, 29 January 2007

Richard on the run

I was on holiday in Amalfi with friends, over twenty years ago now. We'd taken the ferry to Capri for the day and were walking across the Piazzetta when I heard someone call my name. Richard was sitting alone at one of the tables, wearing a hat and large dark glasses. He looked like a flushed, down-at-heel Truman Capote. I only recognised him when he slid the glasses down his nose and beckoned us over. You look like you're on the run, I said, laughing. I am, he said. Who from? The Mafia. Well, the Camorra actually. We didn't believe him at first. This is what he told us.

He'd been invited out to dinner by his girlfriend's father, a well-placed lawyer in Salerno, where Richard worked. The dinner was formal and Richard was seated, somewhat against his will, beside an over-dressed middle-aged woman. She asked him what he did and he told her that he taught at the university. He didn't say that he was a lettore and it probably wouldn't have made any difference if he had; she wasn't the kind of woman who'd understand the niceties of academic hierarchies. She looked interested for the first time since they'd started talking (I admit to adding this detail myself) and started to ask him exactly what he did. Richard's what my mother calls a bit of a romancer so I imagine he skipped the humbler aspects. Whatever he said he must have given her the impression that he had a certain clout. As they were leaving the table he kissed her hand and said, and I quote: Of course if there's ever anything I can do for you, don't hesitate to ask. Adding to us: As one does in these situations. Does one? I said. I don't. You don't live in Salerno, he said. You kissed her hand? I said. He nodded, hopelessly.

A few days later, she called him.
- I have a little favour to ask of you, she said.
- Of course, said Richard, sweating.
- It's a trifling matter. Un niente. My son is enrolled in your university. In the faculty of law. He's supposed to be taking an exam this month. Perhaps you could help him?
-Of course, said Richard, relieved. I'll do everything I can. Ask him to come to my ricevimento. On Friday mornings.
There was a pause.
- That would be rather awkward, she said.
- Well, perhaps he can call me at home, said Richard, one evening. Any evening will do. If that's easier. I can give him some tips to help him.
A longer pause.
- I don't think you quite understand, she said. He's a very busy young man. He really doesn't have time to come back to Italy and take the exam.
- I'm sorry?
- He's in New York. It's out of the question that he should come back to Italy to take one small exam. I'm sure you'll be able to help him. I'm sure you'll find a way to help him solve this little problem.
- I'll see what I can do,' he said.
A much longer pause.
- You do know who I am, don't you? she said.

Her husband was the chief lawyer of
the Nuova Camorra boss, Raffaele Cutolo, serving a life sentence at that time in a carpeted cell in Poggioreale. Richard's girlfriend asked him why he wanted to know. His eyes filled with tears when he described the way she pleaded and shouted and said that her father would kill her, and that Richard was pathetic, and that she never wanted to see him again. If he didn't do this one little thing.

The thing is that he would have done it if he could. It wasn't wrong. It was just not feasible. I think he was angry not because the woman had put him in such a position, but that he hadn't had the power to give her what she wanted. Her little favour.

Saturday, 27 January 2007

Thank you, Jane!

Thinking about Cologne

... made me think about an exhibition at the Ludwig Museum, entitled DC: Naked Drawings, a large white room full of drawings done directly on the walls by a Romanian artist called Dan Perjovschi. It was a great show, graffiti that didn't congratulate or preen itself, that didn't pretend to be both radical and desperate for gallery space; angry and amused and wry. The photograph (mine) isn't great but it's the idea that counts, and the sly simplicity of the execution. The catalogue talks about democratisation, but surely that misses the point. This kind of stuff, if it works, is as hard as drawing a perfect circle.

It was amusing to see how people reacted differently to the show. Some people walked in and glanced round for a moment, then left. Some stayed, and laughed, and thought. Others were entertained initially and then offended, and these seemed to fall into two categories; Americans, for whose government little respect was shown, and young Catholics in Cologne for World Youth Day. Jan wasn't thrilled about them at all.

Because thinking about Cologne makes me think about Jan...

Friday, 26 January 2007

The house above the cork forest (2)

We had a phone call from Joost, our friend's friend/colleague, who'd seen photographs of the house and wanted to know more. He's Dutch, a director of photography; he's done scores of TV ads and even features. He'd been in touch before this, phoning from various corners of the world but what he was looking for - a derelict convent in the wilds of Lazio, with all its original features bar nuns, for the price of a council flat in Dudley- was simply unobtainable and, rudely, we'd not replied.

But this time he'd seen the photos. He loved the look of the place, he came, and saw, and was conquered. He came a second time, with his girlfriend, who saw and was conquered too. It all seemed so simple.
They walked round the house, the land; they found a well, hidden by olives,beneath a cap of skilfully laid stones, like a beehive, with a dark live snake in the water.

The owners - four brothers, one with wife, had brought a Thermos filled with sweetened coffee to seal the deal. We stood in a circle and smiled, shook hands, drank the coffee and handed back the little cups to the signora, who packed them into her bag. That was September 2005. E. said the papers would be ready by October, early November.

Slow food

I had lunch today with an old friend and colleague, between exam shifts in the engineering faculty, processing students for language credits. We were actually in a hurry, so what we were looking for was slow food served fast, rather than fast food served slow, which is often the case in Rome, where even a MacDonald's queue can seem to take for ever.

We found a trattoria on Viale Marconi that I must have walked past a hundred times in the past, when I lived in the area, but never entered. Maybe because the window is full of forbidding notices saying NO CARTA DI CREDITO NO BANCOMAT NO TICKET, which means that all they accept is money in the traditional sense, something I was short of at the time. Today, though, it was raining, Lynne felt flu-ey, the bar next door was full. We went in.

Red and white checked tablecloths, walls half-panelled with wood (travertine would have been better, but hey! as Charlie might say), the tables large enough for everything that had to be put on them. No music, no fuss, the smell of well-cooked food. Nothing costing more than €7/8 on the menu. I'm off carbs so I ordered scamorza with prosciutto and some green stuff (cicoria) tossed with chili pepper and garlic. Lynne went for bucatini alla matriciana and an artichoke. Water (we were doing exams) and a basket of delicious bread (said Lynne, I couldn't touch it). Her plate of pasta would have served two. €25 (including my coffee). In just over half an hour.

Who else was there? University people, even a barone or two with their relative lackeys, a couple of pensioners eating tripe and sipping dark red wine, a trio of girls at the top of the stairs that leads down to the lavatory. There's a big hand-written sign by their table saying LUCE SCALA and an arrow pointing to a light switch. You turn it on going down and off coming up, or else. It's thanks to this kind of little saving, I suppose, that the place still exists.

Because one of the saddest things that's happened to Rome in the 25 years I've known it is the disappearance of places like this. They were two a penny. Now they're almost as rare as eel and pie shops.

Thursday, 25 January 2007


This was first published in Angel Exhaust Ten, edited by Andrew Duncan, its publication solicited, I believe, by John Wilkinson, for which much thanks. It's an interesting (I hope) hybrid of the Cambridge School and large doses of Lorca. I don't know if the magazine is still available, but, just in case, here it is. It's part of a large group of poems that have never been published, entitled VALUE.


A walled dream in which I am stupid
or a bullfighter’
R.F. Walker

He wants to make it more perfect.
The beaker belongs in his hand and a golden
armpit over his mouth can’t stop their
vicious whispers for more than a beat.
He is living in the surf.
The music belongs to them that
his feet will dance from, scared
to find himself
the dancer in their despite.
No one has told him off for a thousand years.
How does he know what to do?
He began by counting the waves
that rising now will engulf him
and he knows their numbers as beads of white
or as the scattering of white birds,
numbers revealing his pitiful age.
That pleasure is his for a moment
and the bending of a suddenly prolonged
lightning toward his feet, which burn.
When one day he will count ten fingers
on both his hands, and know himself whole.

And then he will be noticed,
everyone moving harmoniously
round the green walls of his harbour
which is all commotion.
Breaking days,
to celebrate the departure of calm
as a breach in the climate, are pinkly
vacant. And he is happy
to be lost among friends, whose concern
is the delicate frill of his suit.
He gathers them up as fruit in his gloves.

He is the work of his own dismayed genius.
An amphora found in the city after
excavation crumbles into dust, his mother’s
arm. To the applause of crowds
he runs through the dance that will
fire their alien tribunes, who scrape and bow.
His charm is to be foolish as they are
foolish, with his wrists in a bowl of acid.
They have come so far for nothing but his smile
they can barely see in the earthbound light
what children they are. Those he has banished
gather in their nets
while a red tongue licks from a cloud.
These have been spared, in the great
waves they are crushed to infinite sand.
He raises a finger and a new music is born.
An acrobat turns on the stars to scream.

Let blood. Peel off his nipples,
starfish. The philosophic jaw
swings over his tranquil harbour,
midges on its slowly-dissolving
yellow screen. Not soft enough
to be wrought as the landing-stage
sets up a film he saw years ago
in the bright arena, and bled.
He cannot bear that flatulent music.

His love has become grenades in the arms of girls.
They take him by the nose through mirrors
that mistake the word ‘ghetto’ for ‘grotto’.
Under the rain he makes sisters out of flowers and owls.
The house is sliding. Where is the house?
He is walking uphill between sofas and trays of cachous.
He is a black man making good.
He is searching for strangers of his own kind.
Glass-like, they wait by his raised eye
for kisses and a basket of
wounded hair. The girls explode.

Alone now, he presses his thumb
against the neck of the vase.
He rests an ear on the stalk of its green throat.
Casually spread with gold
the evening dips in his throat
a violent rod, the engine of desire just
turning over as it probes, its stations
revolving as echoes in the machine.

Goldenrod. Love. The break of the lights
on the turrets, swinging his way.
He pauses for the applause of guns
to fathom his silence. He looks like
winning when a breach appears in the smoke,
his seventh labour
barely begun. A little wound.

He is wearing that horrible light
that is love for others. Windily showing
his disregard he sloughs it off as
symptom of a gilt and whore-like age.
Glistening in what darkness becomes him
now and as though at rest
in the colonnade of his bones a dog barks
to be put to sleep. They dance in each other’s eyes,
ten boys with the gestures of one, a curtain
straining to be closed.
If anyone answers he is lost,
beginning to die for the others.
In a palmful of water his velvet cries
are expanding always
expanding into muscle.

The weight of his sinews is covered in fur,
hysterical and white as a fountain.
A snowman. Kissing its scandalous mouth
he is gifted with the gift of words
to cord his thighs, to make lifting a bird
in the lightning, to silence the clouds,
to tell him what he wants to hear,
the numeracy of the bone structure,
the bees in the throat chamber making music,
dresses that heal the sadly distended armies,
the dream that occurs as a junction box
to re-route the seasons into his mouth.

Blue smoke that bears no repetition,
that stutters its cloud-like past
within the bell, the clamour of its wanting
waking the man. He is a statue
under the watery feet of Goths,
he is a heart of legendary blackness,
he is a vein
that runs from that heart
towards a singing and vacant history
of the self among roses and storks
tattooed on a chest, he is a dragon
mounting a girl, he is a girl, he is a clock
dismembered by horses in Paris in the rain,
he is a table made of flesh
in an empty house by a lake,
his filth and compromise
the breaking of love against a coast
suddenly there, its whiteness
and the fluted numbers.
Thus he’s divided
into cards and their numerous arrangements for death
around a central point, where he is perfect
as the decorative art of his veins shall become.

Three things wrong...

The art critic Federico Zeri claimed there were three things wrong with Italy: the Mafia, the Vatican and the University. I don't have any personal experience of the first (though I know someone who did, and I'll get to his story later), nor direct personal experience of the second, which is strictly extra-territorial, though you wouldn't think so from the traffic jams along the Tiber embankment every Wednesday or the almost daily presence of God's ferret on the TV news. But the University? Right on, Federico!

I've been what's known as a university lettore for25 years, and in litigation for 23 of them. During that time, I've been sacked, redefined, demoted, been prevented from working in the absence of a contract, been obliged to continue working in the absence of a contract. I've been told by my superior that I belong to a category that ought to be exterminated, and that I will be 'made to pay' for arguing. I've been threatened with unspecified 'measures' for taking time off to attend my father's funeral. I've been propositioned by students of both sexes, and resisted (honestly). I've been promised publications that have never appeared and had more prestigious publications ignored or patronised. I've been treated like shit by just about every other
university category, including students, in one way or another, except maybe the cleaners.

Zeri probably didn't even know that lettori exist. Because, of course, we aren't the problem.I was talking earlier about the way Italy imports words for concepts it doesn't really want to handle too closely. The corollary of this is that dozens of Italian words exist for which there is no real translation, words that sink their roots deep into the humus of the culture and won't be dug out. Qualunquismo. Menefregismo. Furbizia. Clientilismo. I don't know what bilingual dictionaries do with these words, but if you wanted to explain them through context the Italian university wouldn't be a bad context to start from. But maybe the best way in would be the word barone. It looks and sounds like baron, but is used to describe a certain kind of university professor. The feudal implications, needless to say, aren't accidental.

But this deserves a post of its own.

Wednesday, 24 January 2007

Two schools of thought

Leading on from the last post:

Two schools of ex-pat thought:

a) treating local craftsmen as though they were elves or small woodland creatures, as in 'I've got a wonderful little man who looks after my olives/plumbing/holiday lets.'

b) treating all local people, especially local rustic people, as though they had access to some special font of authenticity, as in 'I don't know, they just seem more real than we are.'

The temptation is the second school...

A normal country

Twenty years ago I taught English for a while to the journalist and historian Lucio Caracciolo, or rather we wandered around Villa Borghese in conversation I rarely interrupted by correction. Most of what we talked about is gone but I remember one conversation we had after I'd seen a Taviani brothers' film, Kaos, based on Pirandello's stories.

I loved the film, particularly an episode called The Jar (La Giara). I loved it for what it seemed to say about an Italy that was in danger, I thought, of being lost, a more elemental, earth- and time-bound Italy, a blah blah blah of long white tables under the trees and - though I didn't admit this to Lucio or even to myself - homoerotic visions of ragazzi, prelapsarian, pre-Armani jeans. Ironically, the best way to see that Italy portrayed now is to look at fashion advertising, Dolce and Gabbana probably being the best at it. It's become the Italian way of doing heritage.

But Lucio insisted that all that was nonsense, a millstone round the neck of Italy. Italy would never become a normal country as long as it was in love with the sentimental version of itself the Taviani film represented. What he was saying was that you can't have the myth without the Mafia, its ultimate defence and defender.

Lucio was a Germanist, I thought, he would say that. But I wasn't happy. I thought he was missing something, but I wasn't entirely convinced of the worth of what he was missing either. And now I'm more and more convinced that he was right. All this stuff about the past, and tradition, and the genius loci and the golden age, somehow more genuine and flavourful than now. It's a nonsense and a vast imprisoning hypocrisy, like bureacracy in the supposed name of order, when all it does is stifle. I could start talking about the Vatican again here, but I'll resist.

The house above the cork forest

Four houses really, each one a three floored tower attached on two sides to the rest of the building, so that cut across the house would look like a slice of that neapolitan ice cream you used to be able to buy or, better, of angel cake, if that's what it was called, four pastel blocks of sponge inside an icing shell. We were taken to see it the first time by E., since christened Zanzara (Mosquito), less for his sting than his ubiquity, it must be three years ago by now, and we wanted it for us or someone we knew, anyone would do. We wanted to keep it in the family.

It's a beautiful house, for what it is - just-worked honey-coloured stone - and for where it is, built on the side of the hill, with cork trees filling the valley below and bare rocks above, and a cave where a shot-down Greek pilot lived during WW2, or part of it, succoured by the local people according to the owners of the house, four aged brothers who pop up as soon as a car approaches the drive. This may be true. It's more or less where La Ciociara was set, after all, and Moravia knew a thing or two about the Resistance.

We showed it to friends, who liked it but not enough, who spoke to friends, who liked it enough, who fell in love with it, as people say about houses they want to live in. They decided to buy it in September 2005. E. swore to us that the papers were in order, and we believed him.

This is the first instalment of a long and enervating tale...

Tuesday, 23 January 2007

God's ferret

Cardinal Ruini was on the news last night. If Ratzinger is God's Rotweiller, he must be God's ferret, skinny and fast enough to get into the tightest of holes and root out heretics. It's an ever-growing category, always one step behind the awful possibilities offered by science, aided by 'bioethics', but the old favourites remain. Yesterday His Eminence was moaning about euthanasia and, you guessed it, PACS.

I wonder why Italian never comes up with its own words these days, just filches them from somewhere else: authority, PACS, welfare, privacy. It might be because what's being described is so incommensurately foreign that a brand new word (new brand word?) would be wasted. Authority: a government body that doesn't have any. Welfare: the name of a ministry in a country without a social security net outside the family. Privacy: a travesty when Italy has the highest number of intercepted mobile calls in Europe and beyond.

But it's that naughty French acronym PACS, or what the papers insist on calling 'gay marriage', that really gets the old goat's goat. On a personal level (mine), his ranting is particularly inappropriate at the moment. I heard a few days ago that the partner of a friend and colleague of mine (let's call him Dan) had died of cancer just before Christmas. Dan had been with his partner for 36 years. They'd shared a house, their lives, their incomes for more than half their existence and now they've shared a death, each in his own way. Dan's partner had a pension and if Dan and his partner had been able to define their relationship legally (no tulle, no confetti, a simple contract would have done, what even Blair has had the sense to define as a 'civil' partnership) that pension would now be his. If Dan had been a wife, this would have been automatic. As it is, Dan may stand to lose his house, because he can't afford the mortgage.

We're not discussing sacred bonds here. If there's anything sacred in love, the 36 years they spent together are all the proof that's needed. We're talking banal things, like security, money, the space to grieve without thinking about how to pay the bills. Oh yes, if his partner's parents had still been alive, Dan would have to deal with that as well, because half their house would automatically be theirs, whatever his partner might have wanted. That's Roman law.

I don't know what His Ferret would say if I told him about Dan. I don't suppose he'd care. He has bigger fish to defend than a 'gay widower'.

Monday, 22 January 2007


It's an odd way to start perhaps but I want to see how it feels to begin to clear away a backlog of work that will otherwise never see the light of day, whether virtual or not. These three pieces are small things made from one of those magnet packs for the fridge door. They were put together some time ago, so there's no pretence of relevance. They were made for fun, but they don't seem to be about that. They seem, rather solemnly, to be about art. This won't happen again, or, if it does, it will happen a lot more obliquely.


passion must
fashion it
then demand
the here
& how

never ask
am I that
did I do this

we are glorious
nude & empty as
a loom of grace

you approach him drunk
weld metal in fiery water
hard and wild as his will
you capture the free blue dust
to compose raw shimmer and colour
to be always almost open
like white in a full canvas

for only you know sense is
younger than ink or paint
if to break is to be free

you would chisel him in art
imagine her old as concrete
compose the smear and shard

of red canvas and blue pain
screaming at his dead studio
like a song on a paint can