Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Tags (2)

I've been tagged with the same task by two people, which suggests that the growth of a meme may not be exponential at all, but whatever the opposite of exponential is. In other words, the circle might get smaller and smaller until finally only I'm left. What a horrifying prospect. The taggers (and I'm honoured by their attention) are Linda Grant and Simon Barraclough. They've asked me to list six random facts about myself and then pass the task on to six other bloggers. Well, the first part is easier than the second. So let's start with that.

1. When I was a child I thought the word 'unyet' existed and was slapped for answering back when Mrs Fletcher, my teacher, told me it didn't. The primary school was so small we used to watch schools programmes on the TV in her living room, sitting in a circle on the floor with her Aberdeen terrier on the sofa behind us.

2. I have bags of second-hand clothes I've never even opened. (This random fact is being recycled from an earlier tagging exercise - I suspected it was, and checked. Why should it matter so much? A nod to Linda?)

3. I was once described as 'a small bearded man with one earring' by the Cambridge Evening News.

4. I have a genuine Roman tessera round my neck, made of blue glass and found in our garden beneath the big lemon tree. There's a display case in a nearby museum (in Sperlonga) in which hundreds of similar tesserae have been tipped, like Spangles, so it's precious but not that precious. It makes me wonder, though, what else there might be in the garden.

5. I'm currently editing a report on the control of the Armenian vole.

6. I was given a ride as a child in the Rolls Royce Silver Shadow used by Charlie Drake at a Royal Variety Performance. I'm not interested in cars now, and I wasn't then, so the reason I remember this must have something to do with Charlie Drake. I'd rather not think any more about this.

Now comes the hard part. I feel that I'm exhausting my tagging credit, but I'll give it a go.

Erin O'Brien

Kay Sexton

This should be Vanessa Gebbie, but she's declared herself a meme-free zone. How wise! But I can't think of anyone else....

Rachael King

Tyla Tingle

Elizabeth Baines (who tagged me some months back with a very similar meme: revenge is a dish best eaten cold!)

Tuesday, 29 April 2008


Ouch! I've been tagged, twice (and I'll be getting to yours, Simon, but you'll have to admit that this one is, well, less demanding). This post is a response to Elizabeth Baines' tag from a few days ago. These are the instructions:

1. Pick up the nearest book.
2. Open to page 123
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you.

It's slightly embarrassing because the nearest book to my computer just happens to be my own novel. Believe me when I say that this is less a measure of my self-obsession than of a general state of disorder. Most books in my study are piled on the table behind me. Little Monsters, for some reason I can't remember now, just happens to be lying beneath a pile of FAO reports I'm trying to work on. So:

The Turks who need help are standing near the window: a young couple with a girl, three or four years old, who clings to her father, pulling his jacket, too large for him, off his shoulder. they look hot: they are wearing far too many clothes for this time of year - it's still humid out and has barely begun to cool towards autumn. When Flavio gestures to him, the man speaks, in broken English, while the woman and child step back, and listen.

However, as maybe my own book doesn't really count, I'll reach a little further and take the second nearest as well. And it's Words from a Glass Bubble by Vanessa Gebbie, which I still haven't started reading, and am looking forward to very much. So, I open it at page 123 and what do I find?

I wanted to leave you, she said. So many times.
Bren looked at him in their kitchen and named them; the men she would have left him for.

That ought to whet your appetite; it's certainly whetted mine. Unfortunately, I can't tag Vanessa, because Elizabeth already has, so here are my five:


David Isaak

Kay Sexton

Linda Grant

Simon Barraclough

Go for it!

Who am I?

I've just left a couple of comments on two fascinating posts by Baroque in Hackney and I noticed that the Snapshots thingummy on Wordpress (which pops up when you stroke a commenter's name with your mouse) provides not only a glimpse of recent posts but a group of what must be considered key words from the commenter's blog. So why do I get my own name (twice) - OK, I understand that - accompanied by Holocaust, Toilet Paper, Scientology and The Guardian?

What am I doing wrong?

Latest sighting of Little Monsters

On a more cheerful note than the one struck by the previous post, here's a photograph from Foyle's, Charing Cross, London, UK (Europe, the World, the Solar System, the Universe... Remember?). Little Monsters is now a highlight! And just look what it's rubbing shoulders with (so to speak). Wilbur Smith! Chuck Palahnuik! Nick Hornby! Will Self! What an explosion of testosterone on three small shelves; it's the kind of display you could find yourself pregnant from just by brushing lightly up against, handbag in hand, assuming it didn't kick your head in first. (I could have expressed that more elegantly but concentrated male hormones often discombobulate my prepositions.) I only hope Carol survives the onslaught.

All that's missing is one of those enticing Three Quid Off stickers on the front cover, which all the others seem to have. Hmm.

(Thanks, as ever, to Jane and her roving mobile.)

Roman salute

I don't live in Rome any more and many of the years I did spend in the city it was ruled by a series of insipid Christian Democrats, their names forgotten, more interested in nest-feathering than the fate of Caput Mundi. The place felt much as it must have done when sheep grazed in the Colosseum and the barbarians were a distant, fond memory. Since then, it's been put on its feet by two centre-left mayors: Francesco Rutelli and Walter Veltroni. The centre's been transformed in the past fifteen years, not always for the better. Some of the most characteristic parts of the city - such as Campo de' Fiori - have been sacrificed in the name of health and safety. Public transport could still be improved, though it remains notably cleaner, faster and cheaper than that in London. (Not, I repeat, not than that in Paris.) It's a far pleasanter place to be than Milan, ex-capital in all but name and gone to the dogs in the past twenty years. It's been shown to be one of the safest cities in Europe and, I think, the safest capital.

So what went wrong? Why did Rome turn its back on Rutelli and elect neo-fascist Gianni Alemanno, an ex-squadrista with a list of arrests for political violence as long as your arm, proud bearer of the Celtic cross (see left), a minister in Berlusconi 's last government, the son-in-law of Pino Rauti, suspected train bomber and founder of Ordine Nuovo? I don't know, and if you want an answer you'll find a lot of finer and more informed political brains than mine only too happy to provide one. I don't know, but. But.

I'd blame a lot of the defeat on the decision to re-propose Francesco Rutelli. The first time round, he was young, innovative, attractive in a rather square-jawed knitting-pattern way. He still had the air of resistance to the institutions that he'd acquired as blue-eyed protégé to Marco Panella. Since then, he's lost an election to Berlusconi, he's shifted from a secular and radical position on civil issues to the kind of half-witted bigotry you get from 'teodems' like Paola Binetti. He's become a mouthpiece for the most blinkered and conservative elements in Italian society. Who needs him? I have nothing but admiration for all those Romans who held their noses while putting a cross beside the man's name, but it can't have been easy. Next to Rutelli, even Gianni Alemanno might look like a new broom. Albeit one in the sweeping hands of Berlusconi, Bossi and the Vatican (whose current CEO also has a rather murky fascist past).

If Veltroni wanted the PD to look like a paradigm shift in Italian politics he couldn't have picked a worse candidate than the mealy-mouthed institutionalised has-been he chose. It was a lazy decision, and a contemptuous one. And now both Rome and the entire country will have to live with the consequences.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Fly me

After a long weekend of dreadful excess - due partly to the celebration of Italy's liberation (from itself and its unwise choices), celebrated each year on 25 April by precisely one third of the population, partly to the fact that Giuseppe and I have been together for 22 years, and partly to the irresistible and typically weekend combination of like minds, alcohol and propinquity - I found myself this evening watching a documentary about airports.

Made by Report, more or less the only programme of investigative journalism on Italian television, it looked at the state of Italy's many airports, scattered like mouse droppings in a dirty kitchen across the country and constituting a hole into which vast amounts of taxpayers' money are regularly thrown. The programme compared the Italian situation to that in other, more civilised countries like France, Spain and Germany (oddly, the UK wasn't mentioned), as it does every week, to Italy's cost.

What makes the Italian situation basically shit is too complicated to go into now - hints: private vs public, competition vs collaboration, Ryanair vs the world - but what struck me was not so much the structural or political differences between the Italians and all the others, as the difference in age. Barcelona Airport is run by a rather attractive young man who can't be more than 35. Ryanair's European representative might have belonged to the Arctic Monkeys. Ciampino, on the other hand, is managed by someone who should have been pensioned off a decade ago.

The impression the programme
gave, quite incidentally to its actual purpose, was that Italy is run by old men. Old men who aren't prepared to tell the truth, perhaps because they don't remember what it is, or that it might be important. Some of them were almost as old as Berlusconi.

Who still hasn't told us what his plans are to save Alitalia.

Friday, 25 April 2008

The Last Shadow Puppets: My Mistakes Were Made For You

This is very exciting. Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys teams up with Miles Kane of the Rascals. They've called themselves The Last Shadow Puppets and made an album - The Art of the Understatement - which, judging from this song and the title track, is a weird and hypnotic mixture of the Walker Brothers, Morricone and the inimitable Alex Turner himself. You can find out more about it here. You probably know all this already, but I can't resist telling you again..

Found it!

Memento mori

Steve Bell gets it right, as usual. I wanted to post this next to Tom Raworth's wonderful take on the Hirst skull, but I can't find it anywhere. Perhaps someone can help. (Tom?) It's going to be the season of the crystal skull, I imagine, with the fourth Indiana Jones film and the news that all the crystal skulls in the hands of the world's museums were actually sculpted out of caked snot by a German cheese-maker in the late nineteenth century, or something to that effect. Ho ho.

Thursday, 24 April 2008


No one seems to know who did this. Just as long as they keep their hands off Cellini's Perseus, seen below from the front and behind
- gloriously, almost fetishistically lit, so that he looks like one of those body-buffed CGI Spartans from 300. David's no slouch as a sex object, despite this final humiliation and his second life as a fridge magnet complete with wardrobe. But I've always had a preference for the rather rougher trade feel of the Cellini, and the fact that the faces of Perseus and the Medusa look almost identical, with the latter a slightly smaller version of the former, as though Cellini were trying to tell us something about power, as he does in his Autobiography. A few years ago, it was possible to get to within a few feet of the sculpture during its restoration and it was extraordinary to see how distorted the proportions are when you stand eye- or chest-level to it. It wasn't designed to be seen that way, of course, but even from below the sheer weight of the arms and legs is impressive. Just try slipping a pair of magnetised knickers over those thighs.

King Missile: Detachable Penis

If you don't visit Joe.My.God (and you should, you should), you won't see videos like this. Which would be an awful shame.

Monday, 21 April 2008


One of the most intriguing aspects of last week's elections here in Italy - perhaps the only intriguing aspect - is that so far no one has cried Brogli! Broglio is the catch-all phrase for the dirty business that goes on around voting time pretty much everywhere these days, in one form of other, more or less subtly, from Zimbabwe to Florida. Italy, of course, has a rich and vibrant history in vote-buying, the altering of ballot papers, intimidation, illicit photography in the polling booth; the usual stuff. Two years ago, the centre-left's narrow victory produced hysterical accusations from the Buffoon, which only died away after a recount indicated that the margin was actually wider - not narrower - than it had seemed. This time, though, with the Buffoon's bum firmly on the armchair of power, not a peep of electoral ill-doing. It's almost as though Italy were Sweden.

Which is rather odd. Only days before the elections, Marcello Dell'Utri - the man who thinks Berlusconi's Mafioso stable-hand was a 'hero' because he didn't shop his boss - was outed as the senator who'd tried to buy 50,000 ex-pat votes in South America for the very reasonable sum of
200,000. Nobody seemed to care very much about this at the time, and no doubt Berlusconi will sort the problem out in his usual way, with a law exculpating senators whose first name begins with the letter 'M' from crimes involving sums of money below 200,001. What's interesting though is that votes are so cheap in South America.

According to journalists working for a programme called Exit on La Sette, the only national TV channel not controlled directly or indirectly by Berlusconi, a certain Raffaele Lombardo, the man who swept the board in the regional elections in Sicily, was distributing bags of shopping worth
50 each to voters - along with a facsimile of the ballot paper, with a nice big black cross on Lombardo's party. Oh yes, and a helping hand was frequently offered in the polling booths thenmselves, just in case the voters had nowhere to rest their groceries.

At the going rate in Sicily, 200,000 votes would have cost Dell'Utri the tidy sum of
10 million. It pays to shop abroad.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Little Monsters: Guardian review

Another review of Little Monsters, this time from The Guardian. It's the sort of review that's best described as mixed. Mixed, as in: The parts of the book dealing with Carol's adolescence are very good indeed, but the more contemporary passages appear spurious and incidental. 'Very good indeed' is encouraging, and the only bit that's worth extracting, but I could have lived without 'spurious'. Glancing at the other first novels reviewed in the same column, though, things could have been worse. Catherine Taylor, the reviewer, could have used the phrase 'repetitive self-indulgence', as she does when she talks about Voice Over, by Céline Curiol. It looks as though she was in slightly acerbic mood when she sat down with her pile of débutantes (gratuitous Dylan quote: Your débutante just knows what you need/But I know what you want.). To make up for it, Amazon UK now has five extremely positive readers' reviews. If you've read the book and would like to add a few kind - or even critical - words, I'd be delighted.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Labels (part three)

Two more labels:

toilet paper: zeffirelli

Speakers' corner

I went to get my hair cut today. I tend to put this off, not because I'm fond of longish hair on middle-aged men; on the contrary. But, well, barbers tend to be talkative, in the way that dentists and taxi-drivers tend to be talkative, and all three (talkative) categories also tend to think that talking isn't so much an exchange of pleasantries as their right, as though what you were buying weren't short back and sides, or a six-monthly check up, or a ride to the station, but a lesson in how the world works. They think their jobs provide them with a soap box from which to lecture their captive audience, under the drill, or the blade, or the risk of missing the train that will take you away from this appalling fascist at the wheel. Once in my life, I've said 'Let me out,' and, to my surprise, the taxi driver did, and took no money, and I missed my train. And it was worth it, albeit annoying at the time.

The barber who cut my hair today greets me when I walk in, and that's more or less it. He doesn't ask me what I want - he knows. He sets to with his clippers and scissors and dubiously clean brush and blade and he does a very good job without uttering a word. In total silence, I think about the weather and my new novel and the odd intimacy of having a man I don't know - and don't want to know - stroke my cheek with the edge of a razor and stroke the short hairs out of my ear with his finger, and I'm mildly curious but absolutely not enough to ask. He thinks about whatever he thinks about, lips pursed, the 3D winking portrait of Christ behind him in the mirror. It's wonderful. He isn't as fast, or as good, or as fetching, as the young man next door to Bar Castello, who cut my hair a couple of times last year. But the last time I went the young man spoke and, like a fool, I answered. I should have said 'Let me out,' but I had a moustache half trimmed and everyone was listening, in shock, to my defence of Romanians in Italy.

Pure as the driven slush

There's an interesting post by Mary Jones on the Picador blog, about slush piles (which gives me the opportunity to recycle in my title Tallulah Bankhead's pitiless analysis of herself). If you read it, don't miss my comment.

Talking about slush piles, I have the honour of having been winkled out from one, many years ago, by Neil Belton, or whoever did his preliminary reading for him, when he was at Cape. He held onto the novel for many months, trying to persuade the paperback division that they wanted to publish it as much he did. He didn't, alas, succeed, but the fact that he found, and supported, the book - sent cold, complete and without an agent - is very much to his credit. And it's proof that, at least once, a manuscript did make it from the pile to an enthusiastic editor's desk, even if it went no further.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Labels: memory (part two)

There's a limit to the number of labels a post can have. This is part two of the precding post:

young people: unsynthesised manifold
plum: map
louise bourgeois:
madonna: libraries
mother: received truth
nico: moral relativism

That's enough for now...

Labels: memory

Too many of my labels have been used once and once only. It's uneconomical, and slightly sad, so I've decided to repeat my earlier bonding exercise, in which I take two otherwise isolated labels and unite them. It's a little gesture of love, in this often loveless world. I'll try and make each pair as memorable as possible. As it was before, this is a memory exercise.

authority: david letterman
embarrassment: health
holocaust: libraries
plants: plagiarism
patti smith: roses
scientology: semi-colon

Adult content

You may have noticed a new widget called Entrecredits appear on the right hand side of this blog, down near the 'translator'. In my insane desire to increase my readership and eventually dominate the world, I sign up to pretty much anything which might help, even when I'm not clear how. Unfortunately, I've just heard from Entrecard, the people responsible for the widget, that my account has been suspended because they don't allow sites with adult content to take part. Adult content? They must mean Berlusconi's humble todger. They surely can't be referring to the man himself.

Monday, 14 April 2008

The (new) emperor's new clothes

Power of the press

Well, I hadn't realised the Sunday Telegraph would have such impact in a provincial Italian town.I'd decided to keep pretty quiet about the piece I wrote on Fondi a few weeks ago, on the grounds that the information wasn't there to boost local egos but to help people who didn't know the place to enjoy themselves here. I point out some of the most attractive places to visit, best places to eat, the usual stuff. I also point out that one of the town's restaurants is a place to be avoided 'unless you like being told what to eat by the owner'. I could have said a lot more about this particular place: that the food is over-priced, that the owner treats his customers with contempt, that he refuses to provide a menu, something required by Italian law, and laughs at people who ask for one. I could have, but I didn't.

I suppose it's foolish to expect anonymity when your name and photograph appear beside the article, so I wasn't surprised when some of the people mentioned started to ask for copies. But I didn't expect to hear that the owner of the offending - and now offended - restaurant was threatening to have me driven from the town, as though it were his personal fiefdom. This is a typically anti-democratic reaction to acts of lèse majesté, so if I'm kneecapped (or disappeared) in the next few weeks, you'll know who to blame.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald's cropped up twice these past few days. Once on a just-read March 5 post from the House of Mirth, which posted this wonderful short letter she wrote to a bookseller who thought she might be interested in buying some books on Cairo. A second time in the Guardian, in an interesting article by Rachel Cooke about the essential role played by Virago in her literary education, a judgement I wholeheartedly endorse. She writes:
I once asked a famous British novelist who he regarded as the great post-war 20th-century novelist, and when he said 'Penelope Fitzgerald', even I - very shaming, this - was temporarily flummoxed.
I don't know who the famous British novelist is (any ideas?), but I agree with him. So it's very good news that her letters are due out in May, from Fourth Estate, as So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald.

Bella Ciao

Twenty years before the start of WW2, a Yiddish ballad was recorded in New York by a musician called Mishka Ziganoff. You can listen to it here. If you know the Italian partisan anthem, Bella Ciao, you'll find parts of the ballad sound very familiar indeed. What isn't clear is how they found their way from the ghettoes of the New World to the anti-fascist movement in Italy. Any ideas?


You have to live in Italy and speak Italian to get this. It's one of those tests to see where you stand in the political spectrum. I'm the angry radio. The rest of them are politicians. If you'd like to see where you are click where it tells you to. (Cripes, I didn't know it was going to be this big!)

The Guardian has a mildly optimistic leader today on the Italian elections this weekend. Its tone suggests that, even though we aren't allowed to see the results of opinion polls in the two weeks preceding the vote, some people have and they're suggesting a very close finish indeed. Things certainly haven't looked that good for the PdL (translated, horribly, as Freedom Folk, and the product of cobbling-together Buffoon's own party with the 'ex'-fascist Alleanza Nazionale). Senator Marcello Dell'Utri, one of Berlusconi's slimiest cronies commented that Berlusconi's former stable-hand, a Mafioso sentenced to life imprisonment, was a 'hero' because he hadn't spilled the beans on Berlusconi (yes, that's what he said - think about it - he actually said that). Berlusconi - no longer media manipulator par excellence - also shot himself in the foot at a poorly attended rally in Rome when he said that Roma captain, Francesco Totti, must be off his head to vote for Veltroni. Not a wise move in a region that might prove decisive.

Things are looking good... Well, as good as they can, when the greater good is simply the lesser evil. After all, Veltroni's PD is also the political home of Paola Binetti, self-flagellating bigot with the unusual leg jewellery.

Friday, 11 April 2008


I was talking to an extremely well-read American friend and writer a couple of weeks ago and I discovered that not only had he never read Enid Blyton, he'd never even heard of her. OK, he's younger than I am, but I'd never realised Blyton was such a British thing. Like most people of my generation, I devoured her books as a child, despite a growing climate of disapproval: her language was limited, her characterisation non-existent, her undercurrents of bondage and corporal punishment disturbing and potentially harmful. Some schools and libraries went so far as to ban her and I have a vestigial recollection of being looked at askance by a Lichfield librarian as I checked a Blyton out. I must have been six or seven.

I don't remember ever much caring for the ones she wrote for the very young, like Noddy, but I have vivid memories of her re-working of the Pilgrim's Progress, entitled The Land of Far Beyond, and of the Adventure series. This illustration, one of dozens produced by the extraordinary Stuart Tresilian for the series, comes from The Mountain of Adventure and has haunted me for years. I visited Lefkada some summers ago and discovered that, centuries before, the people on the island would sacrifice one of their number, usually a cripple or simpleton - known as the pharmakos, because his death, like medicine, was believed to heal the tribe. They'd attach wings to his arms and fling him from the cliff, the cliff from which Sappho also committed suicide, and I remembered this scene from the book; the scene and the illustration, as though they'd been waiting to be understood. I suspect that Blyton tapped into deeper veins than she was given credit for at the time. I think I'll take a look at some of the books again. If you're interested, The Enid Blyton Society seems to be a good place to visit.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Roof stuff

Last September, I posted a piece about the legal problems we were having with the roof of our house here in Fondi. It's a long, and painful, story and if you don't remember the details I suggest you click here.

(This is the point at which Patrick French yawns and moves on. Patrick French, for those who don't read the Picador blog, has just published the first volume of a biography of Naipaul, an act of heroism on any level, and thinks that "Bloggers are bores; bores are bloggers. Have you ever read an interesting blog post? Neither have I. There are 100 million blogs on the Internet today, and 85 million of them are dead." Right, Patrick.The thing about this kind of shallow wrong-headed comment is that it tempts me to write exactly the sort of blog post you're talking about. So, fuck you, Patrick, here it is.)

Today, Giuseppe and I received a summons to appear in court for having broken the seals on the top floor of our house in order to cover it with a temporary roof. The seals don't exist, of course, and never have. Like much of the law in Italy, they're virtual and only there to be applied when someone remembers, or it suits someone's interest, or there's an 'r' in the month.

We don't know what's likely to happen until we speak to our lawyer tomorrow evening. In the meantime, I have to stop Giuseppe seeking out the vigile who wrote the report and 'discussing' the problem per strada. What I didn't mention in my last post was that the vigile, a man who's already been tried for corruption, offered me a sort of deal, and I was too stupid to realise. He said that his son wanted to study English at university and did I have any suggestions, anything that might smooth the boy's path, a little help, as they say here. And I said: If your son wants to learn English he should avoid the Italian university system at all costs. With those rash but honest words, I sealed my doom.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Punto e virgola

Each culture gets the windbag it deserves. Italy has Pietro Citati, a man who imagines that, by writing about Kafka, Goethe, Proust, et al, he's somehow earning his own place in the pantheon. What Citati doesn't seem to have realised is that the weight of the flea and the weight of the dog aren't just different, but on different scales.

He's now turned his vacuous critical eye on an issue which doesn't really concern him at all, except in a snobbish high-cultural way: the use of the semi-colon in English. I was in England when the poor thing's
imminent demise was announced in France, so I had the chance to read all the comments in the press. Apart from a woman who seemed to think that punctuation included just about everything, from grammar to register (I can't remember who she was, or where she wrote; perhaps you can), most people were fairly sensible about the business, whether they cared or not (I'm a semi-colon fan, as you may have noticed). The general mood was that the world, and language, and literature, will survive. Interestingly, very few people seemed to know exactly what grammatical role it played; the general feeling was that it marked a longer pause than a comma, a shorter one than a full stop. It was actually fascinating to see how many writers see punctuation less as semantic than as a sort of musical notation. A mark of breath.

Citati, though, cares. He really cares. He says that the murder (sic) of the semi-colon is worse, far worse, than the murders we read about each day in our daily papers: the murders of husbands and wives, daughters and sons, cousins and great-aunts, second cousins and step-brothers, nephews twice removed and great-great uncles on the mother's side (Citati loves accumulation; the longer the sentence, the easier it is to pop in a couple of semi-colons). People are nothing compared to that sexy combination of full stop, round, circular, plump, spherical (Citati loves synonyms) perched, hovering, poised, above the comma, caesura, curvaceous whatsit, er, punctuation mark. Who needs people? People aren't culture.

He then has a go at academic language in Britain today. He doesn't give any examples - why interrupt the flow? He simply complains that most sentences in Anglo-Saxon discourse these days are based on the three word structure of subject-verb-object. It would actually be quite hard to construct an argument on this basis, given that most English sentences also contain at least one article and an auxiliary verb, which would push the word count up to five or six. But what the hell. Citati isn't just an artist; he's a humanist. Even better, he's an Italian humanist. He doesn't need precision. It just has to feel good. It just has to make him look good.

He goes on to praise the Italian of today, by which he appears to mean his own, for
its dignità, autorità and solennità, as if these qualities were somehow more valuable than precision or, horror of horrors, invisibility, by which I mean a language that doesn't parade its finery or draw attention to itself. The problem with dignity, and authority, and solemnity is that they're the kind of qualities that popes and warlords and emperors base their power on, not writers. Writers shouldn't have, and shouldn't need, new clothes. Citati should check his wardrobe, before it's too late.


Recognise this fat buffoon on the left? (Not Berlusconi, the one with glasses.) There's no reason why you should unless you're an Italian abroad and received some electoral bumph from his personalissimo party, Italiani nel Mondo - and, I hope, binned it as rapidly as possible. Either that, or you follow this blog with more attention than I deserve and recall him from a post some time ago, in which I described him as a smug bastard and gave a brief run down on his shameful - albeit shamelessly conducted - political career. His name is Sergio De Gregorio and he is, god help us all, a senator for at least the next five days.

He may not be quite so smug today because he's being investigated for associating with the Calabrian Mafia. Apparently some plain-clothes policemen filmed him at a dinner during which he mediated for the powerful Ficara clan in their bid to buy an army barracks. Naturally, De Gregorio denies this and claims to be 'disconcerted' by the accusation. This is what most Italian politicians say when they're caught with their fingers in the till. 'I was just having a convivial meeting,' he says.

He doesn't seem in the least 'disconcerted' that he was having dinner with known Mafiosi in the run up to local elections. Why should he be? Berlusconi, his lord and paymaster, never is. And guess what De Gregorio's giving him in the photograph above. Something called the Premio Orgoglio Italiano (Italian Pride Prize). You couldn't make it up.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Charlton Heston and, er, Morrissey

Some of Charlton Heston's reactionary political antics during the last few decades of his life probably warrant one of my Good Riddance posts, but that's not all there was to the man. This photograph, taken in 1961, shows another, earlier, and more generous side to him. It comes from a nicely rounded Independent article, according to which the rot set in during his fifties. Let this be a warning to all those of us currently passing through that dangerous decade.

Apropos of reactionary viewpoints, Morrissey recently won a court apology from The Word, which had quoted him as complaining that Britain had lost its 'identity' as a result of immigration. As far as I know, Morrissey still lives in Trastevere, one of the oldest areas in Rome and occupied in large measure by immigrants. Not the kind people complain of when they pontificate about identity. The other kind. The rich, white kind that loves the Rome of Pasolini and Anna Magnani and style accessories like lines of washing overhead and parked Lambrettas. That this Rome no longer exists is due in no small measure to the presence of culture tourists like Morrissey, whose attachment to Italy is, I imagine, far less integrated than that of the hundreds of thousands of immigrants whose presence in Britain over the past forty years has not only ensured the functioning of essential services, but also contributed to creating its current 'identity'.

How old is Morrissey?

Monday, 7 April 2008


(Whoops! Sorry. Wrong photograph...)

...that Clarissa and I weren't reading to an empty room at my launch last week.

Andrew Crozier 1943-2008

Of all the 'Cambridge' poets, Andrew Crozier was the one who touched me most often, and most consistently. Ferry Press was central to the whole enterprise. I loved his intelligence and his eye, and I'm sorry to see him go.

February Evenings

by Andrew Crozier

I begin with a name. It isn't you
profiled against an orange skyline.
Nor the light that dazzled me when I opened a door
and realised after, I don't know how long
I stood there holding on to the doorknob, I faced
due west. It is early morning in March
which is the name of nothing I might hold to
since I can speak only from my temporary place
in the solar system. It is a February evening
the nights are drawing out and I love you
driving your car so attentive to the hazards of traffic
while I observe the passing skyline which so exactly
defines the way your hair falls onto your shoulders
alert to whatever should show up next.
Where were we going? I don't remember arriving
till I enter a room to see the sun setting
framed in the window and know that I still love
while you are elsewhere in its presence there is only
the light it sheds about us as I step into the area
where I can speak your name into a silence
which answers me.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Shelf life

The O. Henry Prize Stories 2007 website has been doling out its authors with such parsimony that I was beginning to wonder whether it would ever get to me (and Susan Straight, and Adam Haslett, who may have written my favourite, and Ariel Dorfman, and...). Then, all at once, we're being tipped out, one on top of the other, with an abandon that suggests the 2008 anthology is about to appear and space is needed, so in with the new and out, out with the old. I feel rather like something on the bargain shelf in Tesco's. Still, if you aren't put off by my sell-by date and want to see what I had to say about the O. Henry prize and various other things, click here. (Though I don't know why my photograph wasn't used. I'm sure I sent one... Should I be worried?)

PS This image has nothing at all to with O. Henry or my story (or indeed my missing photograph).

Saturday, 5 April 2008

Debord, de trop

ooI’m in England for a few days to see my mother. My visit's coincided with Naomi Campbell’s recent tantrum at Heathrow's disaster-struck T5 (luggage to Milan to be sorted...') and, less excitingly, the return to television of someone called Nigel Marven. Marven’s been popping up on all kinds of programmes, from Jonathan Ross, despite not having very much to say, to a daytime cooking show, despite not eating meat or drinking wine, which rendered him more or less useless, although no one seemed to care. He’s promoting his new series, so presumably all is forgiven.

One of the preview clips we
were shown was of Marven, up to his knees in malodorous swamp, straddling a furiously threshing creature called, I think, a snapper turtle. He was forcing open its large, ungainly mouth to show us a small flickering scrap of flesh built into its tongue and used to attract fish. He touched it to see what the snapper turtle would do, the way you might squeeze an avocado before you buy to make sure it’s ripe enough for that evening.

He’s one of that new school of TV naturalists who’ve sussed that, just as the anthropologist contaminates and becomes integral to the culture under the microscope, so these various heirs of Jacques Cousteau and David Attenborough – and Marven began as one of Attenborough’s assistants – are no longer invisible observers from camouflaged hides in woods and fields, the kind of thing we used to try to build when I was a child and children were allowed to leave the house without armed guards. These days, they want to be seen. They’re part of the show. To all intents and purposes, they are the show.

Steve Irwin, the Australian whose self-aggrandising antics led to his death, must have been the first – though he certainly won’t be the last – to grasp that what we really want to watch isn’t the animal in its natural state at all. What we now appear to want is to watch the animal being drawn, dragged, biting, kicking, enraged, into our natural state: the state of the spectacle, our Everyman before the lens. We want to see the animal exposed in some way, transformed by its own anger or confusion or fear into the real performer’s stooge. The fact that the creature might damage the performer, even lethally, is part of the pleasure. It ought to be shameful, but it isn’t, or doesn’t seem to be. It seems to be what looking at the world – indeed, caring about the world – involves.

What does this have to do with Naomi Campbell? Well, it strikes me that what Marven and his colleagues most resemble, in their attitude towards their audience and their subjects, are paparazzi. Invasive, judgemental, acting in what they see – or pretend to see – as the public interest, they violate the world they’re supposed to be, in some way, recording. They’re so busily turned back towards us as they run to and then from their prey, teasing, coaxing, disturbing, rendering the otherwise unavailable available, that they don’t see the inauthenticity of it all; or, if they do, don’t care.

Now the last person in the world I’d normally defend is the maid-beating peace-crusading utterly dreadful Naomi Campbell. But when she turns on a photographer, or even a member of the public armed with camera phone, what she most resembles isn’t a celebrity so much as a snapper turtle, or dugong, or cayman, one of the harried beasts in Marven’s smugly relentless grip, held with its jaws forced open so that we can genuinely get the beauty of it hot.