There were four guests, two Italian, two English. The English friends, like me, have both lived here in Italy for several decades, and the language of the table was Italian. We'd all had a fair bit to drink by the time the article was mentioned. One of our English friends - Jane - hadn't seen it, so it was duly produced and read out, to general hilarity. At the end, though, Roberto - a film and TV director - asked me what I was going to do about the mistakes in it. Initially, I thought he was joking. But he was quite serious. It had never occurred to me that the article had any weight beyond the ephemeral fact of its local publication. He was startled. You work in communication, he said. You know full well that sooner or later someone will google you and find this article and assume that everything in it is true. They'll do that anyway, I said. But I also said that no serious journalist would regard as authoritative an article that talked about orange-coloured trees. Don't be naive, he said. Besides, this article has appeared in a paper with a specific readership (local, right of centre) and purpose (to make Fondi look good as it's battered by accusations of Mafia infiltration), neither of which you'd normally consider sympathetic. People will assume you've given this piece the thumbs-up knowing its context, he said, and Renata, who also writes for TV, agreed. Suddenly, my harmless bit of fun began to look less harmless. But I don't care one jot about local opinion, I protested. Besides, I added, adopting the classic Billie Bunter line of defence, everyone likes it. But you're public now, Roberto said, whether you like it or not. You need to be able to control what's said about you. But it's only a local paper, I insisted. Everyone will have forgotten about it in a week's time. Not if they google your name and Fondi, Roberto and Renata said. My English friends disagreed, taking my line that it didn't matter. And of course they were wrong and Roberto and Renata were right. Type in Charles Lambert and Fondi and the article is the first thing to appear, in Italian, and the fifth overall. It exists. It claims to be an interview, or to be based on an interview, with me. It represents me in a way over which I have no control. It's canonical.
And it occurred to me later, as I thought about why, despite this, I still didn't want to write to Latina Oggi and complain about the inaccuracies and the downright lies, that my reluctance wasn't just to do with a feeling that I'd be letting down all those people who'd been so pleased to see someone say a few good things about their town, in which I happen to live and about which I happened to write an article, to raise my profile, a year ago. That feeling was certainly present, and it may have been what persuaded at least one of my two English friends, Sally, who also lives here in Fondi, to think it better not to react. It marked an acceptance that we, as foreigners in a small town, necessarily value, or should value. Because isn't that the charm of small foreign towns - that they eventually succumb to us? But my line of argument at dinner was that I didn't want to correct the article because I didn't care what people thought about me, because Fondi is not my town, and because I neither have nor want to have a town that's mine. And that's much closer to the truth.
The more I think about it the more I realise that what split the table into two along essentially nationalist lines is that for me, and for my English friends, what Italian journalists write in their papers isn't quite real, just as bad language in Italian isn't quite real - the weight of it eludes us. This is partly the result of the objective shoddiness of much Italian journalism, but it goes deeper than that. Italian papers are as unreal and inessential to us as they are real, and essential, and capable of bearing and creating value, to our Italian friends. I'm not sure what this says about celebrity, but it seems to have the same ironic relationship to the phenomenon as whoever it was called their band Big in Japan. As if it mattered.