Monday, 28 September 2009

Me again

Another self-promoting post, I'm afraid. Here's a two-page glimpse of the first number of the new Cambridge Literary Review, which not only contains this poem, written in 1973, but also a memoir of my meeting with the concrete poet Dom Sylvester Houédard, or dsh, as he preferred to be known. It's shockingly candid, as people used to say when reticence was a virtue. (Click to embiggen.)

If you'd like to know more about this excellent review, the first issue of which is dedicated to Cambridge writing, click here.

Link 7

East of the Web and Wordia have collaborated on a new project. It's called Link 7 and this is what East of the Web has to say about it:

In partnership with Wordia, the video dictionary, East of the Web presents Link 7, a series of stories linked by seven words:

case, fast, light, note, refuse, row, wound

Each story centers on one of the words and also contains the other six words somewhere in the text. Clicking on any of those words in a story will take you to another random story that centers on that word.

Explore the meaning of the seven words through the stories, or click on the 'Wordia' logo at the top of a story to hear an author define the story's word on video.

Link 7 contains stories by Alan Beard, Charles Lambert, James Ross, Sarah Salway and Kay Sexton along with many others.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Sniff, sniff

First item on the lunchtime news programme on RAI 1 today was a hurriedly organised photo opportunity for Berlusconi and Benedict 16 at Rome's second airport. B16 said it was a 'joy' to see Berlusconi, who responded with a cheesy grin and a comment about 'racing through the air' to greet the befrocked one, as though he'd flown there under his own steam, and not in a ruinously polluting plane of the kind he normally uses to shift his harem from one villa to the next. You'd have expected B16 to follow up this greeting with a few words on his latest edict (the word bull comes to mind, although it isn't immediately associated with papal), the one about the havoc wreaked on children by divorce and extended families. I'd have thought that a fair amount of havoc had been wreaked on children by catholic priests, but that's by the by. Still, there he was, the supreme head of the catholic church and noted theologian, tête a tête with a head of state, a divorced man who's about to be divorced by his second wife for consorting with minors, a man with a family so extended its limits remain unknown, a man who apparently phoned his pimp in Bari at least ten times a day before said pimp hit fan. Which moral figurehead would miss a chance like that to set a poor erring sinner on the straight and narrow? Well, B16 for one.

They talked about the credit crunch.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Noblesse gets nobbled

I wrote a short post almost two years about Italy's ex-Royals, Vittorio Emanuele di Savoia and his appalling family, when the whole ungrateful gang decided to sue the Italian state to the tune of €260 million (plus interest) for the 'moral suffering' of being obliged to live in Switzerland for 54 years. You can read it here. They withdrew their claim some months later, presumably when it was pointed out that silence is often the better part of maintaining some small scrap of dignity, despite one's best efforts to piss it away. Soon after that, the remnants of the Christian Democrat party decided to candidate the son, Emanuele Filiberto (hereinafter Fibbie), for a seat in parliament. There was an exhilarating moment during a press conference in which the party leader was caught whispering answers to a sadly confused Fibbie, who clearly hadn't expected the press to be so insolent. Earlier this year, with his budding political career already in shreds, Fibbie won Italy's version of Dancing with the Stars, a victory that strained the definition of both 'dancing' and 'stars' but let's not be churlish; at least the boy knows how to wear a tux. Next stop, Fop Idol.

Now Pops is back in the news. He's about to be tried for having attempted to corrupt a public official in a case that involves prostitution, gambling, drugs and the sexual abuse of minors. Sordid stuff and, as Dorothy Parker once said about girls attending the Yale prom, I wouldn't be a bit surprised. According to a Milanese pimp who'd provided the man with an evening's entertainment, the would-be heir to the defunct Italian throne complained that €200 for the young lady's 'performance' was 'excessive'. I'd need considerably more than that to share a hotel foyer with Vittorio Emanuele, let alone perform in a bed, but a chacun son gout. Still, it's been a good cull this week for jowly old roués, with Briatore chucked out of Formula One. They say there's never two without three, so who'll be the third? I wonder. With the latest news about very large sums of money being extracted from the Italian tax system by a mysterious Dottore, the head of a certain media empire, maybe it would be wiser if Silvio Berlusconi stayed in the States.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Mind your language

Productive dialogue is relatively easy among equals, perhaps because it's supported by a kind of openness that occurs when no one feels under threat and when the basic aim of the dialogue - greater understanding, a solution amenable to all - is shared. It can still be adversarial; productive dialogue isn't bland, but challenging. It challenges the listener to do at least half of the work, and often more; it recognises that speech that isn't attended to, and elaborated in silence, might as well not be spoken.

But when people feel that equality isn't there as a condition of dialogue, its nature changes. The lesser partners in the dialogue feels that insufficient attention is being given to them and their words. There's a sense of exclusion and people who feel excluded no longer trust the value of what they say. They start to shout, and interrupt, gesticulate. They become ill-mannered in order to attract the other's attention, while the other takes for granted that whatever he or she says will not be challenged, and begins to dictate. The dialogue is no longer collaborative, or even adversarial, but belligerent and oppressive. We see this happening all the time in the political arena. The people who feel powerless turn up the volume, and the volume of invective. They start to call their opponents Nazis, or faggots, or the Antichrist. The louder the noise gets the less those in power make the effort to listen. This is a paradigm of unequal dialogue.

OK, lecture over. Because what interests me is that, right now, the situation in Italy has reversed this paradigm. Berlusconi has an absolute majority in both houses of parliament, almost total control over national television, the most important means of communication, etc. yet he's behaving like a teabagger on the White House lawn. His language is consistently that of the underdog, rendered hysterical through deprivation. His opponents are, variously, communist, subversive, most recently farabutti (common crooks). This isn't the language of a man in power. This is the language of the dispossessed and the desperate.

He isn't the only one to indulge in this sort of degraded rhetoric. Renato Brunetta, minister for public administration (see picture), started his spell in office by accusing state employees of sleeping on the job, calling them fannulloni (layabouts). (I'll be looking at Mr Brunetta's lack-
lustre performance as consulente and university professor in a later post. For now, let's just say he has much to be modest about.) A few days ago, he decided to go one better than the boss and announced that the opposition in Italy was under the hegemony of an elite di merda (which needs no translation), an elite that deserved to morire ammazzato (to be murdered).

Perhaps the sort of bullying populism that SB and his government have ridden to power on makes such language necessary. In the meantime, the opposition, to whom nobody listens, measures every word.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009


Now I know how to deal with negative reviews. I just need to find the kids...

Monday, 21 September 2009

Jobs for the boy

Remember him? That's right, it's young Renzo Bossi, son of Umberto "Bingo Bongo" Bossi, currently minister in Papi Berlusconi's cabinet, may god preserve us. Daddy's in charge of reform, something that's sadly needed in the semi-free state of Italy, though personally I'd rather be asked to clean the Augean stables with a toothbrush. Still, you have to start somewhere, and Bossi's been a professional politician long enough (22 uninterrupted years) to have some idea of the task ahead of him. Corruption, inefficiency, collusion with organised crime. That sort of thing. The kind of thing he's been attacking from the soapbox of his state-paid salary all these years. But just in case he isn't sure where to begin - and I saw him looking fairly vacant at the state funeral of Italy's latest casualties in Afghanistan earlier today, as though he couldn't quite remember what he was doing there - I suggest he start his reform campaign by taking a look at an observatory that's just been created to keep an eye on the Milan Expo, scheduled for 2015. The event and the immense amount of money swilling round it have already attracted the attention of the Mafia, which is hardly surprising; it's a particularly succulent bone, after all, and there should be something for everyone, even after the politicians have been bought off. So it's good to know that an observatory has been created to make sure that the damage is, at the very least, limited. But wait! I speak too soon. Mr "I Have a Hard-on" Bossi has already sacrificed his own son, the fruit of his potent northern league loins and sharpest knife in the, er, cracker-barrel, vigorous young Renzo. Thrice failed at his high school diploma exams, previously unemployed, it's up to Renzo to observe Milan Expo 2015. And it's heart-warming to discover that he'll be receiving €12000 a month for his efforts. I haven't been able to find out, though, exactly what this observatory is supposed to be observing. If it's the risk of corruption, nepotism and the infiltration of half-wits in positions of responsibility, its gaze might profitably be turned upon itself.

Busy on Friday?

There's a long post to be written about Fondi and the Mafia, so long that I haven't time to do it today. But I'll find the time, I hope, before Friday when the town will be host to a national demonstration against organised crime. As you can see from the poster on the left, some of Italy's bigger names have been invited: not just opposition leaders but people who have lost members of their family, their livelihoods, their careers and, on a daily basis, their personal safety because they, or their families, have had the courage to stand up against one of the two most powerful non-elected institutions in the country. (The other one is the Vatican.) Oddly enough, there isn't a single representative of the government among the speakers. Perhaps, in their populist way, they'll be scattered among the demonstrators taking photographs for later use (I think this is a joke). I'll be offering other possible reasons for their absence when I get round to telling you a little more about why Fondi, to its misfortune, should be the ideal place for a demonstration of this kind...

And they couldn't have chosen a more aptly named square to hold it in. The Mafia may be the only thing that genuinely does unite Italy.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Now is the time to cover your face

To what appears to be general indifference, the press room in Rome city hall has just been dedicated to Oriana Fallaci, the Italian journalist who died three years ago in Florence after having spent many years in the States. Those of you who've never glanced inside any of the last few books Fallaci wrote, in Italian and an execrable English, will have no idea of the level of irrational venom to which her anti-Islamic polemic sank. Together, they redefine the notion of racist vomit with an energy that would impress the KKK were its members capable of extended reading. They're a sort of cross between Ann Coulter at her worst and the most virulently xenophobic taxi-driver you've ever had the misfortune to be picked up by. Fallaci's no doubt sincere hatred, and self-aggrandising hate-mongering, were fuelled by the way Muslims smell (that's right - bad) to the fact that they 'breed like rats'. Heady stuff, and much of it went down a bomb - if that isn't too inflammatory a metaphor - in the new Italy, characterised by Umberto 'Bingo Bongo' Bossi, but to name a room after her in the city hall of Italy's capital is an odd choice and I'm surprised no one seems to mind. After all, the (ex-fascist) mayor's recent rubber stamping of the appointment of someone who served time for an act of right-wing political violence some decades ago has stirred up enough controversy, although it's blindingly obvious that, of the two, Fallaci is by far the more dangerous figure. The fact that she was a writer and journalist of some note, and even value, before losing her marbles a là Bardot is no excuse.

On a lower level, if that were possible, one of Italy's least loveable
politicians, a woman called Daniela Santanché, was just on the TV news. Santanché's political career, such as it is, has been devoted to running to the succour of the victor, but that's hardly remarkable in Italy, although running with such speed on the very high heels she favours shows an admirable
recklessness. She's managed to get herself, she claims, slightly roughed up by protesting against the use of the burkha outside a party celebrating the end of Ramadan. Wisely, she'd informed the press that she'd be there, because what use is a protest without profile? She quoted a 1975 law forbidding the concealing of the face, insisting it be enforced. What was amusing was that, between her enormous sunglasses and surgically puffed-up lips, it was hard to imagine what her own face must once have looked like. Perhaps the law should be extended to cover designer shades and trout pout.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Shut yo' mouth, Part Three

Last Tuesday evening, prime time television on the main state channel (RAI 1) was devoted to Silvio Berlusconi,as regular readers of this blog will know. Alternatives to Berlusconi - with the exception of football on Sky - were cancelled or postponed, presumably to avoid our being distracted by more enticing but less healthful products. Ballarò, for example, a current affairs programme on RAI 3, was shifted to Thursday. Matrix, on one of SB's channels, was simply gagged, because no explanation was owed to anyone except the shareholders, most of whom are family members. I didn't watch the PM's show, ostensibly intended to celebrate the success of the government's rebuilding programme to house the victims of the earthquake in Abruzzo earlier this year. I say ostensibly, because what it actually showed was four families being rehoused in prefabricated structures paid for and built by a single Italian region, without government assistance. But let's not be picky. SB chose the plates, and filled the fridges - don't ask with what - and later made use of the opportunity provided so generously by the RAI to insult his opponents - journalists, magistrates, foreigners, the opposition - with remarkable vigour for a man of his age, as though rage at the impertinence of the subject world were a sort of moral Viagra.

The same old stuff? The usual depressing start-of-regime lament? Not this time. Because Berlusconi, the star attraction, drew a mere 13.5% of the viewing public, while Ballarò, two days later, had an audience of just under 19%. That's a difference in real terms of almost one million people. For someone who prides himself on his gifts as a communicator, this is very bad news indeed. For everyone else it's enough to make us get ready to dance in the streets.

May the force

I love this.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Information in the free world

My thanks (or should that be thnaks?) for this to Cynical-C Blog. It's good to know that independent journalism is alive and well and educating its viewers in all corners of the free world. The hint of irony you may be able to detect in this remark has everything to do with the decision of the RAI to cancel a news programme called Ballarò (on Rai 3) in order to make room for a brown-nose-fest on the main channel to celebrate Berlusconi handing over the keys to the first houses to be built for the victims of the L'Aquila earthquake. Whether they want them or not. It will be interesting to see if Toady-in-Chief Bruno Vespa dedicates any air time to all those people who won't be housed yet a while, not to speak of those who would prefer not to live in factory-built 'ecohouses' in the middle of nowhere. But why spoil a good mood, especially if it belongs to the Capo?

By the way, those of you in Italy who feel like a day out on Saturday could do worse than spend it in Rome on the march to defend a free press in Italy. That's what I said. A free press in Italy. As Gandhi once remrked about western civilisation: I think it would be a good idea.

Saturday, 12 September 2009


Well, Mike Bongiorno's dead. If you've never heard of him you don't live in Italy; if you do and still haven't heard of him, you were walled into a television-free zone many decades ago and have since been denied all contact with popular culture. Either way, you've missed very little. Bongiorno was poached from state tv by Berlusconi when he set up his first private channels, and worked for him uninterruptedly until last year, when his ratings fell and Papi disburdened himself of the 84-year-old hasbeen with an alacrity that surprised no one except, possibly, Bongiorno himself. During his long career, Bongiorno presented a host of quiz shows and not much else, though he'd recently acquired a pinch of semi-yoof credibility by making himself ridiculous in cellphone ads with Fiorello, Italy's current favourite showman (and a man of far greater talent than Bongiorno). He'd also reacted to his dismissal from commercial and state tv with a touching sense of hurt, which made him more likeable than he had often been on his own shows. A few months ago, he'd been picked up and dusted down by Sky, and was working on a revival of his most successful show, an Italian clone of the $64,000 Question. We'll never know how successful this might have been, but, as has been said about so many people, his unexpected death was probably a wise career move.

Umberto Eco wrote a famous essay about him, many years ago, entitled The Phenomonology of Mike Bongiorno, which still pretty much sums up the man's appeal. Eco said:
Idolized by millions of people, this man owes his success to the fact that from every act, from every word of the persona that he presents to the telecameras there emanates an absolute mediocrity along with [...] an immediate and spontaneous allure, which is explicable by the fact that he betrays no sign of theatrical artifice or pretence. He seems to be selling himself as precisely what he is, and what he is cannot create in a spectator, even the most ignorant, any sense of inferiority. Indeed, the spectator sees his own limitations glorified and supported by national authority.
Today, three days after Bongiorno's sudden death, national authority, in the form of Bongiorno's ex-boss, has decreed that the quizmaster receive a state funeral, naturally broadcast live on RAI 1. These ceremonies are normally saved for soldiers or the victims of national tragedies of some osrt, but it's not the first time a popular entertainer has been honoured in this way. Some years ago, Alberto Sordi, one of Italy's most important film actors, also had a state funeral, though I don't remember it being televised. Mario Luzi, the poet, was another. I have nothing against Bongiorno, who struck me as being an ingenuous, rather vulnerable man, particularly in recent years, more easily wounded than was sensible. But I can't help feeling that we're getting something wrong when an entertainer like Bongiorno is treated with this much respect. Because what we are celebrating is not, as it was with Sordi, a career, conflictual, ambiguous, self-congratulatory and self-accusing in equal measure, a body of work that interrogates the nature of what it means to be Italian and produces no easy answers. What Bongiorno did was contribute to the commodification of Italian culture, the wholesale adoption of easy answers, to such an extent that he became its representative, as Simon Cowell might be said to be ours, where we embody the notion of commodity as 'talent' rather than its reverse.

I wonder what the national authority will do when Umberto Eco dies.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Mud, to be worn with pride

Last Friday, Dino Boffo, the editor of the Catholic newspaper, Avvenire, decided to resign after having been attacked and accused of hypocrisy by one of Berlusconi's house rags (Il Giornale, owned by his brother). The Vatican accused Il Giornale of an aggression it considered disgusting, vile, indefensible, etc. As did the opposition, the opposition press, and pretty much everyone not on the Grand Buffoon's payroll. Great fun, and it's hard not to be happy to see the blood flowing from Berlusconi's foot while the gun's still smoking in his hand. But hypocrisy is hardly a hanging issue in Italy. The dreadful stigma that's destroyed Boffo's career, family life, mental health, public probity, and so on, and merrily reduced him to the state of Dreyfus on his way to Devil's Island, the mud that's stuck to his face and hands and keyboard, the sin that is so beyond the pale that it can definitively shit on the man and his professional future, is not that he's a hypocrite. Good god, he worked for the Vatican! Of course, he's a hypocrite.The problem is that he's been accused of being gay. Because in liberal, 21st century Italy, being gay is THAT bad. Get used to it, boys and girls. And get used to the fact that practically no one, in all the outrage this spat produced, and with all the anathema discharged left, right and centre, had the - what shall I say? - political sensitivity to remark on this. It's no surprise that some deranged heroin addict who calls himself Svastichella (hiding behind a sheet of paper, above) should be stabbing gay men in the country's capital because he finds them upsetting, or offensive, or potentially damaging to the morals of a twelve-year-old who wasn't there.


One of the best things about power is that the rest of us can watch people fall from it. Ceausescu, for example. Who can forget the two-bit tyrant’s face as the crowd beneath his balcony told him, in worm-turning chorus, to fuck off? Incredulity, affront, rage, more incredulity, as though he’d been cheeked by his footman. Some days later he was strapped to a chair in a drably painted office in one of his own palaces, his wife beside him, waiting for the footman to shoot them both through the head.

That's the short route. There’s a slower, less dramatic one but it's just as riveting seen from the square below. As I write, we’re being treated to the sight of Silvio Berlusconi stumbling through the gilded corridors of Palazzo Chigi, elevated heels clicking on the marble, towards his own fatal balcony. He prides himself on being democratically elected, which is true in the academic sense that acknowledges Bush and Mugabe and Karzai to have been democratically elected. But that means nothing, because at this point his pride means nothing, or begins to, dio volendo. He’s as driven as Ceausescu was by hubris and contempt for those who don't see things his way and, until very recently, apparently under the illusion that he no more needed to respond to his critics - other than to stigmatise them as communists and subversives - than did his Romanian predecessor. He’d jail them if he could. In the meantime, he’ll sue them into the ground.

So it's wonderful to watch him reeling from misjudgement to misjudgement like some late Rocky, the vaudeville smile increasingly manic beneath the make-up, the off-screen scowl increasingly dark. For someone who rates his grip of the situation so highly, his feeling for the consumer and their needs so unfailingly and instinctively right, he must be wondering how so much could have gone wrong so fast. He must be wondering, drifting punch-drunk from door to door, how a flirt with an attention-greedy teenager, under the conniving eye of her pandering family, could have led to this inexplicable meltdown, where nobody understands him, nobody loves him any longer, whatever the polls might say. And even the polls. From 68% to 53% in a matter of months. Et tu, Piepoli.

Of all his friends – the Vatican, the National Alliance, the Northern League - only one has turned out not to be fair-weather, and that’s the Northern League, which has less market value abroad than the Festival di Sanremo, whose patron saints are Bernard Manning and David Irving. Propped up by a gaggle of lowbrow populists who think they live in the magical land of Padania, sustained by cut-throat journalists on his family payroll and toadies on RAI tv, raging against the communist press and the lies the world, the world, THE WORLD, is telling about him, criticised by his scheming wife and ungrateful daughter, in the echoing silence of his air-brushed son, he’s moving, step by step, towards the final light.

Thursday, 3 September 2009


You can buy this fridge magnet from Mormons Exposed.

And that's not all. They also do a great calendar. You must have wondered what those Mormon boys look like with those cute little suits stripped off them. Well, here's your chance to find out.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Go to jail. Or not.

As a sop to the thirsty for blood electorate of the Northern League, who seem to regard anyone born south of Florence as, in the words of their noble leader Umberto Bossi, bingo bongo, the Italian government recently voted in a law that severely restricts immigration into Italy and establishes that anyone who manages nonetheless to enter the country will not simply be sent home, as was the case before the new law, but will be treated as a criminal and imprisoned. Italy's prisons were lightened of a small part of their human load by a much-criticised amnesty during the previous government, but have recently been identified - by the minister of the interior, no less - as among the most overcrowded in Europe. Still, joined-up thinking isn't necessarily integral to government, particularly when one of its components is run by a rabble-rousing zenophobe (pictured above with his intellectually challenged son, or dauphin, Renzo, as they audition for a deodorant commercial).

The problem, though, was that an awful lot of the illegal immigrants already in Italy weren't hanging around street corners selling hard drugs to children. They weren't, hard though this may be to believe, involved in prostitution or organ trafficking. I know, I know, I read the papers too, but you'll have to take my word on this. Many of them were picking tomatoes in inhuman temperatures, or making designer handbags in sweatshops, or building second houses on stretches of protected coastline. They were actually quite useful. But no, despite Italy's need for tomatoes and homes, and, er, handbags, the government stood firm. Do not pass Go, it said. Do not collect £200. Go to jail.

Unfortunately, and it didn't take people long to realise this, an even larger number of illegal immigrants weren't working in factories, or cellars, or acres of improvised greenhouses. They were living in Italy's cities, in residential areas, in some cases surrounded by Italian families. They were known as colf (short for collaboratori familiari) and badanti (carers). They were cleaning floors and toilets, and looking after babies, and wiping the chins and arses of grandparents whose children didn't have the time or energy to do it themselves; who could afford to employ someone else to do it for them. They were doing - in other words - all the dirty stuff that Italian people - including their representatives in government, on both sides of the spectrum - didn't want to do. Suddenly, the need to rid Italy of these parasitical delinquents didn't feel quite so urgent.

Hey presto! Amnesty for colf and badanti. Out of all the illegal workers in Italy, these two categories have been saved from the law. Out of all the illegal workplaces, the 'family' home has been singled out as having the only legitimate need for foreign labour. What's extrordinary about this is that the decision to operate such an amnesty has created an ulterior racism within an already profoundly racist piece of legislation. It's extracted one category from the mass of people affected by the law and decided that their work has, not more value than the others, but less; that their work is just so degrading no Italian could be expected to do it. With one stroke of the pen, it's institutionalised a domestic servant class in the country. What it says is that if you're an African and want to work in a factory or a field, you can fuck off because, officially at least, we don't need you. But if you want to mop shit from a floor, step right up, because no way am I, a white European (naturally, from Florence up), going to stoop to do it. That's quite a message. I wonder if Berlusconi made it clear to Gheddafi during his recent visit to Libya to discuss 'immigration issues' that the only welcome Libyans, apart from those bearing oil, are the ones who are prepared to nurse the old and infirm to death. Or were they too busy exchanging camels for skirt?