Wednesday, 30 December 2009


In Italian the word ape means 'bee', but it's also the name of the type of vehicle in the photograph above. It's a 50cc moped engine with the body of a small van or, in this case, truck, grafted on to it, and it's been the preferred means of transport in rural Italy and, I imagine, in much of rural Europe for decades. Most families that have lived in the centre of Fondi for a generation or so have a piece of land outside the town, which they use to grow their own fruit and vegetables and a little extra to sell, often from their front doorsteps, with the aid of the primitive sort of scales personifications of justice tend to hold, and Api are what they use to get themselves and their produce from one to the other.

Api are still pretty common in Fondi, although you rarely see anyone under 50 driving one - they're more comfortable in Smarts or ludicrously oversized four-wheel drives. Yet even those people who have moved up to cars drive them as though they were Api and obeyed the altogether less stringent rules applied to them, turning and braking without warning, stopping mid-lane to chat with someone coming from the other direction until someone else's patience finally wears out and horn pressure is applied. This generally works. It's hard to work up a genuine road rage if what you think you're driving is a jumped-up moped.

The front seat of an Ape is really designed for one but, under certain conditions, there's room for two and it struck me recently how perfectly suited Fondani were to meeting these conditions. Essentially there's room in the cabin for a big person and a little person and as Fondani age a sort of natural process of adaptation takes place to make them fit. The women grow larger and rounder, a mixture of hard-earned fat and muscle, while the men wither down into a hank of sinew topped with a cap. The bigger the woman, the smaller the man. This symbiosis not only makes Ape travel feasible, it also reinforces the heterosexual model of rural life: one man, one woman, one Ape. Two men would rattle around inside the cabin like dried peas in a can. Two women simply wouldn't fit.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

The shopkeeper is always right, well, sometimes

I was in my local profumeria last Sunday. This particular profumeria is the size of a large provincial bookshop (in a town that doesn't have a bookshop), its walls and shelving units lined with exquisitely packaged small bottles containing liquids of no intrinsic value at prices that would make a homoeopath blush. I mention it because, on the way out, a radio announcement said that Berlusconi was due to be released from hospital that day. The shop-owner, a middle-aged woman, commented: 'As far as I'm concerned he can spend the next month in hospital.' Any demographic breakdown of Berlusconi's electorate would find a disproportionately high number of middle-aged female shop-owners in the centre-south of the country, so this was a very encouraging sign. What was even more encouraging was that she was prepared to share her view of the matter so freely with her customers in a town in which seven voters out of ten opted for Berlusconi in the last elections.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

News from the very dark cave

The region of Emilia-Romagna has recently established that couples, including those with children, (in lay speak, 'families') are entitled to welfare provisions whether they're married or not. This has attracted the anathema of the local befrocked wingnut cardinal, a certain Signor Caffarra, the sour-faced old biddy on the right. He has announced that 'God will judge them.' Until such judgement is carried out, as the Great One's self-elected mouthpiece, he accuses the council of wanting to 'devastate the social fabric' and invites civil disobedience against 'a gravely unjust law that doesn't deserve to be respected'. It's hard to see exactly how one can disobey a law which simply extends already existing social services to a larger number of people, but logic isn't one of the Vatican's strong points and the usual fuss has been made.

In the meantime, a 75-year-old Syrian woman in Saudi Arabia has sentenced to forty strokes of the whip and four months in one of the Holy Kingdom's jail, followed by deportation. Her crime? She allowed two men into her house who weren't members of her family. They were bringing her some bread. Ah, families!

Friday, 18 December 2009

No-B Day (two weeks late)

Not hot news, I'm afraid. I wrote the following piece the day after the No-Berlusconi Day march in Rome almost two weeks ago, then put it to one side to settle. Well, it has, and there's nothing I want to change, so here it is.

The day after No-B Day, the anti-Berlusconi march in Rome, the war of numbers is in full swing. For the organizers, the demonstrators were over a million, for the police no more than ninety thousand. According to La Repubblica, one of the two Italian newspapers currently being sued by Silvio Berlusconi and arguably the most powerful force in the confused and fragmented opposition to the prime minister, the march attracted half a million. Il Giornale, the paper owned by Berlusconi’s brother and edited by Vittorio Feltri, Berlusconi’s pit bull, calculated a mere two hundred thousand. Well, as Mandy Rice Davies once said, it would, wouldn’t it?

As far as demonstrations in Rome go, I’m an old hand and I’d lean towards the organizers’ estimate. I’ve marched against the war in Iran (with two million others) and for index-linked salaries (over a million), against state violence and church interference and spending cuts, for women’s rights and immigrants’ rights, not to speak of more Gay Prides than I care to remember, but I’ve never been so overwhelmed by the sheer number of people taking part as I was yesterday afternoon. Overwhelmed in a physical sense, as the march moved out of a tightly-packed Piazza Repubblica and poured, like slow-flowing oil released, into not only Via Cavour, the official route, but all the surrounding streets, to converge further down towards the square behind Santa Maria Maggiore. Overwhelmed and, more than once, made anxious by the thought of being crushed as the marchers were funnelled into narrow streets and the pace of the march slowed down to a back-destroying shuffle; made anxious, as well, by memories of Genoa and G8, despite the apparent absence of police, because there were hardly any to be seen. Two hundred thousand? Five hundred thousand? A million and a half? Who knows? Midpoint along the two and a half mile route, when the speeches in Piazza San Giovanni were already under way, we were texted by friends who still hadn’t managed to leave Piazza Repubblica. With more than two miles of impassable city streets, I’d say the mass was critical, and leave it at that. Besides, numbers aren’t the only handle on a march. More intangible, but of equal import, is the mood. And the mood two weeks ago was benign, even festive, less carnival-like than Pride but with a similar undercurrent of frustration released, of an anger and sense of injustice both mitigated and nourished by being shared. Certainly, the level of political discourse was low, the most
popular chant near me comparing Berlusconi to a pezzo di merda, but there are times and places for subtlety and this wasn’t one of them. People were wearing purple, a colour without political affiliation, Berlusconi masks, fright wigs, balloons, improbable combinations of shell suits and pashminas. Banners were hand-made, hand-written. Protest was artisan, and inventive. Someone had cut a hole in the middle of a photograph of Berlusconi’s face and popped her finger through it in place of a nose. The caption on the photograph was Pinocchio.

And there were flags, the red flags of the various remnants of the Italian left, the green flags of ecologists, a sprinkling of rainbow flags revived from their last day out in the sun, the white flags of Italia dei Valori, the party founded by Antonio Di Pietro, one of the group of magistrates whose Clean Hands investigation in the early 1990s brought down the old system and, ironically, paved the way for Berlusconi’s rise to power. The government line today is that the march was hi-jacked, if not actually conceived, by Di Pietro, Berlusconi’s arch-enemy. Neither of these accusations is likely to be true, although there’s an undeniably strong coincidence of intent between the marchers and Di Pietro’s party and it probably hasn’t done Italia dei Valori any harm to identify itself with the event. It’s simply easier to attack a single public figure than a million private ones, each of whom has made a decision autonomously, without any idea of personal gain other than that of living in a country where some day, one day, certain kinds of behaviour will be recognised as intolerable, from its leaders at least.

Because what struck me most wasn’t the presence of political factions but the variety of individual faces, not only young and old – and with a heartening presence of the former – but ex-hippies and pensioners, new-agers and office workers, stalwarts of popular protest and people who might never have marched before but felt the need to do so yesterday; even, I’d guess, a significant number of people who voted for Berlusconi in good faith and can no longer tolerate being represented by the man. Not to speak of the range of accents, from the deepest south to the even deeper north; in a country that stigmatises, and allows itself to be stigmatised, in geographical clichés, from racist Northern Leaguers to Mafia-friendly Sicilians, it was uplifting to hear so many different voices being raised together.

Government papers made much of what they call the confusion of the opposition in Italy and, in many ways, the opposition has only itself to blame for this. But the No-Berlusconi Day march yesterday wasn’t confused at all. It had a single voice. It wasn’t – and wasn’t intended to be – a propositional event. Marches don’t make policy. Its purpose was to tell Berlusconi that, despite his often repeated claims, he hasn’t been elected by ‘the people’ at all, but only by a minority of the people, and that, in any case, election is no guarantee of immunity from the law. As purposes go, this isn’t even political, and the lack of official patronage from the Partito Democratico was a wise move on its part. Because electing call girls as local councillors, and bribing lawyers to keep their mouths shut in court, and maintaining contacts with organized crime, aren’t political positions in modern democracies, but offences to both the law and a public sense of decency. Marches like yesterday’s are a useful reminder to us all that, despite appearances, despite the shameful deceptions of the media and the even more shameful arrogance of power, such a thing as decency continues to exist.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Man meets small spiky object. Object wins.

Berlusconi's bloodied nose is already an exquisitely political space, populated on the one hand by those who see the Capo's body as sanctified ground and therefore untouchable (i.e. his supporters) and on the other hand by those who see his body as sanctified ground and therefore untouchable (i.e. the opposition). Of course no politician is going to say that small spiky objects should be thrown at one of the caste, and I don't expect them to. But it really shouldn't be that difficult to point out - as so far only two politicians have done - that Berlusconi has devoted the last 25 years of his life to painting his opponents as evil baby-boiling communists, a violence that has been greeted with a Jane-Austenesque meekness by a series of opposition leaders, most notably Walter Veltroni, the man who adopted spinelessness as an ideological stance and lost the last election as a result.

As a man of the 20th century, Berlusconi, and his advisers, know full well that violence can be instigated through the kind of name-calling populism he's based his political career on, and Piazzale Loreto - not to speak of a certain Romanian balcony - is proof that it can, and usually does, backfire on the instigator. And it's odd that, during the act of Berlusconi worship performed by yesterday's main news TG1, no one saw fit to mention the fact that half an hour earlier in Piazza del Duomo he'd been screaming Shame! Shame! to a bunch of hecklers, whipping himself, and his relatively modest audience, into a frenzy of hatred. Chi di spada ferisce, di spada perisce, as they say in Italy.

The two politicians are Antonio Di Pietro (Italia dei Valori) and Rosy Bindi (Partitio Democratico), and I take my hat off to them both. And if a small plaster model of the Colosseum bounced off the head of Daniele Capezzone one of these days I wouldn't be the least bit upset. (How's that for instigating violence?)

Sunday, 13 December 2009

How many words a minute?

Charlemagne OK but Louis the Pious?

Unusually, as Amazon suggestions go, this one tempted me. Maybe because Louis and Pious are almost, but not quite, a visual rhyme. And then I saw the price.

Greetings from,

As someone who has purchased or rated On Sparta (Penguin Classics) by Plutarch or other books in the Historical > BCE-500 AD category, you might like to know that Charlemagne and Louis the Pious: Lives by Einhard, Notker, Ermoldus, Thegan, and the Astronomer will be released on 15 December 2009. You can pre-order yours for just £67.93 by following the link below.

Charlemagne and Louis the Pious: Lives by Einhard, Notker, Ermoldus, Thegan, and the AstronomerCharlemagne and Louis the Pious: Lives by Einhard, Notker, Ermoldus, Thegan, and the Astronomer
Thomas F.X. Noble
You Save:£3.57 (5%)

Release Date: 15 December 2009

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Cubism in the round

I'm not sure if this is an offence to, and crass misunderstanding of, the nature of the original work or a useful and evocative reading of it (I suspect the former), but either way it's worth a look. (Thanks, Erin.)

Must be Santa

This is as festive as I plan to get, so far anyway (though I'll admit I was tempted by the Twelve Gays of Christmas). It's Dylan, who can (almost) do no wrong, and I think it's played straight, because otherwise it would be plain silly.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Love came down

Are you enjoying the latest cat-fight as much as I am? I'm talking about the one between the Vatican and the Northern League, after Roberto Calderoli, minister for simplification (and they don't come much simpler than Calderoli) criticised Milan's Cardinal Tettamanzi. Tettamanzi upset Calderoli by suggesting that in God's sight all men were equal, or something equally inflammatory, and forgot to add that obviously he wasn't referring to those born outside the mythical state of Padania, where men are men and have tigers in their garden, not to speak of she-bears and the odd wild pig. Calderoli's the man on the left. He's the man who took off his shirt on TV to reveal an anti-Islamic tee-shirt and then ran crying to Mummy when the Muslim world reacted badly, the way bullies always do when their bluff is called. He says that it isn't the job of priests to 'be political'. You know, the old 'Give to Caesar' line.Which didn't stop the Lega drawing on the Vatican's persuasive powers when it came to throwing out the idea of living wills in this country, or getting on its high horse about 'Christian traditional values' when the EU told Italy to take its crucifixes out of the classroom. Well, Roberto, one of those traditional values you hold so dear is hospitality to strangers, not clubbing them over the head and deporting them to Libya. Christianity isn't just for Christmas, Caldy. And I don't just mean White Christmas.

Mind you, Tettamanzi's words would ring a little truer if the Vatican bank weren't under investigation for money laundering.

Kapow! Biff! Clunk!

Berlusconi and his trained seal, justice minister Alfano, have been crowing about their latest victories against the Mafia - two arrests that just happened to coincide with the anti-Berlusconi march in Rome last Saturday (about which more anon). Proof, they say, that this government is cracking down on organised crime in an unprecedented fashion.

It's a pity the police don't agree. COISP, the independent police union, says that the recent arrests are a victory for the police and no one else, certainly not for a government that, rather than help in the fight against crime, actually impedes it by cutting resources. According to COISP, the police in Palermo don't even have the paper they need to print warrants.

Listen up, Batman!

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Shock horror: Homophobic obscurantist has top job

I discovered an interesting fact about Italy's National Research Council (CNR) today, thanks to a letter in Repubblica. The CNR is a state-financed public organization that, according to its website, exists "to carry out, promote, spread, transfer and improve research activities in the main sectors of knowledge growth and of its applications for the scientific, technological, economic and social development of the Country." (I love that capital 'C'.) This is a laudable aim but it's a little hard to square with an event entitled Evoluzionismo: il tramonto di una ipotesi (Evolutionism: the twilight of an hypothesis), organized (although not apparently financed, for which much thanks) by the CNR, and intended to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth. This is rather like celebrating the anniversary of Mother Teresa's birth by holding a lap dancing competition but there you go, there's nowt so queer as folk, especially scientific folk. Especially scientific folk in Italy's top scientific body.

The conference was organized by the deputy president of the CNR, a certain Roberto de Mattei. You'd expect someone in such a prestigious position to have a pretty impressive scientific curriculum, and you'd be right. Let's have a look. De Mattei is professor of that rigorous discipline, the history of Christianity and the church, in a place called Università Europea di Roma. No, I hadn't heard of it either, but that's hardly surprising. It's run by the Legion of Christ (currently under investigation by the Vatican) and only started handing out degrees three years ago, after being granted permission to do so by the then-Berlusconi government. The Legion of Christ is justly famous for its level-headed approach to molesting children scientific endeavour, as is another richly spiritual organization, the Lepanto Foundation, of which the same De Mattei is the president. Judging from its site, which claims that the stated mission of the foundation is to "defend the principles and institutions of Western Christian civilisation", the Lepanto Foundation is a sort of vanity press for the works of its main man. These include: "Turkey in Europe: benefit or catastrophe?" (I'll leave it to you to work out the answer to that one) and "Holy War, Just War". Just the sort of thing that qualifies a man to become second in command of a national research council and to make him supremely competent to talk about evolution. Sorry, evolutionism.

And if you're still not quite convinced of the man's credentials, here's the clincher. After the 2000 Gay Pride in Rome, which culminated in Piazza San Giovanni, de Mattei and some chums went along to the square to perform, in laboratory conditions naturally, a rite of expiation. So that's all right then.

(One last thing. The acts of the conference, edited by de Mattei, have since been published 'with a modest financial contribution' from the Publications and Scientific Information Office of the CNR.)

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Garden Noam

According to Boing Boing, garden gnomes can take £15,000 off the value of your house. I wonder what Chomsky would have to say about that.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

A thousand and more pictures

Scott Pack says this is one of the best things you'll see this year. You have to be a book-lover for this to be true, but I'm sure you are, otherwise you wouldn't be here. You can buy a humbler version of the dictionary here or from Amazon. I've just ordered mine...

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Crossed digits

I've spent too much time today trying to get our television in the kitchen to work. Or, to be more precise, trying to get our NEW television in the kitchen to work. Everything was fine until a few months ago. We'd sit and eat our lunch while cooks showed us how to tart up ten euros-worth of groceries, then watch the 1.30 news with a mixture of anguish, irritation and incredulous hilarity, turning it off when the sports news started. A few hours later, we'd turn it on again, while cooking, and sometimes eating, dinner, to see if the official stories had changed. Italian TV journalism, for someone used to the way things are done in the UK - one human interest story, ideally involving children, a rapid skimming of the day in politics with a couple of sound bites and a brief nod at the rest of the world (the States or a really big disaster in one of those places that otherwise don't exist), all of it dosed with knowing irony and pseudo-detachment, except for the bits with children, which would make a Hallmark rhymester cringe -, compared to all this, I repeat, Italian TV journalism is, well, too much information.

The BBC, in its wisdom, does the sifting first, to remove their notion of what constitutes the chaff from their notion of what constitutes the wheat. The RAI, in its sublime contempt, removes all the wheat it can find, lets the chaff ferment and thrive until it has a life of its own, then shovels it through the screen and into the homes of the telespectators, as they're still, touchingly, known, less to make things grow than to suffocate them at the moment of conception. What makes the two main news programmes, TG1 and TG2, interesting, though, despite all their directors' efforts, is that news of a sort gets through. Because something is always more than nothing, even the most self-serving and obscurantist something. Umberto Eco once pointed out that conspiracy theorists should read the financial news with more attention because all they need to know is there, and the same might be said of Italian TV journalism. Reading between, above, below and despite the lines, there's little that isn't, in some way, said.

So, everything was fine until a month or so ago, when the process of moving from analogue to digital TV began in Lazio, where I live. The first step involved the shift of two channels - one state, one owned by Berlusconi - to digital, immediately depriving us of TG2, the news programme that, unofficially, 'belonged' to the Northern League. Pazienza, we thought. We can live without Bossi and his green-shirted cronies crusading against minarets and kebab joints. We might not even need a television in the kitchen. We'll wait until the whole shebang goes digital. Which it did, a couple of weeks ago. We stared at the fizzing lines for a while before giving in and deciding that what we really needed wasn't just a decoder, a trifling expense I deeply resented, but a brand-new telly, a much larger expense that, for some reason, I resented far less.

Off we went to our local electrical goods emporium (TRONY - NON CI SONO PARAGONI!) to buy one. Flat screen, the thickness of a Dan Brown, 26 inches. These days TVs programme themselves. All you have to do is sit and watch. Except that it couldn't find the channels, or not very well, and even the ones it did find looked small and sounded tinny. We weren't happy. We needed something bigger, and better. We packed it back in its box and went to exchange it. For something bigger, and better. Trony is the only retail outlet in Fondi that looks as though it might belong somewhere else, in a country where retail rules. The prices are reasonable, the choice wide, the credit facilities all too readily available. Even the people who work there are courteous and informed (I mean this). But even Trony was a little stressed out as the entire populace of Fondi (or its grandmother) queued, decoder in hand, to get their mojos home and working. Romero would have loved it.

We now have a 32 inch Samsung, a thing of great elegance and beauty. We've had it since Saturday. Unfortunately, despite being auto-programmed half a dozen times a day, and sworn at, and coaxed, its gleaming black screen remains unsullied by images of any kind. There was a brief, exhilarating parenthesis when a local channel transmitting highlights from this summer's international folk dancing festival broke through the darkness to reveal some meaty grass-skirted Polynesians air-rowing their way across a creaking stage. Apart from that, nada. So this morning we called the aerial man. And, as is usual when confronted by an expert, I learnt all kinds of thing I hadn't known. I learnt, for example, that my aerial was laughable out of date. I learnt that aerials necessarily have an alimentatore (don't ask) and that I didn't have the faintest idea where ours was, although it's most probably behind a large kitchen dresser filled with glasses. This will have to be moved. I learnt that, even with Sky, the RAI and many commercial channels will be unavailable. I learnt that if I wanted to continue watching cooks vie with each other over pasta-making machines and Daniele Capezzone, currently the vilest of all Berlusconi's mouthpieces, strut his mendacious self-serving stuff (and I do, despite myself, want this), I would have to spend something like 200 euros, on top of the cost of the new TV. I learnt that I could extend my Sky contract to a second TV for a modest monthly sum and a less modest sum up front. I learnt that whatever I decided I wanted I would have to wait some days before I got it. Learning isn't painless.

I'll keep you informed.

PS I've just noticed that I've used the word self-serving to talk about Italian institutions twice. I wonder why.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Troppo sapeva

I've just finished my usual round-up of the day's English language papers, sitting here at my desk in a small provincial Italian town, without even having left the house. I've read the Guardian, the New York Times, the Independent. I've glanced at the front pages of the Times in both London and Los Angeles, and even, god help me, the Daily Mail. I've checked out headlines in Australia and South Africa (OK; I'm exaggerating now - I do have work to do). All this would have been impossible only a few years ago, and I'd be tempted to write something rather dull, but positive, about the availability of information, the shrinking world, and so on, if it weren't for the fact that not a single paper thinks it worth reporting the latest developments in the Berlusconi-Mafia saga.

Of course, there are reasons for this. The indignation fatigue I mentioned in my previous post, which has spread beyond the national borders to sprinkle its sleepy dust over foreign news desks elsewhere. The 'what's new?' feel about so much of the information. The irreducible italianità of it all, with all those legal terms that have no equivalent in other 'normal' countries. The notion that Italy, despite the great 'organic' food and Andrea Bocelli and all those little men who can't wait to help us restore casali in Tuscany, shouldn't really be taken seriously, particularly right now with the tin-pot Casanova at its head. It's as though a whole country, one of the leading world economies and a member of all the most exclusive G clubs (7, 8, 20...), with forces in all the imperial outposts, had somehow been replaced by its comic equivalent, gurning and wiggling its hips in a corner of the room, only to be ignored despite its antics.

Which is more than a pity. Because Berlusconi's game is becoming wilder and more desperate by the day and shouldn't be ignored by anyone who cares one jot about Europe or, for that matter, the nature of populism and democracy, if only because it's the kind of game that could, as my mother used to say, end in tears. Two days ago he was in Sardinia, where he told his audience of young supporters that, if he had the chance, he would 'throttle' the people who made a popular television series about the Mafia (La Piovra) and all those authors who defamed Italy by writing about the Mafia. The last person to inveigh against La Piovra like this was Zeffirelli, a man whose career arc has plummeted from Visconti to the payroll of the Great Buffoon. The fact that Roberto Saviano, author of Gomorrah, has written a public letter denouncing the latest plot to rewrite the legal code in Berlusconi's favour is obviously neither here nor there, though Saviano would be wise to hang onto his police protection yet awhile. Berlusconi used the verb 'strozzare', inelegant at the best of times and, in this context, deeply tainted by the lexical dye of Cosa Nostra. He also told a joke about Einstein, who died because 'he knew too much' (see title of post). Nobody expects the language of statesmanship from the man, but it would be nice if he could raise his game to the level of, say, someone selling silver-plated bracelets on a shopping channel.