Sunday, 21 February 2010

Arseholes (kangaroo) and princes (not)

Disaster was narrowly averted yesterday evening when Pupo, Pickles and the unknown tenor (see two posts down) came second in the Sanremo song festival. How they did this is anybody's guess, but foul play certainly shouldn't be ruled out and consumer associations are already asking for an investigation to be made. Given that the odds of the unholy trio not making the finals were substantial, there was clearly room for a little imaginative accounting down Ladbrokes way. I wouldn't be surprised if Bertolaso, the nation's saviour, hadn't put a bob or two on them, possibly even of his own money.

I'd have a more detailed account of the evening, which sounds fantastically unstructured and infantile in a way only Italian TV can be, if I'd seen it, but I was, and am, in the UK. Still, I'm sorry I missed the scene where an infuriated orchestra ripped up their sheet music and refused to play, not to speak of Antonella Clerici (see photo) exclaiming Che topolona! at the sight of the private parts of all-round entertainer Loredana Cuccarini or the brass band of the Carabinieri playing the Star Wars theme in a bid to calm things down, like a foretaste of the new regime. This kind of nonsense is not only the stuff of Sanremo legend - it's also, paradoxically, par for the course on Italian telly.

People who don't know the Bel Paese often wonder how on earth the Italian version of a programme like I'm a Celebrity, Get Me out of Here can just go and on for hours, weeks, months, without anyone even seeing a kangaroo's arsehole, let alone eating one. Well, it's easy. All the people on it forget that they're there to further or revive their careers and just go completely OVER THE TOP! It's as though a horde of utterly spoilt children on truth drugs were given free rein to loathe each other and then, to their horror, slapped back into sense and forced to realise what they'd done. It's boring for hours on end and then deeply, grippingly, stomach-turningly awful in a way those of us brought up on the milder fare of Anglo-Saxon television can't begin to imagine. It's almost as excruciatingly adolescent as John Fowles' journals. Well no, not quite that excruciatingly adolescent.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Shored against ruin

Meet at the Gate, Canongate's excellent book site, has just posted a short piece I wrote about Ross Leckie's Punic trilogy: Hannibal, Scipio and Carthage. These are great historical novels and my piece looks at the way the trilogy contrasts the two warring cities in a sort of paradigmatic way. I won't repeat that here, though I hope you'll take a look over there. But one of the things I most enjoyed about the books - and didn't say in the piece - was the way they play around not so much with the past as such, but with just how we know what we know, or think we know, about the past. The opening novel, Hannibal, is straightforward first-person narrative, and excellently done (as I've said before). The other two novels are - on the surface - a bit more complex and, in some ways, might be less successful as a result, but they're also more intriguing because of what can't be said. First person narrative presupposes a very modern notion of what constitutes character and the self, as in self-awareness and its opposite, self-delusion, and Hannibal takes this as given. Hannibal tells us all he knows but also reveals himself to us in a way that's closed to him, through accidental lacunae and deliberate refusals, so that, by the end of the novel, our knowledge of the man is greater than his knowledge of himself. This is the kind of knowledge about the past we can rarely have, however we seem to be promised it by the notion of history as a sort of authority. In the second novel, Scipio, the story is told, once again, by the hero, Scipio, but this time the information is mediated by Bostar, the man to whom Scipio is dictating his memoirs, but also the teller of his own more ambiguous tale and a man, we discover in the third volume, with his own agenda, in its way as extraordinary as that of the two men he's served. Carthage, which describes the destruction of the great Punic capital (the harbour of which you can see in the picture), takes this doubling one stage further, gathering together a sequence of fragments that imitate the eventual fate of the city and, also, the failure of the Hellenistic faith in reason and logic that Bostar represents. There's a mimetic shift in the feasibility of confidence as the trilogy develops. By the end of it, any faith we might have had in the uniqueness and authenticity of voice, and of history, has been replaced by something more modern.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Pickles returns!

The Sanremo Song Festival started its annual five-day occupation of RAI Uno last night, with the usual mix of old lags and young hopefuls, people with talent and people with friends, songs we'll be hearing on the radio all summer and songs that are so utterly dreadful they'll barely make it through to the final on Saturday evening, international stars (the unlikely pairing of Susan Boyle and Dita Von Teese) and indigenous celebrities - last night's guest was the charisma-lite footballer Antonio Cassano, who seems to think he's James Dean but is closer to Robin Askwith after the charm has been removed. His mother, in the audience, was apparently worried that someone might steal her mink, perfectly understandable given that she was surrounded by the nomenklatura of the RAI in all its brazen-faced finery.

But the best bit of the show was what happened when Antonella Clerici announced the arrival of Pupo (don't ask) and Emanuele "Pickles" Filiberto, along with a rather good tenor no one had heard of. At the mere mention of the appalling ex-heir to the Italian ex-throne a good proportion of the audience burst into spontaneous jeering, whistles, catcalls, etc. And they hadn't even heard the song! Some time ago I forecast that the grubby halfwit, after winning Italy's Dancing with the Stars, would be starring on Fop Idol. This was meant to be a joke. Given the speed with which satire is overtaken by reality in Berlusconistan (thank you, Wendell), I'll be more careful in the future. And if you'd like to hear the song, winningly entitled Italia amore mio, you can do so here. It's already been eliminated from the festival itself, so this may be your only chance.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

But who will protect us from our protectors?

Guido Bertolaso, the head of civil protection in Italy, looks like turning into the gift that keeps on giving. After being flown to Haiti by Berlusconi to offer his expert advice, he upset Hillary Clinton by calling US aid to the country 'pathetic', only to be contradicted by the Italian foreign minister, Franco Frattini, on behalf of the government. As head of said government, Berlusconi's typically diplomatic response was to pat the man on the back and promise him a ministry, at which Bertolaso had the grace, at least, to cover his face, probably to hide his satisfaction.

Now it turns out that the megalomaniac buffoon's favourite superhero - Rubbish in Naples? Send Bertolaso! Earthquake in Abruzzo? Send Bertolaso! Cat stuck up a tree? Send Bertolaso! - isn't Mr Clean after all. Tapped phone calls have revealed a richly flavoured stew of corruption, fixed tenders, jobs for the boys and the brothers-in-law, with, as a spicy topping, the usual scattering of whores, escorts, masseuses and pimps (see photograph). Bertolaso denies it all, then most of it, then says that it was all too much for one man. He's on TV every night, bewailing the injustice of it all and insisting that everything he's done he's done for Italy. This clashes with a comment he was heard to make while 'solving' the rubbish problem in Naples, to the effect that an emergency stopped being an emergency when the TV and press stopped talking about it, a definition Haiti would do well to remember.

The shit has hit the fan just as the government was about to pass a law that redefined Italian Civil Protection as a Società per azioni, i.e. a public corporation quoted on the stock exchange, with Bertolaso as its natural CEO, thus removing any shred of accountability other than to its shareholders. Given that Berlusconi has been using the civil protection apparatus, and Bertolaso, for such unlikely activities as building the Pharaonic structures originally intended for the last G8 summit and the world swimming championships - a beanfeast for the construction companies involved but hardly natural emergencies - the new law didn't seem that much of a big deal; it merely legitimised the status quo. These latest developments have cast the law, and Bertolaso's saintly dedication to the national good, in a different light.

Monday, 15 February 2010


This illustration appears on one of my favourite blogs, The Age of Uncertainty (where you can see it in a bigger version). I love the way it uses a sort of squiggle to reinforce the depiction of shadow. Steerforth, who discovered it, hopes it will make its way around the blogosphere. I hope so too.

You can find out more about it by clicking here.

Lone nuts and first followers

Are you a lone nut or a first follower?

(From Cynical-C Blog. Thanks.)

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Fuck off, Binetti

Good news for all those people, like me, who know that the best way of getting rid of Berlusconi is to concentrate votes on the Partito Democratico (PD), but just can't stomach it while Paola Binetti, fundamentalist catholic and - alas - member of the Italian senate, is a PD member. Well, she's gone. That's right, gone. After announcing her opposition to the candidate chosen by the PD for the regional elections in Lazio, Emma Bonino, she's taken her obscurantism and intolerance where it belongs, to the UdC, a party I can't bring myself to describe after a decent lunch. She ought to be a lot more comfortable there. Among her new chums is Rocco "Buttplug" Buttiglione, an orang-utan lookalike and self-styled catholic philosopher, who was forced to resign from his role as EU commissioner some years ago after making a homophobic speech, and then whined about freedom of expression and ungodliness until he was fobbed off with another sinecure. He was working for Berlusconi at the time, without any noticeable spiritual unease, whore-mongers presumably being less disturbing to the soul than the idea of civil partnerships.

Binetti has made a number of previous appearances on this blog. You can find one of them here, along with a picture of her favourite item of jewellery. And while I was looking for a picture to grace this post (and found the one to the right, where the senator is caught discussing that specific item), I came across Binetti's blog. As you can see, it was rather short-lived, withering away after only four posts. I wonder if the little poll she ran (see right, beneath the profile link) discouraged her. She asked her readers if they wanted the law permitting abortion in Italy to be 'modified' (theodem newspeak for 'revoked'). Of the 26 people who bothered to vote, 84% said no. That's the trouble with the internet; it's just too bloody democratic.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Saints and charlatans

In religious circles there's a term - bilocation - that describes the ability of certain extremely holy figures to be in two places at the same time, obviously for miraculous purposes. Padre Pio was reputed to have this extraordinary power, popping up here to wave a bloody hand at the devil, popping up there to...well, we needn't go into details, but I'm sure a good time was had by all. But this photograph is the first time to my knowledge that an entire group has been able to duplicate itself, presumably at the bidding of the grinning master of ceremonies on the podium. I guess it's a loaves and fishes thing.

(My thanks to Peter and Wayne for drawing my attention to this sacred image.)

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Writing in Rome

If you'd like to spend a month in Rome this summer, before the weather gets too hot, and want to flex your writing muscles at the same time, you might like to consider signing up for the Summer Institute Creative Writing and Literary Translation, run by John Cabot University. Mark Strand and Booker-shortlisted Simon Mawer are, respectively, the Poet and Novelist in Residence, and I'll be running the fiction workshop. Just click on the link for more information.

Gil Scott-Heron: I'm New Here

Don't miss this interview either...

Saturday, 6 February 2010

The Wonder of Whiffling

A couple of years ago I wrote a post about a book called Toujours Tingo by, as I said then and will repeat now, the splendidly named Adam Jacot de Boinod. The book, a sequel to The Meaning of Tingo, trawls the world's languages for the wise, witty and inconsequential, gathering, among other gems, such terms as chapponage - the act of sliding a finger into a chicken's backside to see if it is laying an egg - and womba - the smile of a sleeping child.

Well, Mr Jacot de Bionod has done it again. His new book, entitled The Wonder of Whiffling is a mine, once more, of the kind of information you never imagined you needed and, once it's acquired, will wonder how you lived without.

To put you in the mood, here are three questions that only this book can answer:

A parnel is:
a) a species of seabird
b) a priest's mistress
c) the lining of a cassock

To call pigs to their food, a 19th century Irish farmer would say
a) hurrish
b) pleck-pleck
c) poa poa

An applesquire is
a) the son of a cider-maker
b) an orchard's bookkeeper
c) the male servant of a prostitute

If you'd like the know the answers to these, along with a host of other lexical wonders, I wholeheartedly recommend The Wonder of Whiffling.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Personality politics

Local elections are coming up in Fondi and the walls of the town are plastered with advertising for the candidates for town mayor. They tend to appear in pairs, like teenage girls on a first night out. They use as few words as possible and prefer those words to have purely feel-good value. The bald man on the top right, for example, is saying yes to transparency. Beneath him the woman with the pleasant smile is suggesting that we start again, though to do what isn't specified. The man with the glasses on the bottom left is saying yes, you can, which is very generous of him, although, once again, I wasn't aware that his permission was needed. The girls on the top left have nothing at all to do with Fondi, or politics for that matter, but I felt like including them, if only to contrast their very focused plea with the vote-catching vacuity of the mayoral candidates around them.

What's even worse is that, in their frenzy to attract the punter, these mayoral candidates haven't seen fit to indicate their political allegiances. Where do they stand on all that other duller stuff, like job opportunities and how local money is spent and, sorry though I am to bring this up, the role of organised crime in local government? I mean, I'm all in favour of transparency, but not if it's the transparency of De Meo's spiritual father, Saint Silvio of Berlusconi. And knowing that yes, I can might make me feel empowered at the outset, but it starts to lose its appeal if the person enabling me thinks money-laundering, or illegal parking, or building a villa on public land, are some of the things I'm empowered to do.

I think I'll vote for the Faith Tones. They not only have fabulous hair - I know where they stand.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

A writer's life

I just make Facebook friends with fiction writer Viet Dinh and what's the first thing I do? Steal this cartoon from his excellent blog, that's what.

How do I live with myself?