I'm catching the train to and from Rome three times a week at the moment. The service is much the same as it always was: trains invariably late or simply taken off without notice, carriage doors that don't open or that require Herculean strength to budge, then block halfway or spring back on a suitcase or pushchair, toilets that won't lock, or that no longer have doors, or that have had the toilet bowls ripped out, leaving a ragged hole edged with faeces as the sleepers whip past below. Too many people, too few seats. Unimaginative graffiti inside and out. Windows that have been nailed shut at the service of air conditioning systems that don't work at all or that work too well, or that drip brown liquid onto people's heads. I've been using the train for at least eight months a year for the past eleven years, while promises have been made and unmade and remade, and nothing has changed. It's a disgrace, and a national one; in one of those rare exceptions to the rule that things get worse below Rome, regional trains in the north are as dreadful as they are in the centre and south.
Except that now people have started to react. They haven't reacted through official channels by complaining to Trenitalia, or the government, or the regional authorities, or, if they have, it's had no result. They haven't blocked the lines - only suicides and snow do that. They haven't taken to their cars in significant numbers. Many of them don't buy tickets, but that's always been the case, and is less a protest than common sense, given that tickets are rarely checked and offenders, when caught, are given the opportunity to simply leave the train, and wait for the next one. They haven't organised themselves into committees, or vigilante corps. They've turned to their sewing machines.
These days, men and women, young and old, students and factory workers (insofar as one can tell) get on the train, find a seat (if they're lucky), open their bags and take out a piece of cloth, a large scarf, or a section of sheet, usually tailored to fit the seat, with two ear-like pouches to hold it in place. They arrange it over the rest of the seat and then sit down. The first time I saw this I was struck not just by the time that must have gone into the making of what is effectively a prophylactic device, but also by its intentionality. An object like this is the result of experience, long pondered . Someone has taken measurements, found the fabric, cut and sewn, adjusted the final product to fit. Perhaps there are templates available at station bars along the line, those flimsy paper shapes my mother used when making dresses. Perhaps it's just been a question of trial and error. The range of fabrics is enormous, and I wonder if some fashion orthodoxy might lie behind the choices people are making, or if something deeper is at work. Either way, paisley designs exert an intriguing attraction on a lot of big rough men in southern Lazio.
Now that the novelty of this has worn off, though, what strikes me most is the attitude it reveals. It's as though the only way one can fight against the filthy state of the trains is to protect oneself not from the actual dirt on the floor and in the toilets and on the windows but from one's fellow passengers. The seats themselves are invariably clean, because most people are clean. These home-made, ingenious covers represent a willed isolation from other people - a non-verbal name-calling. What they're saying is: To keep myself clean I have to isolate myself from you. The practice might be connected to the increasingly high proportion of non-Italian passengers on local trains, although I'd like not to think so. But it's what I've come to see as a typically Italian solution in that it leaves the problem - dirty trains - unchanged on anything but an individual level. In this sense, and in this sense alone, Italy has understood the sneering, small-minded, mean-spirited core of Thatcherism: that there is no such thing as society.