Thursday, 31 May 2007

Naughty Fausto!

The Families Association Forum is frothing at the mouth about the fact that Italy's Speaker at the House of Deputies, Fausto Bertinotti, friend of Castro, Carlos and, er, the Dalai Lama and just back from a rejuvenating spiritual break on Mount Athos, has decided to support Gay Pride. Their gripe is that he refused to take part in Family Day, which apparently disqualifies him from participating in anything else, ever, especially if it's gay friendly.

I've been thinking how odd it is that, among these people who presumably use reason in other areas of their daily lives, the idea of family should be seen as inimical to the idea of being gay. Where do they imagine we come from? Hordes of turkey-baster wielding lesbians in Amsterdam or San Francisco? Stem cell manipulation in some illicit Scandinavian laboratory? Parthenogenesis? (If that's what it's called when you spring fully armed from your father's thigh.)

Doesn't it occur to them that we're as much a product of the heterosexual family as anyone else? Doesn't it occur to them that most of us, without heterosexual families, wouldn't exist? Doesn't it occur to them that, despite their efforts, many of us are still loved and cherished by the families that made us,a nd to which we continue to belong?

It's as though I'd somehow lost my human status, not only as a complete, fallible, reasoning being capable of love, but as a son and brother and nephew and cousin (and dog owner) too. But these people aren't really interested in families at all. They're too busy getting hot under the collar about what other people do in bed. They're too busy telling other people what to do.

Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Protecting children, Polish style

In line with recent attempts by the Polish government to outlaw any mention of homosexuality in schools, a certain Ewa Sowinska, the crackpot person responsible for children’s rights in Poland (including, apparently, the right not be informed), has ordered an investigation by infant psychologists into the sexual orientation of Tinky Winky.

For those of you who don’t watch The Teletubbies on a regular basis, Tinky Winky is the purple puppet with the handbag (so no big prizes for guessing there). The inarticulate antenna-ed one has already been outed by the recently defunct Jerry Falwell (see Good riddance, below). It’s a relief to know that the spirit of eternal vigilance in the face of all things gay didn’t go to, er, heaven with him.

Personally, I’ve always had my suspicions about Bugs Bunny. Now that you’re one with the prime mover, Jerry, maybe you can send Ewa a little inside information.

Human decency

It isn't often that the Italian government offers a lesson in human decency to neighbouring countries, but its decision to take in 27 migrants found hanging onto tuna nets after ten days at sea contrasts favourably with the refusal of Spain, Libya and Malta to accept a further 26 found in similar conditions. The full story is here.

Monday, 28 May 2007

To Moscow... and back (sharpish)

Among those putin putting the boot into gay protesters in Moscow yesterday were two Orthodox priests. Of course, deep down, what they’d really like to do is turn the other cheek. Right, boys? Right and left? I said turn, not spread.

Or maybe their national pride was offended by the presence of Italian transgender MP, Vladimir Luxuria. With a first name like Vladimir, I imagine they think she ought to be slipping polonium -210 into poofters’ borscht, not squatting to piss.

Commonplaces: Marriage

January 4 1976

Marriage is ultimately an agreement - or conspiracy - between two people to treat each other as having each the right to be loved absolutely. If there is not this understanding, there is no marriage; if there is this understanding, all the things that are supposed to go with marriage - children, sex, etc., are secondary. For this reason, whereas marriage between two people of the opposite sex who are physically attached to one another fails if there is no such bond of understanding, marriage between two people of the same sex may be immensely binding, and marriage in which there are no children, perhaps even no sex, may be extremely real.

Journals 1939-1983
Stephen Spender

Revealed truths 3

This comes from The End of Faith, by Sam Harris:
When the members of the 'Heaven's Gate' cult failed to spot the spacecraft they knew must be trailing the comet Hale-Bopp, they returned the $4,000 telescope they had bought for this purpose, believing it to be defective.

Slowly slowly

Anyone who's thought about humiliation knows that people can be brought to commit the most degrading acts if they're taken to them stage by stage, little by little, chipping away at their self-esteem until there's no trace of it left to protect them. Until what they still consider to be their self esteem has been utterly transformed into self delusion and abasement.

So maybe, after years of fawning around the rich and famous and powerful, not all at once of course but, as Liza Minnelli put it, man by man, from
Ecclestone to Branson to Bush, ex-PM and ongoing lapdog Tony Blair will be ready to accept the new job he's being offered: Dean at Berlusconi's brand spanking new international university in Rome. Free bandanas supplied with every mortarboard.

Of course the place doesn't exist yet, but hey! it'll be handy for the Vatican. Something to keep him busy, in other words, until the next big job comes up.

Bye bye Eggs. Hi there Tony!

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Mixed messages

A new TV ad for the Italian mineral water Ferrarelle features a pregnant woman. She's drinking a glass of the water in question and as she drinks the action moves to the womb and we see the little hands of the foetus start to shift to the disco beat, the tiny feet tap out the rhythm. In next to no time, the little thing's bopping away, even quoting Pulp Fiction as its fingers pass before its not-yet eyes.

Worryingly anthropomorphic, you might think. Disturbingly pro-life. And, of course, you'd be right. Except for one redeeming detail.

The music that get the little fellow going is You make me feel (mighty real). By Sylvester.

Gay icon. Gay foetus.

A question of emphasis

In the context of a long and fascinating piece on E.M. Forster’s attitude to fiction in the LRB (10 May 2007), Frank Kermode comments:

Discordances between the order of story and the order of the narrative can be methodically and minutely accounted for, though ordinary readers may not always see the need, understanding from their nursery years that ‘some months earlier’ can introduce a portion of narrative which occurs earlier in the story but later in the narrative. But the narratologist will continue to discuss analepses as either homodiegetic or heterodiegetic, according to the status of the story affected by the analeptic intrusion, because he or she is more interested in what he or she is doing than in what the author was doing (my italics).

This ties in neatly with what Doris Lessing was saying (quoted below) about the way in which all groups tend towards religiosity and the establishment of orthodoxies based on unquestioned, and finally unquestionable, truths.

More tragically, it glosses the appalling cruelty of the Pescara priest’s refusal to receive an autistic child (previous post).

Suffer the little children...

A parish priest in Pescara, Don Lino Cisotto, has refused first communion to a nine-year-old autistic child on the grounds that he's incapable of understanding the full significance of the Eucharist.

I would have taken this as a sign of mental health.

Family Day: statistics

According to research conducted by Vincenzo Mastronardi of Rome's La Sapienza, a murder is committed within the walls of the Italian family home every other day (to be precise, 174 in Italy in 2005). The most murderous group is composed of the male partners, both married and unmarried; these are followed by infanticides, matricides and patricides; in third place are brothers and sisters in law, cousins etc. The least likely group to top another family member? Mothers in law.

Family Day sì! Family Day no!

Saturday, 26 May 2007


Ever since I came across W.H. Auden's commonplace book, the name of which I forget, I've been collecting extracts that appeal to me in one way or another. It's the most impersonal, and knowing, form of autobiography there is, and a blog, which is also impersonal and knowing, seems a good place to store/expose it. So I'll start with one that feels particularly apposite at the moment. It comes from Under My Skin, by Doris Lessing:

... it is a commonplace of sociology and psychology that a group anywhere, no matter what its first inspiration, political, literary, even criminal, tends in the end to become ‘religious’ ...


A flame that believes in everything
could burn the world, its house,
the husk of wood round the heart.
Tinder that sucks up that moisture

is a lie. It would never take fire.
A flame that believes in everything
has its own explaining to do.
The husk of wood round the heart

is waiting to be caught, to catch.
Tinder that holds in the moisture
is a wall shored around tears. They
could burn the world, its house,

they could rot what is left. A lie.
Let it lie. It will never catch fire.
A flame that believes in everything
is to be taken, is to be possessed.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Revealed truths 1 and 2

Fundamentalists in Israel have complained about the use of cotton and linen in the same garment, as this is contrary to Talmudic law. The clothing retailers Zara, with 30 stores in Israel, have complied and removed the garment.

An Egyptian theologian issued a fatwa a couple of days ago according to which a woman working in the same office as a man could regularise her position by removing her veil, lifting her gown to a suitable height and breastfeeding her colleague. Five times. As far as Islamic law was concerned, this would make him a member of her family.

Where are you, UN observers, when we need you?

Ten days ago, Palermo elected its new mayor. The choice wasn’t particularly mouth-watering. In the blue corner, for Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition, a man of no obvious merit other than a slightly oily bella figura and a clean police record. In the red corner, for the centre-left, Leoluca Orlando, the man behind what became fondly known as the Palermo spring some years ago, when a small measure of legality was introduced to the city, but whose political career since then has been one flop after the next. Berlusconi’s man won, by a substantial head.

None of this would be worth mentioning if it weren’t for the way in which the elections were conducted. In one polling station, 200 ballot papers were clearly marked with the same hand (and unauthorised pen). On numerous occasions, people turned up to find that someone else had already cast their vote for them. On others, voters were accompanied into the booths. Scrutinizers who brought these malpractices to the attention of the person in charge were intimidated and the doubtful votes—always, I need hardly say, for Forza Italia—accepted. Just to make sure that people did what they were told, mobile phones were being distributed outside the polling stations, so that photos could be taken of the ballot papers, and then handed back at the exit. These voters were less fortunate though than Forza Italia voters in the last general elections in Aversa who, I’ve been told, got to keep the mobile.

Orlando immediately denounced all this, but the general mood is that he’d have done better to keep his mouth shut. The centre-right say he’s a bad loser. The centre-left, as usual, seems to want to avoid claims of electoral corruption, possibly to save its skin, more probably because they also see it as counterproductive to be seen to be complaining. Taking it on the chin, in Italy, has become synonymous with letting Berlusconi decide the agenda.

The most perturbing aspect of the whole business for me though is the absolute silence of the European press (as far as I’ve been able to tell). What would have been said if this had happened in Birmingham, or Bonn, or Barcelona? Would nothing have been written? Would nobody have cared? In its own way, what went on in Palermo is quite as shocking as the nefarious process by which Nigeria recently ‘elected’ its government, and that was reported at length. Is it simply that people expect this kind of behaviour from Italy, and Sicily above all?

Berlusconi continues to insist that Italy gained massive international prestige during his five years of misrule. This is laughably untrue. Even the Mail on Sunday called him a corrupt buffoon. But unless some noise is made to remind Italy and the Italians that normal standards of political conduct apply in the country, even in Sicily, he can hardly be blamed for continuing to conduct his dirty business in this shameless manner.

Saturday, 19 May 2007

No, no regrets...

This cartoon is a wonderful example of the way in which the nature of what we understand when we see something can be gradually transformed by a series of minuscule shifts in representation. If you could find anyone in the enviable position of never having come across Bush or Blair in what’s fondly termed real life, I wonder if they’d recognise from photographs these wonderful caricatures that, to us, are such strikingly accurate portraits of the two mean vicious little men they represent. They’re accurate because we’ve been brought here, step-by-step, distoirtion by distortion, by Steve Bell, for me the most visually inventive political cartoonist working in Britain. It would be instructive to trace the history of Blair the poodle from his first appearance, some years ago, to this appalling creature panting slavishly beside his impatient master.

Friday, 18 May 2007

Blair leapfrogs new boss

Alexander Chancellor, in today’s Guardian tells an amusing tale about Tony Blair being reprimanded by Cardinal Hume for taking part in mass at his wife’s church. Hume pointed out that Blair, as an Anglican, had no right to his sanctimonious nibble of the Lord’s transubstantiated body. Blair apparently reacted thus: ‘I wonder what Jesus would have said.’

Of course, he didn’t wonder at all. He knew. But Chancellor continues by remarking that Blair, assuming he soon becomes a catholic as predicted, will have to accept that the direct line with the Saviour he’s enjoyed up to now will have to be mediated by his new main man, Eggs Benedict.

If only this were true. The fact is that the catholic church is tough with the weak, but historically supine with the strong. Mother Teresa, the poison dwarf of Calcutta, may have disapproved of analgesics for the poveri cristi in her detention centres care centres, but she made an exception for Diana Spencer, Pinochet, etc. Why on earth should Ratzinger adopt a different policy in his dealings with Blair?


I've made it! The GoogleAd up at the moment is a link to David Gest's site. I'm not allowed to tell, or even ask, you to click on it, but I'm sure you'll need no encouragement. Joan Collins was on the Graham Norton Show last night -- yes I'm in England for a few days -- and said that her pew at the Minnelli-Gest wedding were taking bets on how long it would last. Now, of course, he's a star and so all is forgiven but I remember seeing the couple on, yes, Graham Norton soon after their marriage -- well, obviously -- and shivering with the creepiness of it all.

Such is fame.

Good riddance to...

...the Reverend Jerry Falwell. His vile homophobic ranting preaching career started in the abandoned Donald Duck Bottling Company.

Would that it had ended there.

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

The Scent of Cinnamon: second review

Well, it's not exactly a review, more of a generous nod in my direction. But it has very good things to say about the anthology as a whole, and I am sandwiched between William Trevor and Alice Munro in an entirely flattering way....

Moral relativism

The Secretary of the CEI (Italian Bishops' Council) has just announced -- from a pulpit, no less -- that abortion, euthanasia and moral relativism are the enemies of Christianity. He went on to explain that what he actually means by moral relativism is gay couples. Not gays. Gay couples.

You can't win, can you? They used to complain about us fucking in toilets. Now we're being accused of living together in a monogamous fashion, respecting each other's needs, supporting each other through difficult times, expressing our love in a thousand non-erotic ways.

No wonder they're shitting themselves. No wonder these life-hating, mean-spirited, sexually obsessed bigots the Vatican hierarchy and its political branch, the CEI, are getting worried.

Next thing you know we'll be leaving gift lists at the local Ikea.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Thoughts on Family Day

Last Saturday, over a million people (I’m quoting the organisers’ possibly over-generous estimate) gathered in Piazza San Giovanni, Rome, to assist the Vatican hierarchy in its dirty war against civil union legislation and, indirectly, the centre-left government. On the same day, in Smirne, Turkey, a million and a half people gathered to protest against the interference of religious bodies in the affairs of the state. Italy is a member of the EU; Turkey would like to be. I’ll let you decide which of the two countries was closer to the spirit of Europe last Saturday.

A woman with seven children, present at Family Day, was asked how she managed. Her answer: God provides. So what was she doing at a demonstration demanding more state support for those with fertile incontinence large families? Trying to have her host and eat it?

Listening to people talk in favour of Family Day it would seem that the only criterion that distinguishes a family from any other form of social aggregation—and that gives it inestimably added value—is breeding capacity. No progs, no parity. It used to be common to hear gay people refer to straights as breeders. Maybe it still is. But I never expected to find this idea taken so firmly on board by ‘Eggs’ Benedict and his merry band. (Although, thinking about it…)

A commentator on Italian state television (TG2, to be precise) said that the Family Day demonstrators were there to stand firm against a Europe that wanted to ban the use of words like Mummy and Daddy.

The buses and trains used to ferry the faithful to the demonstration from all over Italy, at the cost of something like a million Euro, were paid for by the Vatican, using money provided from people’s taxes (otto per mille*) for charitable work and the upkeep of the church. It’s an odd definition of charity. Or maybe large families can’t afford a day out in Rome without a handout. I wonder who paid for the ice cream.

*Otto per mille. Italian tax payers can devolve 0.8% of the tax they pay to a religious body of their choosing. Most of the people who bother devolve it to the Vatican (maybe as a result of the constant TV advertising, paid for by this money). The percentage of tax that isn’t assigned to anyone is divided up in the same proportions as that which is. The Vatican, in other words, gets a substantial slice of revenue from people who don’t want to give it to them. In Italy, this freebie is part of what is known as the separation of church and state. Anyone for Turkey?

Friday, 11 May 2007

A strange few days

A strange few days, with the kind of strangeness that might have the germ of a story, though it’s too soon to tell. It started on Wednesday morning. I was going to Rome to teach for four hours. This involves catching a train, and I was waiting at the station reading a copy of Il Manifesto, something I rarely do these days, when the stationmaster announced that all trains were suspended for an undefined period. This is common practice in Italy: to tell you what, but not why. I’m convinced it’s part of the country’s enthralment to the church and the idea that knowledge is necessarily arcane and the prerogative of the few. I carried on reading my paper, enjoying the sun, enjoying the sense of irresponsibility that dependence on others or, even better, public infrastructures, provides. I phoned home, but not work; my mobile was almost flat; I wasn’t sure what I’d say. After more than an hour and a half, and no further announcements, I asked a man sweeping the platform if he knew what had happened. Yes, he said, a man has thrown himself under a train. How long will it take before the trains start running again? I asked. He shrugged. The police have to do their work, he said. I called home again with the last trace of current in my mobile. I think I’m coming home, I said. On my way through the station, I spoke the to the man behind the ticket window. He’s a tight-faced irascible type, so I said: I know you can’t give me any precise information but I wonder if, given your experience, you might have some idea when the trains might begin to start running in the direction of Rome? A question so full of implicit flattery and qualification received the answer it deserved. A shrug. A pout. Tempi giudiziari, he said finally. He might as well have said next week, next year. I caught the bus home.

After calling work and cancelling my lessons, I turned the computer on and found that my server was down. It isn’t the first time, it happens to us all, but I was in no mood to be patient. It takes very little to remind us how fragile the net of fields and currents and lines that support us really is, how easily it turns into a cage. A train line blocked, a mobile out of power, a computer that won’t talk with the rest of the world and therefore silences me as well. Ratlike and turning, vaguely guilty—should I have waited longer?—I tried to call the station but a recorded voice told me I wasn’t abilitato for the number. I tried another station further up the line. The same recorded voice. At this point I called my provider. Twenty-seven minutes of something that sounded like Scott Joplin, but wasn’t, and I found myself talking to a man whose patience ought to be a model to us all. It took us an hour and ten minutes to establish that the problem wasn’t at my end, but somewhere undefined (that word, the second time that day) on a line that doesn’t belong to my provider at all, but to Telecom. He promised it would take no more than five working days to fix. Five, I repeated. That was Wednesday, nobody works at the weekend so, with luck, I should be up next week. In the meantime, it’s dial-up. Tempi giudiziari.

What I didn’t notice during all this was that Toffee, our dog, was ill. She’s a timorous beast, as our vet puts it, and doesn’t like loud noises. When she hears one she scuttles to the corner by the fridge and sits there, tucked into the corner, until she feels it’s safe to move. But this time she seemed to have all the symptoms of a panic attack. Trembling, panting, eyes starting from her head, flopped onto the ground as though she didn’t have the strength to move. I picked her up and we drove her to the vet. It isn’t the first time she’s behaved like this, but normally it’s because she’s eaten some filth she’s found in the street, the way dogs do. Paola, our vet, examined her and ruled out food-poisoning, fever, infection; she didn’t know what it was. As doctors tend to do when there’s nothing organic wrong, she suggested antidepressants, which startled me, or filling the house with pheromones expelled from a small plug-in device, like an anti-mosquito gadget, to cheer her up, rather like soma in Brave New World. Is that available for people too? I asked. We decided to wait and see how she was. Later that day, she threw up. White viscous froth. Paola’s husband, also a vet, told us it might be a form of epilepsy.

Yesterday Toffee spent beneath our bed. When we moved it and I tried to pick her up, she bit my hand, just hard enough to let me know she was serious without breaking the skin. We spent much of the day on our hands and knees making coaxing noises, to no effect. It wasn’t until the evening that she came through to the kitchen and drank a bowl of water, but refused some rice and turkey, prepared on Paola’s recommendation.

I had a dream last night. I was watching Coronation Street. There was a room in it and a man I’d never seen before, talking to what appeared to be a dog. But the dog had a child’s head. I asked Jane, my sister, who these new characters were and she explained that they were a family that had lost their dog and put their child into the dog’s skin. That’s terrible, I said, but she didn’t seem perturbed. I looked again and saw that the child’s head was sticking out of the head of the dog skin, which resembled one of those all-in-one pyjamas children sometimes wear. The child was crying. I woke up and went into the kitchen, and found that Toffee had drunk another bowl of water and eaten the rice and turkey. She seems to be on the mend.

The man who threw himself beneath the train was 82 years old and he didn’t throw himself at all. When the train was announced, an Intercity, he climbed down and sat quite calmly on the track in front of all the other people waiting for trains (customers, as they’re now known). His wife and children were in Argentina, where he’d worked for most of his life. I don’t know why he came back to Italy, nor why he chose this moment and method to die, although the local newspaper says it’s known to be the most painless way to commit suicide, information I hope I’ll never need. The trains were suspended for more than three hours, so I wouldn’t have made it to work if I’d waited.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Family Day: countdown

A few years ago, holier-than-thou British programmes like Eurotrash revelled in the excesses of Italian television. Remember the strip-tease housewives? The super-camp fortune tellers? The surgically enhanced tits and bums of showgirls and B-list actresses newsreaders and members of parliament? There’s been a general clean-up since then, but the essence of Italotrash can still be found. Not in the teeming undergrowth of local channels, but in post prime-time telly on the main state channel, Rai Uno.

Porta a Porta (Door to Door), a chat show that combines name-calling political debate with the most prurient tabloid journalism imaginable (I’m talking interviews with presumed infanticides, with mock-ups of the murder scene in the studio) was particularly hilarious yesterday evening.

The show was ostensibly about something called ‘Family Day’ (you have to pronounce it familee die to get the full joy), a kitschfest organised by the Vatican and its parliamentary drones for this Saturday in one of Rome’s main squares. The explicit aim of the demonstration is to ensure that civil union legislation is blocked and, with luck, bring down the government. It might as well be called Bye-bye Dico Day, but perhaps that’s too much English for its organisers to absorb. It’s supported by the usual gang of celibate self-harmers and right-wing divorcés.

The programme hosted four politicians, two from each coalition: well, naturally -- ‘balance’ or par condicio as it’s called here (see below for the way Italy prefers to use other languages for concepts it can’t quite absorb) is a legal requirement. It’s up to Bruno Vespa, the arbiter of the programme and a man beside whom Uriah Heep resembles Hannibal Lecter, to make sure the needs of the right are served in other, more subtle ways. I won’t name names, because that would be both invidious and, more importantly, libellous, but it was illuminating to listen to discussions of the value of the family conducted by a virgin, a closet queen, a libertine and a homophobe.

The cherry on the cake was Vespa asking Cardinal Scola, Archbishop of Venice, about the nature of love. You might as well ask a man with frostbitten fingers to mend a watch.

Monday, 7 May 2007

High art and low jinks

Just a few words about the Beckmann opening last Thursday at the Casa di Goethe. To be honest, I barely saw the opening itself, merely its buffet and bar in the rather lovely courtyard within the palazzo,complete with luxuriant large-leafed plants and precarious fish pond -- its precariousness having everything to do with the numbers of people and amount of available prosecco and nothing at all do with its position. As the buffet and bar are the heart of every opening, without which one may as well simply visit to look at the pictures, this was a great success. Though I did catch a glimpse of a drawing of a woman's head done in a classical style that made me wonder whether Beckmann had lifted that single unbroken sculptural line approach to classicism from Picasso or if they'd both dipped their nibs, or engraving tools, into the same wine-dark stream. And I certainly will be visiting to look at this and the other pictures in the next week or so.

After the opening, it was across town to Villa Almone, the home of the German ambassador, if home isn't too unassuming a word. The house is just outside the Aurelian walls, a stone's throw from the Baths of Caracalla, on the road that leads to St Paul's outside the Walls. It must once have been very lovely, sloping down into the first taste of Roman campagna, heading off to what will eventually be Ostia
and the sea. Now, it's a dual carriageway, lined at the bottom of the hill with office and residential blocks, with no more than a couple of hundred yards of still cultivated country to the left as you leave the city, weirdly surviving and reaching out south-east towards the Appian way. The house is hidden behind a high wall, guarded by the usual armoured vans, I imagine, although last Thursday night the only security visible was a Neapolitan who tried, with considerable charm, to pick up Maika.

As far as I could see, the house is a splendid mix of functional 1930s architecture and quotations from its environment. It's built in the long thin bricks the Romans used, with the series of arches of the city walls reproduced in miniature to create a portico between the house and garden. Like the bricks, the house is narrow and wide, a row of reception rooms running parallel to the road outside. The food was in the last but one to the left. It wasn't wonderful ... as someone remarked, Porsche, which had sponsored the event, could have tried a little harder, or been a little more German: the seafood risotto and cold fusilli smacked slightly of one of Marie Antoinette's cake displays. But the walls of the rooms had a series of oils by one of my favourite 'degenerate' artists, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, late work admittedly but vibrant and dark and utterly unexpected. (The illustration above is of the same period, but far less thrilling.) The chandeliers were modern and hung at least two metres from the ceilings, the sofas were plentiful and the garden was just the kind I like, brilliantly lit, symmetrically arranged around a central lawn, a semicircular hedge at the far end framing a magnificent cycad.

We managed to grab a table and comfy garden chairs at the far end of the portico, where we behaved in a fairly seemly manner, going off in turns to gather food as our forefathers must have done, scavenging bottles of perfectly drinkable white wine. It wasn't until the ambassador began to close the windows behind our heads and his wife employed her physique du role to suggest we leave that we realised how unused we all were to these diplomatic niceties. Hasty goodbyes, some raucous laughter in the hall and drive outside, no sign of the Neapolitan, which was certainly a good thing.

And so to bed.

Multitasking ad infinitum

As though he didn't have enough on his hands...

(Spotted by Jane on Ridley Road. Nice one, Jane.)

Saturday, 5 May 2007

The Crack: comments

One of the best things about posting a story on East of the Web is that readers can leave their comments. Appreciative ones are delightful, reasoned criticism is welcome (though not always enjoyed), unreasoned criticism (as in 'this story sucks') simply dismissed.

But the most enjoyable comments are the ones that come from left field and tell you more about the commenter than the story itself. Like this, from someone who signs himself Frankie:

I realise there are some who thrive on this style of writing but as a hetrosexual (sic) male, who doesn't give a damn what the cookies and cats smelled of, i'd be lying if i said i liked it.

It reminds me of the linguistic research done on gender and the language of colour. Show a woman a pullover and she'll say its mauve, or puce, or violet, or purple, or eau-de-nil. (Well, OK. Not eau-de-nil.) Show the same pullover to a man and he'll look mildly offended and mutter reddish.

In this story the smell of the biscuits ('cookies': so Frankie's American) has a certain relevance to the rest of the story, so maybe Frankie should have made more of an effort -- though he did read the story to the end, and I thank him for it. But the comment has made me wonder how much I enjoy sensual description as a reader. Maybe not quite as much as I enjoy it as a writer.

Friday, 4 May 2007


Remember when Dick Cheney and Henry Kissinger wanted Iran to have its own nuclear power stations? So what's changed? Oh right. That's a picture of the Shah!

(The poster was issued by Boston Edison in the 1970s. I found it in today's Repubblica.)
Posted by Picasa

Happy 50th birthday... Helvetica, one of the loveliest typefaces ever invented. I wanted to use it for this post but, alas, it's not available. So I'll use Arial instead, as it's pretty much the same.

(I still think Trebuchet looks better on a computer screen, though...)

Thursday, 3 May 2007

Terrorism? For the love of God...

The boundaries of what constitutes terrorism are daily being redefined in Italy. I've already spoken below about the way in which rough-and-ready political comment is considered a threat if the person to whom it's addressed wears a long black frock is an archbishop. Now, according to the media and politicians throughout the admittedly rather limited spectrum provided by parliament, the term is sufficiently ample to include remarks made by one of the presenters of the traditional Mayday concert, organised by the three main Italian unions in Piazza San Giovanni, Rome, each year.

Andrea Rivera said that he couldn't stand (non sopporto) a church that refused burial to Pier Giorgio Welby, a terminally ill patient whose right to die was recently affirmed with the assistance of a courageous anaesthetist, but that granted it without hesitation to Pinochet and Franco. He isn't the first to think this, as was clear from the warm reception of the crowd. He also remarked. 'The Pope says that he doesn't believe in evolutionism, I agree. Let's face it, the church has never evolved.' ("Il Papa ha detto che non crede nell'evoluzionismo. Sono d'accordo, infatti la chiesa non si è mai evoluta."

Now he's being accused by Ratzinger's house organ of insulting the pope and of playing to an 'easily excited' mob. For the Osservatore Romano these constitute terrorism. If it were only the Vatican rag saying this it wouldn't be so bad, but a bandwagon this tempting in a country that still declares itself 80% catholic (and that echoes with empty churches) is naturally filling up with the Tom, Dick and Harries of pre-election political leaders.

There's nothing more dispiriting than seeing this ragbag army of pluridivorced parasites and closet cases waving their compromised fists at the TV screen to defend a foreign state against the legitimate comments of their fellow citizens.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

The Crack

A story of mine is posted at East of the Web. If you'd like to read it, you can click above the cover image to the right of this (it's the picture of the orange cat), or here.

I hope you like it.

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Rufus Wainwright: Going to a Town

I've always liked the idea of Rufus Wainwright. I've loved his parents for over thirty years. I think his version of King of the Road, with the wonderful Teddy Thompson, on the wonderful soundtrack of that absolutely wonderful film Brokeback Mountain is just about as cool as that song will ever get. I admire and envy a man who can dedicate a year of his life to recreating Judy's Carnegie Hall gig...


I've never been able to stand his voice.

Until now.


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Sunday lunch

Last Sunday, we went to have lunch in a trattoria in Borgo Grappa, one of a handful of satellite villages built under pre-war fascism between the sea and Latina, the whole area created ad hoc from the malarial Pontine marshes by workers imported from the north-east.

The roads are straight, laid out in a grid and lined with maritime pines or palms, my favourite combination of trees and typical of this part of Italy, strung as it is between north and south; though clumps of eucalyptus, believed to provide protection against malaria, are also present. We pass stables, newly-built villas, squat prefabricated houses, fields of buffalo, the kind that produce mozzarella, as we drive from the Via Pontina towards the sea.

The trattoria's called Da Giggetto and it's been recommended to us by Joanna, who meets us there. It's on a corner, set back a little from the road and the forecourt is occupied by a collection of ill-assorted tables, except that their ill assortment is the source of their charm. As in every trattoria worthy of its calling, the tablecloths are white and starched, the space between tables generous, the bread in its basket already on the table. Above our heads is a sort of dense green tarpaulin, slightly sagging, with direct light filtering through the cracks. A breeze blows through the oleanders planted in tubs between the tables and the road.

We've booked, but there's no need. Apart from us, there's a table of six to my right, ten yards away, and behind us, in a patch of sun, an oldish man with tattoos and a cap. The waiter is the owner's son, the owner takes our order, his wife, or a woman who might be his wife, pops over to see how we're getting on, the puddings are made by their daughter. The menu's typed and there are odd, amusing comments, also typed, and quotations from Pavese and writers I don't remember. When he isn't serving the owner joins the tattooed man with the cap. The wine is local, and cold, and good. The food is excellent: seafood, fish, porcini mushrooms, served in abundance and without frills.

In the middle of the forecourt is a narrow wooden boat, the kind of craft you'd expect to see native Americans in; we almost, but finally don't, ask how it got there. Inside, in a long high-ceilinged room, there are photographs of the great and good, and merely famous. The whole place has a dolce vita air about it, of an Italy that was still provincial and unstandardised, generous with itself and others. A backwater, really, in the best sense of the word. Much of its charm comes from the fact that there is nothing here of the self-important cultural Italy of the great cities, nothing that dates back more than sixty or seventy years. It can still afford to be relaxed, and unselfconscious.

Afterwards we go to a kiosk on the beach and the mood's the same. I half expect Alberto Sordi to wander in and order a glass of chinotto. An elderly gay couple, the fatter one with a jet black fringe, the other with blond hair twisted up and held in place by what looks like an ornament of bone, are enjoying this early, unexpected sun.