Saturday, 28 February 2009

Italy, il bel paese

Just in case you can't see. the first knob provides condoms, the second a throw-away lighter and the third those generously large cigarette papers for people who like a long, cool smoke. The dispensing machine is outside my local newsagents and must have smoothed out many an otherwise bumpy evening.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Homesick for everywhere but here

Norman Geras asked me to write about a book that has influenced me in some way for his Writer's Choice series on normblog, according to the Sunday Times one of Britain's finest 100 blogs. I chose Christopher Isherwood's second novel, The Memorial, written immediately before the Berlin novels that made his name. Isherwood's pretty much out of fashion these days and I've had some harsh things to say about some of his later diaries myself, but I love this novel, and I wish it were more widely known. You can read why here.

Friday, 20 February 2009


When reporters asked Berlusconi yesterday whether he'd seen Roberto Benigni rip him to shreds at the Sanremo Song Festival last Tuesday, before an audience of 15 million, our Leader Minimus said, with his habitual smugness, that he was one of the 45 million Italians who hadn't watched the Oscar winner's performance. This may be the only occasion in which Berlusconi has admitted that not watching the usually ever so 'umble state television is a valid, even preferable, option. It would be comforting if he spared the odd thought for the 47 million Italians who didn't vote for Berlusconi in the last elections. Or don''t they count in quite the same way?

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

One picture...

In the bin

I've just found out that Little Monsters was shortlisted by the Waterstones Book Circle as one of its February choices. It didn't win - Chris Cleave did - but it does mean that some branches will pop an extra sticker on the cover, which is no bad thing - rather like Boy Scout badges (I imagine: they wouldn't have me). The book will also be in a special Book Circle bin. Better than that other bin.

Après Walter... Who?

If you live in Italy, or care two pins about it (these categories aren't necessarily coterminous), you may want to express your opinion on who should replace Veltroni as head of the Partito Democratico. Well, La Repubblica has set up an opinion poll here to give you that chance. I've voted and, no, I didn't spoil my vote, unlike those mysterious thousands of Sardinians, who clearly have nothing better to do with their time than waste it in polling booths. Talk about hanging chads. I'd hang the lot of them if I had the chance.

(If you've already forgotten who Veltroni is, there's a picture of the hapless Walter in his best PD tee-shirt to the right. Or not.) 

Oh yes, I won't spoil all the fun for you, but the best news is that zero percent of voters prefer Rutelli.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Sardinia shafted

If you'd like to enjoy what's left of the natural beauty of Sardinia (see right) before the entire island is converted into a 'fitness centre' you'd better get a move on. That's right. Berlusconi's glove puppet just became governor. New boy Cappellacci is to Berlusconi as Medvedev is to Putin, so don't expect surprises. In fact, their relationship - in both cases - reminds me of a rather offensive joke about a bad ventriloquist who used to put his hand up his nephew's arse and tell him to keep his mouth shut. Except that Putin and Berlusconi are clearly considered rather good ventriloquists.

A few days before Eluana Englaro died, some gobby cardinal criticised polls indicating a substantial majority in favour of her death by saying that Italians weren't that stupid. He was wrong then, but he's been proved right now. 

(OK, the second picture's actually Dubai, but you get the idea...)

Monday, 16 February 2009

Sticks, stones, names

I'm linking to a post I started some days ago but only published today, which you might not otherwise notice. It's about the new security laws in Italy. Here it is. This is a subject I'll be returning to, I just know it.

Friday, 13 February 2009

First official sighting

Not quite the first sighting of Little Monsters with its 3for2 sticker proudly displayed in the bottom right-hand corner, but the first to be substantiated by a photograph. Here I am, snuggling up to David Leavitt, with Jeffrey Eugenides obliquely at my feet and an intriguing book that appears to have a large hole cut out of it just above my head. Elsewhere, I've heard, I'm bang up against La Petite Anglaise. Hmm.

This comes, courtesy of Charlie Bulbeck, from the Bristol branch of Waterstone's. Thank you, Charlie!

Thursday, 12 February 2009

International relations

Barack Obama finally called Berlusconi yesterday. He ordered four pizzas with peperoni and two bottles of Nastro Azzurro.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Death and the state

Last December I posted on the case of Eluana Englaro, an Italian woman who had been in a state of vegetative coma for the past seventeen years, following a car accident when she was twenty. After years of legal to-ing and fro-ing, buck-passing and prevarication, her father, Beppino, finally obtained permission last July to discontinue treatment and allow his daughter to die, in accordance with her own verbally expressed wishes. 

When I wrote my post, the Minister of Welfare, Maurizio Sacconi, a man who had previously shown no marked religious inclinations, was threatening to close the clinic in which the treatment - a pharmaceutical substance providing nutrition and preventing dehydration - was to be withdrawn, despite the fact that Italy's supreme court, the Cassazione, had authorised its discontinuance. According to Sacconi, the state could neither condone nor authorise murder. In any case, said Sacconi, as the self-elected mouthpiece for the Vatican, Eluana's life belonged not to her, but to God.

Since then, and despite a public consensus that, perhaps surprisingly, ignored the anathema of Italy's increasingly vociferous pulpits and sustained Beppino Englaro's struggle, the situation has developed into one that threatens not only the right of one woman to die but the entire democratic structure of Italy, such as it is. Over the last few day, flying in the face of Italy's president, Giorgio Napolitano, and the warnings of constitutionalists, Berlusconi and his government have been involved in an attempt to improvise a one-paragraph law to 'save Eluana'. The attempt was interrupted by her death, yesterday evening, two days after treatment had been stopped, as a result of cardiac arrest.

It may be the case that some of the people who fought and shouted and legiferated for Eluana's body to be medicated and watered, washed and treated and turned two, three times a day, for her hair and nails to be clipped and her bodily wastes removed - it may be that some of them genuinely believed she was alive in some meaningful way, and that the right to die should be denied not only to the sentient, as is still the case in Italy, but also to the mindless larva Eluana had become. And there's a sort of sentimental absolutism about that position that might even be worth respecting if it weren't applied so readily, and so cruelly, to those who don't share such a belief and abandoned with such alacrity when the body in question is that of a pope or potential saint. 

It may even be the case that some of the religious figures who are now praying that their ever merciful God forgive Beppino Englaro - defined, with infinite understanding, as 'both judge and executioner' by the Vatican house organ today  - it may be that some of these cardinals and bishops actually believe in the sanctity of life so certainly, so irrefutably, that even the mechanical ticking-over of a body incapable of thought and emotional response is considered to be a life worth living, whatever the views of the body's owner, now irretrievable, and of those closest to them, their family and friends and loved ones.

But it certainly isn't the case that Berlusconi - who announced that Eluana was 'still able to have children' as though fertility and the ability to be impregnated were the final measure of a woman's value -  cared one jot about Eluana's right to live. And it certainly isn't the case that politicians like Gasparri and Mantovano, who, until a handful of years ago, belonged to a party that claimed direct descent from a regime that denied not the right to die but the right to live to hundreds of thousands of Jewish fellow citizens, and homosexuals, and communists, and gypsies, have the interests of Eluana Englaro in mind when they scream 'Murderer' at her father. 

Because it isn't the dignity of life that's being defended here, but the vulgar and unseemly - for want of a stronger word - interests of a caste. And when that caste, in its efforts to subvert the constitution and with the assistance of a power-obsessed clerical hierarchy, is prepared to take advantage of the lingering death of a woman and the suffering and civil conscience of her family, it isn't difficult to recognise who's standing on the moral high ground.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me

I started writing this post over a week ago. This is what I said.
Italy took one more large step towards an effectively fascist regime the day before yesterday with the approval by the senate of a bundle of legislative measures labelled 'security'. They look like a knee-jerk reaction to recent acts of violence committed by 'foreigners', but this isn't the case for a number of reasons, which I'll talk about below. The measures are part of a xenophobic plan designed by the Lega to placate its electorate and, shamefully, supported by its allies in parliament in order to ensure the tenure of the current government. Perhaps 'plan' is too grand a word for the illiterate blatherings of Bossi and his gang of small-town bullies and petty bureaucrats from the imaginary land of Padania, but the effect they're likely to have is much the same as other 'solutions' dreamed up in the recent, and not so recent, past.

Italy is now the only country in western Europe in which a government minister (Bossi) can refer to immigrants as 'bingo bongo' and maintain, indeed reinforce, his position, and in which an MEP (Borghezio) can continue to be regarded as a politician after being convicted of criminal violence inspired by racial hatred. People seem to have become used to the presence of these people, which is the most worrying aspect of all, because indifference is precisely the humus that allows new laws of this kind to pass without protest, or sufficient protest. 

Let's take a look at the new measures. Immigrants who apply for a permesso di soggiorno (permit to stay) will be expected to pay a tax of between 80 and 200 euros for the privilege. Those without a permesso di soggiorno will be denied medical care, and any doctor or medical worker who provides it will have the right to report the patient to the police. The same goes for anyone who assists an illegal immigrant to send money home to his or her country. Citizens (Italian) will have the legal right to form bands to patrol the streets to protect themselves and fellow citizens from violence.
And then I gave up, nauseated, but also side-tracked by the Englaro case and the odd display of skewed values the two events seemed to reveal of Italy. The life of a brain-dead woman had suddenly become more valuable than that of the many hundreds of thousands of workers without whose daily contribution the Italian economy would grind to a halt. Eluana, it seeemd, had the right to live, the right to medical treatment about to be routinely denied Mohamed or Luis or Maddalena (except that, for Italian politicians, the only immigrants to have names are the ones who wipe their grandmother's arse or clean their shoes for them). And I was side-tracked too by the news that a Northern League mayor in the Friuli region had issued an ordinance that, alongside the usual ban on burkas, obliged all restaurants, including ethnic ones, to serve traditional Friuliano dishes, and by Wendell's post on a little financial incentive being offered by fascists in Basilicata to ensure that the names Benito and Rachele live on. In case you don't know, these are the first names of Mussolini and his wife, last seen hanging by their heels in Piazzale Loreto. And I thought, Look on his works, ye mighty, and despair. 

Subliminal advertising

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Reading group? Listen up!

If you're a member of a reading group, or would like to set one up, or know anyone who's already a member of a reading group, or think your next-door neighbour may once have belonged to a reading group, or have recently overheard someone on the bus talking about a reading group and think she may be traceable if only by her Yogi Bear and Booboo earrings, or... well, that's it. I just wanted to let you know that Picador, in its infinite wisdom and generosity, is offering a sizeable discount on the paperback of LITTLE MONSTERS for, er, reading groups. End of promotional message. Back to work.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Boys will be boys

If you look in an English-Italian dictionary for a translation of the word ragazzo, you'll find 'boy', followed by 'boyfriend', 'young man'. Italians of all ages frequently use the word to address a group of friends, the irony more evident as the age of the group increases. But it's a good word on the whole, a word that expresses affection and solidarity, particularly when it's addressed to people who fall outside its strict chronological range. So it's been interesting in the past few days to see how the media use the word. 

Italy's seeing a lot of street violence at the moment, or, at least, the media are paying a lot of attention to it. All news is mediated and it would be naive to pretend otherwise, but there's an interesting distinction that needs to be made between two kinds of mediation, particularly with television reporting. The first is the air of general obedience to whoever holds political sway within the country or, more importantly, to the editor in control of the specific news programme for which the journalist works; invariably a political, or party, nomination. Bruno Vespa, a TV journalist who's tough with the weak and supine with the powerful, once referred to the Christian Democrats as his editorial point of reference, although he's certainly revised that view with each election and is now lapping with his usual zeal from the bowl provided by Silvio Berlusconi. This doesn't only happen in Italy, of course, and not all journalists can be tarred with the same brush, but independent monitoring organisations confirm the sense that the news in Italy has, let's say, a marked tendency to bend with the prevailing wind.

The other kind of mediation is linguistic. Among the stories that have been used to distract attention from the economic crisis and the bare-faced indifference of the government to issues not directly linked with Berlusconi's vendetta against the judiciary system are a series of rapes and an act of violence against a homeless person. Most of these rapes have been committed, as far as we know, by Romanians, usually young men, usually in groups. The act of violence, during which a homeless 35-year-old Indian, trying to sleep on a bench in Nettuno station, was first insulted, then beaten up, then covered with petrol and set alight, was also committed by a group of three men, ranging in age from 16 to 29, but these happened to be Italian. The Romanians are, without exception, referred to as Romanians. The Italians, who may be facing a charge of murder if the man dies, which seems likely, are defined as ragazzi

Leaving Navtej Singh Sidho, recently made unemployed and evicted from his lodgings, with third degree burns over much of his body, the 29-year-old ragazzo sent a celebratory text to friends in Roman dialect: "Gli amo fatto la festa". (In standard Italian, this would be "Gli abbiamo fatto la festa"). Fare la festa is an expression that translates as 'Give somebody a warm welcome'. The irony in Italian is bad enough; in English it becomes almost unbearable.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

In England - now!

I'm not actually in England right now, but everyone else seems to be posting photographs of snow and I had this picture my sister sent me, which actually looks like a black and white photograph apart from that wonderful  slash of vivid swimming-pool blue, and I didn't want to feel left out, sitting here in my study, looking out on a cloudy grey sky that may be producing snow in the hills to the east of here, but won't be doing that where I live because it almost never does, watching the breeze lift the butterfly chimes on my neighbour's balcony and the still-flowering lantana on my own, and so I thought, why not?  

Monday, 2 February 2009


Recognise this? Of course you do! It's the front cover of the paperback edition of Little Monsters. It's slightly different from the hardback - my name's now larger and centred (an entirely thrilling development) and Beryl Bainbridge's generous endorsement has been replaced by a quote from the Daily Mail review saying that the book is 'beautifully written, and more compelling than many thrillers', which says something about the book (its aim) and something about marketing (not its aim). This obviously takes nothing away from my joy, which is unbounded, but I just thought I'd mention it. 

The book hits the shops on Friday, 6 February, and on this occasion I'm not indulging in wishful thinking or hyperbole because it actually will be hitting a much larger number of shops than the hardback edition did. This is because Waterstones branches nationwide (including Wolverhampton - I know, I checked) will be including it in their 3 for 2 offer, so the book should be stacked up on tables all over the country, rubbing shoulders with The Gone-Away World - Hi, Nick! (It's 3 for 2, I can afford to be magnanimous) - and all kinds of other great reading experiences. (This is what happens when I slide into promotion mode - my language goes.) And those of you who are travelling in the next few weeks should see even more copies at WH Smith Travel shops in stations and airports throughout the UK, where it will be available in their Buy One Get One Half Price offer. Yes! Naturally, since I won't be there to witness this, I'm looking forward to all your sightings, preferably with photos. So prime your mobiles...

I was going to save this post until Friday, but I couldn't wait. Now I'll have a dreadful sense of hollowness for the next four days. 

PS I wanted to call this post 'Countdown to...' well, something, so I googled 'countdown to' for inspiration and found, to my dismay, that the two most frequent words to follow the phrase, apart from Christmas, which clearly isn't appropriate except metaphorically, are 'extinction' and 'armageddon'.