Archive for the ‘Italy we like’ Category

Stuck in the middle with you

August 14, 2011

The English riots story runs and runs. There have now been something like 1,700 arrests — which is equivalent to about 2 percent of the entire United Kingdom prison population. The courts are meting out quick justice, which is a good thing (magistrates have been sitting through the night in special sessions), but they are also meting out retributive justice, which is not good. One man who walked into a shop that had been broken into and took £3.50 of bottled water has been given six months in jail. That is nothing more than a magistrate responding to the calls of Brave Dave Cameron and the moronic right that everyone involved be given a good caning.

England is stuck in the middle with its underclass problem. On the one hand it could go the American route, have a bigger underclass, but use much higher levels of state violence to keep it in place. That means more ghettoisation and more police with guns. In essence, it would mean that every time you arrived in an English city (like an American one) the taxi driver would tell you which part of town you can’t go to ‘cos they might kill you’. It doesn’t matter that this isn’t necessarily true (Among others, I have survived the south side of Chicago, south-east DC and some bad bits of NYC), the taxi driver’s advice is a short-hand for the political choices that have been made.

The other route is the continental European one. We should clarify at the outset that we are not talking here about the continental European immigrant underclass, which definitely exists and is nicely down-trodden. The immigrant underclass has rioted in France, but for the most part immigrants live on sufferance and their very low expectations keep them from going over the civil unrest brink. What we need to talk about in continental Europe is the treatment of the least fortunate part of the indigenous population, including (usually second generation) naturalised immigrants.

This latter group has never, to my knowledge, rioted because of what can be called ‘inclusion’. Since the Second World War, continental Europe has implemented policies designed to maintain society as a single unit. The most important of these, I believe, is nationalised education. There is no educational ghettoisation in continental Europe that can act as a stepping stone to social ghettoisation. In towns throughout the European mainland, the children of the wealthiest entrepreneurs grow up going to school with the children of mechanics and barbers. This is overwhelmingly the case, and it is absolutely overwhelmingly the case at a primary level of education. Largely as a result, people growing up in continental Europe in the past 50 years have largely been denied the sense of exclusion and jealousy that pervades the Anglo-American underclass.

It is interesting that Ed Milliband, the Labour leader, is talking at every opportunity — in the wake of the riots — about the need to give people a stake in society. He even plans his own ‘enquiry’. But the Labour Party (the true party of bullshit in British politics) won’t go near the socially cancerous education issue. Boarding-school educated Tony Blair would not touch it and the new ‘lefty’ Labour leader will not do so either.

In consequence, Britain is destined to remain stuck in the middle. We have a sub American-scale underclass but we don’t have the guns to keep it in the ghetto. Once in a generation the underclass rampages down English high streets nicking whatever consumer durables its miserable existence has led it to crave. This generation is worse than the 80s one in that it is utterly bereft of any political consciousness. It appears to have been neutered by a combination of television, the moral cesspool of Premiership football, and the apparently limitless selfishness of reproductive underclass males.

Joe Strummer used to sing that anger can be power. But these days the only thing that anger can be is a flat-screen tv and a pair of new trainers — which most of the looters probably had anyway.



Bob the Builder must be fuming. After Obama already stole his ‘Can we fix it? Yes, we can!’ refrain for the US election, Brave Dave Cameron is making another raid on Bob’s core IP with his new ‘Can we fix Broken Britain? You jolly well bet we can, matey’, campaign.

To be fair, Brave Dave has some reasonable points, but in the end I reckon he’s a fiddler not a fixer — a Polyfilla Blagger as Bob might say.

On the US copper — Bratton — to run the Met saga I am instinctively on Brave Dave’s side. But then he appointed Theresa May Home Secretary, so whaddya do? Remember that he also cut the political legs off Fatty Clarke, having first promised to be sensible about punishment issues. Brave Dave just can’t decide whether to hug a hoodie or lash one to a post and thrash him. It is so very hard being a modern Tory.


Unrelated, but quite funny: 

I had not realised that Giulio Tremonti, Italy’s finance minister who used to work as a tax law expert and this week imposed a ‘solidarity tax‘ on high earners, also worked in the past as a university lecturer in ethics. He currently stands accused of paying a fast-living political aide who is under investigation for serial corruption €1,000 a week in cash to live in his apartment in Rome. It would be fun to publish Mr Tremonti’s course notes, if someone has them.

Fade away and radiate

February 21, 2010

To San Martino di Castrozza for what northern Italians call una settimana bianca or ‘a white week’. In fact, this is the white week, the week of carnevale when northern Italian schools shut for a ski break and everyone grabs the three official days of public holiday and adds to them the inevitable ponte of two more days which takes them to the weekend, allowing for nine consecutive workless days. At the lift where ski school meets, we overhear a woman asking her friend if her husband is working this week. The response is as if the dumbest question in the history of the world has been asked: ‘But of course not, this is white week.’ Even if Italy sinks back into the Third World, its holiday arrangements will remain forever sacrosanct.

I have to leave white week early to give a talk in Florida. But this isn’t so bad because I already had three Sundays skiing at our local Umbrian mini-mountain, Monte Nerone. Despite living 45 minutes away for eight years, this is the first year we have been. There is just a single button lift, but it is quite long and gives access to two good pistes of about 800 metres. Better still, the place is run by very nice people. My son was initially undone by a pair of skis from the sales that are almost twice as long as the ones he used the year before. I could do little to help him because, as part of my ongoing mid-life crisis, I started using a snowboard when I hit 40. So one of the young lift operators put on his skis and spent two hours teaching Luca. Not the kind of thing that happens in your average ski resort. And, after all that, there is a decent enough rifugio at the bottom of the pistes which serves pasta at Euro7 a plate. Given that there is a web camera overlooking the bottom of the pistes which allows you to see exactly how much snow there is in real time, and given that you can wake up and arrive after a fresh snowfall to find there are only 10 other skiers at 10am, it is a pretty good deal. Adults pay Euro18 per day, children Euro10; the lift is only open on weekends when there is sufficient, natural snow. Amazingly enough, the place has been operating since 1969.

Florida is not quite like Umbria. I arrive via New York, which is very deep in snow and very white and beautiful from the air. Florida is unseasonably cold too. Landing in America there is the usual double-take at the number of very fat people. And then arriving in Orlando, there is the supplemental double-take at the number of old people and the number of trousers with elasticated waistbands. Ten minutes in Orlando and you begin to think that Italians have found the Holy Grail itself with their determination to maintain an attractive outward appearance. I take a cab to the 750-rooom hotel with its obligatory man-made lakes, two golf courses, jogging trails and written warnings not to ‘jog alone’. Reckless as ever, I complete a run on my own and live to tell the tale.

The talk I have to give is to a group of people who definitely do not originate in Florida – steel producers and traders, the kind of Americans who still smoke and drink large quantities of beer. They want to hear about China and are friendly. Given that I have to address them at 8am and they were out drinking the night before, I write up a short note about the four points I told them to bear in mind when thinking about China in the next few years.

That done, I am looking for something to occupy me on a Saturday night in Orlando when I notice a poster of an aging blond woman who looks strangely familiar. The haggard, too-much-Prozac look makes me think of a kindly Delta Airlines stewardess who served me coffee on the flight in. But no. On close inspection I realise that what I am looking at is the current incarnation of Debbie Harry, lead singer of the eponymous band Blondie. A quick web search reveals that she was born in Florida, before being adopted by shopkeepers in New Jersey. As if this isn’t compulsion enough, while I am on my rebellious lone jog, my i-pod randomly shuffles Union City Blues to the top of the playlist – a song I have not heard for a long time. It is obvious that I am destined to attend a Blondie concert at the Universal Studios theme park in Orlando. Will it be better than the theme park gig in This is Spinal Tap, where the rockers open for a puppet show?

We must support the aged. I take back what I said about Ms Harry’s appearance on realising that she – singer of one of the first singles I ever bought, aged about 10 – is now 65 years old. We must respect the aged because it will not be long before we dwell among their number.

On which subject, it is worth mentioning that a major golden oldie, one who has been to crack hell and back, has just brought out an album that may be rather good. After many disappointing later-life recordings, Gil Scott Heron has released an album with a slick, modern sound that may be what the poet-singer has been looking for for so long. I saw him in London, years ago, in the midst of quest for something new and good and he was rubbish. But in this album there reside flashes of the tortured genius of his youth. You can have a listen here.

And so what of Debbie Harry and crew in concert in a theme park? Well, let’s just say I may have seen the future and it ain’t entirely pretty. Debbie darling, if you are reading: you cannot wear a bondage girdle and have a tea mug on stage. There has to be a choice.



Oh, when we were young.

England versus Italy

August 12, 2009

It turns out to be necessary to do one more week in Cambridge, wandering the towers of the gargantuan University Library and photocopying a 10-centimetre wedge of research material, which I now know is close to the maximum that my back-pack can carry; it has to be over a thousand pages, though I don’t want to think about this because I have to read them.

The week gets off to a good start with breakfast with Tim Clissold, author of the excellent Mr China, the stranger-than-fiction tale of investing several hundred million dollars in China in the mid-1990s. Tim trained as an accountant, then learned Chinese, then teamed up with a high-flying American investment banker who had raised (what was) the single biggest fund for buying businesses in the Middle Kingdom. I wrote about this in The China Dream, but Tim’s warts-and-all inside story turned out to be perhaps the best insider tale of China business that has yet been written. And in the meantime, he drew a good salary, invested wisely, went on to do a stint of investment banking with Goldman Sachs, and then launched his own entrepreneurial investment career buying and turning around small-ish industrial businesses. I live and learn.

For me, the remarkable thing about Tim is his ability to see the most outrageous, grasping, brazen scams as intellectual curiosities. In his first career in China he was threatened, kidnapped and daily deceived. His response was that of an astute provincial accountant confronted by a loutish child on a bus: faint bemusement and a simple determination to deal with the situtation, with or without the conductor’s help. He is very good at seeing the other person’s point of view; but also rather principled.

Tim’s latest adventure is carbon trading in China; he maintains an office of about 20 people. It is, he says, at least as scurrilous as anything he has dealt with before and more than likely the basis of a new book. Pay-offs, forged signatures, phantom projects — all are par for the course in securing cash for supposed pollution reduction under the UN-sponsored global carbon trading scheme. The evening before we meet he had dinner with one of the top executives at China’s largest thermal power firm whose (almost certainly) forged signature, Tim gleefully observes, has been attached to a deal he is currently reviewing.

The Clissolds have moved back to the UK from China, although Tim still spends much of his time there. In his own moment of weakness, he bought a large pile in Richmond in North Yorkshire, only to find it infested with rats apparently immune to all known poisons. The family moved out and were surprised to find another family of expats from the East willing to buy the rodent colony. The Clissolds have reined in their delusions of grandeur and now lead a more modest life amid the bizarre sociology of North Yorkshire: inbred RangeRover driving eejits on the one hand, a thankless rural proletariat on the other, nothing in the middle. Tim takes modest comfort from his local status as the stand-out eccentric. He paces the town with a dog called xiong xiong which, having been brought back from Beijing, responds only to commands in Chinese. The scene he describes when barking commands at this dog in a local shop or pubs is what you would expect.

Clissold tips me off to interesting goings on in the world of ultra super critical boiler technology and, thus enthused, I read three of the best PhD theses my supervisor has seen (trying to figure out what I am supposed to be doing) and copy the aforementioned chunk of clever scribblings. When I take the early Friday flight back to Perugia after four days full on in Cambridge, it is one of the rare times going back to Italy that I am not quite sure what the point is: for a moment, England (and abroad) seems terribly serious and interesting and grown-up by comparison. I supposed this is the conclusion that thousands of Italians who are now leaving to work overseas have reached.

Landing in Perugia, I am exhausted. This is the problem with doing four 12-hour days; I cannot be productive for a fifth. Also, it seems, I am on the wrong side of the plane. Instead of one of the most beautiful airports in the world, I see only the capannone — the concrete industrial blocks — of the Tiber valley. What, as one Italian friend asks, is going on with all these new structures in an economy that is currently shrinking more than the UK’s and at the best of times barely grows?

I decide to drive up to Moravola, which as I said before is the best restoration project I have seen in Italy, and get in the way of Seonaid and Chris. They are working like lunatics, trying to run their boutique hotel themselves while guest numbers build up. This appears to involve a 5am to midnight shift, seven days a week, but they remain in good humour. We chat in the kitchen and are soon joined by a charming, designer Swiss couple. These are the kind of clients you want at this stage: relaxed, appreciative of the extraordinary quality of the project and unworried by somewhat slow service as Moravola builds up its business and hence its staff. We set about a bottle of white and talk about Europe, Italians and children. Looking at the surroundings and at Moravola, the Swiss wistfully conjecture how nice it would be if they had a place in the Umbrian sun themselves. Of course they don’t know how much work was involved and how unbelievably expensive the project would have been if Chris, a trained Norman Foster architect, hadn’t become a builder, fabricator and carpenter and done much of the construction work himself. After six or more years he has even acquired a sort of idealised builder physique. Not that the wife is complaining.

Seonaid, on a topic close to my own heart, causes much mirth by relating a recent exchange with a Danish architect who is using Leo Petturiti as his geometra for a client project in the Niccone valley. According to the Dane, the clients are not entirely convinced that Leo ‘gets’ their project vision. So the Dane gamely suggested to Seonaid that he bring the scrofulous one up to Moravola to give him a few ideas about quality restoration work. Large mistake. Unknown to this Scandinavian, Seonaid has already had her fill of Little Leo. When she and Chris first came to Italy to look for a property they wanted to buy a ruin on the west side of the Tiber that was being handled by Petturiti and James Stephens. They agreed a price, signed a contract, and made the compromesso downpayment. Deal done. Driving back to the UK, however, they got call from Stephens’ office to say they couldn’t actually have the property unless they paid a lot more money. Petturiti and Fat Boy had gotten a better offer. To cut a long story short, the illegality of what the agents did was so cut and dried that under threat of legal action Seonaid and Chris were eventually compensated. But it tells you plenty about the way certain people do business. And so when the Dane mentioned bringing Leo up, the response from Seonaid was that Leo will not set foot on her property so long as she breathes.

We finished the bottle. And the sun shone.

Big and small boys’ toys

June 12, 2009

Pestered with the usual impressive application by my four-year-old son, we stop at a bar next to the Cerbarra petrol station for a pasta, and there meet Mario and Carlo from nearby Agrisystem, out on a coffee break. Of all the people I know who run businesses in the area, I think I like Mario and Carlo the best.

Why? Because they take responsibility for the stuff they sell. When you buy something from them, you know that if something goes wrong they will sort it out.

We pop over to get a can of pre-mix for the strimmer; it costs more but I find the petrol/oil mix from petrol stations highly corrosive of the plastic tank and tubes on my strimmer. The machine doesn’t consume much fuel, even with our large garden, and it starts first time with the stuff Mario sells. Since we are there, he invites Luca, 4, to select a tractor-mower he would like to drive from the large assemblage outside. Moments later, Luca cruises by in the biggest tractor there is. I get to stand around pretending I wouldn’t be interested in driving it myself.

Luca pronounces himself impressed with the number of buttons on the machine, which far exceeds the complexity of our own ten-year-old bottom of the range affair; focusing, as ever, on the critical issue, he informs Mario that we need a tractor with headlights for ‘night-time work’. Mario agrees that his father is indeed a fool for not having one.

A couple of days later, I get a reminder of why Mario and Carlo (the mechanic) are people who make life easier. The tractor-mower’s ignition is broken. The grass is long, and growing. Mario would come out if asked, but we can get the machine on the back of the pick-up  truck (tied up, with the back door open). So I call him. He says he has every part that could go wrong with an ignition in the warehouse and he will put a new battery, which I have been avoiding buying (by jump starting when it is cold) for a year, on charge. I say I’m in a hurry and he says that if I come down the next morning, they will do the work while I wait. In the event, it isn’t necessary as I have other things to do in town. So I leave the tractor and pick it up in the afternoon. Carlo, as a matter of course, has sharpened the cutting blades and set the tire pressures.

Before we leave, there’s just one more thing: ‘Luca — which tractor?’ He goes for a mid-size yellow one, again with a lot of knobs and headlights, and loads of gears. I try to do my not-interested face.

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