A series of incidents in recent weeks makes me suspect that life is becoming weirder than ever. First, the locals around our house in the Apennine hills insist that two brown bears have been seen in the area. The central Italian brown bear, ursus arctos marsicanus, is supposed to be all but extinct, killed off (like so many dogs) by poison left by hunters, and by poachers. The bears may also be culturally unsuited to contemporary Italian life since they are famously monogamous. Still, the neighbours insist that two of only a few dozen remaining bears have made their way to northern Umbria from the national park of Abruzzo. The local media blame the Aquila earthquake for precipitating a journey of many hundred kilometres. I suspect myself that the repeated visits of Silvio Berlusconi to the region may be a contributing factor.
Our son, now five, announces he will capture the bears and return them to their home. A quick online search reveals these bears weigh several hundred kilos and have claws up to 15 centimetres long, so I count myself out. Luca laughs in the face of the reported danger, and marches off into the woods, backed up by a sister and mother. He is increasingly assertive. Not long after this, I come back into the house from the garden to find him listening attentively on the telephone. ‘Who is it, Luca?’ I ask, assuming his mother. He holds up an arm, gesturing that I should not interfere. ‘Yes,’ he says gravely into the mouthpiece. ‘I see, I see… that is important.’ I go off into the kitchen while the conversation continues. After a couple more minutes, Luca comes into the kitchen and I hear him say: ‘So would you like to speak to Mr Studwell?’ He hands over the telephone. It is a journalist from Voice of America wanting comment on the latest Chinese corruption scandal. Next time I’ll just ask Luca to give his own view. This would suit the journalist, who is disconsolate when I say I do not know the details of the case and so cannot comment.
Another stranger than fiction moment is the Italian government’s decision to give a state funeral to television quiz master, Mike Bongiorno. This is a little like Ken Dodd being carried on a gun carriage through Hyde Park on his way to interment in St. Paul’s, with the royal family walking behind in Knotty Ash outfits. The queen would begin a funeral oratory with the words ‘What a lovely day for sticking a brush up…’ and the congregation would all wear false buck teeth. I am not necessarily against such a celebration when Dodd passes, but in England it is not going to happen. In Italy, by contrast, it does. Mike, of course, was a great defender of Silvio Berlusconi. He died in Monte Carlo.
Up in Trieste for a couple of days’ break with the wife, the surreality is capped when I turn on the television (for perhaps the first time in a year) and what should be showing but that interview. I find the added details of Berlusconi’s conduct deeply uninteresting. What fascinates is the studied unpleasantness of the two running dogs who represent him on the programme. They just look and sound, to me, so amoral and horrible. And this is the big point with Berlusconi: everyone who dislikes him tries to focus your attention on him – but it is not about the man, it is about what he reflects in Italy, just as what was most interesting about George W. Bush was what he reflected in America. The sharpest, cruellest and most provocative thing to have been said in Italy in recent months came surely from Berlusconi himself when he declaimed, with unintended import, that: ‘Most Italians privately wish they could be like me and recognise themselves in me and the way I behave.’ Ouch.
To be honest, I am feeling mildly sympathetic to Berlusconi as the constitutional court strips him of his immunity from prosecution. The political left has scented blood and is desperately trying to paint a monochrome picture in which Berlusconi is black and everyone against him is white. Yet Berlusconi is quite right when he asserts that the Italian judiciary is shockingly politicised and often deeply unprofessional (on this subject, see the upcoming review of The Dark Heart of Italy). Of course, he doesn’t quite put it this way. He just calls anyone he doesn’t like a ‘lefty’ or a ‘commie’. And he also doesn’t speak from particularly high moral ground since he faces more accusations of graft than Al Capone. So a reasoned debate about how to reverse the long-term decline of Italy and make it a happier place to live turns into the usual slanging match. The latest episode saw Berlusconi phoning up a late night television show to say the president should have used ‘his influence’ to get a different decision from the constitutional court. Challenged by a woman on the programme, he dismissed her as ‘more beautiful than intelligent’.
A few things, you will be relieved to learn, are running to form. What is technically the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development recently released its annual World Bank Doing Business report, which shows that as a place to set up a business Italy has dropped another 21 places in the past year, falling to 75th in the world (but, hey, there are more than 180 countries in the world). As a place to run a business, Italy comes 78th in the world, one place below Panama (which, if you are interested, is deemed to be a far easier place to start a business). The World Bank report complements the latest International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecasts which predict that Italy’s economy will shrink 5.1 per cent this year after contracting 1 per cent in 2008; the economy has grown less than 1 per cent a year on average since 2000. What is particularly striking about the latest forecast for Italian economic shrinkage is that it is substantially greater than that for either the UK or the US, the countries that are seen as the twin epicentres of the current global financial crisis. Perhaps this is all another conspiracy against Silvio. Perhaps.