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Part Ten – What do they know of England, those who only England know?

September 18, 2010 6 comments

I arrived on Rome two Thursday’s ago, after 69 days, 2,000 odd kilometers, and the experience of a lifetime. My first sight of St Peter’s basilica was of it set in a midst of a beautiful azzure twilight, with stars The welcome extended by the Church in Rome was outstanding. Throughout this trip, I have been moved by the number of occasions that complete strangers have extended themselves to look after me, and that was again the case at the hostel run by the Confraternity of St James, where volunteers cook meals, make beds and provide a sounding board for inevitably tedious stories about the feet conditions of pilgrims. Even better, the next day Don Bruno Vercese took me into the bowels of the Vatican to visit the actual tomb of St Peter (normally closed to the public), and took out at least an hour from his day to talk to me about faith, and the Christian life. It was a wonderful, fitting end to a magnificent trip. I feel fortunate to have developed as a man and as a Christian. Prior to this, I had a rather dry and intellectual view of the Christian faith, having now seen in the love and charity which has abounded on this trip the operation of the Holy Spirit, I feel an emotional commitment as deep seated as the intellectual one. I do believe that my character has changed somewhat, although that is best qualified later down the line. Rather like weeding a garden, it doesn’t do to claim to be rid of a vice prior to the test of time, but I hope several vices have been uprooted, rather than simply stymied. In any event, I was now free to look around Rome, and finish reflecting on Italian life.

One of the most curious characteristics of discussions of Italy’s cultural glories is that they tend to stop sometime before the Risorgimento. No doubt that particular period may be justifiably ignored, certainly given that in the monument to Vittorio Emmanuel II it produced the most tasteless building in Rome, known as the ‘wedding cake’ to locals and so garishly flamboyant in terms of dimension, material and vainglory that it looks like the outsized conservatory of a Romford plumber (the building is redeemed somewhat by the fact that the monumental statue of Vittorio himself, which shows him wearing a duck on his head rather than more traditional military attire). However, in the modern artform of television, Italy continues to lead the world.

When I was in Italy two years ago, two particular shows captured the imagination. The first was a show called Veline! where 10 girls in stilletos and white bikinis would compete each evening, in a dusky town square, for a crown awarded by a large purple dinosaur (who she would then get to dance with), who co-hosted the show with a leathery older chap who looked as if he had squeezed into the white trousers of one of the contestants, so tight were they. In order to win the crown, the girls would have to bookend two episodes of walking up and down a catwalk and grinding to rap music with the demonstration of a talent, be it archery, singing, or my favorite – getting in and out of a barrel of cold water. This show was followed by Ciao Darwin! (I’m not making this up), which pitted two teams of 50 girls against each other to see which was better – Darwin style. This idea in itself is interesting, particularly as the darwinian charachteristics tested included the round ‘who can distract the male presenter from pretending to watch the television first by stripping’ and a quiz round where the contestants literally donned thinking caps to demonstrate heir intellectual involvement. It was even more unusual to English eyes the next week when the episode was black girls v. white girls. For the record, the white girls, who had lost every round so far, won by taking the final challenge – ‘who knows the most words of the national anthem’ – by getting to the second line.

I was looking forward to the similar diversion on this visit, but sadly standards appeared to have dropped. The only evidence of traditional standards being upheld were shows like the one which translates as something like Commissar Mullet! about a ginger guy with the said hairstlye who solves cases by smoking a lot seducing his pathologist, partner, elderly relatives of the deceased, his boss, and the girl at the local cafe. Although Miss Italia was getting wall-to-wall coverage on RTE1 (interestingly, Italy’s three main public broadcast channels are divided up amongst the political parties, RTE1 services the right, 2 the left, 3 the communists, or what’s left of them), and the Italian version of newsnight, where guests would try and hold hands with the female presenter, on this trip coverage seemed relatively normal. That is until I found Veline‘s latest incarnation – Velone!. The format is exactly the same, but it’s only open to women over 75. If you have never seen a woman of 105 in a traditional fishmaid’s outfit grinding (tottering, rather) to Taio Cruz, then I heartily represent it. What was most curious to an Englishman was that the crowd didn’t root for the underdog, or the nicest or most eccentric old lady, as they would have at home, they were completely behind the best preserved woman in the smallest dress. At any rate, though, under the safe guidance of Silvio Berlusconi, Italian cultural standards remain unmolested. Unlike Veline‘s contestants if they stray to near the dinosaur, whose behaviour at times is not that of a gentleman.

All of this is a long way of saying that without piercing the surface, our European cousins appear more different from us than one would deem possible, given how much we share, and not for commendable reasons – the English stereotype of the southern European as lazy, sensual and excitable contribute a lot to our antipathy towards Europe and misplaced sense of superiority to it. At heart, though, there is a common decency in European culture that surpasses by a long way that which may be found at home; one is invited into people’s lives without reservation and not begrudgingly,  community is more than a term simply employed on government press releases, there is a deep and abiding courtesy and respect which permeates every level of interaction between strangers. There is also a warmth, a basic enjoyment of company that contrasts starkly with the English need for immense quantities of drink as a remedy to the terrible problem of human interaction. Most notably, though, there is a largely unspoken moral standard which runs through public and private discourse, and in France and Italy is drawn largely from the Catholic church. I would suggest that this is an integral reason why these nations appear more balanced and calmer than Britain.

Only two pieces of news from home percolated through the endless cabaret shows and Miss Italia haiographies into the Italian media while I was nearing the end of my pilgrimage. The first was Wayne Rooney’s extramarital adventures in nightclub toilets, with two well educated slatterns who saw nothing odd or shameful in broadcasting their reflections on this experience to a salivating public. The second was the visit of his Holiness Pope Benedict. With wearisome inevitability the nation’s liberal community have welcomed the leader of the world’s Catholics with a crescendo of hysterical, pained wails of impotence and rage, and the nation’s Muslim community have extended their traditional welcome in the form of a mercifully unrealised attempt at murder. Britain looks, having spent some months in the civilised world, like a country which has long since relinquished its grip on sanity – if we are so fractured as a society that we are capable of producing only bile and contempt for a man who has relentlessly preached peace and reconciliation, all the while presiding over a citizenry one part of which appears literally at war with the others, and if we are so morally apathetic that we exault the adventures of adulterers and whores, then we are exceptional in a European sense, but not positively. Britain is a country which knows only half of the story. There is a state without a society, attempting law without judgment, based on rights without responsibility, in the thrall of sex without love. Every one of the communal instincts of human beings has been despoiled and debased in an ever increasing quest for a life without boundaries – it is the logical nexus of protestantism, the personal God, morality subject only to an individuals interpretation of what they should do, not the uncomfortable press of temporal authority. There are an enormous number of very, very good people in Britain, doing a lot of good for others, but I have become firmly convinced that the standards under which the majority of the population exist are a recipe for madness. I imagine that many will dissent to this view, so be it, it is my honest testimony having had the opportunity to examine the way our neighbours live, and reflect on the culture I have enjoyed in England for a number of years.

On a less melancholy note, I would like to thank you all for reading this blog, giving me your feedback and (hopefully) making some donations to the Marrilac as well. Walking the Via Francigenia was a tremendous honour – each and every day I was humbled, provoked to thought and deeply moved both by the many individual kindnesses I was shown, and the splendor of the scenery, both human and divinely created.

I have some observations to make on both the topics of the European Union and Catholicism, which I shall write up here next week. For the vast majority of my university contemporaries who were reading solely in the hope that I would be kidnapped/maimed/partially lobotomised and converted to socialism on the road, though, the journey is over. Thanks once again for your forbearance and all best, T x

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Part Novae – Pictures

September 17, 2010 5 comments

Awoken by the sound of Drum and Bass at 8 this morning, the weather somewhere below freezing and not a decent coffee insight – must be back in Blighty. Having spent the last week in Rome, I have had the chance to reflect on what has been in every respect the most outstanding journey, and shall write those reflections up forthwith, but I know really, you’d prefer to see some pictures…

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Part Otto – “Am I the only one here who likes Masaccio?”

September 6, 2010 3 comments

Tuscany means the English, not just the English, but the sort of English person whom one gets sat next to at a dinner party if last year the host caught you behind the conservatory doing something compromising to his wife/daughter/cat, and has waited a full year to be revenged. Every street of every town throngs with fat, furious looking women charging from basilica to basilica, all enjoying an experience of immense self-satisfaction, marred only by these other ghastly English people, none of whom are able to appreciate Tuscany nearly as well. Their husbands follow at a distance of ten paces, morosely photographing things. In the evenings, they sit on verandahs exercising the talent for complaining which hallmarks our island race abroad.

The worst instance of this behaviour was a comment placed in the visitors book at the convent in Piestrana where I stayed, written in the sort of spiky, outsized handwriting that one imagines plagues the offices of the government departments responsible for potholes, street-bunting etc. It also followed a string of very gracious comments in French, German and Italian, and referred to an extremely pleasant facility provided at minimal cost out of the sense of Christian charity of the local religious community. Over an entire A4 page it berated the nuns opposite for not coming over to wash the feet of our hero, ending rather huffily, “WITHOUT CHARITY THERE IS NO LOVE, AND WITHOUT LOVE THERE IS NO GOD”. I see no particular reason why nuns ought to devote their time to washing the feet of impertinent English people, and in the context of the rest of the comments, a rant which failed to demonstrate the slightest trace of thanks or grace made one sigh and wonder why it is the English have to be such shits. Fortunately, the other English language entries were all by Americans describing how they had only walked 5kms when the Lord, or LORD! as they would have it, sent first a pizza restaurant and then a taxi, neither of which they were able to refuse without the possibility of incurring divine displeasure.

Incidentally, I found a copy of the Times the other day and see that the science v. religion debate is in full swing again. Most disappointing was the assertion by the woman debating Dawkins on the inside pages that the pleasant sensation engendered by religion is sufficient reason for her to hold such beliefs. This is entirely wrong – the factual status of an act is not related to the sensation it produces. It is entirely possible to prove the truth not just of religion, but of the Christian faith by reference to the argument from Miracles. The modern church, in its Anglican incarnation at least, appears neither to care for the miraculous, nor to believe in it, likewise fundamental tenants of Christian belief which are required in order to illuminate the way in which the world does work, such as the existence of demons. The argument is, I feel convincing, but I shall set it out in a couple of weeks when I am at home and have time. In the meantime, the Dr Rowan Williams will, no doubt, keep the home fires burning.

This part of Italy has been wonderful. The Cathederal at Siena was an awesomely beautiful building in the truest sense, a place you could not help but observe open mouthed, the hospitality (including feet washing) has been outstanding and the scenery compelling (providing one finds ploughed up fields of mud compelling, otherwise not). Unlike the French and Swiss sections which brought each day a greater natural beauty, the Italian section brings each day something fine crafted by man. Today, I am in Bolsana, visiting the catacombs of St Christina, and viewing the miraculous host from which bleeding was reported in the thirteenth century, thus confirming the doctrine of transubstantiation. A very pleasant stop.

All best to you all, and thanks to those of you following this. Shall write in greater detail when I have more time in Rome. Tx

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