Books: May Week was in June — Attack of the Killer Bee |
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May Week was in June — Attack of the Killer Bee


Once again, Florence was my principal destination, but this time I had to go to Venice first, a detour I begrudged. Françoise was there on a fortnight’s study leave, to read manuscripts in the Marciana Library in the Piazza San Marco. Proust said that after he got to Venice his dreams acquired an address. For me the impact was, as you might imagine, nothing like so subtle. Never fond of the Vedutisti painters — Guardi, I thought, used too much lipstick and Canaletto was patently unreal — I was expecting a picture postcard. I knew all the jokes about Venice, of which the best was Robert Benchley’s telegram home: STREETS FULL OF WATER PLEASE ADVISE. The exquisite, I had persuaded myself, held no appeal. Give me the chiselled jaw and marble biceps of Florence every time. Thus prepared to be indifferent, I was in an ideal condition to be floored. Before the vaporetto was half-way down the Grand Canal I was already concussed. Heat focused by a nacreous sky like the lining of a silver tureen dissolved the surface of the water into a storm of sparks, which were projected as wobbling bracelets of pure light on the otherwise maculate façades of crumbling plaster and rotting marble. The whole place was being eaten alive by liquid luminosity. It was a vision of eternity as soluble as a rusk, God’s love made manifest as a wafer in the world’s wet mouth. Françoise had rented a little room just behind the Piazza San Marco. I set up house on her floor. While she read in the library I made a library desk for myself on a café table at the city end of the Rialto, just to the left of where the steps of the approach to the bridge formed a natural rostrum from which the characters of The Merchant of Venice might step down into the main acting area. The tourist season being at its height, most of the people who came stepping down were Americans. Isn’t it weird?’ a woman in a baseball cap asked another woman in a baseball cap. ‘When they say Accademia I can understand them but when I say ACADEMY they can’t understand me at all.’ The baseball caps were appropriate because both women were the shape of a baseball. Nothing could break the spell. There I sat reading, periodically lifting my head to confirm all over again that Canaletto had been so literal he might as well have used a Hasseiblad. Trying out for the Regatta, the Bucintoro swept by with whomping oars, a ceremonial dream boat dripping gold. Every gondolier sang like Gigli. From Françoise I borrowed a volume of Leopardi’s Zibaldone, the elaborate notebooks in which the great, crippled poet kept track of his vast learning. Religiously looking up every unknown word in a dictionary, I eventually broke through the almost tangible barrier that separates being only just able to read from being able to read with reasonable ease. I started to keep a notebook myself. Dignified with the name of Journal, it would run to a dozen volumes in the next nine years. ‘Volumes’ is a grand word for tatty exercise books. They must be somewhere amongst my junk. One day I must look into them and see what I thought important. Puerilities, I imagine. But the soi-disant journal doubled as a commonplace book, and to that extent it was useful. The habit of copying out was a good one to acquire. Though the main idea was to build up fluency in reading a foreign language, the beneficial side-effect was to fix a lot of good stuff in my head, if only at the level of the half-forgotten. The waiters soon learned to approach me only when I signalled. For a while I thought they were smiling tolerantly because as sons of the Most Serene City they were pleased to see a visitor inspired by intellectual effort. Later I learned that they were being even more tolerant than that. Like all the personnel of the service industries in Venice, they lived in the industrial satellite towns, commuted to work, and would have preferred to bring me a fresh glass of iced coffee every thirty seconds. They needed the tips.

When Françoise got out of the library we would have lunch in a cheap restaurant called the Trattoria al Vagon. You could get there by walking from either St Mark’s or the Rialto. The path was a maze in either case, crossing little bridges from island to island, and never turning a perfectly square corner within the island itself. We always had to allow half an hour for getting lost. Years later I tried to find the Al Vagon and couldn’t. Perhaps it was never there. It was so good and cheap that it might have been a dream. The pasta was always al dente, an expression which could be pressed into service as the name of a ferocious gangster. Lui Medesimo (‘he himself) was Al Dente’s conceited sidekick. Françoise generously laughed at these heavy jokes while I drank her share of the claret to top up mine. Even for her, who preferred to stay sober, there was always the sense that we were living out a carnival scene by Longhi — another painter whom I had previously despised, and of whom I was now starting to see the point.

Yet again, though, it was the Renaissance that carried the heavy charge. Hungry as always for the main event, I was disinclined to be sidetracked by the quirky, the decorative or the merely pretty. Two minutes’ walk from the Al Vagon, Verrocchio’s equestrian statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni rode sternly through the Piazza San Giovanni e Paolo. There were pigeons on his helmet and a barge full of empty coke bottles in the canal at his feet, but his grandezza was only increased. To every Australian schoolboy of my generation, Bartolomeo Colleoni was the Italian cruiser sunk by H.M.A.S. Sydney. The Sydney’s bows were subsequently built into the stone harbour wall near Kirribilli pier under the north end of the Harbour Bridge. But in Venice I could see the real Bartolomeo, the condottiere four centuries into his immortal ride, his image more immediate than the man himself, or any man alive, even me. The contained energy of that bronze horseman kept me occupied for what seemed like hours. Probably, it was less than that, but certainly I stared longer than Byron did, who in one of his plays — either Marino Faliero or The Two Foscari, I forget which — let slip the opinion that the grim rider was made of marble. It is very doubtful if Byron ever went out of doors in Venice. Recovering in his room between visits from insatiable noblewomen, he would totter asymmetrically to the window, check that the Grand Canal was still there, and turn back wearily to the rumpled couch. Poor bastard.

Françoise believed in her mission to civilise me. When the white heat of the early afternoon sky had eased to a tolerable azure, we would tour the outlying churches by vaporetto, on the hunt for Bellini. Most of his capital works were in the Accademia or else in churches close to the centre, but there were others further out, and anyway even his minor canvases were major. Until then, I had been under the impression that all Bellini had ever painted was Madonnas in blue anoraks nursing babies the size of high school children in front of a green shantung antimacassar, with distant landscape an optional extra. Now I saw the range of his humanity, his old men and infantile angels all shaped from pure colour, the painterly monumentality organically complete. In my journal I solemnly noted every painting, enrolling Bellini on my growing list of indispensable seminal figures. His namesake the composer was already on the list. So was Liszt. The honour roll was meant to be growing shorter, but no matter how ruthlessly I pared it down, there was always another genius around the corner demanding to be let in. My appreciation of Tintoretto was not much enhanced by being in his home city, which because of its wet walls has never been kind to the fresco, tempting the business-minded painter towards too-big canvases it took a football team of assistants to help him fill. Most of Tintoretto’s best paintings were done on a smaller scale and eventually exported: I had already learned to admire him elsewhere. Titian’s last manner, however, was well represented in the Venetian churches. ‘Like Shakespeare’s sonnets and Beethoven’s late quartets,’ I remember telling my journal, ‘Titian’s valedictory paintings have a divine carelessness.’ Veronese, I decided, was in Paris and London: to all intents and purposes he had left town. Lacking the means to get out into the surrounding Veneto, we saw little of Tiepolo. I decided to like him anyway: Giambattista, that is, not Giandomenico. I was very strict in my judgments. Françoise, who had heard my unshakeable convictions revised before, patiently upheld the reasonable viewpoint — a propensity which, modest to a fault, she considered her limitation. She also, I need hardly add, paid for the museum tickets, the vaporetto rides, most of the meals, and the bus trip to Padua.

Padua was dominated by Donatello’s equestrian statue of Gattamelata, a work which I instantly declared inferior to Verrocchio’s Bartolomeo Colleoni. This judgment I have since found no good cause to revise, although nowadays I would be less likely to share it with a trattoria full of German tourists. Giotto I had, until then, respected only because Dante thought well of him. Though the big Madonna in the Uffizi was obviously the start of something, I had been able to get interested in the trecento only as a prelude to the quattrocento, which, in its turn — I was suffering from a developmental view of the arts — was clearly only the muted overture to the cinquecento. Françoise had argued wearily against this dogma until it became plain to her that mere reason was powerless. Only evidence would convince me. This was the evidence. In the Arena chapel I stood stunned as the drama unfolded all around me. Drama was exactly what it was, of course: what Giotto had rediscovered, after its thousand years without a voice, was the intensity between human beings. Oscar Wilde had once stood in the same chapel. He, too, had been impressed. You could tell how overwhelmed he was. He was the only English-speaking person to have visited the chapel in the last two hundred years who had not signed his name on the wall. All around the circumference of the chapel, the frescoes were thoroughly mutilated up to the height of an upstretched hand. These graffiti depressed me much more than the missing Mantegnas. Falling out of an erratically flown B-25, practically the only bomb to have hit the historic centre of Padua had gone straight through the roof of the Ovetari Chapel and atomised Mantegna’s biggest-ever fresco cycle. But that was just a misfortune of war, a bad spin of the wheel. Vandalism was an endemic human failing. Italy had too many paintings to look after and too little public money with which to hire people to look after them. I didn’t mind so much when pictures got stolen: usually they were ransomed back the following week, with tax advantages to both sides. When paintings got razored I became agitated. The German and Dutch galleries had installed alarm systems whereby no masterpiece could be approached without the offender being instantly gagged, bound and arrested. In the Italian galleries even the guides regularly fingered the paint surface. You would see some idiot bodging his finger into a Botticelli. A reformed vandal with a bad conscience, I began to get very touchy about seeing paintings touched, or even breathed on.

Arriving in Florence just in time for the kind of weather that encouraged the inhabitants to leave, we took a room at the Antica Cervia. The Santa Croce quartiere behind the Palazzo Vecchio was the old stamping ground of the popolo minuto, in the sense that this was where the little people had been stamped into the ground by a commune which, however egalitarian, had never quite succeeded in distributing its power down as far as the penniless. Still radical enough at that stage to be rather thrilled by my discovery of Gramsci’s prison letters, I fancied myself as fitting right in when we dined at the Trattoria Anita with the prostitutes and pimps. In Italy it was a point of style to be a bit red. Sinistra was such a thrilling way of saying left wing. Lotta continua! The struggle continues! Though theoretically clean shaven at the time, I grew a two-day stubble and tried to look dangerous as I leaned forward over the spaghetti al sugo, my intense eye-contact with Françoise perhaps having been unduly influenced by the steely look Giotto had given St Francis. I made it clear to her that the clientele of the trattoria were essentially my people: vagabonds, snappers-up of unconsidered trifles, the wretched of the earth. In point of fact most of them scarcely even rated as petty crooks. The boys with the gold chains around their necks who scratched their crotches all the time thought they had done a hard day’s work when they succeeded in selling each other a carton of two hundred contraband Marlboros. Otherwise they spent a good deal of time wistfully annoying foreign girls in the hope of forming a profitable liaison, but their hearts and minds weren’t in it. The true pappagalli would put energy and invention into being pests. This bunch preferred not to work up a sweat. On principle, in the first few days, they eyed Françoise suggestively, challenging her to restrain what they obviously hoped might be an irresistible impulse to cast reason and her clothes aside. After having absorbed the accumulated evidence that she was unlikely to jump into their laps, they relaxed again into their customary torpor. The energy of those brave young men was all for show and their women didn’t even bother to show it. To classify them as hookers paid them a compliment. It was a courtesy title. They were too lazy to lean against a wall successfully. Most of the time, when they weren’t eating, they sat in the back of a bar complaining in concert about the ladders in their fishnet stockings. A potential customer needed radar to find them.

The only real proletarians present were Anita and her family, who worked their guts out from daylight to midnight, on a profit margin so slim that if a tomato went rotten it was a disaster. Anita could think of nothing more exciting in life than the possibility — a very slim one, given the inefficiency of Italy’s educational system — that her clever young daughter might go to university and learn to speak well like Françoise. The daughter, universally called La Tempesta, was almost old enough to wait on table. Neither Anita nor her equally hardworking husband wanted the apple of their eye to spend her whole life doing what they had done and their two sons were already doing. These were the kind of proletarians whose only dream was to become part of the bourgeoisie. Gramsci started sounding less convincing. I was still reading him, but not in the restaurant.

Now that I no longer had to, I read all day. Françoise was studying manuscripts in the Laurenziana, in a magnificent reading room at the head of a staircase by Michelangelo. Scorning the gloom of the libraries, I made my base at a bar in the Piazza della Signoria, just in front of a house designed by Raphael. Alas, he had designed it without an awning. As the daily heat increased from merely intense to overwhelming, I changed base to a better-shaded bar near the Badia, whose graceful tower was my personal landmark. The heat was still too much so I transferred to the Biblioteca Nazionale, having decided that the gloom of libraries might be all right after all. In fact there was plenty of light inside, along with the tolerably cool air. With the Arno only fifty feet away, I could sit at a desk for hours on end, reading my way through the collected works of Benedetto Croce, who wrote so much that he made Ruskin look as parsimonious as E. M. Forster. This autobiography is not meant to be a precise intellectual history, which I doubt if anyone can write about himself without fudging the facts. Ideas, even if they come from books, are modified by experience in ways too indirect to be assessed at the time or recalled accurately afterwards. I can state confidently, however, that those weeks in the library in Florence were crucial to my mental development, to the extent that such a thing has ever taken place at all. Croce, in particular, played a vital role in making me feel better about being mentally undeveloped. Formally laid out in his capital theoretical volumes on aesthetics and poetry, and richly applied in countless ancillary volumes of criticism and cultural history, his central concept of the naïve artistic impulse had a strong appeal, perhaps because I was, as I still am, unusually naïve myself. For Croce, the individual creative talent was irreducible. A peasant who could crack a good joke might have it, whereas an educated man who gave his life to poetry might not. The high arts and the low arts were united to the extent that they were inspired. Within the unity conferred by inspiration, all categories were illusory. This was good news for a reader whose devotion to the high arts was continually being sabotaged by the attraction of the low ones. But Croce offered no easy consolation. His position was not an indulgence. It was the outcome of a lifelong, untiringly rigorous process of examining his own omnivorous enthusiasm with a cool detachment. The vehicle of his thought was the proof of his grandeur: his prose, so transparent as to be beyond style, flowed like a river without ever being carried away by itself — or so it seemed. His effect on me, as I progressed from reading with a dictionary to context-reading to reading with ease, was like learning to swim. As I read his pages by the hundred and then the thousand, I tried to remind myself that any great stylist sounds like an oracle until a big enough historic fact contradicts him. After all, I had been equally impressed by George Bernard Shaw until I realised just how wrong he had been about Hitler and Stalin. But Croce’s anti-totalitarian credentials were impeccable. Also he was writing in a foreign language. Undoubtedly there was a self-congratulatory element in my thrilled response. Part of the thrill lay in being able to read at all. Careful not to make Leopardi’s mistake — he read so much that when he tried to straighten up one day he found he couldn’t — I would get up from the desk once an hour, go outside, sit on the river wall and look downstream towards the Ponte Vecchio. Drained by the heat trapped in its etched upper valley, the river was little more than a collection of shallow pools. In the late afternoon sun they lit up white. Fishermen standing in them were silhouettes expounding theorems by Pythagoras. It occurred to me, not as forcefully as it might have, that Florence was my real university, from which Cambridge was the vacation. I was out of phase with my own life. Never would I be able to relax, except when effort was called for, whereupon I would go to sleep. Did this mean that on the day I died I would wake up? Speriamo. Here’s hoping.

Françoise was there to temper my fanaticism. In theory, a bom teacher likes nothing better than a keen student, but there are limits. When we toured the country villas of the Medici, a bronze nymph or satyr disporting on the edge of a fountain would inspire me to give a lecture on the virtues of Giambologna until I found out that it was by Pierino da Vinci. Unabashed, I would give another lecture on Pierino’s limitations. Françoise was a very good photographer. That year she posed me against all the fountains of the city and environs, securing a set of pictures remarkable for their composition and for the fact that my mouth was closed. My spoken Italian was not yet good enough for me to join in easily when she was with her friends, so she had to suffer the full spate of my eloquence in English when we were alone. We weren’t alone all that often. Her student contemporaries were as gregarious and welcoming as ever, with an extra sense of group identity engendered by the worsening conditions in the universities. Everyone you knew was a red that year. Even Gabriella went to the Communist Party open air festival in the gardens at the Cascine. The dazzling Adriana had changed her thesis topic from Cesare Pavese to Rosa Luxemburg. Older and wiser heads — they had begun to call themselves that more stridently, now that the young were calling them reactionaries — insisted that the growing hubbub was just another case of fantapolitica: fantasy politics. To a certain extent that was true, but underneath the posturing there were real grievances. The universities were corrupt. Most of the faculty were behaving like absentee landlords. Even the best students could see no career prospects. La Sinistra had become a vocation in itself. It had its own language, its own literature, its own cinema. At its best, the Italian left-wing cinema was capable of an analytical tour de force like The Battle of Algiers, which I saw three times in a row, resolved to emulate its hard-bitten detachment. But Gillo Pontecorvo was a sophisticate who could read history as a tragedy. The young revolutionaries could read it only as a comic book. Most of them believed that the United States had caused the Second World War. All of them believed that the United States had sabotaged the Italian popular revolution after the war was over. The alleged prosperity of modern Italy was a sham. The elected government was Fascism in thin disguise. It was all the fault of the Americans. The question was simple. Why was the government powerless? The answer was simpler. Because capitalism was powerful. Students gathered around the café tables to examine the implications of this obvious fact. Young men dressed in the Italian bourgeois version of the English aristocratic manner discussed how the wealth of their fathers might be redistributed. Taking drinks in the gardens of her villa under an evening sky strangely rimmed with green radiance behind a picket fence of silhouetted cypresses, Gabriella and her coruscating friends were a cut above all this but they had the same frustrations and the same passions. Adriana being politically passionate was a sight to behold. She was an aria without an orchestra. Ma donnEEna, figOOrati! she would wail, the ash from her cigarette powdering the evening air. Watching, I moved my lips silently to match hers, the rhythm of her lilting voice. How could it be translated? But little lady. Figure it out. The second, stressed syllable of figurati was hooted, as in the word ‘hoof’. What mad music! I called for madder music, and for stronger wine. Both were immediately forthcoming, especially the wine. Thoroughly committed by now to the study of my second language, I was already realising the benefit I would reap even if I got nowhere: my first language would stand revealed for what it was, a mechanism so complex that it lived. The revelation was intoxicating. I had to sit down suddenly, right there on the parched grass. The Italians, products of a culture in which drunkenness was almost unknown, politely pretended that they thought I might be ill.

During a brief pause in the political discussion we would all go to the movies at the Summer Firefly. A short walk along the dry bed of the Arno near the city end of the Bridge to the Graces, the Summer Firefly charged you almost nothing to get in but broke even by screening old movies at very low standards of projection. At ten o’clock on an August night the heat was killing, but it beat being inside. Indeed the Summer Firefly beat anything. It was the best cinema I was ever in. At first glance an al fresco flea-pit, in its capacity to generate a careless rapture it exceeded even the Rockdale Odeon, the Hampstead Everyman, or that little place in the Rue St Severin where they used to screen old Humphrey Bogart movies in version originale, back to back, for ever. One of my all-time favourite Westerns, 3.10 to Yuma, was the Summer Firefly’s staple item. Under the title Quel treno per Yuma it cropped up every second week, running about fifteen minutes less than its proper length because the print was full of splices. Glenn Ford and Felicia Farr would suddenly switch positions on screen like electrons changing levels. The fact that I already knew all the dialogue by heart in English, however, made the story easier to follow in Italian. We all sat there happily shouting advice to Van Heflin while the other stars, the astronomical ones, sharpened overhead in the deepening purple. At the climactic point where Glenn Ford leans out of the hotel window so that Richard Jaeckel can see him and ride off to tell the rest of the gang, the image on the screen, which had already been flickering weirdly, settled down to show the bottom half of one frame and the top half of another. Glenn Ford’s chin and collar were on top of his hat. Electing myself spokesman, I went back to advise the projectionist, who was facing away from the screen while entertaining three friends. They all had glasses of wine in their hands and seemed quite happy to be told that a disaster was taking place. ‘Disastro nella proiezione!’ I assured them. ‘Glenn Ford si è convertito in una pittura cubista!’ Grammatically questionable, but it worked the trick.

The Summer Firefly’s seats were rusty metal folding contraptions that could easily capsize in the gravel if you laughed too hard. The walls of the roofless auditorium were composed of plaited brushwood, intermittently penetrated by children, whose faces appeared like cherubic visitations, abruptly withdrawn when swept by the beam of the usherette’s weak torch. Half drunk but fully happy, in the Summer Firefly I hung suspended within reach of the perfect life. It was an illusion, of course: it always is. It can only happen when you have no responsibilities, which is itself an illusion.

On the coast at Viareggio and Forte dei Marmi we swam until August became a slightly more bearable September. Considering the waves to be beneath the contempt of an Australian surfing hero, I sat on the unsatisfactory sand reading the poetry of Eugenio Montale. It was a good location in which to become acquainted with Ossi di Seppia — cuttlefish bones. Montale’s poetry was difficult for the right reasons. It was reticent, unrhetorical, compressed, permanent. Memorising it line by line, I was put in my place by the increasing weight of what I had absorbed. ‘To vanish,’ I mistranslated, ‘Is thus the adventure of the adventures.’ During this same educational interlude a Sarah Lawrence graduate student called Lisa joined us, as if to remind our bold young radicals of just how powerful a force American cultural imperialism actually was. She looked like Angie Dickinson, spoke Italian almost as well as Françoise, and was writing a thesis on Castiglione. She drove an Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider hired with the first example any of us had ever seen of an American Express card. When she appeared on the beach in a black bikini, the boys put off the revolution until the next day. Watching Lisa and Françoise standing waist deep in the flat Tyrrhenian was one of my lasting visions of that impeccable summer. Everything went right. Even the life-transforming message was carried in on cue. Back in Florence at the Antica Cervia, there was a knock on the open door. The proprietress stood there in the compact heat of the gloomy corridor. She was illuminated like a figure of destiny by one of those twelve-watt bulbs of which every Italian landlady has an endless supply, so as to be able to replace them when they burn out once every hundred years. She held a letter forwarded by my college. It informed me that I had been registered for a PhD and that a study grant would consequently be forthcoming.

This news, it was agreed, was too good to deal with on my own. The first instalment of the grant was too far off to borrow on the strength of it. I was hugely in debt to Françoise, whose own finances would have been strained enough without me. Dalziel had offered me three weeks’ work on Expresso Drongo, which he assured me was making good progress. I would have to go back to London. The Italians would not let me go without a party. More precisely, it would be a dinner: a kind of Last Supper. My perpetual beatific smile must have convinced them all that I was touched by grace. The dinner would be at a special restaurant serving nothing but game. The game was one of the secondary results of the Italian hunting season, whose principal product, as usual, had been an impressive pile of wounded hunters and extinct passers-by. When the bell rang to start the Italian hunting season, devotees of la caccia drove at full speed into the woods and shot everything that moved. Since the animals were sensibly lying low, most of the victims were people. Advancing at random through the woods, the hunters — whose minds, like their expensive guns, were on a hair trigger — fired when they thought they saw something. Often they had seen each other. They also killed civilians in nearby villages. The occasional wild animal got hit, but only by a fluke. One man blasted a rabbit that was already hanging from another man’s belt. So much frantic vehicular traffic on the woodland roads, however, ensured that a considerable amount of wildlife was run over. The leading all-game restaurant in Florence, I was assured, would be plentifully supplied with pheasants, wild geese, stags, bucks, oryx, ibex and its pièce de résistance, wild boar. I was promised the most tearful send-off since Dante went into exile.

With Françoise safely despatched to the library, I spent my last afternoon in Florence luxuriating in sorrow on a stone bench just in front of Santa Maria Novella. I had been inside to commune with one of my heroes, Paolo Uccello, whose frescoes in the Green Cloister had recently been uncovered after about a decade in restauro. For once in my life, I told myself, I could take credit for experiencing an emotion appropriate to the circumstances, I knew that I would come back to the city, but that I would never be so happy here again as I had been in this short time. Open in my lap was the Inferno, at the great passage where Farinata talks about his banishment. His dignity, I persuaded myself, was mine. I felt that I, too, was a knight in a suit of armour.

Would that it had been true, because at that moment a bee stung me. The bee must have been lurking between my bare forearm — the sleeves of my shirt were rolled up — and my waist. When I shifted my arm slightly, the bee was trapped, and reacted the way bees do. I felt as if a length of stiff copper wire had been shoved into my arm and momentarily fed with the total electric power of an underground railway system. The stab of pain was so disproportionate that I didn’t complain until it was over, so instead of emitting an abstract scream I cried ‘Jesus Christ!’ at a volume that stopped the traffic. It turned out that almost nobody in the square was Italian. A whole busload of English Carmelite nuns stared at me as if I were a blasphemer. They had a point. It was a long way to come to hear the Lord’s name taken in vain at ear-splitting volume on the front steps of His own house. A representative of the British Council crossed the square to wonder if I might consider moderating my tone. Only the Americans noticed nothing untoward. They probably thought my outcry had been part of some religious ceremony. The pain was already gone, leaving nothing more than an American man in a baseball cap saying to another man in a baseball cap: ‘You mean we gotta spend another three hours in this place?’ I forgave them, having surmised — correctly, as it turned out — that America was merely first in achieving a level of average income so high that even the mentally underprivileged were able to travel, and that shortly all the other industrialised countries would start exporting idiots too. My senses had never been so sharp. I was clairvoyant. When I met Françoise for drinks at the café near the Badia, I was giggling. When we all arrived at the game restaurant I was already hilarious. The whole bunch was there. The joint was jammed but we had a long table to ourselves. Wild boar with wheel-marks across their backs were hanging from the rafters. I thought it was too funny for words. For the first hour I was the life and soul of the party, in my opinion. My conjectures as to which bits of the wild boar were concealed by the thick gravy were widely received as brilliantly original after Françoise had translated them. Then I got sick. Bee venom and wild boar had done something to each other that a gallon of chianti couldn’t fix. In the toilet I was sad to discover that there was no throne I could kneel beside so as to be sick into it. Instead, there were those glorified holes in the ground. Those porcelain efforts that look like plaster casts of the footprints of square elephants, Flush with the ground and they flush all over your feet. Very, very hard to be sick into accurately. Very HAH! That wasn’t so bad. Not accurate, though. Not ACK! ACK! I was there a long time. Beppe and Sergio, two of my closest friends in my whole life, arrived to find out how I was. I was OK, but where were the others? They were all my closest friends. Get them all in here. Bring the girls in too. just a second. YAARGH!

The two guys held me while I tried to regurgitate the wild boar, from which not all the hair, it now became apparent, had been removed. If this kept up, I was going to be sick. The third time that I was helped back to the table, there were suggestions that I should be taken to hospital, but I refused to go unless it was guaranteed that there would be a toilet there. I had seen Italian ambulance crews in action. Manned by volunteers in white Franciscan cowls, the ambulance would scream to a halt at the scene of an accident and immediately the situation would be transformed. Victims lying there with broken backs would be thrown into the ambulance. People bleeding to death from wounds that needed only a tourniquet would be given artificial respiration instead. The volunteers were businessmen with a commendable urge to perform some community service, but they would have done better to sweep leaves. Without the protection of anonymity, they would have stood a good chance of being indicted for murder, if ever the eight differently uniformed Italian police forces could have got out of each other’s road long enough to prevent the next crime instead of just arriving abruptly on powerful motorcycles to be photographed beside the results of the last one. No, I didn’t want any of that. Just leave me sitting here like a grinning corpse and I’ll be fine. Talk among yourselves while I look as if I’m getting ready to vomit a live pig into your lap.

Having thoroughly spoiled my own party, I succumbed to a case of raving, perambulating semi-malaria from which I did not emerge until late next night, when the bus from Luton airport arrived at Victoria. Only then, when all the other passengers were waking up, did I at last fall into a fitful sleep.