Flower by the Thames
John Sergeant celebrates the Lancaster and the people whose lives were associated with it. Truly delightful programme. Most moving hour of telly this year. Urge you to watch it this week before it leaves the iPlayer.
Going to be lonnnggg day at work after hitting the hay at 4.30am but worth it for these guys. We’ve been through so much together. When I started supporting the Spurs, we hadn’t won any NBA titles. Now we’ve got five and this is the sweetest yet with revenge for last year #NBAChamps
Stunning Suburban Skyline
Literary Crime Fiction Interview: Charles Lambert
Matthew: It is rare for a writer to get truly under the skin of several male and female characters in one novel like you have in A View from the Tower. Have you always taken extra care to fully develop both genders or did the nature of this novel mean you had to dig deep across each character for extra impact?
Charles: My first novel to be published, Little Monsters, had a woman narrator, something I only realised after having written the first few pages. My second, Any Human Face, was focused on two gay men, while The View from the Tower, as you say, sees events through the eyes of both male and female characters.
I’m not aware of any purpose - political or otherwise - behind this. It’s just the way the narrative dice seems to have rolled. At the risk of sounding pretentious, I find myself imagining a situation and then listening to the character at the heart of it to hear what they have to tell me, and their gender is only one aspect of many: age, nationality, sexuality all play their part.
The third novel in the Rome trilogy, The Folding World (due out later this year), is also choral, with male and female, gay and straight, old and (relatively) young characters each taking central stage at various points in the story. My aim is always to get as deeply into the character as I can, which requires a mixture of empathy and ventriloquism!
You explore, in great detail, the bond between a powerful Italian mother and her son. Do you think the current generation of Italian mothers have as strong a hold on their sons as before? How much do you think this type of relationship shapes the decisions of influential Italian males in the realm of politics, media and the like?
Italian mothers! Where do I start? I don’t have one myself, and I’ve never had to deal with an Italian mother-in-law either (though I believe they can be even more forbidding – and that’s certainly Helen’s experience in The View from the Tower).
The Italian mothers I know are my friends and contemporaries, and I see them as embattled, often single parents, dealing with offspring whose aspirations can be depressingly low-key and materialistic after a childhood spent in the long and glittering shadow of Berlusconi-controlled media, obliged to provide a home for their sons and daughters long after adolescence in the absence of suitable housing and work. Not an easy place to be.
I’d say that Italian mothers these days have far less control over their children than they once did, but that’s intuition rather than data-based. It’s true, though, that my students at university still frequently interrupt lessons to take calls from their mothers, and then defend themselves by saying that they haven’t spoken to each other since breakfast!
The number of grown men who continue to wear vests beneath their T-shirts at the height of summer is also surely a legacy of motherly anxiety. Italy is both profoundly conformist and profoundly individualistic, and this combination places the family and the traditional authority of the family firmly at the heart of many other spheres of action. Including, obviously, politics.
Berlusconi certainly played the Mamma Rosa card with shameless abandon, and has continued to do so since her death, although I imagine some of his recent antics would have brought a blush to her maternal cheek.
As far as The View from the Tower goes, I see Giulia as the descendant of a long line of formidable Roman mothers - Volumnia in Coriolanus is a good example. She’s unusual, though, in that she places reasons of state on an even higher pedestal than the one she’s erected for her son.
Tobias Jones explores the judicial inertia that exists in Italy extremely well in The Dark Heart of Italy. Do you think that the system will forever be bogged down in red tape and corruption or are there signs that the country is moving towards a quicker, more transparent system in the wake of Berlusconi’s misdemeanours?
I wish. Or magari, as we say in Italy. Like so many things here, the idea of a garantista judicial system, in which the accused is innocent until the third and final verdict is reached at supreme court level, is excellent: it’s the execution of it that’s so hopelessly inadequate.
We’ve all been witness to the farce of the Knox-Sollecito trial, as it gets bounced back and forth between the second and third levels of justice, with what might actually have happened all those years ago increasingly unobtainable except as anecdote and possibly unfounded suspicion, neither of which encourages a just verdict.
Not all magistrates are as impartial or as honest as they might be – and this is true in all walks of life and in all countries – but the vast majority of them seem to me to be doing a difficult job with dedication and, in many cases, personal courage, and deserve our admiration. I certainly wouldn’t choose to be an Italian magistrate myself. It’s a thankless task. Apart from anything else, the state doesn’t even provide them with office space.
A magistrate friend of mine drags the documentation she needs around with her in a Holly Hobbie trolley case. I was in court myself once, some years ago, when I refused to pay a bill, and I saw the feeding frenzy of wheedling lawyers surround the magistrate as she started to work in an effort to have their case heard first.
Some of them actually tried to rearrange the files on her desk, until she slapped their hands away. I was also amazed to see that the only record of the hearing was hand-written by the magistrate herself! These things don’t lend themselves to efficiency or impartiality.
Whether the situation will improve is anybody’s guess. The kind of legal reform proposed by Berlusconi has an obvious appeal to the man himself, but it’s not self-evident that it’s the kind of reform the country needs. There have been moves by the current government to introduce a greater transparency in judicial matters, particularly with regard to some of the so-called terrorist attacks that scarred Italy in the 1960s and 1970s. This is certainly a step in the right direction. In the end, though, it’s a question of speeding up the legal process without depriving people of their right to a fair trial. No easy matter.
Why do you think the potential for anarchy and rebellion is so heightened in Italy? This intense form of communism and fascism.
There is a very weak sense of the collective here, with people tending to keep their own doorsteps clean by sweeping the rubbish into the communal space beyond its confines. This has repercussions at every level. It makes the idea of tax evasion, for example, not only appealing – which, let’s face it, it is – but morally justifiable, a sentiment that unscrupulous politicians have been known to pander to!
People think they know better than the state, and they’re often proved right when they have dealings with bureaucrats and authority in general. When the state does provide for citizens in need, through disability pensions for instance, the provision is often abused at an industrial level.
And then there’s the organic arbitrariness of the system. Some laws are enforced in the north and centre, but rarely in the south. Seat belts? Crash helmets? Using mobiles while driving? Decidedly optional south of Rome.
Your question concerns a politically channelled refusal to recognise the state, but I’d say that Italy’s propensity for rebellion was rooted in this fundamental indifference to social units larger than the family or, failing that, the city/province/region. The state doesn’t get a look in; it’s seen as untrustworthy, duplicitous and fundamentally indifferent.
Unfortunately, this is often the case. When the rebellion is more than individual and physiological – as it was briefly during the Genova G8 summit – the state’s reaction to it is immediate, brutally heavy-handed and, in its own way, a further symptom of the basic unmanageability of Italian society.
On the other hand, Italian individualism has also tempered what might easily have been a much more virulent reaction to the recent wave of illegal immigrants into the country. Despite the efforts of parties like the Northern League, many people still regard the new arrivals as poveri Cristi rather than potential drains on the welfare state. They see them, in other words, as individuals. This may have something to do with the fact that so many Italians were themselves emigrants a generation or so ago, or it may be more deeply engrained in the Catholic culture that still underpins Italian society.
Do you think the younger Italian generation are tiring of Catholicism or are passionate about redefining it in a more positive light in the wake of the revelations of the last decade or so?
My experience as a university teacher tells me that most young people are indifferent to the church, although I suspect Pope Francis may change this. In a typical class of 30 students one or possibly two will have gone to church on Sunday. There is an evangelical element but it’s small.
I’ve never heard anyone mention the issue of paedophilia, but there’s a limit to the range of things that can be profitably discussed in a classroom. The children of my friends, as far as I know and with one exception, are as irreligious as their parents.
Why does Rome have such a strong hold over the country?
The usual stuff. Money, and its dissemination. Centre of political power. The Vatican, which should never be underestimated. The establishment or Il Palazzo as it’s known.
In many ways, of course, Rome is only nominally the capital, despite the ranting of the Northern League. Right now, in terms of seriously large-scale kickbacks, Milan is the throbbing heart of the country, as it has been in so many other ways – licit and not – over the past few decades.
What are the big changes in Italian life that you’ve seen in your thirty odd years there?
Since 1976, when I first came to Italy, I’ve moved from Milan, to Turin, to Modena, to Rome, to Fondi, in a general drift south, so it’s hard to tease out the changes that are simply geographical from more fundamental differences but I’d certainly say that people seem more isolated than they used to be, and less attentive to the other.
There’s a famous sketch from an early Candid Camera, directed by Nanni Loy, set in a bar and showing strangers dipping the tip of their cornetto into the cappuccino of the people next to them. The cappuccino owners tend to be startled, perplexed but not hostile; some of them even offer the cornetto-dipper a cappuccino of his own.
It’s hard to imagine anyone getting away with a free bit of froth these days. In Rome anyway, and on the regional trains I’m forced to use – unpunctual, overcrowded, filthy - there’s a seething irritation beneath the surface that doesn’t require that much provocation to break through.
Talking of trains, and I’ve blogged about this elsewhere, commuters have started to bring something to cover the seat with, a shawl at the least, more often a carefully tailored-to-fit protective skin, as though the previous presence of someone else had soiled it.
This in a country where twenty or thirty years ago people would routinely share any food they had with strangers in the same carriage. What hasn’t changed is a taste for strong leaders, in a country where strength is often fatally compromised and where the level of literacy, in the widest sense, is often low. Another thing that hasn’t changed is that Italian food is still pretty special, with substantial regional variation, although eating out, unfortunately, is nowhere near as cheap as it used to be!
Which other writers do you seek out in the crime genre and books as a whole?
The crime writers I read with pleasure include Fred Vargas, Simenon (always), C.J. Sansom, my fellow Rome resident Conor Fitzgerald, Anya Lipska and Joanna Leyland. But most of my reading is outside the genre, to be honest.
Favourite contemporary writers – and the first names that come to mind - include Andres Neuman, Gerard Woodward, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Gerbrand Bakker, Helen DeWitt and Ivan Vladislavic. I like books that surprise me and teach me something I wouldn’t otherwise know, and the number of translated authors in the list above is a sign of that. I’m also a big fan of pulp writer Duane Swierczynski.
Your book straddles the line between literary and crime fiction. Is this a place you are happy to operate in or do you want to be seen more as a writer that specialises in one genre or the other?
I start a book with a situation that intrigues me, and then see what happens. I’m drawn to plots that set up their own momentum, partly because this gives me space to concentrate on what really matters, the inner lives of my characters, who they are, and how they react to one another. As a result, my work often tends to fall between two stools, but they’re only stools in the eye of the marketing department.
My first novel was classified as literary fiction and implicitly aimed, by Picador, at a woman reader. It was even a Good Housekeeping Pick of the Month!
The second and third were marketed as literary thrillers, which is as good a description as any, although some people would have liked more thrills and some people haven’t read them because they don’t read thrillers. Pazienza.
My latest book, With a Zero at its Heart, is entirely different: 241 numbered 120-word paragraphs, classified as autobiographical fiction and produced with great care and at great expense by The Friday Project. It does have its thrilling moments though!
Do readers need to have read Any Human Face to get the maximum effect of what you set up in A View from the Tower?
No. In fact, I’d prefer them to read Tower first, and then move on to Any Human Face. That’s the order in which they were written, despite their publication history, and it respects the chronology of the events they describe. And by the time they’ve finished, The Folding World should be just about ready to hit the bookstores!
Icelandic drama Life in a Fishbowl gains Oscar recognition
Piece I wrote combining two of my big interests in life.
Why Spring is my favourite season… Kew Gardens, London
Blog piece I wrote on the best session I took in during the week featuring Will Greenwood and Stephen Allan.
Love this abandoned/decay genre of photography
Collection member Matthew Ogborn tells WPO about mixing photography with journalism, why shooting in England and Italy has an enduring appeal for him and how to capture the perfect sunset.
Giant Wheel, Hyde Park, London
I reckon hardly anyone outside Italy could put their finger on the map and point out the charming town of Livigno. High in the Italian Alps nestled up against the Swiss border, this Lombardy gem is made up of just over 5,000 people. When I was looking for a place to kick back with my wife for a couple of days in between Bolzano and Lake Garda, I took a punt on it and, boy, am I glad.
Rising the next morning with fuzzy heads, we tucked into a delicious mammoth breakfast gazing out over the stunning western slopes we were aiming to hike. One hour later, the cabin car had dropped us off on top at Costaccia under perfect blue sky. I wish I could say we took the beautiful ascent in our stride, but I would be lying through my teeth. Monitored by suspicious mountain cows, cattle and horses, we huffed and puffed our way up the snaking path to Carosello where a brief pit stop for lunch primed us for the walk back across the lower slopes. Straying off the path at some point, we made it way more difficult than it should have been, a lone marmot poking his head out of a hole lifting our spirits for the home stretch.
Thankfully the serene kayak trip we undertook next in separate boats allowed us to get our breath back in jaw dropping surroundings for a relaxed hour or so…
One of the main reasons for our visit was to take a look at the Nine Knights Festival on the eastern entrance to the town on our last night. Having made our way up the mountain on the free shuttle bus, we grabbed a tasty no nonsense schnitzel dinner and walked over to the hoopla. Never having been to an extreme sport event, we watched in awe as young daredevils on BMXs flew through the air in a sequence of acrobatic moves that defied logic. Knowing full well we would have crashed face down just heading down the first ramp, let alone zooming up the next one, we doffed our caps and headed back.
Another great breakfast the following morning and, sadly, we waved goodbye from our Fiat Punto. Not for long, though, I hope as the winter wonderland the town serves up is supposed to be just as appetising for snow junkies, if not more so. Grazie mille, Livigno.
Check out the Livigno website for more info
I pretty much fell out of love with top-flight English football last season, tired of the exorbitant wages paid to players, ridiculous coverage given in the press and the worst Premier League in quality since it began. It’s not all doom and gloom, though, and looking forward to the new season for the first time in a while as you can read above.