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Heaven and Hell in Campania

       Sitting at the back of the stand, watching the Coppa Davis, the view is roughly the same as that which can be seen on the paintings in all the restaurants of the city. Beyond the red “clay” and the main body of Italian fans is Vesuvius. To the right of the volcano are the mountains and towns of the Amalfi peninsula. Sharp right, beyond the seats reserved for officials and club members, is the blue Mediterranean and the outline of Capri. To the left, lapping the sea in all directions and stretching up the mountain slopes, is the city. The restaurants generally favour an eighteenth century view so cruise liners and container ships have replaced the sailing ships and the mountain no longer emits smoke: the last puff was spotted in 1943. And, of course, the city spreads much further round the bay and up the mountains than it used to, there being now a million people in the city and another three million in the visible conurbation. The match runs all three days and by the third day those British supporters who bought their tickets on Italian websites are being fed home made delicacies by the the Italians around them. It raises the question: is there anywhere else you would rather be?

In the far South of Campania, in a fishing village where the coast is at its maximum distance from the autostrada, the restaurateur is pressing us to try the different fish he picked up at the village harbour when the boats returned at six o’clock. Also the amuses-bouche (there is no Italian expression) his brother has concocted in the kitchen. We pay for two courses, eat about five. Also he flatters me, as Italians often do: I not only look Italian (considered a good thing), but sound Italian. Here, I must explain, as he flatters to ingratiate, my language skills flatter to deceive. My Italian is limited and very rusty. In a sense, it dates back to before I was born, to when my father, as a language graduate in the Eighth Army, was sent on an intensive Italian course so that he could liaise and interrogate. Thus, when we went to Italy, I heard the language and could ask what it meant and what to say. So I sound OK, much better than in Spanish despite many lessons in that language. My star moment on this trip was at Herculaneum when a group of boys addressed me in English and I replied in Italian; one of them turned away bored, convinced I was lying about being English , muttering “E Italiano”. I have great difficulty in reading serious Italian prose and my strong subjects in conversation are food and football.

Lovely place, Italy, isn’t it? Shakespeare set fifteen of his plays there and even in his time there were complaints about “Italianate Englishmen” who banged on about how you hadn’t really lived unless you’d been to Italy and the infatuation has been going on for five hundred years of grand tours and package holidays. In my case, it was love at first sight. Before any of the Alpine tunnels were opened my parents drove to Italy up the Mont Cenis pass. Up among the flowery meadows we hit the small Italian border post. It was manned by a single officer, handsome if a trifle fat, in a grey uniform with a cap at a rakish angle. He was standing in the middle of the road and singing. We waited until he finished and then he welcomed us to Italy. What a cool country! I often think of him these days as I ski down that road: it sees far more traffic as Europe’s longest ski run than it does as a passage to Italy.

One of the things that might happen to you in Campania if you meet a group of young men is that they will spit at your wife or girlfriend in order to provoke you. When you are obliged to respond they will beat the crap out of you to demonstrate that they have the right kind of stuff to be Camorra enforcers. If they graduate into a Camorra clan they will learn to stuff your mouth with explosives to blow your head off or – if they want you to divulge a bit of information – they will slowly beat you to death with spiked clubs. There is, apparently, no shortage of young men wanting to work for the Camorra clans; they are likely to explain to you that they would rather die young having been feared than live to a ripe old age by holding down a boring and servile job. In this, if in nothing else, they may resemble Islamicist terrorists.

Of course, I have no experience of any of this; I am entirely dependent on the investigative journalist Roberto Saviano whose book Gomorrah, originally published in 2006, is an exposé of Camorra activities which has led to him needing three bodyguards and being condemned by Silvio Berlusconi as one who has libelled Italy. According to his account the Camorra are five times more economically significant than the Sicilian Mafia. Thus his title, based on the angry remark of a friend: we all know about the Mafia just as we all know what they did in Sodom. But what did they do in Gomorrah? The Camorra long ago lost interest in the cigarette trade and even drugs can now be sub-contracted, but they control the port of Naples and the real money is in fake fashion, toxic waste disposal and construction. According to Saviano by far the greatest harm the Camorra do is in the cheap-rate dumping of toxic substances from all over Europe onto sites in Campania, with disastrous effects on health in many poorer areas. He lists a whole list of terrorist organisations, including ETA, the IRA and the Red Brigades, whose direct murder victims added up do not get close to those of the Camorra; this does not, of course, include the collateral damage of toxic waste.

The murder figures make approximate sense, but should not be taken out of proportion. Campania has the highest murder rate in Italy – just under fifty per million per annum: about the same as the USA as a whole, four times that of the United kingdom, five times that of Italy as a whole. If you put the claims in Saviano’s account against the publicly quoted figures it only makes sense if pretty well all the murders in Campania are Camorra-related. On the other hand it is reasonable to suppose that the clans kill Chinese sweated labourers they have imported and African pedlars they have sub-contracted without these appearing in any statistics; indeed, there is a dramatic episode at the beginning of the book when a container opens and Chinese bodies spill out. There is also a very visible presence of South Asians in Naples, not mentioned by Saviano; I talked to some, but didn’t raise the question of whether they were legal immigrants.

Naturally, if you have read the book you tend to look at the place differently compared with those who haven’t. A couple of musical examples. Take, for example, the pair of buskers below our hotel room, on the causeway from the lungomare to the Castello dell’Ovo, a very popular tourist spot. They are musically useless, badly recycling Neapolitan and global favourites on a fairly short loop. But they have no rivals: how does that work? At a much higher musical level we went to the opera, in the magnificent Teatro San Carlo, the world’s oldest opera house. We saw Otello – the Verdi rather than the Bellini (which was actually premiered there). There were two intervals of twenty minutes when the audience repaired to a vast assembly room to drink bubbly, network and be seen. Bourgeois elegance in profuse and extreme form. But how many were Camorra connected? And how many connected with the various anti-Mafia agencies? And how many both?

A Californian tourist, walking behind us at Pompeii, remarked, “This place is bi-polar”. He was actually talking about the weather, a sunshine/shower sequence much more familiar to the English than the Californians. But he could easily have been talking about the totality. Years ago we were robbed and our car broke down on the same day in Verona. Innocenti mended the car immediately, offering excellent coffee and football conversation while we waited. When I arrived at Carabinieri HQ to report the robbery they were very grumpy and had obviously been sleeping. Market and state: I treasured the dichiarazione I got out of them for insurance purposes. In the late seventies I was in a jumpy Turin, bristling with guns after seven people had died in a battle with the Red Brigades. A few hours later I was in a small town where people were chatting in the sun and grandfathers were eating ice creams with their grandchildren. It could not have been more relaxed. And this time baggage pick-up and clearance at Naples Airport was the quickest and most efficient I have seen anywhere. Ditto, the system for picking up taxis. But then you are plunged into Neapolitan traffic: slow progress, appalling and aggressive driving and the most graffiti I have ever seen.

Even my reading list turned out to be bi-polar. Gomorrah is a nasty book – that’s the subject matter rather than the author, though he does seem to relish his subject at times. Helen Attlee’s The Land Where Lemons Grow (2014) was the antidote, a nice book, an account of an aspect of Italian gardening, the cult of the citron in all its varieties, especially in Campania. I bought one of the giant ibridi citrons and ate it marinated in sugar as instructed: different and tasty. Somewhere in between these two books was Michael Dibdin’s Cosi Fan Tutti, his Inspector Zen story set in Naples. Here the Camorra exist, but they aren’t quite as nasty.

A version of the “parachute question” I used to ask myself as a much younger travel writer: Are the problems of Naples and Campania apparent to the uninformed traveller? Would you know something was wrong without being told? In Saviano’s view the worst problem is the toxic waste which has poisoned lives and sent cancer rates soaring in some places. But I don’t think you would know this as a tourist: we ate and drank in Campania for two weeks without ill effects, which is more than you can say for most places. On the other hand, the over-development is obvious and appalling. Most tourists see this in the filthy sprawl around Pompeii, which looks more like an Asian urban area than a European one. (Scotch any middle-class English myth that the Italians have natural good taste in visual matters!) But the place that hit me hardest was Battipaglia. Half a century ago I was stuck as a hitcher in Battipaglia and it was a nice old town that would have sreved very well in one of the Old Country scenes in The Godfather. Now it is an enormous sprawl of grotty apartments and tacky villas and vast, oversized shopping malls. I can’t think of anywhere in England that would have changed as much for the worse in that time. The Camorra love their cement and all attempts at planning have been subverted.

So: as an Italianate Englishman you love this girl, Italia. Always have done, really. She remains striking in looks (if a little deteriorated, but aren’t we all?) and charming in manner. But she’s a bad girl: you can’t trust her an inch. You mustn’t marry her and you should maintain strong barriers between you. All this operatic metaphor has a serious point. Saviano points to a massive spread of Camorra influence internationally, including a surprisingly strong presence in Aberdeen, though they tend to base legitimate activities in Scotland. It is important to note that, though the “European Union” isn’t actually a Mafia/Camorra front organisation, it tends to function as if it were. This is partly because it removes the barriers to expansion: the German press is already claiming that Mafia influence can be detected everywhere in the German economy. But, more generally, in integrating the utterly corrupt with the less corrupt the lowest common denominator effect is bound to hold sway. Good fences make good neighbours – even when – especially when – the girl on the other side of the fence is jolly attractive.

Lincoln Allison 2014