Why not Berlusconi?
While I am flattered to be described as Silvio Berlusconi’s ‘tough chief executive’ and delighted to read an article, in English on Italy, that covers the ground so widely and fairly, Perry Anderson (LRB, 21 March) makes a couple of errors that must be corrected.
There is not, nor has there ever been, any evidence to support the claim that Berlusconi had links in his early career with the Mafia. Anderson knows Italy well enough to realise that, in terms of social stigma, such a slur is comparable to being charged with the sexual abuse of minors. It is therefore inexplicable and offensive that he should repeat it in an otherwise very fine and substantially balanced summary of recent Italian history.
Not enough has been made of Berlusconi’s contribution to making Italy a more ‘normal’ country, i.e. more similar to its neighbours. He has done so not once but twice, first by introducing commercial television and, second, by forcing Italy towards a more bipolar political system. By challenging a status quo in which the spoils of government were used not only to pay off political debts but to restrain ‘uncongenial’ development, Berlusconi has rendered two fundamental services to his country. The advent of commercial TV – against the wishes of a Constitutional Court dominated, perhaps inevitably, by conservative elements – created the conditions for a consumer-led boom that drove economic growth in the 1980s. The creation of a brand new political party in the 1990s, meanwhile, offered the Italian electorate clearer choices and an opportunity to break with the discredited ‘party-ocracy’ of the past.
Anderson no doubt knows that I initially opposed Berlusconi’s decision to enter politics. Subsequent history and Italian voters have proved me wrong. A pervasive institutional hostility to ‘uncontrolled and uncontrollable’ economic growth, which was the defining characteristic of both the Left and a wide cross-section of ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ Christian Democrats, is now largely a thing of the past. Even if Berlusconi were not my oldest friend, I would be enormously grateful to him for that.
While clearly not supportive of Silvio Berlusconi – as either a businessman or a political leader – Perry Anderson is at pains to show that many of Berlusconi’s claims to the effect that he has been the target of concerted, politically inspired hostility, both in the media (over which he supposedly has a stranglehold) and in the courts, are true. It is facile, however, to say that there can be ‘little question’ as to the ‘factual validity’ of the ‘prevailing foreign view’ of Berlusconi as a ‘danger to any free society’. Such assumptions, although based on conjecture, have been constantly reiterated by elements in the justice system, including what Anderson marvellously and aptly describes as ‘the posse of Mani Pulite’. One of the terrors of falling into the Italian legal quagmire is, again as Anderson points out, the presumption of guilt that attaches to someone who is merely under investigation.
I was dismayed, therefore, at the facility with which Anderson repeats the claim that through ‘one of his key aides’ Berlusconi had ‘links to the Mafia’ at the beginning of his business career. While this may be true, it has yet to be demonstrated, and Anderson should know better than to suggest such a damning association without naming names (and thus risking prosecution). If one accepts that Giulio Andreotti, the favoured bogeyman of the Italian Left for more than forty years, could have been pursued by magistrates with ‘assorted gothic accusations’, it is difficult to see why the same thing might not also be true for Berlusconi and his unnamed aide.
Although it is true that in 1983 Berlusconi ran two national TV channels, the claim that he did so ‘in defiance of the Constitutional Court’ is technically inaccurate and does not give a complete picture. As Anderson says, but does not make explicit, the broadcasting system in Italy, like much else, had been carved up between the dominant political forces in the country, none of which was in a hurry to lose its control, moral as much as anything, over the pernicious medium of TV. By breaking the deadlock Berlusconi did a number of things. First, he gave Italians the opportunity of seeing dire American soap operas such as Dallas, and, guess what, they loved them. Second, he brought Italy out of the dark ages when TV advertising had to be camouflaged in coy little sketches to be shown to children before bedtime. Unsurprisingly, both public and advertisers were enthusiastic and the economic benefits that resulted from sustained growth in consumer spending are too often overlooked.
I congratulate Anderson for acknowledging that, contrary to the weeping and wailing claims of the losers, there is no danger of a fascist-type regime emerging in Italy. Not so much because Berlusconi is a dyed-in-the-wool democrat or is without lordly tendencies, but, quite simply, because the Italian people, and consequently Italian democracy, is a good deal more mature and consolidated than commentators, both inside and outside the country, will allow. Indeed, even the politicians, again on both sides, fall down in this respect by consistently refusing to accept the legitimacy of their opponents. Oddly, though commendably, Anderson has little to say about the much-trumpeted conflict of interest deriving from Berlusconi’s business concerns and control of the media. It would be foolish to claim that there is no conflict, but the element of control has been much exaggerated.
Like his idol Margaret Thatcher, Berlusconi may be a punishment his country does not deserve. But, again like Thatcher, it is one it has brought on itself. The Italian electorate gave Berlusconi a clear mandate and, however unpalatable his jokes, style and gaffes, he must be given the opportunity to fulfil his electoral promises.
The one thing which no one ever mentions when comparing, as they often do, Berlusconi and Mussolini is TV. Mussolini’s propaganda looks like child’s play set beside the subliminal messages which Mediaset broadcasts for hours every day. TV is Berlusconi’s ‘electronic balcony’, from which he can woo and subdue millions of voters. Switch on the TV in your hotel next time you’re in Italy and you will realise that there’s nothing on other than soft porn, B-movies and hours of adverts. In that cultural desert, Berlusconi on screen appears a dignified and generous oasis of calm and benevolence. Unlike Mussolini, he hardly has to use the stick: the televisual carrot is enough.
The real debate doesn’t centre on whether Italy is a democracy or not: it’s about the kind of democracy it is. Many would say it’s a ‘videocracy’, in which the man who makes the news also reports it.
Walking towards Death
Reading Terry Castle’s essay (LRB, 4 April), I remembered the British cemetery in the small town of Pemba in Northern Mozambique. There are a couple of dozen tombstones, a memorial to men who died in the First World War. One stone reads: ‘237334 Sapper Archibald Rutherford, Royal Engineers, 25 February 1918. Age 21.’ At the bottom is carved: SACRIFICED FOR MONARCHICAL AMBITION.
I find it hard to enter the mental world of someone like Terry Castle who believes it was ‘noble’ and ‘sublime’ for the soldiers in the Great War to ‘slog forward deliberately’ into the streams of bullets fired by the German machine-guns. These sons, brothers and fathers were going to their deaths to gain a few yards of waterlogged French terrain. If they had refused the homicidal orders of their commanders, they would have been shot down en masse by their own guns, as were hundreds of French mutineers. I grew up, in the 1930s, minus one uncle whom I never knew (killed not long before the 1918 Armistice), among friends of my father’s who still struggled to breathe having been gassed in 1916. The prolonged atrocity of that war was a blight on the generation who fought it and on the next generation of us whose view of history as a series of ghastly, often avoidable calamities inflicted by ruling classes on overly meek citizens was shaped by what happened in Flanders, Gallipoli and the rest of the killing-fields.
Terry Castle aligns herself with the British women who have written memorably about the war years, but does not offer evidence that other women from the US might be similarly interested. I count myself among those American females who are also possessed with the years 1914-18, but I have often noted that the Great War is not as much of a presence in American consciousness or culture as it is in England. Where one finds tangible memories of the war in every town in England – memorials in the town square, plaques in churches, framed photographs in homes – it's rare to find in the US as much care taken to preserve the memory of those Americans who fought and died. This no doubt accounts for some of the secretive hoarding of artefacts and reclusive harbouring of facts to which Castle alludes.
University of Wisconsin
Michael Barber says that puttees were replaced by anklets in 1939 (Letters, 25 April). In August 1940, waiting to embark for the Middle East in the ranks of 4th Field Squadron, Royal Engineers, I was issued with knee-length puttees as part of my tropical uniform. We were led to believe that these difficult bits of gear were prescribed because – even though we were about to join an armoured division – ours was notionally a mounted unit. We had yet to learn that cavalry (i.e. armoured car) units in the desert were still putting out each evening the signal: ‘Water horses.’
Joseph Nuttgens informs us that at his Catholic boarding school the more robust and sporty pupils used to get together for sessions of group masturbation. Until the last few decades of the 20th century, the English language lacked the resources to make an adequate response to such a revelation. Now, however, on behalf of the civilised world, I say to Mr Nuttgens: thank you for sharing that with us.
Stephen Holt complains that I wrote of Hume’s History of England instead of his History of Great Britain (Letters, 25 April). But I am in good company. Blair Worden, whose book Roundhead Reputations I was reviewing, writes on page 219: ‘In 1754 David Hume’s History of England …’ It is true that the first two volumes of Hume’s history were called History of Great Britain when they were first published. But since then, both during Hume’s lifetime and since his death, his history has almost invariably been called History of England.
When the bough breaks
Illustrating Philip Hensher’s inventiveness and ability to coin ‘a striking image’ in The Mulberry Empire (LRB, 4 April), Robert Macfarlane cites, among other examples, the sentence: ‘Gerard succumbed to what had clearly been troubling him for some time, a colossal, harrumphing malodorous fart, like a bough breaking under the sheer weight of fruit.’ In his biography of Philip Larkin, Andrew Motion reports Kingsley Amis’s recollection of the ‘obscene and soft porn fairy stories’ he wrote with Larkin at Oxford in 1942. One such story, Amis remembered, ‘The Tale of the Jolly Prince and the Distempered Ghost’, contained the following: ‘and then the ghost made a fart like the breaking of an apple branch under the weight of good fruit.’ No doubt Hensher knows his Motion (and his Amis and his Larkin) and is here exercising the art of pastiche for which he is so highly praised in the review.
Could you give me directions to the British Museum?
I would not wish to ‘get around the fact that Eratosthenes did indeed identify a valid method to determine the circumference of the earth’, as Paul Pfalzner suggests (Letters, 25 April), but I don’t see why anyone should believe that he ‘carried out the procedure with a remarkable degree of accuracy’. Eratosthenes’ calculation relies on the following data: that the distance from Syene to Alexandria is 5000 stadia; that Alexandria is due north of Syene; that the difference in latitude between Alexandria and Syene is 1/50th part of a great circle. Given these data a simple calculation gives the circumference of the Earth as 250,000 stadia. If we accept Pliny’s value for the stadion used by Eratosthenes, and Heron’s mysteriously exaggerated figure of 252,000 stadia, this gives a polar diameter only 50 miles short of the true polar diameter.
Unfortunately, Heron’s figure is wrong, Pliny’s opinion of doubtful worth, Alexandria is not due north of Syene, nor is 1/50th part of a great circle an accurate figure for their difference in latitude. Who is willing to believe that Alexandria is exactly 5000 stadia from Syene, whatever the value of the stadion? Where do we think Eratosthenes got this figure in the first place? What kind of ‘procedure’ was involved? Did he triangulate his way from Syene to Alexandria loaded with calibrated chains and surveying equipment? I don’t think so. As for Peter Green’s parting shot, backing the wrong horse is no disgrace, providing you had good reason to put your money on it.
Travelling by Tube some years ago (Letters, 4 April), I dawdled from the train to the escalator hall, having time to waste before an appointment. Approaching the up-escalator, ticket in hand, I dropped a glove and automatically stooped for it. In a split second I was on my back, travelling feet first, a very weird feeling. I wondered if I’d make the Guinness Book of Records. No. No witnesses. It seemed an awfully long ride. I was nearly at the top when a tall woman hurtled through the swing doors and onto the down-escalator. Then she saw me, her eyes popped, and she shouted: ‘Are you all right?’ ‘Yes, thank you,’ I smiled, trying for nonchalance. A minute later I was dumped off, complete with bag and gloves – and my ticket.
In your last issue you published an article called ‘From Ramallah’ (LRB, 25 April). A few weeks ago you published a tirade against Israel from Edward Said under the guise of an obituary (LRB, 13 December 2001). This current article does not even pretend to be an LRB-type contribution. What is the reason for this? It cannot be to fill a void in media coverage from the Palestinian viewpoint, nor did the article carry any higher-level information (such as proving the unlikely innocence of the various ‘educational’ centres in Ramallah). I am a Peace Now Jewish Brit and I want no more of this; so please stop sending me your suspect journal.
What MPs Read
Ellis Corbett doesn't say on what basis his opinion should be expressed while David Rose's shouldn't (Letters, 25 April). Who does he think he is that readers of the LRB are interested in his opinions over anyone else's? Perhaps he should get with the plan, or else take a different magazine.
Do non-writing staff have nothing significant to add to any debate? If so, surely only other writers should be reading the LRB, in which case I'm afraid both Corbett and myself are disqualified – as a reader I've never heard of either of us.
What can David Rose mean when he says that he is not of Robert FitzGerald’s ‘class’? Is he seriously suggesting that as a staff member of a magazine that bills itself as being for the world’s intellectual elite (your website’s words, not mine) he can reasonably expect to be thought of as working-class? I don’t know what London is like these days, but there aren’t many people where I live (among the coalmines, shipyards and empty cotton factories) who would consider a career in a comfortably elitist paper as indicative of a working-class life.
Venus in Blue Jeans
In his review of Donald Sassoon’s book, Mona Lisa (LRB, 4 April), Charles Nicholl makes no mention of Mona Lisa’s greatest significance in terms of art history – sfumato. E.H. Gombrich described that as ‘the blurred outline and mellowed colours that allow one form to merge with another and always leave something to our imagination’. The technique of the mystery is thus explained, but the mystery remains.
University of Exeter
Yukio Ioki is incorrect in placing the comic strip Union Jack Jackson in Battle (Letters, 21 March). The story featured in Warlord. Indeed, the cover of the first issue of Warlord showed U.J.J. himself maniacally spraying hot lead at some unpictured assailants.
In the Pudding
Aarrgh! How do you editors let Thomas Jones (LRB, 4 April) get away with ‘The proof is in the pudding’?