An Italian in Britain

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Why English girls go tightless in the winter and walk around with deep blue legs?


“Italians” writes Beppe Severgnini, “arrive in Britain full of preconceptions: the English are reserved, they love tradition, they like to read and they hate to bathe. Over the course of a few days they discover that everything they thought is true. This discovery generates such euphoria that they go no further.” But England and the English deserve to be examined in depth and Mr Severgnini goes on to explore this mysterious island with irony and verve. He describes how the English dress, what they eat, how much they drink, and why they are so obsessed with a certain kind of wallpaper. It may not be a tourist guide but any tourist will find all kinds of suggestions, explanations and information about the country. An Italian in Britain irreverently explores a sampling of such British eccentricities as the mystery of the sinks with separate hot and cold taps, the secret of the millions of girls who go bare legged in the middle of winter and can’t say why and much more.




Ladbroke Road cuts through Ladbroke Grove. It’s a part of Notting Hill that was there even before the film. In the mid-eighties I lived in this neighbourhood and often ate lunch at a pub called the Lad-broke Arms (you can’t say the English are creative with names). Going back, reliving experiences is something forty-year-olds do. That’s why I’m here. I carry a pint of bitter (Directors) and a packet of crisps (Salt & Vinegar flavour) to the first table by the window – it used to be mine, and who knows how many others – I pick up a coaster, draw a line and begin to write. On one side go the things that have changed in London. On the other the things that are still the same.

Here’s what’s the same. The comforting reassurance of a pub; the beer (not too cold, not too warm); the street lights; the English pound; people who spend their pounds on beer in a pub staring at the street lights. It doesn’t matter how modern they are, how many clubs they’ve been to, how well they dress, how much better they eat, how much they have travelled. Londoners are like actors who find security in the wings of the theatre before a performance. People have not given up this existential backstage in the city. Others things they have.

They have virtually given up using a car during the day, for one. Once they would say “London traffic is crazy”. It’s not true. Actually, it demonstrates a certain dark logic. The average speed in the city is now 4 miles/6.5 km an hour and falling. There are moments in which London resembles Karachi on a bad day. Private cars are as slow-flowing as lava, impeded by ridiculous rickshaw-like tricycles pedaled by muscular students. Messengers on bikes dart between cars. The privatised buses file along like camels on parade in their designated lanes. Twenty-four thousand black cabs compete for customers with forty thousand unlicensed minicabs. In the streets in the centre there are often traffic jams made up solely of taxis: an immense funeral cortege you never see in Milan, if for no other reason than a shortage of taxis. In some places – for example, between Pall Mall and Trafalgar Square -it’s hard just to walk. Road work obstructs the street and blocks the sidewalks. Vans, taxis, cars, bikes, bicycles and pedestrians are all competing for the same space, with a contained fury.

Some would say it’s inevitable. A quarter of the British population lives in London and the southeast, one-twelfth of the nation’s territory. In short, a full house. While Manchester in the last twenty years has lost 15% of its inhabitants, the population of the capital has grown by 8%. Forty years ago 60% of the big British companies were based in London. Today it’s 90%. That’s why in London – even though it has a rail-tube link that Rome can only dream about – the average commute to work takes fifty-six minutes. If the price of cars continues to drop, by 2015 it might take as long as an hour and forty minutes (note the preciseness of this pessimism. Only the Americans do it better). Attempts to widen the streets have proven to be useless. The M25 which circles London was no sooner widened than traffic increased proportionately, and clogged it again. Some observers have suggested moving the capital north, to the Yorkshire Moors, something The Economist proposed forty years ago. They even gave the new city a name: Elizabetha. But this Brasilia without Brazilians or sun is merely an intellectual exercise. Instead what you get is the plan that Ken Livingstone, the mayor – a clever populist – has bet the city’s and to some extent his own future on. He is introducing a congestion charge. Anyone entering London beginning on Monday the 17th of February will have to pay 5 pounds/8 euros. Too much, say the drivers. Very little, maintain the experts, who argue that the amount will not be a deterrent. Seven hundred television cameras will record the number plates of commuters to the City, and their accounts will be charged accordingly. We hope they will also show shots of the streets just outside the charging zone, because they promise to be a circus.

The traffic is not the only symptom of the interesting madness of London. There are others. We’ll take for granted its complexity (money comes from the central government while projects are dependent on the thirty-two boroughs. Ken the Red is caught in the middle). We’ll overlook its violence (you are four times more likely to be attacked in London as in New York). We’ll put a veil over public order (the London Metropolitan Police have been rated fortieth out of the forty-two police forces in the United Kingdom). We’ll ignore its dwindling prosperity (the city’s economy, greater than that of several European countries is at the edge of a recession. From 1993 to 2001 forty-five thousand jobs a year were created. Since then they have lost twenty thousand). Let’s talk prices.

We’ll start at the beginning. The pound is roughly equivalent to the euro, but the Bank of England has apparently not been informed. Therefore, for those who arrive from other parts of Europe, prices seem obscene. The flat in Notting Hill that I was on the point of buying in 1986 for one hundred forty thousand pounds is now worth a million (a million and a half euros). The wall-eyed estate agent says “Yes, but there’s a garden”. To inhale “the muskier odours of a sardine-packed train” (The Economist, 11 January 2003) costs a minimum of £1.30 (2 euros). On the bus, where the odours are not markedly different but the view is better, a short hop will cost you £1 (1.5 euros) and you can’t even get a transfer. As far as shopping in London goes, it’s dead. Foreigners can’t afford it any more. All we can do is press our nose to the windows, like children in a Dickens novel. In Covent Gardens -phony and excessive – tourist groups are confronted by squads of souvenir hawkers. Around Jermyn Street, pubescent salesmen, uninformed about the products they push, offer what’s left of British tradition. Once, the Japanese, at least, fell for it. Now even they are smarter (and poorer).

I don’t have the heart to return to the Greek restaurant where at twenty-eight I would have sup-per in the company of my projects and half a bottle of retsina . It was called Savvas’s Kebab House at the top of Ladbroke Road and it was run by a Greek Cypriot who looked like a cousin of Ulysses. Now it’s called Aurum, it has long snowy white tablecloths and I don’t trust it. Instead I invite a friend to a Lebanese restaurant in Westbourne Grove, a place not many tourists know about. Between the two of us, we spend £70 (more than 100 euros) without wine. At Portobello Road, the same old catatonic salesmen sit perched on the same old stools inside the same old cubicles and demand scandalous prices. If you protest, they give you the offended look of a stuffed owl. Even at the Reform Club where I’ve been a member since 1986 and talk football with the doorman from Newcastle, there are surprises. I order tea for 8 am and they bring me coffee at seven. I bump into a tipsy American who struggles with the lift (a little tonic, a lot of gin, and a leather armchair are tremendous transatlantic temptations). I discover that the average price for a monastic little room (no bathroom, a sink with rigorously separate taps) is now £60 (90 euros) a night. It’s not too much to suffer in style. But it’s a lot.

Does it bother me that London is becoming a Mad City? No, of course not. Fifty years ago this strangeness was labeled eccentric and it amused Pierre Daninos (Les Garnets du Major Thompson) who, mind you, didn’t have to go to a restaurant that looked like a pharmacy and a pharmacy that looked like a grocers shop and a grocers shop that looked like a supermarket. Today, that’s the way it is in London. If it seems less eccentric, it’s because everything is unexpected and changeable. Manners, places, language, business, dress. There are few rules in the city and this makes life more difficult than it was back in the days when everything was (or seemed to be) regulated. Because of a suitcase packed in too much of a hurry, I arrive at an elegant dinner wearing brown suede shoes. The hostess notices and says “Oh. Brown suede shoes. Even Ken Clarke’s wearing them!”. Clarke was a brilliant former Conservative minister and the author of a diary which in Elizabethan days would have put him in the tower. I listen and smile. I suspect that in my error I’ve done the right thing. In spite of myself.

In the late nineties, this marvelous confusion was given a name: Cool Britannia. Has the novelty worn off? It seems so. The one party-city has become a one style-city, and the fault is not Tony Blair’s. My impression is that London is full of new ideas that are on the verge of becoming old. What in 1999 was exciting suddenly seems predictable. The fake French brasseries and the Foster-like constructions, the almost-Rogers buildings and the Millennium Dome, Bibendum and the Conran Shop, all the types like Branson and the girls like Bridget, the minimalism of the white tablecloths and the little black dresses are becoming a bit passe now, stuff for foreign tourists. “Cool Britannia” is warming up.

And yet I’m sure that somewhere, in places I don’t know about, London, mad city, is playing with new ideas, creating a new esthetic, inventing new music, perhaps planting the seed for a new political party. That’s why thirty years after the first bed-sit, twenty years after the first article, ten years after walking into the Economist for the first time, I’m still here trying to understand it. That’s okay. Cities that you love, are like people you care about. If they don’t retain a little mystery, it’s no good.


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