What’s the shortest book in the English language? Answer: Italian War Heroes. Ha, ha, very funny. It Is of course, a spurious conceit, pandering to a national stereotype, a grotesque caricature, in other words. I’m sure that the Italians were as brave - or as flaky - in battle as any other combatants under fire. That their performance in armed conflict in two World Wars was not spectacularly successful does not necessarily reflect badly on the individual soldiers; besides, even if true, what’s not to like about a people who would prefer to eat spaghetti and talk football noisily with their neighbours than pick up a rifle and shoot somebody?
There is another trope about the Italians much favoured by ski enthusiasts and laughingly repeated in crowded Alpine bars, usually with a jug of lager in hand. The story goes that ski lifts are made in Switzerland, then sold to the French, then sold to the Italians….and then they break down. This is pure nonsense. No ski lift is dismantled, transported to another country and then re-assembled. Ski lifts are knocked down when they pass their shelf life and new ones are built. My experience is that Italian ski lifts work as efficiently as anywhere else.
The point of these lampoons is to underline a popular judgement that the Italians are, amongst other public and social failings, shoddy builders, lackadaisical managers and incompetent overseers. The recent tragedy of the collapsed bridge in Genoa is proof enough, say the critics, that Italian engineering cannot be trusted. The Ponte Morandi crossed a valley, a river, a railway depot, a densely populated block of flats and several large factories. Just under a mile long and suspended 150 feet above ground, it was one of the largest concrete bridges in the world when it was opened in 1967. In August last year, it collapsed, killing 43 people and leaving 600 homeless. Its structural peculiarities, hailed as revolutionary at the time, do not concern us here, but it seems that the unique design brought with it certain problems, which needed constant scrutiny and maintenance. The official report into the disaster has not yet been completed but the good money is on simple neglect as the reason for its collapse.
Lest we sneer at Italian design and construction, let us not forget that our own Hammersmith Bridge in London has been closed for four years, with not much sign that it will re-open any time soon, because of concerns about cracks to the infrastructure. The Hammersmith Flyover, part of the M4motorway into Central London, was dramatically closed in 2011, because the same problems that contributed to the collapse of the Ponte Morandi had been discovered, requiring urgent bandaging in time for the London Olympics the following year. Yes, the British maintenance team got to work just in time, something the Italian authorities signally failed to do, but before we smirk…..Titanic, Aberfan, Hillsborough, Zeebrugge, Piper Alpha, Grenfell…. The names trip off the tongue and all those disasters were caused by criminal negligence or design faults or sometimes both. The Italians are by no means exclusive serial offenders here.
I have just returned from a short holiday in Italy – Verona and the Italian Lakes, as you ask – and have visited the country many times. This piece is not intended to be a travelogue of our holidays but a serious attempt to answer this question. Are the Italians, and the infrastructure of their country, as disorganised and as incompetent as their reputation has it? My impression – necessarily anecdotal, subjective and limited – is a resounding no. In fact, returning to this country, cold, grey and unwelcoming (yes, I know, we cannot blame ourselves for the weather), with train strikes, doctors’ strikes, cone-infested motorways, potholes in the roads, crumbling schools, creaking NHS, lone-parent families, drug abuse, lawless streets and an obesity epidemic, I begin to understand what people mean when they say nothing works any more in Britain. I do not wish to paint a dark and gloomy picture of this country – there is much that is right with Britain, and where else would you rather live? – but the contrast with Italy is stark (and again, I am not referring to the weather).
The trains are comfortable and clean and run on time, even though Mussolini has been dead for nearly 70 years! We had a conductor on board during one journey. She could have been a model – perhaps she is in her spare time – attractively and smartly attired in her uniform. She made her way down the carriages, swiftly and capably checking tickets, and when she came across a fare dodger, she immediately marched him up the aisle (where to, we surmised… a lock-up on the train?).Her air of calm authority belied her youthfulness. What happens to fare dodgers on British trains? A young ticket inspector challenging them would have got a torrent of abuse – at the very least.
The buses were punctual, frequent and cheap. The taxis arrived on the very dot that had been ordered. The streets were clean and mercifully bare of graffiti. The official buildings, historical sites, landmarks, significant locations, tourist attractions were all well cared for and efficiently run. In Rome, thanks to Agrippa, Augustus’s right-hand man, who built the city’s aqueducts, there is still a water fountain on almost every street, with drinking water that is as clean as it is welcome. I know there are fountains in Trafalgar Square, but would you drink from one when you see who is cavorting in them?
We spent a couple of days at, or more accurately, on, Lake Garda. At 34 miles long and 10 miles wide (though obviously these dimensions vary because it is not shaped exactly as a rectangle), it is the largest lake in Italy. By contrast, Lake Windemere, the largest in England, is only 10 miles long and 1 mile wide. But, of course the whole area of Lake Garda encompasses more than just the lake. There are towns, villages and hamlets lining the shore and dotted around the sloping banks leading down to the water’s edge. What strikes you the most, aside from the stunning scenery and the crystal-clear water, is how unspoilt it all is. No sign of derelict buildings, abandoned factories, building sites, ugly high-rise flats, bleak urban developments, and rubble-strewn, waste ground. Theme parks, big wheels, mini golf courses, donkey rides, Punch and Judy shows, gaudy piers, frightful, wind-blown cafes, seedy fish-and-ship shops were noticeable by their absence. Not a single middle-aged man, sitting in a deckchair with his trousers turned up and a knotted handkerchief protecting his bald pate, was spotted. (Incidentally, the reputation of Italian men and women for dressing stylishly is not unfounded. Mind you, it does help that, by and large, whatever the age bracket, they are not fat.) My point is that it is inconceivable that such a large, tourist destination in England would have remained so unspoilt. Contrastingly, man’s imprint on Lake Garda, indisputably an area of outstanding beauty, is age-old, but tasteful, elegant and attractively colourful. All was pleasing on the eye yetrestrained and meticulously maintained. No flaking frontages, no peeling woodwork, no neglected gardens, no litter-strewn streets, no jarring architecture.
I am sure there are areas in Italy, in the backstreets and suburbs of the cities, where poverty-stricken and depressing slums can be found, as there are in any country. My point is not that Italy is an Elysium, a veritable Garden of Eden on Earth, but that the Italians know a place of beauty, natural or man-made, when they see one and therefore reckon it is beholden on them to preserve and protect it for future generations. Rome wasn’t built in a day. No, it certainly was not. The Romans built to last and believed in the happy marriage of functionality with aesthetic appeal. Their Italian descendants guard this legacy. So do we in Britain….sort of. It strikes me that our heritage is preserved in a higgledy-piggledy, piecemeal fashion. Would such a rich and sought-after chunk of real estate in England, like Lake Garda, have survived the rapacious clutches of the developers? I leave you to judge that one.