Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Senza parole

I'm in my home town, Genoa, in the still superficially affluent North of Italy for a short break, or, as we call it, a four day orgy of overeating and family arguments. The sun has been shining and people were out and about, filling cafes and shops this week-end. There is an atmosphere of suspended animation, something between a hush and a yawn. 

The reason for the lack of out and out panic is, in my opinion, two-fold: most Italians still read no newspapers and get their news from TV, with most channels controlled, until yesterday, by Berlusconi , or as we call him, the Malefic Dwarf. As of last week, he only controls half of them and is still getting an inordinate amount of air time to disseminate his theories that the out of control national debt, the sovereign debt crisis and the Euro crisis have all been caused by Communists / saboteurs/ destabilising agents/ the baddies in Star Wars.
A people so bamboozled by such an unlikely snake-oil salesman for so long are still in quiet denial as to the extent and depth of the shit they're in.

Also, Italy's population is ageing, cautious, barely digital and desperately non-connected.  Zeitgeist is something that happens to other people. Last week my parents were talked by their bank manager, whom they have known for ever, into tying up all their savings in a special deposit account for a year, lured by the offer of  3 per cent interest. They did ask the question: "How come you're suddenly giving us 3pc if the current account is languishing at 0.5?"

"Oh, there so much more competition these days" she answered, "all of our competitors are offering higher rates so we have to as well." They didn't think to ask the next question: "How come there is suddenly so much competition to get people to tie up their money for long periods of time???" 

My sister and I are marching them back there tomorrow - hoping we can beat the markets to it and that there is still a euro with Italy in it..

Few countries and people have been as badly served by their leaders and by their own worst instincts as mine. The ten years to 2008, years of economic growth or even boom in the rest of the developed world, were a lost decade of near-complete stagnation at home. But if you go back 20 years, in the two decades  since I left things have slipped backwards, visibly and badly. 

My state run secondary school was academically prestigious but completely socially mixed. Among my classmates the daughter of the poultry seller at the local market is now a physicist at CERN, the son of a taxi driver is a cardio-thoracic surgeon, the son of Calabrian immigrants is an investigative magistrate. Most of the students who were middle class then, lead middle class lives now: they became doctors, teachers and lawyers. My sister left school four years after I did and among her former classmates few have professional jobs, staff contracts, any security whatsoever.  

Women counted for nothing when I left too - but there was a sense that things were getting better, that girls could aspire and achieve and would one day be "as good as men". Girls were over-protected by their families and had much less freedom than the boys because the dominant Catholic culture only saw women as Madonnas or whores and you wanted your daughter to fall into the first category. How things change. Now few believe in God and twenty year of cultural domination by the Malefic Dwarf ( with his TV channels, newspapers, magazines, publishing houses and advertising agencies) have turned whoring into an aspirational activity. 

Feminist polemics aside, (and you might well think that the soft porn undertones of any day time tv show on any Italian channel are an innocent and pleasant curiosity and nothing to fret about), a paltry minority of women -  I could find you stats if I could be bothered but in any case, believe me, they are bad - holds a full time job once she has a family and many do not even manage a part time one. 

 I fear it might soon become cheaper for society as a whole to stop wasting money on girls' education as they are clearly seen as (and only allowed to be) whores/mothers/cleaners and frankly, who needs algebra and geography for that? Why clog university courses with would-be lawyers who will only be cooks and chidren's chauffeurs? Why waste time training doctors who will never treat cancer but at most swap anti-allergy tips at the playground?

As for youth unemployment  in general, statistics which were bad before this latest crisis have nowhere else to go but worse. There are areas in the South where the devastation is like a natural catastrophe: entire families living off the pension of parents and grandparents. (Here is my future-telling trick of the day: if we come to see substantial cuts in the value of state pensions, that's when the place will go up in flames).  When ten to 15 per cent of youngsters can't find a job in their small town you can berate them for lack of get up and go, urge them to go elsewhere. When the majority do not, they might end up leaving but there is no village left, no small town, no country.

I think of all that wasted talent - women and men , anyone younger than 35 - pressing their nose against a digital candy store of wonders, forever shut out of it,  the world people in other countries live in, without having to call in favours, pull rank, have friends in high places, sleep with or carry the bags of people in high places.

My dad, as a cute curly haired four year old, remembers begging American soldiers for "choccolo". That was the last time he had to beg. A decent state school system gave him the education he needed to find - in the Italy of the boom years -  a dignified job with which to raise a family. He didn't need to join the right party, or, later, send his daughters to the right "parties" in the capital. 

I'm afraid we have entered a terminal decline. The West can look at us and see what's in store for the rest of them when the Chinese come. 

Then the prophecy can go full circle - the Malefic Dwarf will have been proved right: it was all a Communist conspiracy. 

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