Monday, 30 June 2014

A walk through Milan

I get up at early o'clock on Thursday morning. We're supposed to be going back to the UK for a short break, and my passport is not going to be renewed in time. Which means getting an emergency travel document, and a visit to the British Consulate in Milan.

A lot of people - mainly Italians - give the train service here a hard time; but to a Brit it seems comfortable, efficient, and - above all - cheap. A return to Milan - a journey of 2.5 hours - costs me 19 euros. Next week, we'll pay not far short of twenty quid to go from Edinburgh to Glasgow, a distance of little more than forty miles.

I snooze the whole way, disembark sleepily, take a look around my surroundings

I've been to Grand Central, New York. Port Talbot Parkway has its discreet charms. But Milan Central is something else. Compromised as it is by the profusion of advertising hoardings and shops, it's impossible not to be overwhelmed. The architectural style is a mixture of Art Deco, mock-classical and just a little bit fascist. If the Romans, at the height of the Empire, had invented rail travel, they would have built stations like this.

My appointment at the Consulate is quick, efficient and friendly. I have to say it's possibly the best customer service I've received anywhere. So it leaves me with rather a lot of time to kill. A whole day to pass in Milan, and I've not really thought about what to do...

I start with the cathedral. Well, you know what it looks like; this incredible statue-laden gothic structure. What you might not know is that it took over five centuries to complete. And what I certainly didn't know is that its completion is down to none other than - Napoleon Bonaparte! That's right, the very same fellow responsible for disestablishing and demolishing so many historic churches in Venice, who swore he would be "an Attila to the Venetians",  was responsible for the final completion of this extraordinary building. Possibly due to the fact that he wanted to be crowned King of Italy there, but still. As to the building itself..well, it would be silly to say it's underwhelming, although perhaps the fact that it is just so well known tends to make one a bit blase. I take a little time to wander around inside. The interior is dimly lit which makes it a bit difficult to get a proper look at the art. The stained glass is lovely, although comparatively new, but there's also a lot of restoration work going on at the moment. The presence of fork-lift trucks and cranes is intrusive, and doesn't make me want to linger. I light a candle for Helen, and take my leave.

I walk back across the piazza. Turning back to look at the building, I notice this :-

- Samsung are contributing to the restoration, and it seems this entitles them to stick not just a big advertising hoarding but a giant video screen onto the side of the building. Venetians have been complaining about maxipubblicita for years now : they don't know how lucky they are.

From Piazza del Duomo, I start my walk through the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Restoration work is going on, but it's still an impressive environment although the effect of the light is perhaps lost on a grey day like today.

This leads me to Piazza della Scala. The exterior of the theatre is actually surprisingly plain - this isn't a building like La Fenice, constructed to look like a great temple of art. Still, it's nice to see it. One of these days I aspire to make it in through the front door as well.

I have a reasonably-priced lunch at the Caffe Verdi opposite, before making my way through the elegant district of Brera. The crowds thin out, so does the traffic, and I feel cheerful and well-disposed to this city as I stroll up to the Pinacoteca.

There's the core of a great, great collection here. The problem, perhaps, is that the great works are a bit diluted by the lesser ones that surround them. Still, the major works are impressive : Caravaggio's The Supper at Emmaus; Tintoretto's The discovery of the body of St Mark an altarpiece by Piero della Francesca. An unexpected treat in the penultimate room is an early version of Pellizza da Volpedo's iconic socialist work The Fourth Estate. But best of all, as far as I was concerned, was the discovery of a painting by Sodoma, almost hidden away. His haunting Christ Mocked is a study of an all-too-human Redeemer. He stares out at the viewer, not with serenity or pity or mercy but simply with fear. Because he knows his tormentors haven't even started yet...

Time for a drink and a sit down. The bar opposite has a decent selection of foreign beers, and I decide I'll treat myself to a Franziskaner. For some reason, this scrambles my ability to speak Italian, as I walk up to the cash desk and ask for "Ein weizenbier, bitte?". I suppose it could have been worse : perhaps if I'd decided on a Fuller's London Pride I'd have asked for "a pint of your finest nut-brown ale, stout yeoman of the bar!".

I make my way through Brera, and head to the Cimitero Monumentale.  I get a bit lost on the way, which turns out to be a stroke of luck as I come across this :-

- a plaque to the memory of none other than Ho Chi Minh who, it seems, spent some time working in a restaurant here during the 1930s.

The cemetery itself is a beautiful place.

I have about one hour to spare before closing, and stroll around. It's a quiet, meditative space. In the famedio (the "hall of the heroes") lies the tomb of Manzoni, author of I Promessi Sposi, a work of huge influence on the modern Italian language :-

Many of the tombs are the work of some of the great archictects and sculptors of the 19th/20th centuries. I stumbled across some works by Medardo Rosso almost by accident. There's far too much to see in the short time available to me, but, before I leave, there's just time to find what I really came to see :-

- the family tomb of the great conductor, Arturo Toscanini.

I still have about two hours before my train leaves. I decide to walk back to the station. There's plenty of time, the weather is slightly humid but not unpleasantly so and perhaps it'll be a nice walk. This turns out to be a mistake. Central Milan is no place for pedestrians, and it's a grim trudge along characterless streets choked with traffic. After 30 minutes I give up and take the Metro. This leaves me time for another wide-eyed walk around the station and its environs (even at this hour, the area outside is full of bagmen, drunks and tossicodipendenti which makes me think that walking to the station after dark must verge on the terrifying). Time for a beer from one of the many bars, and then a long snooze on the train back to Venice, the ETD safely in my pocket. It's been a good day and, more importantly, a successful one.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Cinquanta sfumature di Dylan Dog

"I can read the Bible, Homer or Dylan Dog for days on end." - Umberto Eco.

I had always wanted to read Dylan Dog.

I first heard about the Indagatore dell'Incubo back in 1994. I was working in Frascati, and my only contact with the English-speaking world was a weekly paper called The European  (which sank as fast as its owner, the late and unlamented Robert Maxwell). One week I read a review of an Italian movie called Dellamorte Dellamore. In truth, the movie didn't sound all that great. What sounded more interesting was the source material, a comic strip (un fumetto) called Dylan Dog. A London-based private investigator who deals in the stuff of nightmares. A clarinet-playing, model galleon-building don Giovanni (the spitting image of Rupert Everett circa 1987), who works with the Robert Morley-lookalike Inspector Bloch; and an assistant who may or may not be Groucho Marx.

Oh yes, this was something I wanted to read. Comic strips are actually a very good way of learning a language : they're told almost entirely in dialogue, the pictures give context to unfamiliar language, and they're very good for idiomatic expressions (I can still remember the German for "My Spider-Sense is tingling" even if - regrettably - I've not yet had occasion to use it). But I didn't need any excuses. I just wanted to read about "The Nightmare Investigator".

Then, wonderfully, La Repubblica announced that they were reprinting the first 150 stories in 50 volumes. Beautifully presented and bound, in full colour, and with scholarly explanatory notes.

Dylan was created by the writer Tiziano Sclavi. Sclavi has a forensic knowledge of horror, and - more importantly - of its tropes. He loves to play intertextual games with the reader, and he did so long before Wes Craven's Scream. Just as one thinks that a particular episode is just a bit too close to David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone for comfort, he has a character break the fourth wall and say exactly the same thing. His scripts are full of references to music, art, literature and popular culture.

Sclavi and Dylan eventually became victims of their own success. The early episodes, whilst brilliant in many ways, have an absolutely staggering level of gore and violence (inevitable, perhaps, given the source material - the horror movies of George A Romero, Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci). Kids - I thought, at the end of the first volume - should really, really not be reading this. Of course, they were, and in great numbers. Questions were asked, Sclavi was told to turn the gore down, and the nature of the strip changed. Possibly for the better. What had been lost in terms of sheer visceral impact was more than made up for in terms of characterisation, humour, and intelligence

The Italians love their fumetti, from the cowboy Tex Willer to master criminal Diabolik. But Dylan was different. For the first time, here was a comic strip hero (to be honest, a slightly rubbish hero - he rarely demonstrates much deductive ability) who had the respect of the intelligentsia. The philosopher Giulio Giorello's La filosofia di Dylan Dog can be found on Youtube; whilst the great semiologist Umberto Eco made an appearance in the series as the thinly disguised "Humbert Coe".

Dylan, Groucho and Bloch occupy a slightly never-never London. In the early strips, Dylan even drove his VW Beetle on the wrong side of the road, until the mistake was pointed out. In Sclavi's world, Scotland is a fantastic Dunsany-inspired neverland, albeit one with an unhealthy number of zombies; whilst Wales...ah, Wales...

Sclavi's Wales is one influenced more, perhaps, by HP Lovecraft than Arthur Machen. In his hands, yr hen wlad is akin to Lovercraft's Miskatonic County; whilst Harlech becomes an equivalent of Arkham. Jokes are made about everybody being called Jones, and the seemingly endless stream of placenames beginning with Llan. Dylan, of course, takes his name from Dylan Thomas. One episode is even loosely based around The Mabinogion, spoilt, slightly, by the fact that the Welsh language used is actually Irish.

Sclavi also tried to deal with politics. Animal rights, the environment, press freedom, nationalism, violence against women. He didn't always get the contexts right - Britiain hasn't had a Communist MP since the 1950s, and the the notorious H-block was not in the south of England - but his heart was in the right place.

The reprints came to an end after fifty editions. Never more would Groucho shout Capo, la pistola! before throwing Dylan said weapon with unerring inaccuracy. I could, I suppose, read the continuing monthly strip but the cramped, black and white nature of the regular edition doesn't do justice to the artwork (much of which - from the quasi-cinematic realism of Montanari and Grassani, to the stunning noir-ish work of Corrado Roi - is fantastic). More importantly, there'd be a huge gap in my collection, which doesn't appeal to the completist in me. Oh well, maybe Repubblica will carry on with another 50 volumes at some point.

In the meantime, they are all now lovingly filed away on the shelves. "Are you actually going to read them again?", asked Caroline; to whom my weekly journey to the edicola to buy a comic book was best explained away as being part of my quirky, boyish charm.

Giuda Ballerino! Of course I'm going to read them again!

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Presents, Perfect

I never got presents when I worked in IT. Oh yes, you might get a free meal and a boozy night out at the end of a project, but that's not the same as a present. But teaching is different. This year I've received : a magnum of prosecco, a small green nodding turtle, a packet of "Violetta" paper handkerchiefs (well it's the thought that counts), a photocopy of a book on Buddhist philosophy, a bag of chocolate Easter eggs, and a handmade card that read "I love Inglish" (a present that delighted and yet disappointed in equal measure). I think I like the turtle best. Nobody at the bank ever bought me a turtle.

Kids' classes wound down for the year, as the schools finished. The last lesson of each class was given over to a party. Crisps, games, chocolates, and shiny certificates to take home and show Mum and Dad. The Tuesday class, as they have been all year, were just so incredibly nice : all wrappings and packets were put in the bin, and any mess was cleared away immediately. By contrast, the aftermath of the Thursday class resembled an explosion in a crisp factory. The Friday class, who I refer to in my lighter moments as "The Awkward Squad" and in my grimmer ones as "The Army of Darkness", were not to be trusted at all so I lied and told them we'd run out of everything. Yes, I could go down to Billa and buy more. No, I'm not going to.

My adult elementary class very kindly decided to take me out for a meal after the last lesson. They've been a lovely class, and one of the high points of the year. Everybody gets on well, people have a laugh, and even the weaker ones have really come on. Just a two-hour lesson then, a bit of fun for everyone, no need for any prep surely...

And then I open the book, and realise I've made a terrible mistake. The last lesson, and it's on the bloody Present Perfect. The Present Perfect is a sod of a thing to teach. It has no equivalent in Italian so you can't just directly translate from one language to the other. What the hell is this doing here, tucked away at the end of the book? And why didn't I spend more time on prep so I could have swapped in something else. As it is I'll just have to plough through it and hope it doesn't scar them too much...

Giovanni looks beaten at the end of the lesson. 'Ci hai ucciso stasera', he says. 'You have killed us this evening'. I'm a bit worried that the offer of dinner is going to be withdrawn; but then he smiles. 'From now on, everything in Italian. Vendetta!!'

So we drive out into the country. Quite a way, if truth be told, and I'm starting to wonder if maybe I pushed them too far and any moment now the car is going to pull over and they'll start digging a shallow grave. And then I see an elderly lady crossing the road ahead of us. The driver hasn't noticed.

Time stops.

I want to scream something but I can't think of the word "Stop!" in Italian. Then I realise I can't even think of it in English. We are going to take the life of an old woman because I can't think of the word "Stop" in any language at all. All I can come up with is a strangulated "NGARRGHHH!!!" as I flap helplessly at the dashboard. And somehow this works. Brakes are slammed on and we screech to a halt. She doesn't even break her stride...

As for the meal itself, well, I was expecting a beer and a pizza. I'd have been more than happy with a beer and a pizza. But what we actually have is a four-course meal of truly exceptional quality, with not a few glasses of wine, and coffee and grappa to follow. Everyone says they'll be back in the autumn. "Will you still be our teacher, Philip?" Of course I will. I'm not letting anyone else pinch this lot...

Later that evening, as I walk - reasonably steadily - over the Calatrava bridge, I reflect on the past couple of weeks. I earn next to nothing. But I have students who buy me nice meals, packets of handkerchiefs, and small nodding turtles. I am a lucky man.