I gave up smoking 11 months ago. It had reached the point where I had come to regard eating as an inconvenient interruption to smoking. People keep asking me if I feel any better but I don’t really. I have a permanent cold, excessive catarrh, I experienced hay fever last summer for the first time, and I have insomnia in the early hours. I’m told by ex-smokers that this can last for two years as the body adjusts. I was smoking too much: 60 Silk Cut Extra Mild a day and, thanks to successive chancellors, was spending about £5,000 a year on the habit. I began buying nicotine replacement patches at £17 for a week’s supply and then discovered they could be bought on prescription at just over £6 for a month’s worth. The government’s drive to curtail smoking costs £50 million a year and has been criticised by a Treasury committee as being too much for a low success rate. Well, the patches worked for me. The key, I suspect, is to wear the full-strength ones for three months, progress to medium-strength and then low-strength, six months in all. I’m surprised at the extravagant praise I receive from those involved with the NHS. When I told my doctor I had not smoked for this period he smiled ecstatically, clapped his hands and exclaimed, ‘Wonderful, fantastic, well done!’ The pretty Welsh chemist was just as overwhelmed. ‘That’s wonderful!’ she gushed, her eyes gleaming with almost religious excitement. ‘Marvellous!’
A consequence of this insomnia is that I now read books at four or five in the morning. I’ve just finished Nicholas Farrell’s excellent Mussolini: a New Life (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). Some critics thought he was too kind about the dictator, but I don’t think so. Mussolini was clearly not the buffoon I had thought. He was a brilliant polemical journalist. Farrell was fortunate in being able to draw on eight volumes of biography by the late Italian historian Renzo De Felice, published between 1965 and 1997 — 7,000 pages of precious facts, though too heavy-going to be translated into English, apparently. What I hadn’t realised was how foolish Anthony Eden was as pre-war lord privy seal and then foreign secretary. I’ve always accepted the conventional wisdom that Eden was a fine foreign secretary but a poor prime minister. Farrell writes, though, that he and the prime minister Neville Chamberlain disagreed over what to do about Mussolini. Chamberlain wanted to cultivate him, Eden preferred to appease only Hitler, regarding Mussolini as a gangster, even once calling him the ‘anti-Christ’. It appears he disliked Italians. A great opportunity was missed, as Mussolini despised Hitler and, like General Franco in Spain, wanted to keep out of any European war. Chamberlain pressed ahead and Eden resigned. By then it was too late. Mussolini was gradually and fatally lured into the alliance with Hitler which caused such terrible damage to his country.
One book I’m tremulously waiting for is Michael Dibdin’s next novel about his Venetian-born detective Aurelio Zen. Every so often I browse listlessly though Amazon’s website to see if it’s come out yet. Still no sign of it. I hope he’s not tiring of Zen. Each of the novels so far has been set in a different location: Rome, where he’s based at the Questura, Venice, Milan, Sardinia, Alba, Perugia and Sicily. Like le Carré’s writing, Dibdin’s Zen novels rise above their thriller status. He captures the harsh, furtive, secretive underside of Italy. In one of the novels Zen discovers — from a suspect in a kidnapping — that one of the secrets of Perugia is incest. I have no idea if this is true, but presumably when he taught there someone mentioned it to him. Zen himself is more of a seedy anti-hero sometimes, cutting corners, occasionally getting it wrong and not unwilling to take some ‘commission’. In a previous novel it looked as if Dibdin had killed him off and I prayed he hadn’t.
Talking of Perugia, I’ve just visited an extensive exhibition of the works of Pietro Vannucci, better known as Perugino, the fine Umbrian painter (1450–1523), at the city’s Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, a magnificent 15th-century palazzo on the wide, imposing Corso Vannucci which, of course, is named after him. I wrote in this Diary last year that I’d heard Perugino’s ‘Martyrdom of St Sebastian’, where archers are prancing around the idealised, graceful body of their victim, was a painting that gays like. Now, seeing most of Perugino’s youths and young men together in one place rather confirms that the artist has become a gay icon. Many of the girlishly hirsute youths are remarkably effeminate with graceful legs encased in tights, adopting womanly poses and waving limp wrists, even when they’re attempting to kill someone. After a while it becomes rather tiresome. He was a great painter nonetheless, particularly of portraits, and was later overshadowed by his pupil Raphael and also Michelangelo. The exhibition is on until 18 July and is worth a visit.
Before I went to Perugia, at a lunch party in Wiltshire, the hostess produced a grater attached to a plastic container, challenging us to detach one from the other so that she could remove trapped orange zest. Among those at the table were two barristers, two artists, a journalist, two women with their own businesses and a publisher. None could work it out. Finally, and on the point of giving up, one of the lawyers pulled it apart. ‘How did you do that?’ we chorused. ‘I don’t know,’ he said, retracing his hand movements and discovering that he had flicked one part of the grater with his thumb — but how are customers supposed to know this?
At dinner I was seated near a retired high court judge. The subject of asylum-seekers and the courts came up and I argued that judges seem to overturn laws in favour of bogus asylum-seekers and often against the national interest. He, not surprisingly, defended their right to do this. It was a fairly typical discussion, I thought, but as we were leaving he glared at me and said, ‘You were very aggressive.’ ‘Was I?’ I replied. ‘I didn’t mean to be.’ ‘Yes, you were very aggressive.’ Reflecting on this later, it occurred to me that throughout his time as a judge he was so used to genuflecting barristers — ‘As your lordship pleases’; ‘I am most grateful, m’lud’; ‘Thank you, m’lud’ — that he’d forgotten that not everyone outside the courtroom feels the need to defer.