On election day I was in Puglia in the ‘heel’ of Italy, where interest in British politics could hardly be lower. One local news website that I consulted appeared to give higher priority to the fact that Italian penis-enlargement operations had increased by 20 per cent during the past year than to the electoral bombshell in Britain. I was staying with friends in their beautifully restored house — a former olive-oil press — close to the sea and below the remarkable hilltop town of Ostuni, between Bari and Brindisi, known as ‘la città bianca’ for its white medieval walls and palaces. At dusk it seemed to glow as in a dream.
Puglia has a feel of greater antiquity than practically anywhere else in Italy, mainly because of its vast plantations of huge and ancient olive trees. With their enormous gnarled trunks they vaguely reminded me of the oak trees in Salcey Forest near to where I live in Northamptonshire. These, too, are hundreds of years old and look as if they might be immortal. It was in a house surrounded by such trees that we learnt of David Cameron’s shock election victory and of the SNP triumph in Scotland. We couldn’t follow the election on television, but we could keep up with developments on the internet and could listen live to the Today programme on Friday morning.
Britain’s political drama also seemed rather dreamlike from that distance, but by the weekend the Italian newspapers made clear it was real. There was an analysis in Corriere della Sera claiming it to be part of a shift to the right in politics across Europe; but mainly the Italian press seemed to use it as an excuse to promote its usual image of Britain as a quaint, class-ridden society full of weird traditions. It told us with relish all about the Bullingdon Club, for example; and you could have got the impression that the most important things about the election were that it had achieved victory for Dave over Boris and revenge for David Miliband against his brother Ed.
La Repubblica, a left-leaning daily, ran a headline reading ‘Dave and Sam, the snobbish couple addicted to power and clothes: they celebrated at Mark’s Club in Mayfair (better not to ask the price)’. The article below described Samantha Cameron as ‘the daughter of a baronet and descendant of a king’ who had given up her job as creative director of the posh stationery firm Smythson to devote herself to her husband and ‘his wardrobe’. Quoting Dave as having said in a pre-election interview that his wife chose his clothes for him at Gap and chucked them at him to try on in the shop dressing-room, it commented, ‘Well, one has to tell a few lies if one wants to stay in power.’ Rather than at Gap, it went on, it was much easier to imagine this couple dining at Mark’s Club, where ‘if you ask what a dish costs, it means you can’t afford it’.
One reads a lot about Italy’s dire economic plight, its high unemployment, and so on, but even in Puglia, one of the poorest of the country’s 20 regions, the signs of deprivation are well hidden. Ostuni and the splendid baroque city of Lecce to its south look spic and span, and the Ostuni fruit and vegetable market that we visited last Saturday was not only enormous but also crammed with more delicious produce than it seemed possible for the city to consume. No British city, not even London, has anything to compare with it. Whatever their circumstances, Italians cling as best they can to their enviable lifestyle.
Puglia may seem rougher, tougher, less verdant and less civilised than, say, Tuscany, which the British traditionally so adore; but its 500 miles of coastline, much of it unspoilt, and its strong southern feel have made it increasingly popular with British visitors looking for somewhere cheaper to go since the financial meltdown of 2008. A new word ‘Salentoshire’ (Salento being the name of the mini-peninsula that forms Italy’s ‘heel’) has sprung up in succession to ‘Chiantishire’ to celebrate this new trend. And it’s not only tourists who go there; there is now a surprisingly large number of Britons who are actually resident there. In Ostuni alone, there are 145 of us who have officially taken up residence, making us the third biggest foreign group after the Moroccans and the Romanians. There are, for example, only 38 Germans and eight French people living in and around the town.