On reading recently that Italian is the fastest disappearing language in America, my thoughts were mixed. I felt fleeting sorrow that such a beautiful lingo would be heard less. Between 2001 and 2017, there has been a reduction of 38 per cent — and this during a period when the proportion of Americans who speak a second language at home actually rose from 11 per cent to 22 per cent. But on the bright side, it demonstrates the assimilation of Italian-Americans, always an excellent thing for immigrants. Groups who cling to the Old Ways and then complain of not making progress in their chosen home are as ridiculous as a man who ties his feet together and then complains that outside forces are making him hop.
There was, however, no silver lining when I read that in the UK, Pizza Express is in peril, having to pay off a whopping £650 million over the next three years to a Chinese private equity firm, with total debts of £1 billion. Like a lot of people, I’ve got a bit of a thing about Pizza Express. I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad time there and I tend to treat my local branch like a canteen, to the extent that some years ago I was asked to a special night when new pizzas were previewed. I honestly believe I was more thrilled about this than when Sugar Rush won an Emmy way back.
Last year, both the decent Prezzo and the dismal Jamie’s Italian also suffered meltdowns; yes, I know they’re not ‘proper’ Italian restaurants, but their demise also signals a move away from the Italian style which has dominated the post-war lookbook and fired the English imagination.
When it comes to the Other, the Italians were definitely the ones you’d want to live next door to. We all ‘got’ Madonna’s ‘Italians do it better’ T-shirt, whereas the same claim about Belgians might well have raised wry eyebrows. ‘It’s all very well to prefer Italians to Germans; who doesn’t?’ began A.J.P. Taylor in an essay which went on to wonder why Mussolini always gets off lightly. Shakespeare set so many of his plays in Italy because he believed that people there were privy to a level of violent passion far more the stuff of drama than what went on at Ye Olde Bumpe and Trumpete.
From A Room With a View to Three Coins in the Fountain, Italy was seen as the place most likely to cause a rush of blood to the sunburnt Anglo-Saxon head. Our modesty melted away in the sun. Italians appealed to everyone: aesthetes had the dead artists, kids had the Italian-American crooners, roués had the Rat Pack (of mixed ethnicity, but dominated by Dino and Sinatra) and with the advent of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita in 1960, outsiders and misfits found something Latin to love too.
The Mods had their Lambrettas and espressos to give them the edge over the lumpen USA-worshipping Rockers, and in 1979, the Oscar-winning film Breaking Away portrayed a bored Midwestern boy who brings meaning and romance to his dead-end life by pretending to be Italian.
He wouldn’t do that now; pop culture no longer loves Italy. The globe-trotting Rat Pack, with their sense of ease and largesse, have been replaced by the bitter left-behind suburbanites of Bruce Springsteen songs. Madonna ditched her boasty T-shirt and converted to Kabbalism. Italian fashion looks drag-queeny and dated next to the deconstructed, relaxed Scandinavians. Dolce and Gabbana keep insulting the people who buy their clothes.
More importantly, Italy no longer loves itself. It consistently scores as one of the unhappiest nations in Europe — and this took root even before the plague of youth unemployment, which currently sits at 31.9 per cent. Italy also has the highest percentage of 15- to 24-year-olds not engaged in education, employment or training. It’s hard to put a ‘bella figura’ spin on that (an Italian concept meaning ‘to look good in the eyes of society’).
Ever since the referendum two years ago, we Britons have been scolded for breaking up what is often portrayed as some wonderful sun-drenched party where the good times never end. But however much we’re told we ‘need’ to be in the EU in order to ‘be someone’, the plight of Italy shows that national pride, identity and wealth does not flourish in the smothering grip of the succubus superstate.
Even France, a dominant power, is in turmoil, proving that the EU is as bad for the bossy nations as it is for the bullied ones. We are often lectured that Brexit has left us broken, but looking at the upheaval shaking Italy, France and Greece, I would wager that we are far more comfortable in our own shivering, scrappy skins.