Before going to Venice, we spent two days in Verona. It was my first time in Italy and I got a crick in the neck from looking up at so many amazingly old, beautiful buildings. ‘If you think this is beautiful, wait till you see Venice,’ they said.
Our host was David Petrie, a Scottish lecturer of English at the university. David is currently suing the Italian state for discriminating against foreign lecturers, and naturally this course of action hasn’t endeared him to his hosts. He’s been sent to Coventry. He’s been given a smaller office, then given no office at all. He’s been sacked. He’s been reinstated by an order of the court. He’s received death threats via the telephone. He’s been offered bribes. (The government official’s exact words, translated into English, were: ‘All right then, how much do you want?’)
Far from taking all this lying down, Mr Petrie, a patriotic Scot, is battling his opponents all the way to the European Court of Human Rights. Hilariously contemptuous of a state university system openly based on patronage, and of the consequently abysmal academic standard of its professors, Mr Petrie has taken to writing comic book reviews of his university colleagues’ published academic work.
On our first night in Verona he took us round the corner to his local pub, called Dead Meat, which also happens to be the local young communists’ bar. We hadn’t been in there more than five minutes when Mr Petrie got into an argument with a female young communist, who was wearing communist glasses, about Tony Blair. Because I was smoking a cigarette when I walked in, the communist management made me finish it beside a small, partially opened window on the other side of the room, so my limited understanding of the specifics was limited even further. But the gist of the argument, apparently, was this. The communist woman had stated that every Western democracy was rotten, and that every Western political leader was corrupt. And Mr Petrie, for his part, wasn’t having any of it.
Mr Petrie’s father was a communist shop steward for a Clyde shipbuilder’s yard. And as a lecturer at Tripoli University in the Seventies he’d partied with top IRA and Loyalist brass, who by the way, he says, were quite civil to each other when they were on the dance floor together. So I guess it was natural that a bourgeois political platitude like that, especially coming from a young so-called communist, would upset him enough to speak out.
‘Italy, okay, is a white Nigeria,’ said Mr Petrie. ‘But the Western democracies aren’t all the same. In Britain, at least, there are many politicians who don’t steal. And neither is Prime Minister Tony Blair a thief. It’s an important difference. In Italy every politician is a thief. In Britain only a few. Name me one Italian politician, if you can, that isn’t a thief.’
The communist woman was perhaps known to be more ideologically committed than the rest, who clearly deferred to her as their champion political arguer. But unfortunately, on hearing her country being unfavourably compared with a shitty little country like the United Kingdom, and by a foreigner as well, out popped an inadvertent cloven nationalist hoof. ‘Toni Blair!’ she spat. The name itself was synonymous with evil; there was no need to elaborate. ‘Come on!’ insisted Lecturer Petrie. ‘Name me just one Italian politician who isn’t a thief!’
She pushed up her communist glasses with a forefinger and jutted out her lower lip. If she could come up with even one name, it would go a long way to restoring the national honour. While she racked her brain for the name of one honest Italian politician, you could have heard a pin drop in there. Interest in the challenge, from the line of communists perched on bar stools, to outriders at the candlelit tables, was universal.
A helpful soul at one of the candlelit tables threw out a whispered suggestion. I didn’t catch the name, but he or she must have been a controversial figure in Italian politics. There was uproar. Angry shouting. Hilarity. Vomiting noises. A young communist, helpless with laughter, fell sideways off his stool. The woman looked askance at the source of the whisper, then reapplied her mind to the question at hand. An appreciative calm settled on the audience as if we were witness to an intriguing game of snooker. Would she be able to come up with a name of an honest politician or was it simply impossible? Certainly no one sprang easily to mind. Another whispered suggestion from the audience drew a sharp obscenity from the barman and another wince from the woman.
Scenting victory, Mr Petrie raised his arms aloft and, swaying gracefully from side to side football-crowd style, began singing, ‘To-ny, To-ny, To-ny, To-ni’ to the tune of ‘Amazing Grace’. It was lovely. And he kept it up, too, until with a stupendous shrug of indifference, the communist woman took out a Diana cigarette and joined me over by the window.