Alexander Chancellor

Long life | 25 August 2012

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What has happened to Italy, a country that not even Mussolini could discipline? It used to be cheerfully anarchic and self-indulgent: cars parked haphazardly all over pavements, long lunches and long siestas, fat tummies full of pasta. Officialdom, though bloated and intrusive, could also be flexible. I first fell in love with Italy more than 50 years ago when I skidded on an icy road into a tram stop in Milan, knocking over a bollard and banging my head (no seat belts then) on the windscreen, and a man in uniform poked his head through the window offering to help me move the car because the bollard was the property of the Milan City Council, which would certainly make me pay for it if it found me there, and I noticed that the uniform he was wearing bore the insignia of the Milan City Council, no less.

That was then: now it could never happen. The cities swarm with parking wardens as vigilant and heartless as any in the north of Europe. I am writing this on holiday in Tuscany; and while you used to be able to wander into Siena Cathedral whenever you felt like it, even when it was thronged with tourists, you can’t get inside any more without first going somewhere else to join a long queue for a ticket. The same applies if you want to look at the frescoes of Piero della Francesca in the Church of St Francis in Arezzo. People who used to dump their rubbish anywhere now separate it into categories and carefully recycle it. Maybe that’s one of the good things, like the mail being reliable and the trains running on time. But I miss the disorder and indiscipline.

The long lunch and the afternoon siesta have more or less vanished to be replaced by what they call ‘the continuous day’. And people don’t even eat pasta in the comforting quantities that they once did. Mussolini was against pasta. He thought it made Italians flabby and poor soldiers. But his efforts to wean them off it were in vain. Not only did they like pasta; it was about the only kind of food they could afford. But now Mussolini would be proud of his compatriots. Like Vladimir Putin, Il Duce was a fitness fanatic who liked to be photographed half-naked engaging in vigorous physical pursuits. Most Italians must have thought him absurd, but today they wouldn’t, for they are hardly less obsessed with their health than he was.

Italians, to be fair, have always been keen bicyclists, but until a few years ago you would hardly ever see a jogger on the road. Now joggers are as plentiful as they are in Britain, even in the summer heat. And Italians are very interested in diet. The shelves of their supermarkets are packed with diet foods of one kind or another, as are those of their pharmacies, which have the hushed and hallowed atmosphere of churches. Present in the greatest abundance are gluten-free foods, which has proved unexpectedly useful on this holiday. For a perplexingly large proportion of the people staying in this Tuscan farmhouse (which my wife bought more than 40 years ago when I was a correspondent in Rome) have turned out to be on gluten-free diets.

Even according to the Daily Mail, which owes much of its success to its scaremongering about health, less than one per cent of the British population suffers from a wheat allergy; but among those staying in the house the percentage on gluten-free diets exceeds 40 per cent. To judge from the amount of gluten-free products available in Italian shops, the percentage of Italians thinking they have a wheat allergy must also be very large, though whether they really do is another matter. Personally, I find it hard to believe that bread, on which the human race long depended for its survival, should suddenly turn out to be poisonous. Yet my son-in-law insists that it is and persuaded me to stop eating it for a day or two to see if I stopped dozing off during meals. He claims that I became much sprightlier as a consequence, though I wasn’t aware of it.

Anyway, I’m back on gluten now because gluten-free bread is hard and tasteless and gluten-free pasta is unpleasantly chewy. But when I’m cooking, I’m having to make two bowls of spaghetti, one for each camp, in order to keep everyone happy. And I fear that before we know where we are a majority of Italians will have rejected their great culinary heritage and given up pizza and pasta for ever.