Scribbles from Italy: The Clang of the Past, Shouts and Hollers, The Slaughter of the Politicians, Entanglements
September 21, 2021
THE CLANG OF THE PAST: Our conversation was interrupted for minutes. How many I don’t know, but each one of them involved an eternity. That was the point, I suppose, of the half dozen bells that clanged in the campanille that loomed over the terrace garden in Spello, Umbria where my son-in-law and I sat schmoozingly in the shade of a cyprus, our demitasses longed drained of their kick-ass espresso.
I confess that sometimes the sound of church bells, especially when heard from the distance, is similar to the evocative, visual charm of steeples poking the air above some sublime landscape. It is an atavistic and child-like pleasure. But, these many years later I have these other thoughts and feelings. Why is that?
There is history in the noise. Heaven and hell. Eternity. A polarizing and compelling paradigm for Believers, but not for non-Believers. The bells ring the hours, but they also call the remaining faithful to the Church, morning, noon and night, and in doing so, disturb the peace for people of my ilk.
Not just the grand church of Spello whose stone walls were thrown up in the 15th century. They ring-out in every hamlet, village, town and city in Italy, throughout Europe certainly, and elsewhere around the world, including in those places where Evangelicals take their toll.
The bells’ reverberations shake you awake, but their noise was, until recent times, meant to offer solace, too, by reminding you of HIS presence and the comfort one could take in HIS care. The noise is an embodiment, I guess, of the rod and the staff, the instruments a shepherd uses, on the one hand, to prod his flock, and on the other, to save the sheep who wanders into trouble.
Am I the only one who thinks it’s time to tell the churches to knock it off? I don’t want my peace disturbed or my conversations interrupted by a violent noise emanating from institutions of religion any more than I want to endure the bleats of raging car horns or the ripping sound of buzzing mopeds driven by post-adolescent kids through the narrow vicoli of the village I live in or the towns I visit.
Clanging bells or the Muezzin’s chant out of the minaret. Same thing. They are allowed in an increasingly secular society because they assert an ancient power and an ancient set of habits. They denote hierarchies that ought to be allowed to crumble into dust; of teachings and liturgies and relationships that served to sustain a medieval world-view that, in the past, confined everyone within a rigidly enforced social order minded by an intricately woven pact between Church and State. And would do so again if that past could be wholly resurrected.
It is not a history that ought to be romanticized. The noise of that past that still, to this day, projects itself into the world breaks the train of rational thought that might – and should – lead we sheep to someplace else, and I pray, to somewhere better.
September 25, 2021
SHOUTS AND HOLLERS: The kids were playing on the slide. Grandson Gabe brought Hotwheels to send down in threes and declared the winner would be the one that flew the farthest in the pea gravel down below. Younger sister Marisa pumped her legs on the swing while Grandma gave intermittent pushes. It was last Sunday, after lunch.
The scruffy park sits on a hill behind a church built in the 1990s. It has a swooping, architected roof with a tapering concrete bell tower upon which a small cross perches. Both children were baptized in it during our last visit a couple of years ago, their other Grandfather being the only honest Christian among our lot. I noticed the roof tiles at the peak of the church are frayed and flopping at the peak. Rainwater will soon descend into the sanctuary. May already be doing so. Probably.
Below the children’s playground, a half-sized soccer field whose astro turf has been torn in a half dozen places, leaving potholes whose edges will trip the fleet of foot, if any should ever come to play the field again. The concrete benches that overlook the field have been left unswept. The mix that was used to make them was a poor one. Weeds are nesting in its fractured crevices and grasses grow in the broken declivities of its surfaces.
But, then while I watched the kids with a lazy, sometimes distracted gaze, the booming voices of fifty men rose-up in a series of loud and sudden chants from somewhere in an unseen building further down the hill. Ah, today’s the day, I recalled. The races these men attended an hour or so ago were over. Their cheers and chants were those of the winning “Gate”.
In Gualdo Tadino the Giochi del Porte – a medieval donkey race run through the ancient centre of the town – had come to an end. Youths from the four quarters – or gates – of the city had thrilled themselves and everyone else who came to watch, as enormous donkeys – and the carts they pulled – careered up the cobbled straightaway under the lash of their drivers’ whips, then turned sharply left in front of San Benedetto’s Gothic mass, down into an echoing chasm where the hot breath of the sweating beasts flew into the faces of the thousands gathered, all hearts as one, beating fast and furious.
I did not go to the race this year. But, in the tattered park with happy grandchildren under care, the raucous, beer-soaked noise of the winning team called up memories of my own boozy, testosteronic youth, my dumb courage and carelessness that somehow I survived, like almost every boy I knew – and know – survived, despite the constant admonishments and warnings of our elders.
A yelp from grandson, Gabe. One of his toy cars had flung itself an improbable distance from the bottom of the slide. He threw himself down the chute to fetch it, tumbled in the gravel and thrust an arm out from where he landed so his hand could clutch his prize. Done to my insensible applause and cheers, because suddenly everything in the world, in this moment, had been made fresh and new by boyness.
September 30, 2021
THE SLAUGHTER OF THE POLITICIANS: First, let’s kill all the lawyers, said Dick in part 2 of Shakespeare’s Henry VI. The gist: a new-minted tyrant needs to do that to succeed.
The lawyers inevitably cancel one another out. No blood need be spilt on their account. We – we the collective, I mean – must have intuited that, so instead we have turned our little mental guns on politicians, whether newly-minted or on the scene for decades. Those who aren’t killed outright are left seriously wounded, many maimed for life.
I suspect it’s one of the reasons why the human species is racing towards Doomsday, aided and abetted by pollsters who are hired by scared-shitless politicians to divine the true desires of “the People”. The people being us.
True desires? Try making a priority list out of those. Try drawing up a budget to pay for all the things that the “collective we” demand. Try running a government that’s based on pleasing most of The People most of the time, when it’s an impossibility due to the lava-lamp nature of human wants, our capriciousness.
We have come to expect leadership from those we elect to political office, but we do not reciprocate with followership. We offer only condemnation and criticism – the ammunition of little minds – ad infinitum, ad nauseum.
So, what very good man or woman now enters the political arena? (Someone’s gonna take exception to my missing all the other genders, right?). Damn few is the answer. Because the good ones know that they will get caught in the abysmal crossfire, risk having their best intentions excoriated by one good-sized portion of the population or other, or perhaps by all.
The best of our lot risk their reputations and can only promise to bring hurt to those who love them because human fallibility will inevitably produce the kind of mistakes that huge numbers of us will find unforgiveable. We’ve raised the game with our caterwauling, from “doing the best one can” to an unattainable expectation of round-the-clock perfection.
So, the political game is a game played, by and large, by the mediocre (or worse!), and so, while we pay these middle brows at the same rate we would have paid the good, our public policy is degraded, our politics left to decline and decline and decline, attracting even more (increasingly well-earned) criticism with each turn of the vicious cycle.
Tell me how we solve the most profound existential problems our species has ever faced when we drive out the very people who might – might – lead us back from the edge of the cliff?
Yeah. No one can be satisfied in these circumstances, except, I guess, by the buzz of the little “likes” and bigger “loves” they earn by tossing ill-thought judgements, aspersions, insults, accusations, and sour commentary into this platform and the embittered wells of our other cheap, so-called social media.
October 1, 2021
ENTANGLEMENTS: My arms are a bloody mess. I’ve been pruning the trees and bushes on the verges of the field next to the house where we may one day (the Gods of Renovation willing) make our beds.
First, I attacked a growing clump of blackberry, plant life that will one day, after the extinction of human life, wrap all the land masses of the globe and provide safe harbour only to a few small mammals and reptiles.
I pulled on a tattered pair of work gloves, but it’s hot work, so I wore a T-shirt. My forearms, therefore, were lacerated wherever blackberry thorns first snagged my wrinkles, then scraped back or forward depending on which way I yelpingly moved to disentangle myself.
When I work like this, it is with blood dripping into the cuff of my gloves, but like the avid agricultural soldier I am, I carried on, proud to ignore wounds which avid soldiers everywhere call mere flesh wounds. No vital organs hit.
The monolithic clump of blackberry bramble at the corner of the field having been dealt with, I moved on to the stand of – is it hawthorne? – that had been allowed by the long-absent previous owners of the field to stake themselves on the verge.
Where the blackberry creeps and crawls in a mass, overtaking less formidable plant life, patiently, year by year, the hawthorn bushes stand upright and project tree-like amiability to those looking on from a distance. Up close, in and of themselves, they are vicious to any and all who dare trim them back. Not so nearly vicious as I am though, pruners in hand. I am MAN, after all.
Yes, in and of itself, these hawthorn are a formidable opponent. But, they were joined in their resistance by the blackberry vines that had insinuated themselves throughout their stand. Temporary allies, only, however, because eventually the blackberry, if allowed, would strangle its host and feast on its decaying matter. The hawthorn jabs, while the blackberry tears the flesh.
I shifted tactics. Became a friend to the hawthorn. I got down on my hands and knees and let the hawthorn needles poke into my neck and back and arms while I severed the blackberry stalks near their roots. Then I pulled the long threads of the blackberry vines — some of them two or three metres in length, all of them entwined in the rigid, multi-spoked branchwork of the hawthorn — out into the open space of the field for later burning in the man-made hell to which I will consign them.
Be damned the lacerations they both inflicted on me! I prevailed. Not only am I MAN, I am a special sort of MAN, an emerging Italian contadino. A farmer. The field is my domain; the border must be controlled.
The writer in me thinks metaphorically though. The snarly entanglements of blackberry and hawthorn make me think of our horrible politics.
Scribbles from Italy is a series of articles from Vian Andrews in which he reflects on his experiences of life in his new home in the Umbrian countryside.
You can find the full list of posted chapters here.