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The Good Bishop’s Boys and Girls at the Manifatture Knos

On October 23 the Berkeley Circle continued to stand firm against the cyclone of the pandemic. The Circle’s guiding principle has been to keep the flag flying despite the foul winds tearing at it. Too many humble institutions that yield to the current rough weather will have trouble getting started again. The coming new normal may not be all that normal. We have preferred to follow our Anglo-Irish Bishop philosopher and man of science. His attempt to set up a college in Bermuda did not work out, but his withdrawal and return home left a mark on the new world. The vigorous city of Berkeley, California, would remain to recall his ambition.


So the Circle had made its own strategic withdrawals. Meetings moved from the shadow of the Greek Church to the more ample facilities of the University Mediateca. We gathered once at the Jewish Museum. The coronavirus onslaught led to forays into cyberspace via Zoom. The yearning for fresh air then sent us to get-togethers at two regional gems, the Masseria  Solicara and the Masseria Coccioli. October 23 we met again in the heart of Lecce, this time at the friendly Manifatture Knos. The former industrial area has become a hub of miscellaneous civic leisure activity. Its informality and all-inclusiveness chimed perfectly with the Circle’s broad scope.


Being at the city’s center and full of unrehearsed and rough-edged goings-on, the Manufacture Knos was, in fact, the ideal setting for our subject of the evening, Lecce street-life, its signage with and graffiti. Peter Byrne presented the subject and feels less embarrassed about speaking of it here because the project was very much a group endeavour. David and Thomas Katan contributed fifty splendid photos, some of them things of beauty in their own right, all of them documenting the subject. Patrizia Sanguedolce attended to organising and projecting the photos.


The talk followed a photographic trail through Lecce that put the city in a perspective new to most strollers. The concern was with the presence of the English language. There were two sorts of the invasive foreign tongue. The first, in shop signs, often puzzled native English speakers. The words were English but their arrangement and choice made their meaning unclear. As for the second category of English displayed, it made outsiders ask why on earth the authors, who were obviously Italian, in a city overwhelmingly Italian, had not employed their admirable mother tongue. The question was, of course, disingenuous. English was now the dominant world language. Even the European Union, rid of the UK and containing native English speakers only in tiny Ireland, conducted its business in the world’s second language.


In their choice of names, Lecce’s bars and shops reflected a belief that an English title added chic and style, topping the humblest enterprise with a halo of romance and cutting-edge modernity.  What surprised the English-speaking observer was that the English words chosen were the least original imaginable, an assemblage of old timers, clichés.


The privileging of English extends to graffiti, which proved to be the speaker’s hobbyhorse. A quick history noted how politics and world affairs had fallen out of favour with the spray-can painters of today.  The graffitists, who call themselves ‘writers’ are satisfied with daubing our walls with what they term their ‘signatures’. It consists of a mannered personal logo unaccompanied by any message or statement, except that they exist. It’s graffiti in tune with our ‘look-at-me’ epoch.


How a city’s tone and self-image affects the graffiti it attracts was touched on. The speaker found that the tenor of central Lecce where he had gathered his examples was decidedly lower-middle-class and quite actively hostile to graffiti. He suggested rather boldly that the attitude there could be personified by a busy housewife devoted not only to law and order but to spotlessness and soap. She saw spontaneous outlaw utterances as a target for her vacuum cleaner. The simplest unauthorised scribble was like a muddy boot mark on her freshly polished floor.


Language of one sort or another had been the subject of the evening. Final remarks concerned the familiar obituary posters that sprout on Lecce’s walls like mushrooms after a humid night. These were uncontaminated by English, cast in a strangely frozen Italian absorbed by clannish interconnections but otherwise short on humanity.


Peter Byrne

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