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Will Douglas on Us and Them

The Circolo Berkeley program of 2017 ended on a note that was eagerly taken up by the program of 2018. Last year Nicolette S. James with the eyes of a girl from Brighton took a hard, intense look at the Salento. Will Douglas followed with an explanation of how his native U.S.A. appeared to him after a decade of Lecce hospitality. The Unibard actors capped the season of genial cultural clash by taking the question of national differences back to Shakespeare. With Cymbeline it was Rome versus Britain.

The subject generated too much interest to fade away with the charming interval of the traditional Christmas concert at the Greek Church. However agreeable, that December evening marked only a holiday truce. The very music, carols in a half-dozen languages, brought to mind the variety of national cultures. By dint of their former or present residence every one of our members were specialists in the matter. They had their word to add.

So it was no surprise that with springtime 2018 we were in the American deep south with Michael Quinn. His idol and inspiration, Alan Lomax, had written ‘The Land Where the Blues Began’ and Michael told us about the musical form that, amongst all the hullabaloo of international strife, stands, with a bow to Africa, as his country’s contribution to world culture.

Will Douglas was not to be outdone. He still had the question of national lifestyle differences between his teeth. On May 17th he gave it a few more shakes before, like a terrier, dropping it at the foot of the Berkeley Circle for open discussion. He chose a title that was daunting in scope. How would “The Differences Between Italian and Anglo Culture” fit into our relatively tiny meeting place by the Greek Church? It evoked the ways of life of more than 500 million souls! To our relief Will quickly reassured us. He would be casting his glance on the larger world from his comfortable but modest perch in Lecce. His interest would in the main be in how he saw Italians and people like himself reacting to everyday experience. In a word, what intrigued him was the difference in attitudes to the fundamentals of personal and social life.

To begin, however, he set a wider frame. He paid homage to the eminent Italian journalist Luigi Barzini Jr. whose ‘The Italians’ of 1964 was a book widely circulated in English speaking countries. It’s a serious and amiable look at what the author considered the fundamental traits of the Italian character. Barzini, however, was born in 1908 and died in 1984. His focus didn’t extend very far beyond the Second World War. His view of his countrymen can seem in some instances set in stone. In 1964 he’d hardly had time to digest the economic boom of 1958--1963. The bloody decade of the 1970s with its explosion of political violence had no place in his book. (Aldo Moro was murdered in 1978.) And of course Barzini was dead before the political career of Silvio Berlusconi began in 1994. These tumultuous events could not but recalibrate a view of the Italian character. Will Douglas recommended as a complement to Barzini’s classic another book called “The Italians”, this one of 2015 by the journalist of ‘The Economist’, John Hooper. (Hooper, incidentally, proved an insistent foe of Berlusconi).

However, politics or history were not Will’s highroad into his subject. Instead he asked how ordinary people of the two camps faced up to ordinary events. What did they think of authority, of government? Did religion mean the same thing to both of them? What about guilt in small matters of personal relationships? Didn’t each national group stand in a contrasting way to the particular patch of earth beneath its feet? This made immigration, emigration and just plain travel a very different activity from the two diverse starting points. “Where are you from?” touched very different depths in a person when asked in Italy or North America. And while family life was a reality for all whatever their continent or language, its nature wasn’t the same in Rome or New York. Family trees had shallower roots on the other side of the Atlantic. That meant that there was more willingness to let church or state trim their branches.

The rewards of a similar probing went with an undercurrent of dissatisfaction. Everyone was involved and yet no one cared to be labeled and filed away in the pigeon hole of a general rule. Each of us couldn’t help feeling he was an exception to the generality that was being sketched out. The result was the liveliest Berkeley discussion ever, with everyone in the audience getting a word in, pleading his or her particular case.

Peter Byrne

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