Lorenzo & his humble friends

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool

Tag: bill bryson

Bloody wars

I have been taking a few classes on the history of war recently. Armed conflicts are a bloody matter. Of all the things I heard, however, there is one that I would like to bring home – so to say. It is the story of Liechtenstein’s military intervention in the third war of Italian unification.

The principality sent troops into battle in 1866, dispatching an 80-man contingent to assist the Austrians on the border between Italy and Tyrol (my region, in fact). However, the expeditionaries never once saw the enemy and sustained not a single casualty. “In fact,” writes Bill Bryson, “they came back with 81 men, because they had made a friend on the way.” Two years later and with only this one conflict on the records, Liechtenstein dissolved its army and went about its other business.

Time for books / 4

Last time I wrote about the books I’ve read was in June. Now, after a three-and-half-month summer break, it is definitely time to talk about books again.

In August, on my way to Fanø I managed to finish Bill Bryson’s Notes from a small Island, which I had bought in London Brighton in June. This is a really funny book, and also a useful guide to understand certain things about Great Britain. Perhaps it is a bit too long, as well as dated (it was written in the 90s). But at end the book, especially the first 100 pages, is still quite brilliant. To get the tone just read some excerpts – here is one:  “I know this goes without saying, but Stonehenge really was the most incredible accomplishment. It took five hundred men just to pull each sarsen, plus a hundred more to dash around positioning the rollers. Just think about it for a minute. Can you imagine trying to talk six hundred people into helping you drag a fifty-ton stone eighteen miles across the countryside and muscle it into an upright position, and then saying, ‘Right, lads! Another twenty like that, plus some lintels and maybe a couple of dozen nice bluestones from Wales, and we can party!’ Whoever was the person behind Stonehenge was one dickens of a motivator, I’ll tell you that.”

After reading Bill Bryson, in late August I passed to Oscar Wilde’s The picture of Dorian Gray. This is a book which is worth reading only because of one character: Lord Henry Wotton. All the other features of the novel – Dorian Gray, the painting, Victorian London… – are just corollaries of this beautifully designed character and his enormous influence. As an aside, after reading the book I watched the movie and I found it incredibly bad on every possible level.

Between August and September I finished Wake Up and Sinistri, but I won’t talk long about these two books as I’ve done it already. Jack Kerouac’s Wake Up is full of interesting quotes and it is quite enlightening in its field. In fact, I am now about to begin Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, which I expect to be similar. Tersite Rossi’s Sinistri turned out to be a bit of a drawback, mainly because I had great expectations from the author after his first book.

Tra settembre e ottobre sono tornato ai libri italiani, con A piedidi Paolo Rumiz. Di Rumiz, tra l’altro, avevo già letto I monti naviganti, che mi era stato regalato da Marco e Francesca. Questo secondo libricino lo ho trovato quasi per caso e lo ho letto subito. Si tratta del racconto di una camminata attraverso l’Istria, il posto da dove ero appena tornato quest’estate. E’ un libro molto snello che si legge in poche ore. Eppure ci sono moltissime citazioni splendide per i maniaci delle camminate come me.

Finally, a very inspiring book I have read during the last rainy week is Bjorn Larsson’s Dreams by the Sea (Il Porto dei sogni incrociati, in Italian). The book was given to me as a present by Giulia in 2008, but I never found the time to read it. I’ve done it now, and it was well worth. It is a story about daydreaming and the rare courage of pursuing our true aspirations. A few readers of this blog might receive this book as a present from me very soon.

UK left-right and communism

Even after a very short stay in the UK I keep on being confused when I have to cross a street, watching compulsively both at my right and left and putting my life at risk.

By the way, I am reading Bryson’s Notes from a small Island which I found in a small independent bookshop in Brighton. I wanted to get through the entire book for a long time, but never had a chance to read it in the original language. Now I can finally confirm that it’s hilarious, and pretty accurate too.

Daniel’s is the most extraordinary place. It has all the features you expect of a provincial department store – low ceilings, tiny obscure departments, frayed carpets held down with strips of electrician’s tape, a sense that this space was once occupied by about eleven different shops and dwellings all with slightly differentelevations – but it has the oddest assortment of things on sale: knicker elastic and collar snaps, buttons and pinking shears, six pieces of Portmeirion china, racks of clothing for very old people, a modest few rolls of carpet with the sort of patterns you get when you rub your eyes too hard, chests of drawers with a handle missing, wardrobes on which one of the doors quietly swings open fifteen seconds after you experimentally shut it. Daniel’s always puts me in mind of what Britain might have been like under Communism.

It has long seemed to me unfortunate – and I’m taking the global view here – that such an important experiment in social organization was left to the Russians when the British would have managed it so much better. All those things that are necessary to the successful implementation of a rigorous socialist system are, after all, second nature to the British. For a start, they like going without. They are great at pulling together, particularly in the face of adversity, for a perceived common good. They will queue patiently for indefinite periods and accept with rare fortitude the imposition of rationing, bland diets and sudden inconvenient shortages of staple goods, as anyone who has ever looked for bread at a supermarket on a Saturday afternoon will know. They are comfortable with faceless bureaucracies and, as Mrs Thatcher proved, tolerant of dictatorships. They will wait uncomplainingly for years for an operation or the delivery of a household appliance. They have a natural gift for making excellent jokes about authority without seriously challenging it, and they derive universal satisfaction from the sight of the rich and powerful brought low. Most of those above the age of twenty-five already dress like East Germans. The conditions, in a word, are right.

Please understand I’m not saying that Britain would have been a happier, better place under Communism, merely that the British would have done it properly. They would have taken it in their stride, with good heart, and without excessive cheating. In point of fact, until about 1970 it wouldn’t have made the slightest discernible difference to most people’s lives, and might at least have spared us Robert Maxwell.