Good time girls: Italian women prefer sunglasses to babies, according to Nicholas Farrell

A review of The Italians by John Hooper warns that unless the birthrate in Italy rises the country is doomed

7 February 2015

9:00 AM

7 February 2015

9:00 AM

The Italians John Hooper

Allen Lane, pp.316, £20, ISBN: 9781846145445

Like so many Britons who chased the dream and woke up in Italy I have contemplated writing a book about the Italians. I even thought of what to call it: Those Italians.The title was prompted by what an Albanian port official told the media during some international crisis in response to the news that the entire cargo of an Italian aid ship had disappeared one night in the Albanian port of Durres. ‘Yes it is incredible,’ the official conceded, ‘but — my friends — there is always something funny going on with those Italians.’ An Albanian, of all people!

But such books are a poisoned chalice. The theme demands that you capture the spirit of the place and its people and yet avoid stereotype and cliché. But how do you say anything interesting about the Italians that has not been said so many times before?

If I had not bottled out, my instinct would have been to rattle the cage big time because — here we go — the Italians are a pathologically paranoid people. If a British or American newspaper writes something negative about them, for example, it is front-page news in Italy. It never happens the other way round.

No article I have written anywhere caused as much furore and reader reaction as one a few years ago for the Italian press which attacked a sacred cow: Italian restaurants. I pointed out a simple truth — that Italian restaurant food these days is monotonous and bad. As a result, the Italians simply wanted me out of their country.

The only other article to cause a similar stir was when I pointed out another simple truth: actually, the Allies liberated Italy in the second world war and the partisans were a military irrelevance. Worse, the partisans (dominated by the communists) were anti-democratic, I dared to add, because their aim was to make Italy part of the Soviet bloc. A few days later, I received a bullet in the post, destined for Caterina, the eldest of my five children.

John Hooper — for many years Rome correspondent of the Guardian and Economist — has grabbed the poisoned chalice, and I admire him for that. But he has not rattled the cage. He has decided instead to produce a statistical grand tour alla Guardianista of the past and present of this troubled peninsula which is at the centre of the Mediterranean and therefore at the centre of civilisation as we know it. He writes: ‘What other people of comparable numbers can lay claim to such an extraordinary catalogue of achievements?’

Why? Oh yes, that is the question. Hooper does not answer it. My own view (as a devoted agnostic) is that it was thanks to the Catholic church and the explosive creative power it unleashed artistically and politically. But Hooper does not like the Catholic church and cannot say such things and so moves on to address another issue: how, after the fall of the Roman empire, did Italy remained disunited until the late 19th century? Here he is on safer ground because he can justifiably have a bit of a go at the Catholicism. And thus, with the past boxed off, he moves on to modern Italy: an abominable cesspit mired in top-to-bottom corruption, mafia and red-tape fiscal tyranny, where, as he correctly notes, the truth is merely a matter of opinion — but at the same time blessed with, among other things, seriously beautiful women.

Obviously, on the big issue of three-times prime minister Silvio ‘Bunga Bunga’ Berlusconi, who dominated Italian politics for two decades, he toes the party line — the world liberal left media line — that Berlusconi was beyond the pale. But he does at least have the decency to ask why so many Italians voted for him so often. This forces him to suggest that they were brainwashed, or were themselves equally bad, or else — heaven forbid — that the media-backed judicial assault on Berlusconi was political.

Hooper fudges the answer. Yet even Berlusconi’s one and only conviction (tax evasion) is absurd, and all those millions of Italians know it. At the time of the alleged offence he had no legal role in the company, unlike his son or his right-hand man, who both did and were acquitted of the same offence.

The Robespierrian scapegoating of Berlusconi as the reason for all Italy’s ills tells us much about the dire state of the country’s media and judicial system, which ought to terrify anyone — not just Italians. He did not have blanket media control, as the media insisted. Indeed, the opposite was the case. Nearly all political talk-shows in Italy were, and remain, way to the left of the BBC, like most of its newspapers. As for Italy’s byzantine and ludicrous judicial system, one simply thinks of Amanda Knox — condemned, acquitted, condemned (and the case is still not over).

This book is stuffed with statistics from all manner of international bodies, even on how often Italian women have orgasms.They reminded me of those interminable speeches by Fidel Castro on the Cuban sugar harvest in which he used to reel off figures signifying nothing. More personal anecdotes and observations about his long experience of living in Italy would have been far more valuable; when these do appear they are like manna from heaven.

Something that depresses me about Italy is the slow death of the family since 1945 — and therefore of the nation; a trend which if not reversed will destroy the country. The Italians used to have so many children; now they have hardly any. Hooper does address this issue with his usual statistics but does not enlighten me. My view is that Italian women — more so than women anywhere else in the West — have decided that the only thing that counts in life is having a good time. It is, however, true —as the author notes — that the Italians do wear sunglasses all the time, even at night and in winter and inside church. Ah, those Italians.

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  • praxan

    I suppose Hooper also refrained from maligning the Catholic Church for its teachings on pro-creation. In light of the now looming prospect of a doomed Italian nation through ZPG, or even NPG, maybe the RCC mob were onto something then…

    • ClausewitzTheMunificent

      In truth all this about population disaster is hogwash. If we kept our borders closed to mass immigration and stopped bleeding away our best trained young people, the lowering of the population would cease to be negative – we would be able to pay our fathers pensions by having increased productivity – just look at Japan!

      • post_x_it

        The Japanese have Asimo.

        • ClausewitzTheMunificent

          Why can’t we?

  • la catholic state

    Abortion should be banned… should contraception.

    • Isaiah2_4

      We stand incredulous before your neo-papist orthodoxy, it leaves us begging for more.

      • la catholic state

        Fine….commit suicide then. We don’t care.

        • ClausewitzTheMunificent

          Ehm. I think that goes Christian Doctrine.

        • Isaiah2_4

          You are no catholic. Why pretend you were. This kind of thing is no joke, laddy.

          • la catholic state

            As you wish. Toodle pip….from a real Catholic.

          • Isaiah2_4

            You are no Catholic, laddy – you are a lowlife troll posing as Catholic to discredit the message.
            I am glad you asked for this further clarification which is now common knowledge on this forum.

    • Mister Rible


  • Jankers

    They wont have a population crisis when Islamic state turn up, i
    doubt they will sell as many sunglasses tho.

    • greggf

      You mean the R of P is not there yet….?
      Perhaps the post above which says:
      “Most couples don’t have children because there is no social system on which one would normally rely like many do in the UK. No child benefit for sure,” is the explanation for such absence…..?

  • Violin Sonata.

    its more of an issue with generations then culture and choice. The doomsday scenario
    is somewhat foolhardy to say the least.

  • Stuson43

    I haven’t read the book and won’t simply because I have been living in Italy for 20 years and know what it’s really like.

    “My view is that Italian women — more so than women anywhere else in the
    West — have decided that the only thing that counts in life is having a
    good time.” This is complete and utter diatribe.

    Most couples don’t have children because there is no social system on which one would normally rely like many do in the UK. No child benefit for sure. I believe you have to be earning less than 15k Euros to even consider yourself worthy of not having to pay “the ticket” for your free visit to the hospital.

    Additionally, having children is frowned upon by most employers, and unfortunately, there is no decent and reasonably priced childcare. Why give 500-600 Euros per month for a private nursery (generally a 50 square meter flat without a garden) to look after your child? There are not enough places in the local state nurseries. They tend to go to those who have a very very low incomes.

    But back to the employer issue: if you aren’t lucky enough to have a contract that covers maternity leave for a precious 5 months (2 before birth 3 after, or viceversa) then you risk finding your role given to someone else, or worse still you find yourself demoted without you even knowing.

    Sunglasses indeed. I think you’ve been living under the sun too long that you can’t see for your cataracts.

    p.s most Italians voted for Berlusconi because he actually removed tax on first homes. He promised he would if people voted for him, they did, and he kept his promise.

    p.p.s did you all know that most Italians actually earn less than they did 10 years ago because of the tax increases (note, all since Berlusconi actually fell from power?) I am not pro-Berlusconi, but I am completely anti-Renzi. If I had to choose between less tax along with having a good read in the newspaper and more tax along with some shite articles about how Mr Bean II is paving the way for the new Italian system, I much prefer Bunga Bunga.

    • Jim Station

      People had more children when they were poorer than people in Italy today.

      • Stuson43

        yes, because they were extended families, or sent the children out to work, or simply because they used their religion as an excuse to not stop having children. Speaking from experience, having children in Italy is not easy from any aspect. Everything has gotten so complicated that people find better things to do like the “only thing that counts in life is having a good time”. What I originally contradicted actually makes total sense rereading it.

  • MalcolmRedfellow

    Reads like a dubious philosophical overview of Donna Leon’s annual, and excellent fictional account.

  • ClausewitzTheMunificent

    I think we should give up on the Italian State, and break ourselves up again. Part of the reason for the cultural flowering of Renaissance was the lack of of a central state and subsequent check on the aspirations of entrepreneurs and artists. The drawbacks were 300 years of external invasion, internal wars, and political intrigue, but I’d rather have that than have terminal economic and moral decline.

  • Since this is the second time you have used the phrase, you ought to explain what ‘devoted agnostic’ means to you. It sounds a bit self-contradictory, like ‘committed vague’ or ‘strongly pusillanimous’. I know that atheist is not the same as agnostic (though practically speaking, it very often is; the difference being that ‘atheists’ are frank about their lack of belief while ‘agnostics’ just want to please everybody or at least sit on the fence very comfortably). All the same, it’s not that far apart, either.

    While we’re at it, ‘atheist’ does NOT have to mean, as some claim, that a non-believer knows exactly how existence came about or why we are alive or anything else. Atheism is simply a non-awareness (and thus a non-acknowledgement of) a rewarding and punishing god. It is, certainly, the denial of a scriptural witness (lots of dirty men in long beards that no doubt did unspeakable things to women and animals and any other vulnerables they could get their hands on: priesthood is a much-sullied profession). As an atheist I can say: you prove it to me. Otherwise, there are other explanations, even if they are almost as weird.

    By the way, if your wife doesn’t like contraception, I’d feed her lots of peas if I were you. Either that or spend more nights in philosophic conversation (worked for me). You don’t want to be Charles Dickens, do you?

  • rtj1211

    Perhaps if you gave all Italian families a tax break during the 3+ years leading up to birth (only for the first two children) and thereafter (say until the 3rd birthday) to compensate for increased costs and reduced earnings, Italians would become more confident about the financial challenges at that time?? You could balance it out with slightly higher taxes for the next 20 years….