The column: A place in the sun

Howard Jacobson chokes on his teenage dreams of tenor stardom when he attends an all-singing, all-sobbing Neapolitan birthday party
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Years ago, when I was fancy-free and light of foot, I frequented a pub deep in the Oxfordshire countryside where they served hare pie on medieval trestle tables and tested your general knowledge on an electronic IQ machine installed in the snug. If you pressed a button saying literature you were asked to name the two cities in which A Tale of Two Cities was set (anagram clue: Nodlon and Ripas), the author of Pride and Prejudice (anagram clue: Enja Staune), and the personal possession beginning with "h" which Desdemona lost (was it a: her honour; b: her handkerchief; c: her handbag?) Get these right first time, without any further clues, and the machine would go beserk, ringing bells and flashing the word genius for everybody to see.

Until they changed the questions I found this a useful place to take company I was anxious to impress. It wasn't only literature at which I excelled. I was a bit of a smash at classical music as well. Who composed Carmen (anagram clue: Zibet); how many Beethoven symphonies are there (a: 9; b: 150; c: 0?) - I got them all.

So here's one for you. Which Neapolitan song - so popular that even Elvis recorded it - celebrates its hundredth anniversary this year?

Your anagram clue is: O, I'm loose!

Another? Me? Oslo? Oi!

Still not got it? Not as easy as you think, eh. One more anagram clue only. Ooo, slime!

Then I'll have to tell you. "O Sole Mio".

I'll come clean and admit I didn't know "O Sole Mio" was a hundred this year either until I saw an announcement of a party to be thrown in its honour by Melbourne's Italian community at the Crown Casino Showroom. As a lover of all things Neapolitan, I had no choice but to put on a striped fisherman's jersey and go along.

I enjoy being the only non-Italian at an Italian gathering. It's the one time I get the chance to be the tallest person in the room. And I like being given a wide berth, everyone stopping talking and scattering when I approach, for fear I might be Interpol.

Half an hour after the birthday concert was scheduled to start, it started; a labially liquid lady in evening wear taking the stage and explaining that "O Sole Mio" wasn't only a treasure of Neapolitan civilisation but "formed part of a European cultural tradition that has all but disappear". My Italian being non- existent and her English being only so-so, I didn't fully grasp what this cultural tradition was. Only that it had something to do with feeling homesick.

Eduardo Di Capua was handed the words of "O Sole Mio" just before he left Naples for a tour of the Ukraine in 1898, that much I did gather, and set it to music two or three years later while he was stuck in Odessa, looking out of the window of his hotel and wondering where the sun had gone. So, if you want to be pedantic, this isn't the hundredth anniversary of "O Sole Mio" as we know it at all, only of the lyrics. And with respect to the lyricist, Giovanni Capurro, it isn't really for the words - "What a wonderful thing is a sunny day/But who needs it?/My very own sun/Is on your forehead" (my translation) - that we love it.

But I didn't stand up and point this out. Let's party now and then party again in another two or three years. Some songs you cannot celebrate too often. Especially when, to quote a programme left on my seat, they come "straight from the heart in simple and direct words and notes like a hot pizza beaming out of a hot wood oven".

Now you know why a pizza is red and round. It symbolises the sun.

What a wonderful thing is a sunny day/But who needs it?/My very own pizza/Is on your forehead.

Once they've sorted out the sound system, stopped the elderly violinist from clapping himself on his lapel where his microphone is pinned, and got to the bottom of how come a massed choir of 80 men and women with round rigatoni chests is coming over more muted than a bashful kindergarten duo, the concert starts to be wonderful. I have always loved this stuff - sobbing tenors dreaming of Sorrento in high fluting voices, bewailing ungrateful hearts, promising undying love. I used to be able to do it myself when I was young and had the lungs and the emotionalism for it. I'd seen a film in which talent scouts for the Metropolitan Opera spot Mario Lanza standing on a pair of step-ladders in a field outside Naples, picking grapes and funiculi/funicula-ing, and I hoped that something similar might happen to me, light as we were on vineyards in 1950s Manchester.

I couldn't imagine a better life - eating huge breakfasts, wearing fishermen's knits, and knocking off top Cs before adoring audiences in the world's leading opera houses. And this was long before Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras. Nowadays every kid wants to play for Manchester United and sing with the Three Tenors, but in my time only the very sensitive harboured such ambitions.

It never happened for me. Too tall, I suspect. But when night comes - Quanno fa notte, in Giovanni Capurro's words, and me vene quase na malincunia - and I get to feeling quasi-melancholic (my translation) ... but I don't have to tell you the rest. We're all a long way from Sorrento.

"O Sole Mio"s birthday turns out to be the best party I have ever been to. Domenico Cannizzaro sings it operatically; Toni Marchi less dramatically but with more subtle Neapolitan intonations, and we, we thousand exiled Italians sick for home, we sing it from the heart. Ma n'atu sole - but another sun, another sun - sta 'nfronte a te - is on your forehead! And it is all I can do to stop myself from weeping

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