PsychoGeography #42: Ralph's postcard from Puglia

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The Independent Online

Is Puglia the new Tuscany? Such things matter - they really matter.

Is Puglia the new Tuscany? Such things matter - they really matter. Last year in Britain alone, 497,000 metric tonnes of travel sections were generated, detailing over 9,800 separate holiday destinations, each presented with a neophiliac burnish. Camilla Fortinbrass at the Organisation of European Economic Cooperation and Development has been studying them: "Here at the OECD we have completed an exhaustive analysis which shows that the circulation of early-adopting bourgeois holiday makers is essential to medium-term growth," she told me, over lunch at Orso. "Designating the bourgeois family as 'FB', the destination as 'D' and the rate of adoption as 'Mcf-r', where 'M' equals movement, 'c' cuisine, and 'f-r' faux-rusticity, we arrive at the relatively simple formula: GDP = FB - D + (Mcf-r).'

It appears that the implications of this "Quantity Theory of Pretension" could be catastrophic. "Put baldly," Ms Fortinbrass admonished me with her bread stick, "if Puglia isn't the new Tuscany then not only will spirali head for a downturn, but jobs could be at risk from Murmansk to Archangel."

"And back again!" I chimed in, hoping to show utter comprehension.

"And back again." Ms Fortinbrass grimly intoned.

Without more ado I hied me to the offices of The Independent and prevailed upon Laurence Earle, editor of the Saturday magazine, to despatch Ralph Steadman to the heel of Italy. "Only Ralph has the necessary qualifications to establish the nouveauness of Puglia." I urged him.

"Nouveauness?" enquired the baffled hack.

"Whatever, the important thing is that he have full expenses, total carte blanche, a lackey to carry his ink pots, a satellite fax machine, and an account with Berry Brothers & Rudd."

"Isn't that a little impractical, I mean, the account with a London wine merchant?"

"For Christ's sake man!" I was close to hysteria (so close I considered taking a short holiday there). "Is this all you can do, quibble while drones gurn?" That shut him up, and to his credit he obliged. Ralph and Mrs Ralph headed off to the sun, while I remained at base camp in Stockwell eagerly awaiting news of their first sightings. Would they see Ruthie Rogers pan-roasting a lolly, or Stephen Bayley haranguing a local artisan who was converting a pedalo into an armchair for him?

I'd warned Ralph to look out for signs that Puglia had overshot. "Too many obvious Northern-European bourgeois types and it could mean that far from it being the new Tuscany, Puglia is in fact the old Tuscany already!"

"In which case," Ralph was, as ever, lightning on the uptake, "what's Tuscany?"

"Either the new Puglia, or nothing, an un-place. Look, this can happen. Two years ago Cappadocia was the new Wales - but only for a few weeks. When a charter plane of early-adopters realised - while actually en route - that it had changed back to being the old Cappadocia, they hijacked the plane and forced it to land in Prestatyn."

I waited and I waited, desperate for news. No faxes, no phone calls, no photo text messages, no e-mails, nothing. I scoured the travel supplements, in case Ralph, imprisoned by angry neophytes who'd discovered his mission, was only able to communicate with me by filing articles on his adorable holiday with his charming new friends. But there was nothing. Eventually, when I was close to despair, this battered postcard which you see reproduced above, fell through my letterbox and lay gasping on the mat. On the back, scrawled in his characteristic lexical hand - ascenders stabbing descenders in the back - was this haunted screed, which I reproduce in full:

"Is Puglia the new Tuscany? You dare to ask me that after the hell I've been through for the past fortnight. Jesus, I'm not even certain that this card is going to reach you. The obverse side is exactly as I purchased it. Yes, it's true. I arrived here in Gallipoli to discover that a white-haired, black-browed weirdo oenophile, passing himself off as Ralph Steadman has been sojourning on the island for some years. The counter- Ralph has been customising postcards in my style! So who gives a toss whether Puglia is the new Tuscany - I have discovered that I am the old Steadman."

Shaken and stirred by my collaborator's long goodbye, I rushed over to Camilla Fortinbrass's office at the HQ of the OECD and hurled the postcard at her. She scanned it with an expression of mounting horror. When she'd finished, she placed it in a plastic specimen bag and pressed her intercom button: "I need a messenger to take something to the Chancellor of the Exchequer!" she snapped, then turning to me she said, "I do hope a 10 per cent rise in interest rates won't place you in negative equity." It was the middle-class English equivalent of a Papal anathema - and I haven't stopped screaming yet.