PsychoGeography #78: When in Rome ...

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The Independent Online

At Heathrow it transpired that Ivan's passport was five days out of date.

At Heathrow it transpired that Ivan's passport was five days out of date. The nice man on the British Airways checkout consulted his big book and even made a call, but there was no way round it, the Italians wouldn't let him in. Looked at one way I could appreciate that Ivan constituted a security risk: he's obsessed by guns, knives and all forms of explosion; he has hardly any impulse control yet can also display preternatural cunning; and he has a naïve faith in an omnipotent deity. Still, he is only seven. So Ivan stayed behind in London with his mother, which left four of us to carry on: the big children, little Luther, aged three, and me.

City breaks are quite the thing in our culture. In this era of Europe's integration, its principal cities are being mashed together in the minds of its bourgeois citizens. The Rambla leads to the Hradcany Castle; the Herengracht runs through the Tiergarten; and the Spanish Steps ascend the Eiffel Tower. The city break has never appealed to me that much - living in London is quite fracturing enough - but when the opportunity came up to defray travel costs to Rome against a literary reading, we decided to go. What could be more surreal than a speedy sojourn in the cockpit of those ancient modernists, the Romans?

Reading Gibbon's Decline and Fall it always occurred to me that the reason Rome took so long in the falling was the comparatively slow communications system. Introduce a single phone exchange, with party lines in Scythia, Datia, Gaul and Egypt, and the Empire would've folded in weeks. I'd visited the city once before - for six hours to interview the porn star turned politician Cicciolina - yet even this had been long enough to grasp that its sobriquet "eternal" was justified.

A whole weekend confirmed my suspicion that Rome remains impervious to the march of time. There was the metro to begin with. We were staying in Testaccio, the nativist quarter, named after the great midden of shattered amphorae, which was the eighth hill of the ancient city. Our local metro stop was Piramide - a dirty great pyramid incorporated into the Antonine wall of the city. It was difficult to believe we were entering a state-of-the-art transport hub under the austere facade of this obelisk, the tomb of an obscure second-century magistrate gripped by the Egyptology craze of his day. The trains themselves were reassuringly spray-painted with graffiti, but our first stop was Circo Massimo and our second Colosseo. By the time we changed at Termini, all I could think about was that the two arms of the system - Linea A and B - insistently reminded me of the names for the ancient Minoan scripts deciphered by Michael Ventris.

We did the obligatory round: the Colosseum, the Pantheon, St Peter's, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, Prada, Bulgari. That night, with the children asleep, I was lying on my bed in the failed postmodern Abitart Hotel, musing on the way the view from Capitoline Hill drenches the eye with two millennia of civilisation.

In London we always think of ourselves as a 2,000-year-old city, but the truth is that the vast bulk of the burgh is 19th-century red brick, bits of the Midlands reshaped and lain in orderly courses. If you want the real McCoy then all flight paths lead to Rome.

The following evening I gave my reading in a teensy theatre in Testaccio. On before me were a collective of hip, young writers who called themselves Babette's Factory. Like all Italian intellectuals they wore tweed jackets and brogues, but as a sign of their crazy Modernism they also sported odd sprigs of facial hair. They took it in turns to declaim in front of a screen upon which was back-projected pulsating blobs of light. A muted jazz soundtrack accompanied them. I felt as if I were in San Francisco, in the City Lights bookstore, c.1955. I wanted to beat my wine jug on the floor and yell, "Go man! Go!"

Afterwards the festival organiser explained the recherché character of the event and confirmed my thesis: "Basically," he said, "Italian literature hasn't really had Modernism yet. They had a little bit of Futurism and then Fascism instead. The whole scene is petrified." Petrified yes, but with the kind of petrification Rome offers - who needs mere fluidity?