In your latest book you describe Italy as a “dystopian paradise”. What you mean?
I get up in the morning, walk to a small corner café in Milan where, no matter how busy the place is, the most charming of barmen produces a cappuccino such as you will not find anywhere in London, for just €1.20. Out of town, all the Italian picturesque is still in place, the vineyards, the old men with their cards, the fine views. Yet as soon as you get involved with work of any kind, obstruction and obstacle are the rule, or two of the endless rules, though official regulations rarely bear much relation to the way things are actually done. The upshot is the arrogance of power, obtusity of every kind, the prevalence of nepotism and 40 per cent youth unemployment. So Italy is a wonderful place to be, but also a place where so much is wrong.
How likely is Silvio Berlusconi to end up in jail?
Very unlikely. Berlusconi’s wealth and power are huge. He controls one of the country’s two large political parties, which he formed himself. Its members at every level show a passionate loyalty/subservience to him. It has been made clear that if an executive prison sentence is finally passed against Berlusconi at the highest and at the last unappealable level, they will make parliament unworkable. The ageing president of the country, Giorgio Napolitano, has no stomach for a showdown. On the day after Berlusconi was convicted of paying for sex with a minor, Napolitano invited him to talks in the presidential palace. Above all, no one speaks of the actual nature of Berlusconi’s financial misdemeanours, corrupt practices and conflicts of interests. No one is concerned about public morality.
Can you see any way back for the Italian economy?
The country is full of talented young people, able, hard-working entrepreneurs. So it’s no doubt possible that vitality and ingenuity will find a way out of this hole. But the system is held back by a huge ballast of vested interests, overgenerous labour rights, top-heavy public administration. All this could theoretically be reformed, if only there were a political system capable of producing a government with real power and the public interest at heart. Alas, such a thing is unimaginable and the lobbies rule supreme. It is rather like one of those nightmares where you slide towards the abyss and find you can neither scream nor struggle.
Having written about your health in Teach Us to Sit Still, is there anything in Italy that the NHS could learn from?
The health system where I have mainly lived, in Verona, works pretty well, though it is always useful to know somebody in whatever hospital or clinic one is dealing with and that is hardly a state of affairs to recommend. One thing I very much appreciate about Italian doctors is that they give you your X-ray plates, your scans and the full results of all tests, so that you can study them and take them elsewhere for a second opinion. They treat you as adults. At least that has been my experience. This was the one thing that occasionally bothered me with otherwise excellent treatment on the NHS.
What can we learn from Italian railways?
Like any complex system, the railways come to reflect the nation, the Italian way of doing things. So the railways here are rich mix of technological excellence and bureaucratic obtusity. In recent years, the Italians have concentrated vast investments on their high-speed service from Turin, through Milan, Bologna, Florence and Rome down to Naples and Salerno. The superiority of speed, comfort and stability over anything in the UK is all too obvious. But this has been done at the expense of running down urban and regional commuter services to the brink of collapse. In general, prices are low, but not because the service is efficient. Simply, a debt is being run up that our children will have to pay.
Is the capture of an Italian mafia boss in Colombia this week just another small victory in a war we are destined to lose?
Yep, I’d say so. With all my heart I salute those magistrates and policemen who genuinely fight organised crime. With all my heart I wish that one day the country could be free from this ongoing catastrophe. But it seems to me that the extreme of mafia collusion is only a more ugly manifestation of a general state of mind in Italy that puts family, private and group interest before the public good. I do not see it changing.
A 10 per cent pay rise has been recommended for UK MPs. Are they worth it?
What is important is that these people genuinely concentrate on the job. One of Italy’s interminable difficulties is that its MPs, who are reputed to be the best paid in Europe, always seem to hold all kinds of other positions. A parliament that gets things done is worth a bit of money. On the other hand, I can imagine plenty of other folks who feel they’re worth 10 per cent more but lack the power to vote themselves a rise.
Does “Chiantishire” still exist?
Chiantishire is a space in the English psyche, winking wineglasses on terracotta terraces, good books in the cypress shade. But its only contact with things Italian lies in the props, and since it has no real engagement with the life around it, Chiantishire can never be more than a brief dreamy episode, more or less comparable with a teenage crush. But those were pleasant too. Let people enjoy it.
Tim Parks’s latest book is ‘Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo’, published by Harvill Secker