This week's big questions: Is there hope for the Italian economy? Will Berlusconi to go jail? Does Chiantishire still exist?

This week's questions are answered by novelist and translator Tim Parks


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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

PMLD Teacher

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: The Job; Experienced PMLD Teac...

SEN Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Leeds: Randstad Education is the UK market lead...

SEN Teacher

£100 - £180 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: SEN Teacher requiredRandstad Ed...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£60 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Special Needs Teaching Assistant ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Norovirus the food poisoning bug that causes violent stomach flu  

A flu pandemic could decide next year’s election

Matthew Norman
J. Jayalalithaa gestures to her party supporters while standing on the balcony of her residence in Chennai. Former film star Jayalalithaa Jayaram is one of India's most colourful and controversial politicians  

The jailing of former film star Jayalalithaa Jayaram is a drama even Bollywood couldn’t produce

Andrew Buncombe
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?