Our hotel is up on the Corso Vittorio Emanuele. This morning I got up reasonably early and jogged along the Corso and then down to the Mergellina and then around the coast to Santa Lucia, and then back up to the hotel. The weather was grim and grey. Clouds wreathed Vesuvio’s lower slopes though the volcano always had his rheumy eye on me. And Capri was uncharacteristically grey on the horizon. But, still, what a wonderful place Naples is to be. I felt sorry for the people on the big cruise ships I could see coming in to port, though; it’s definitely going to rain today.
Today the Committee hosted the launching conference for two new tools designed to enhance and facilitate the integration of our societies: the European Integration Forum, designed to enable civil society organisations to exchange views with the European institutions, and the European Web Site on Integration, designed to build a pan-European community of integration practitioners. The Forum, organised together with the European Commission, was jointly launched by EESC President Mario Sepi and Commission Vice-President Jacques Barrot. You can read all about it on the Committee’s website here.
This week (14-17 April), though short, was extraordinarily heavy but satisfyingly productive. It began with the usual Directors’ coordination meeting, displaced from the Monday morning, and was followed, on the Tuesday afternoon, by a meeting of the Budget Group. At the same time, at a political level, the Committee hosted a meeting of the European Civic Forum, a meeting well-attended by representatives of the European Parliament and journalists, and which resulted in the adoption of a Manifesto for a Genuine European Civic Dialogue. The next day saw the President officially launch the EESC’s Programme for Europe in a conference in which, once again, representatives of the European Parliament’s political groups, were well represented. The whole of the next day, Thursday, from 08.30 until 18.30, was spent in interviewing candidates for the post of Director of Finance. This is a key strategic post for the Committee and we are determined to get our decision right. This week was illustrative of the sorts of different tasks and roles that SGs are expected to perform: chairing the Directors, overseeing the budgetary process (though once we’ve got our director I can relinquish that role), accompanying the President, chairing recruitment panels.
If there was only time for one book, there was also only time for one new CD. On this occasion it was Peter Doherty’s Grace/Wastelands. I saw Doherty live last year at L’Ancien Belgique with the Babyshambles. The songs were good, but Doherty’s act was disappointing. It was an act in more than one sense of the term. A lot of the atmosphere in his concerts used to come from the unpredictability of a tripper but at the time he was reportedly dry and under the watchful eye of his musicians/minders (or so it seemed to me). The result was somebody pretending to be what his fans expected him to be, but his body language showed – he hated acting the part. Now, with this album (and with a switch from ‘Pete’ to ‘Peter’), Doherty has allowed himself to be what he truly is: a subtle songwriter and a poet. The CD has so far had mixed reviews (as they say) but for me it’s a beautiful piece of work.
Glenys Kinnock once observed that busy people only get to read one book on holiday. My book this time was The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919, by Mark Thompson. I was largely ignorant about the 1915-1919 war between Italy and Austria-Hungary until as a student in the summer of 1980 I babysat for an architect’s son in Cortina d’Ampezzo in the Dolomite mountains. One day we took the cable car high up above the piste of Ra Valles and, down below, I could see the remains of a wooden shanty town. Intrigued, I started to discover that the front line had run through those mountains. Thompson has written a brilliant book, a mixture of political, economic, social, and cultural analysis, as well as an account of the ghastly and disastrous tactics of Cadorna, Italy’s top general and every bit as much of a ‘donkey’ as the generals on the Western front (for long afterwards, to British troops ‘to do a Cadorna’ meant to screw up completely). This is also a cracking good read, with many a poetic insight or witty epithet. Just one will have to do here: ‘Sonnino (Foreign Minister) was silent in all languages he spoke, while Orlando (Prime Minister) was voluble in all the languages he didn’t.’ The study also provides sobering insights into the roots of Italy’s dalliance with Fascism and the Balkan convulsions that would, ultimately, lead to the reassertion of the nation states of the Western Balkans today. I warmly recommend this book not just to those interested in military history but to those who want to understand better why Europe is the way it is.
But then, just two days later, Italy was flung into deep mourning after the devastation of L’Aquila by a powerful earthquake. One Italian journalist described this experience as a ‘bitter ritual’ and there was indeed a sense of dreary familiarity and inevitability about what had occurred: October 2002, San Giuliano di Puglia; September 1997, Assisi and Umbria; December 1990, Sicily; November 1980, Campania and Basilicata. I remember visiting the Basilicata region in the summer of 1981. The old villages and towns had been abandoned. Tent towns and shanty towns had sprung up and seemed to have taken on permanent status. The same, inevitably, is already happening in L’Aquilla. Long after the immediate pain of loss and grief has dulled, the people of L’Aquilla will still be suffering from this particular bitter ritual.
The next morning we galloped away to northern Italy, to the lakes and the mountains, for a short Easter break.
In the evening to the Irish Theatre Group’s production of Edith, written and produced by Loretta Stanley, a member of my writers’ group (see 14 February post). This was a rich educational process for me. Like the other members of the group, I have accompanied this work since its inception. But whereas we had been critiquing dialogue on the page, now I could hear it on people’s lips. And whereas the roles had previously been neutral ciphers, now they were interpretations, by actresses and actors who brought their own understanding of what the play might be about. The biggest roles, Edith Cavell herself (as a ghost in the hospital named after her) and Eva (as an uppity young speechwriter confronting the ghastliness of breast cancer), played respectively by Liz Ross and Brontë Flecker (and played very well), were entirely believable. The stage, and the actresses, had worked their magic. I am sure Loretta sees this as a work in progress. There are things that work and things that don’t work so well, but now it is a question of adjustment and re-writing and, oh!, what a thrill it must be to see your work on the stage like this. As to Edith, she remains an enigma, in the play as in life. In our group discussions we came to the conclusion that her religion-fueled fervour to do good was the result of a displaced desire to impress her father. In his Courage, etc, Gordon Brown portrays Cavell as an all-round heroine. That was certainly the way the British propaganda machine portrayed her, jingoistically exploiting her death before a firing squad to consolidate the image of a brutal German war machine. But it can’t explain why, in her confession, Cavell gave away the names of all of the people in the clandestine network that had been smuggling allied soldiers into the neutral Netherlands (and hence back to Britain). She wasn’t tortured and the German-language confession she signed contained the names that only she could have given. ‘Patriotism,’ she declared just before her death, ‘is not enough.’ But what, then, was ‘enough’ for Edith?