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Girlfriend in a Coma

Wednesday, 20 February, 2013

“Our aims are to build awareness in Italy and around the world of the true nature and severity of the decline of this once-great western democracy, to warn other countries that a similar destiny could await them, and to serve as a call to action, at all levels of society.” So say Italian journalist Annalisa Piras and Bill Emmott, former editor of The Economist. Between them, they have made of Girlfriend in a Coma, a declaration of love and apprehension about the object of their passion: Repubblica italiana.

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Bill Emmott kindly took some time from his busy schedule to take part in a Q&A with Rainy Day. Here goes:

Eamonn Fitzgerald: Girlfriend in a Coma, Italy and its Discontents by Paul Ginsborg, The Dark Heart of Italy by Tobias Jones… There’s no shortage of concern for the state of Italy by British intellectuals. But why Italy, and not, say, Germany or Spain? How do you explain this British anxiety about Italy?

Bill Emmott: Our extra interest in Italy goes back centuries: we see Italy as the font of western civilisation, a sort of lesson in how to be cultured. But also now there is a kind of horrified fascination: at the danger Italy might bring down the euro, at the way Berlusconi has become the anti-culture symbol, but also at fear that some Italian trends might might precursors of what might befall us too, if we are not careful.

Eamonn Fitzgerald: Italy has lurched from crisis to crisis over the past six decades, but life goes on and the Italians seem to have developed the ability to cope. Why do you think that the current crisis is more serious than the preceding ones?

Bill Emmott: This crisis is genuinely worse. Incomes are falling, private savings have halved, and the young are living off the pensions of their grandparents. It cannot go on like this. As Sergio Marchionne of FIAT says in our film, Italy is on “l’ultima spiaggia“, the last beach.

Eamonn Fitzgerald: In his 2004 thriller, Medusa, the late Michael Dibdin has his protagonist, Aurelio Zen, describe the everyday reality of corruption, intrigue and distrust as “Italia Lite”. It is, says Zen, “the new culture of empty slogans, insincere smiles and hollow promises overlaying the authentic adversarial asperity of public life.” Did Dibdin, the novelist, get it right?

Bill Emmott: A principle of journalism, espoused even by a predecessor of mine as editor of The Economist, is that we “simplify, then exaggerate”. So did Dibdin. But his books contained a lot of truth.

Eamonn Fitzgerald: This question is related to the previous one in that it deals with matters cultural. How come Italian artists, filmmakers especially, have created nothing extraordinary about the current state of Italy? What’s happened to that famed creativity? Where’s the Pasolini, were’s the Sciascia in this time of need?

Bill Emmott: Domination of the media, of film distribution by a few hands, combined with the politicisation of so much of the cultural industry, have combined to stultify creativity. Not entirely, of course, but substantially.

Eamonn Fitzgerald: The international press depicts Berlusconi as a gangster, a buffoon or a Casanova, but in-depth analysis of his popularity is rare or non-existent. Is this because the international media is unwilling to confront the fact that many Italians have very different values to the Tuscany set, as I call liberal/leftist international commentariat?

Bill Emmott: No, I think the Italian media makes the same mistake too. They love his showmanship, so they amplify it and connive in his use of it to cover up his real aims.

Eamonn Fitzgerald: How will Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement fare in the coming election?

Bill Emmott: Quite well. They are the only really new force, and feed off anger and despair. They will be a big force in the next parliament.

Eamonn Fitzgerald: Final question: Is Italy doomed, or do you see light at the end of the tunnel?

Bill Emmott: There will be light when Italians really face up to the reality of their situation.

Thank you, Bill. And now, over to The Smiths: “Girlfriend in a coma, I know. I know — it’s serious.”

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