We all know that policemen are getting younger, and I recall a spot of surprise as ambassadors got younger too, especially those from newer European member states. But imagine my shock when visiting reliably gerontocratic Italy, where only the bunga-bunga dancers were supposed to be young, and I find myself confronted by a 37-year-old wannabe prime minister. And not just wannabe but might be, though he has to win his party’s primary elections first. The first round of voting is on Sunday, November 25.
The young whippersnapper is Matteo Renzi, the mayor of Florence, and he has taken time from his own mass meeting to offer welcoming words to the group of young Italians I am with. He couldn’t look less like a typical expensively suited Roman politician, being clad in crumpled blue jeans, a white open-necked shirt and an informal jacket. Nor could he be less like his Democratic Party’s arch-enemy, the 76-year-old Silvio Berlusconi, for he has his own hair and his skin is not orange.
Renzi’s campaign to become his (leftwing) party’s leader is founded on his youth, rather as Tony Blair’s in 1997 was built on the word “new”. So it is a tad paradoxical that we meet him in Florence’s splendid Palazzo Vecchio (“old palace”) and that he devotes most of his speech to dead white heroes of the city’s past, including Savonarola, Leonardo da Vinci and Dante Alighieri. Perhaps he really plans to build his career on the word “renaissance”.
It is a world away from the previous few days in London, which featured a debate at Chatham House about post-election US foreign policy and one at the London Library with the former head of MI6, Sir John Scarlett. The audience listened, rapt, to Scarlett’s thoughts on China-Japan disputes over rocks and Israel-Iran disputes over nukes. But my mind kept wandering back to 1993 when, soon after being appointed editor of The Economist, I was invited to lunch at MI6 with one of his predecessors. I went with schoolboyish glee, especially as in those days the service did things in more cloak-and-dagger style, sending an officer and car to escort me (disappointingly without blindfold) to their then anonymous HQ in Lambeth. Might this be their normal effort to suborn impressionable young editors, I wondered? So I went with loins properly girded. But, in fact, my invitation had merely coincided with MI6’s decision to start talking to the media.
Our media’s freedom can too easily be taken for granted. In Florence, I struggled to explain to my Italian friends why we Brits are in such torment over the BBC. To them it is an extraordinary achievement just to have a public broadcaster that is not utterly politicised, that is generally professional, and that does not copy its commercial rivals by showing semi-naked women on daytime TV. Moreover, in Italy slanderous accusations about politicians are bandied about all the time – they normally seem to involve Brazilian transvestites and/or apartments bought cheaply from developers. When he was prime minister, which means for eight of the past 11 years, Berlusconi made such an art out of smearing his opponents that a phrase was born: la macchina del fango, or mud machine.
It is even more of a struggle to explain who Jimmy Savile was and why he was a star. Suddenly, though, it occurred to me that there might be a way to connect Savile and Berlusconi at least as an explanation. Savile hid his sexual activities behind his good charitable deeds. Berlusconi has also been a master of concealment, although Italian machismo meant that his sleight-of-hand has worked the other way around. He hid his bad deeds behind his sex, getting his TV cameras to film him with streams of young women. That way, he distracted voters from the fact that he was governing their country in the service of his own businesses and judicial interests, while the economy and justice system were going to hell in a designer handbasket.
At another Italian event recently, this time in London, the star speaker was Sergio Marchionne, the Canadian-Italian chief executive of Fiat. He is in the strange position of being a hero in Detroit for having bought and turned round Chrysler, and is even hugged by union leaders, but a villain in Italy for his efforts to modernise Fiat’s factories there. I have interviewed him several times, so he recognises me. His greeting is, shall we say, unconventional. “Why the [expletive deleted] are you so interested in Italy?” he asks. It’s a fair question. I splutter back a joke about being blackmailed. But the right answers would have been Berlusconi, a nagging feeling that where Italy went today the rest of the west might go tomorrow, and a surely mad decision to make a documentary film.
I would never have imagined shifting my gaze to il Bel Paese, considering that I worked as Tokyo correspondent for The Economist in the 1980s and have devoted much of my scribbling to Japan and China ever since. But nor would I have dreamed that this old print hand, with a face perfectly suited to radio, would one day make a film about Italy, one moreover that includes Dante, Marchionne and Mayor Renzi, and which will have its first screening in London in front of an invited audience on Monday. It is called Girlfriend in a Coma, echoing the 1980s song by The Smiths – which, I confess, had passed me by – so as to convey that the country with which I have become enamoured has knocked itself out for the past 20 years and needs waking up.
Switching from the solo world of writing to the team world of film-making isn’t easy, and if I have survived it is thanks to our talented Italian director, Annalisa Piras (who, of course, is younger than me and so knew of The Smiths’ song).
New adventures do keep us feeling spritely. Rattling about in a mini-bus with a camera crew certainly did that, though occasionally it did the opposite. Once, in a bleak part of Calabria, returning from an even bleaker interview with an anti-mafia prosecutor, the crew and director cheered things up by singing songs. My only contribution, “Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz”, did not find favour, however. Perhaps I should have substituted Ferrari or Alfa Romeo. Or maybe they were just not old enough to appreciate Janis Joplin.
Bill Emmott is author of ‘Good Italy, Bad Italy’ (Yale University Press)