We have too much news in our household. This is for particular and unavoidable professional reasons but I have a feeling the malaise is more widespread. The arguments are well-rehearsed. The overwhelming majority of news is bad news – often shocking and appalling, as in reports of carnage from Gaza or Syria. Well-meaning efforts to promote good news, such as the Positive News newspaper or the Huffington Post Good News blog, have not displaced the more familiar kind of news. Bad news, sadly, sells.
Not only is most news bad, all news is by nature restless and unsettling. There is never time to take anything in properly, before the fly-like mind of the media moves to the next bloody mess. All this bad news, combined with the restlessness, must have a disturbing, even depressing psychological effect. At the very least, we are constantly asking ourselves whether we should be more worried about the carnage in the Middle East, civil war brewing in eastern Ukraine, or the steady, silent build-up of CO2 in the atmosphere and carbonic acid (H2CO3) in the oceans.
For all these reasons, I’ve welcomed and treasured our annual visit to a quiet village in northern Tuscany as, in part, an escape from news. In the early days, I seem to remember, there was no mobile phone reception and very little WiFi, especially after the violent electric storms that sometimes strike the house, which sits on a saddle between two mountain ranges.
Instead of being constantly distracted by distant events, we could concentrate on being together as a small group of friends, cooking for each other, enjoying walks and modest excursions to neighbouring towns such as Barga, with its pulpit supported by a pair of friendly marble lions and its splendidly named Teatro dei Differenti – or Lucca, with its towers, polychrome marble churches and characterful small shops.
That was the idea again this year but then events took over – not distant ones but a quite serious accident to a member of the party, who suffered a bad fall. Suddenly the immediate loomed up, not beamed in from afar but in the form of a practical emergency, requiring quick thinking and action. We got to know the local hospital quite well, and to appreciate the skill and kindness of a nurse who went far beyond the call of duty to help us.
The incident certainly became news in a parochial sense, spreading quickly through the village and beyond. Locals came to give sympathy and bits of advice and medical vignettes, some more helpful than others. Maybe – just a thought – it’s because our lives in the lucky parts of the world generally go so smoothly that we have room in our minds for so much distant news. Maybe, even, the smoothness has gone too far; we have found ways of disengaging from almost every direct human contact, preferring to shop over the internet, to use interminable emails where one good conversation would work so much better. The accident jolted us back into an older way of being.
But you cannot go back to a village life like the one Gerald Brenan found when he went to live in Yegen, south of Granada, in the 1920s, where villagers seemed quite uninterested in what was happening in the next pueblo, let alone in the wider world. We are inescapably interconnected now; villagers in Tuscany, where emigration has been a fact of life for centuries, live global existences just as much as city-dwellers do. And if we ignore the news for too long, whether the events in Gaza or Syria or the acidification of the oceans, it will no doubt catch up with us sooner or later. Brenan has been accused of ignoring the wider Spanish context by concentrating on his village life in Yegen. Surely he made up for that later, back in England, by writing his magisterial book on the background of the civil war, The Spanish Labyrinth (1943).
But I still look back to the few days when we were caught up neither in far-off wars nor in domestic emergency as a kind of idyll. When all of us were safely back home, more or less, one of the party in an email recalled the circumstances of Boccaccio’s Decameron. Six hundred and sixty-six summers ago, in another part of Tuscany, a group of friends, seven women and three men, took flight into the hills. The horrors they were escaping make even today’s terrible news stories seem relatively trivial. The plague was raging in Florence, and this was no ordinary pestilence; it was the Black Death, which eventually killed between one-third and two-thirds of the population of Europe.
Boccaccio in his “exordium of woe” gives graphic descriptions of the symptoms and effects of the plague. But the seven women and three men were youthful, spirited and witty. They spent the days telling each other stories, mostly of a rather salty nature. And the seven women, Boccaccio relates in his preface, sang songs for their mutual delight. We surely have to make time for that, which is to say for being human, in all the surrounding pain and din.