Howard Davies: To Italy with my blue-blooded sons

MT DIARY: City plays away in Rome. The Mezzogiorno has something in common with eastern England.

by Howard Davies
Last Updated: 01 Apr 2015

The last time I went to see Manchester City play in Europe we had to wait for a favourable wind before we set sail from Dover. But a make or break game in Rome was irresistible so I and the two Davies sons and heirs (who were given a blue blood transfusion at birth) set off, with hope in our hearts, as the other lot sing. We were not allowed, however, to walk alone to the ground. The Roman Centurions decreed that all away fans in the popular end must assemble in the Borghese gardens, oddly, to be bussed in convoy to the Olympic stadium. So we did as we were told, and spent an hour in a crowded, sealed bus, with only the Etihad choir for company.

After a hundred or so choruses of 'Oh what fun it is to see Man City win away', to the tune of Jingle Bells, we fell into conversation with some of the tenors. A couple had been to the Vatican: 'We went for some holy water, but there weren't none, so we went to the pub.'

Then four men suddenly expostulated as one in language as blue as their replica shirts. They had received an SMS from Ryanair informing them that their plane back to Manchester the next day was cancelled, and that the next best offer was a Stansted flight two days later.

In language the Great O'Leary himself would have found too fruity they damned his airline and all its works. When this fury had abated, I ventured the thought that Michael himself might well be in the stadium, as he is an authentic City fan himself, who knows his Dedryck Boyata from his Bacary Sagna. 'Are you sure?' they asked. 'Oh yes,' I said, 'I can confirm it at first hand.' There was a lengthy silence, before one said: 'Well, I wouldn't mind another couple of days in Rome to have a butcher's, like.' And another cohort of Ryanair diehards was born.

After the game, the Centurions kept us in the ground for another hour, then tried to herd us back into the buses, which this time were arbitrarily routed to the main station, rather further from our Airbnb than was the stadium. Fortunately, Italian riot police do not have the single-minded devotion to duty of their German counterparts, and we made good our escape, hoofing it through a park of ersatz Roman statuary that surrounds the Stadio Olympico, passing only to admire a tall, white marble column shining in the moonlight, with 'Mussolini Duce' in large letters down the front. Perhaps some ironic post-modern political message was being conveyed, but it was lost on us football hooligans.

In Apulia, Mussolini is remembered fondly as the man who brought water down from the mountains, which made a big difference to their vines. We took an off-season cultural break in Lecce, an extraordinary small baroque town full of magnificent churches and palazzos, and a James Joyce-themed Irish bar.

But imagine my wife's disappointment when I told her that AS Lecce, which were in Serie A only three years ago, are now playing in the third tier. They are the Glasgow Rangers of the Mezzogiorno, found guilty of financial irregularities and forced to slither down a snake and to begin climbing the ladder at the bottom. So we gave their home game a miss and went to a concert in a lovely baroque theatre instead.

To our surprise we found that Lecce, and the surrounding small towns, are in the midst of a massive makeover. Every castello is scaffolded, if it has not already been beautifully repointed and replastered. All this in spite of the fact that the Italian economy has not grown for a decade, and public debt is 140% of GDP. I wondered if some version of the Formula Barnetta was in operation - but no. On every lavish refurb project there was a discreet sign with the EU 12-star flag in the corner. It's not Rome that is paying, it is you, through the EU's regional development funds. Please on no account reveal this to Nigel Farage - we would never hear the last of it.

The aesthetic benefits of this lavish investment programme are clear for all to see. But there is one drawback. The man who used to translate the descriptive texts, whose handiwork was still to be seen outside the unconverted churches, has lost his job. That is sad: he had a way with words.

We felt particularly warm to the architect Ferdinando Sanfelice, who 'is sinuous for his great forms' and achieved great things in spite of 'a series of incomprehensions between some privacies and l'Universitas'! His St Joseph church is filled with 'miserable 17th-century furniture guarded intact for centuries'. Today's European Commission translators are prosaic bureaucrats by comparison, but they always tell you what the project is costing, with a lot of noughts at the end.

Southern Italy does have one thing in common with the eastern English region of Faragia: immigration is the biggest political issue. While we were there, one of the crewless refugee ships laden with Syrians was forced into a port nearby. Oddly, it was escorted by an Icelandic coastguard vessel. (Churchill destroyed a chunk of the Italian fleet in Taranto in 1940, but you would have thought the ships would have been replaced by now.) The proportion of voters who now say they support parties opposed to the euro, seen as a German plot, and indeed the EU as a whole is now around half. Since President Napolitano has decided to step down, which may precipitate another election, we may soon see whether the EU flags outside restored monuments are enough to offset this rising tide of what they certainly don't call angst.

Howard Davies is the chairman of the Airports Commission. Follow him on Twitter at: @howardjdavies

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