Kay Clay

"Sicily" by Kay Clay

"Sicily": essay written c. 1946 

If you were to step out one sultry summer's day from an aeroplane to the aerodrome at Palermo you might be forgiven for thinking that the pilot was out in his bearings and had dropped you in Africa instead of in the southernmost part of the Republic of Italy. A bus, not new, but very swiftly driven, carries you sweeping a1ong through clouds of dust on a track leading to the centre of the city. It takes each deep hole by leaping from crest to crest, and drives away straight at every fresh obstacle, child, dog, cart, street vendor or beggar, scaring them from its path. You may be frightened. but there is no need, for the bus is bigger and therefore more menacing than its prey and is bound to win.

Down through the arch beside the Royal Palace you swerve, on a tarred surface now, sweeping pedestrians like swarms of the local variety of flies from their clinging preference for the centre of the road up onto the pavement, then past the lovely golden cathedral and away down the Corso to the Quattro Canti di citta, the four corners of the town and the scene of Garibaldi's unexpected and magnificent triumph. Heat, disorder, the excessive noise of motor horns and street cries and people shouting surround you, while from above glares bleaching sunlight so that as you step out of the bus you rush to the shade of a cafe for protection. Gaze up through the closely built stone houses and you will see strips of deep sapphire sky: they look as though a child has just washed its paint-box and dipped a clean brush into a fresh tube of clean paint.

Africa' you say, not Italy, sniffing the hot air and recognising the pungent unwashed smells of the Middle East - not Italy. It is an easy mistake to make, for to step into Sicily of the west is as unlike one's expectations of Italy as it would be to go to the Equator and expect to find Egypt. If you wish to appreciate Sicily you must put from your mind all preconceived notions about modern civilisation, and adjust a lot of your standards, some to the days of early Victorian England, some to feudalism and some to the Spaniards and the Arabs of past centuries. Such phrases as the emancipation of women, the equality of the sexes, trade unions, modern transport, the five-day week, medical services, the raising of the school-leaving age or adult education must be shipped back to the continent as Sicily Calls the Italian mainland, for they will have no meaning here. But before you take out a blue pencil and write retarded progress across the map of Sicily and try and book a seat in the next plane back to the continent yourself, let me put Sicily's case to you.

Do you remember young Edward, in the novel called Captain Nicholas by Hugh Walpole, being shocked at his mother's ignorance of where Palermo is? "He had always thought his mother know everything. Now very plainly she did not. One day he asked her where Palermo was. She said it was in Corsica." Sicily is an unknown quantity not only for foreigners but for the majority of Italians themselves. One starts with surprise in Palermo at the sound of a Milanese or Florentine or Roman accent. Sicily for the Sicilians is something to which all Italy seems to agree until the red rag of Separatism is dangled as well. And the reason for this lies mostly in its history.

Sicily has been used as a hunting and a pleasure ground by other countries since the 5th century BC and there have been few times in which she has been free to develop as she would have liked. The Greeks and the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Hohenstauffen, the Aragonese, the Spaniards, the Austrians, the Bourbons have all occupied her, and the general treatment of her through the centuries grew steadily worse until her liberation and annexation to Italy in 1860. She had two brief golden ages, one under the Greeks in the fourth century B.C. and 'the other under Frederick the Second in the thirteenth century so splendid that it fanned the charcoal of early medievalism into a glow of Romance learning which spread all over Europe.

Under the Hispano-Arabic and Bourbon dominations Sicily suffered all the humiliations that it was possible to suffer. It is a long record of torture, suppression, starvation, sweated labour, horrible death, to which underground dungeons and tunnels leading to the sea still bear witness. Whenever a stand against such inhuman treatment was, made, as for example in 1846, the subsequent reprisals for such a protest were so fierce that they would have prevented any but the bravest men from making a second attempt, as the Sicilians did successfully in 1860.

You have, therefore, a country which until recently has never been allowed to feel its national pulse beating. The majority of its people have had to accept the commands of one different master after another in different tongues, and with varying but seldom lessened severity. And so you got a backward illiterate population; worn out by toil on the land from early in the morning until late at night,, racked with malaria. and typhoid and trachoma, almost always in debt 'to the middlemen overlords, and with their labours ruined three or four years in seven by drought and by the insufficient means of artificial irrigation. It is not a cheerful picture.

There are moments of intolerance, however, when you forget how little Sicily has had the chance to assimilate the modern world and you accuse it of deficiencies which it cannot help: when your rest at night is disturbed by long-range gunfire in a pitched battle between bandits and police; when you invite some girls to tea to a mixed party, and even though you are a married woman they may not come unless mother comes too; when you invite a woman for coffee in the evening and she may not come because she is not allowed out without her husband after it gets dark; when you go to the Opera at nine because the ticket tells you that it begins at nine, and you have to wait until nine-thirty because no Sicilian dreams of coming less than half an hour late; when you go to the dentist with violent toothache, and beg him to use the strongest local injection he has, and after injecting your gum with what can only be water or air, he instantly wrenches your tooth out, deaf to your agonised screams, and only afterwards proceeds to examine your mouth and the tooth to see if he has guessed the right one. You forget that banditry and indolence and the seclusion of women are all marks of the oppressor. And this feeling of intolerance will pursue you in other aspects of Sicilian town life. You will not enjoy being jostled off the pavement under the wheels of a horse cab by a Sicilian three times as broad as you and with far more staying and pushing power; nor will you like your arm, ear and eyes assailed at every step by some new cry or deformity or leech-like clinging from beggars of all sizes and ages and degrees of dirtiness. If in order to escape you dive into a passing cab, or carrozza, and ask the driver to take you to the nearest café, you will not like the sum he tries to extract from you because you are a foreigner and there is no tariff. And if you sit down to a vermouth and soda in the cafe, you may feel uncomfortable at the strange contrast between the beggars darting at the fag ends beneath your feet and the elegant, rose-garden be-hatted ladies who, with half and hour to go to a full spaghetti lunch, will knock back six or seven of the richest cream cakes.

Sicilians who have lived in Palermo for many years say that since 1860 and until the last war life in Sicily and especially in Palermo had become much more civilized and that it has now become de-civilised again. Certainly you must not expect to find sophistication here for you will .not, either among rich or poor. Foreign domination leaves its, imprint for many generations and over in the West side of the island you will come in daily contact with perfect examples of Arab and Spanish ways of life. Family life in both upper and lower classes is very strong, and to get an accurate picture of it you have only to think of a Mr Barrett of Wimpole St. with an even stronger sense of parental duty. There are daughters who at the age of twenty-six are never allowed out for one moment alone, wives who are kept almost exclusively at home. I have been told that there are wives locked in at night by their husbands, though this may well be to keep thieves and bandits out rather then to keep the wives in, for there is a very real danger from robbery and violence and in some of the most westerly districts of the island around the trading port of Trapani which is the link with Tunis and Africa, women still wear heavy veils if they walk out, and the houses are built high in the Arab style with no windows on the streets.

No, Sicily is not sophisticated and Palermo is probably less so than any other capital city in Europe. If you are a person of leisure -- and very many women are -- your amusements will be simple: a walk down the fashionable street, a coffee and cream cake in the best cafe, a late lunch, a siesta, and then bridge, not the fierce, throat-cutting bridge of the north, but a ladylike game in the spirit of Cranford. Or you may care to go out for a drive, and if you do not like the high-powered roadster in which your son hurtles noisily and dangerously up the main street, then Giuseppe will get out the landau for you, and together with two other ladies of your acquaintance you will squeeze in three abreast and be trotted down the wide tree-bordered Via Liberta. As the carriage is yours you will take the centre seat, for then you will have to sit forward and your toilette will be seen to greater advantage. Or perhaps it is a Sunday and you prefer to walk in the cool beneath the trees and examine the latest creations of your rivals in dress. You will be able to watch, too, the hair-raising races of the elegant light chariot-like carriages galloping down the street three abreast, foam and panting nostrils and thundering hoofs giving an excellent imitation of Ben Hur.

If you are poor, you will travel not in a carriage but in a cart, not an ordinary goods-carrying dray such as we see in London, but a wonder of design and carving with painted wheels and axle and shafts and sides, in bright vivid pictures about Charlemagne and his knights, in the wars between Paladins and Saracens. Whatever your merchandise, whether you carry melons or tunny fish or live pigs and sheep, or charcoal, your cart will be clean and handsome, for it is one of your most valued possessions and you may even have been to the money lender to buy it. You may have a horse or mule to draw it, but more likely it will tower behind the back of a tiny good-tempered, patiently-hurrying little Sicilian donkey, with a dark cross of hair on its back and sensitive nerves which make it break into an anxious gallop when its master lets out a long-drawn in breath: Aaaaah, as though a bandit had pierced him to the heart. In the evening, while the wealthy Palermitans are dining late or going to the one and only Casino to dance or play at the roulette tables, you eat your bread and onions and stroll down the street talking - and talking -- and talking. Our you may sit on a chair on your front doorstep and talk across to your neighbours sitting at their front doors. Voices across the street, voices from top to bottom of the house, voices from outside into dark airless rooms; it is all a question of the spoken word, and the louder it is spoken the better you as a Palermitan will like it. If you are tired of strolling ot gossiping then you may decide to go and see, for twenty lire, a wonderful puppet show reproducing the scenes painted on the sides of your cart.

If you want to follow the whole story of Charlemagne and his Knights then you will have to pay your L20 every night for over a year. Usually the simple wooden-raftered little hall will have all its benches filled, but if you happen to go on an evening in which one of the favourite knights is defeated or wounded, then you will have the place almost to yourself. The regular puppet theatre goers cannot bear to see their heroes, Roger or Roland, or the beautiful golden-haired heroine Bradamante beaten by the forces of evil.. The audience’s reaction is like that of children: so long as good triumphs in the end a good deal of amusement is got from the forces of evil. The arrival of the devil with his long tail wagging and the precipitous thump he gives as he hurls himself through the stage floor down into Hell is always sure to raise a laugh. If you are wise, or unless you have an unusually tough skin, you will stand or sit at the back, for although the little hall is neat and surprisingly free of dust for Sicily, there are a number of unwelcome, active and unpaid-for members in the audience. Even from the back you can see everything, because the floor of the stage is a well-raised. wooden platform, built in an alcove in which the wings are hidden. The permanent front set is painted in the vivid blues and reds and orange and greens used on the carts and the drop cloth is an exciting episode in the history of Garibaldi with red-shirts on horseback in a winning battle. Anachronisms count for nothing in an atmosphere in which every word spoken is accepted as the truth. Before the curtain goes up the noisy shouts of males of all ages is accompanied by a miniature barrel organ, baby boys of two or three struggle to find a place either right in front, where they have frequently to be shouted at for leaning on the stage, or by wriggling up between two men and persuading them to make space for a little 'un. Women are not present and it is noticeable that the older the man and the whiter his hair the more angry he gets at any disturbance. For him it is no longer merely two-feet high puppets in brilliant metal armour, with feathers and flashing swords, but a solemn re-enacting of dreadful natural and supernatural deeds witnessed by his forefathers some time before he was born. The more rigid the technique of production, the more regular the stringing up of the various troops for review by their leaders. the more bloody the battles with heads rolling, death-leaps and a brilliant rhythmic accompaniment of stamping feet, in fact the more to a pattern it.all is, and the more the audience likes it. Dialogue is simple and traditional, and is taken from a nineteenth-century writing-up of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso. Each swaggering mail-clad figure keeps the audience aware of its identity by addressing itself in a third-person soliloquy. "Roland must fight the Saracens tomorrow and rescue his noble lord; Charlemagne," says Roland solemnly to himself. And Bradamante takes a flying balletic leap across the stage proclaiming: "° Bradamante has lost her courteous Roger. The popularity of Roger surprises the uninitiated because of a decided squint on his handsome young face, he fights so attractively and moves so gracefully that one soon fells sorry for the others who possess no such distinctive disfigurement. It is a simple honest performance in which audience and producers all take part and in which all are prompters if a line is forgotten or a wrong word said. It is a long way from the Casino and the bridge table, and a long way too from the cinema and the music hall. One wonders how long it can withstand these sophisticated counter-attractions.

That is life in the town. Life in the provinces is reduced to an even greater simplicity. There are no villages, only small towns for it is not safe to live isolated in the country. You get up at three or four in the morning, gather your family together, wife, children, goats, sheep and a cow, you climb on your horse or donkey with the rest of them following you (your wife will be carrying all that the ass can’t, on her head) and you travel like that for three hours or more until you reach the field where you have to work. At midday you stop for a bite of bread and onion, and a short siesta while the sun is too hot, and then you work again until within an hour or so of twilight, when you gather up your family and begin the long journey back to the town again. When you get home it is already dark and since you will have to get up early the next morning you fling yourself down to sleep. If the sheep has lambs or the cow a calf or the ass a baby donkey then you will get less sleep for you must start off just the same to work the next day. If you have malaria you may be forced to spend a day at home but directly the fever drops you will stagger off yellow in the face and limp in the body to take up the hand-plough or guide the oxen along the furrow where you left off. Those of your children who manage to survive are soon able to guard the sheep and the goats in the mountains while you work, and your wife can guide the mules round and round on the threshing floor or help to tread. the grapes in the press.

There are signs that this traditional Sicily is changing. Mr. Agostino of the puppet theatre, with the enlarged view of five years as a prisoner of war in Egypt, India and Australia, says he may go to the States to help a friend in a clothing store. The Mafia, which until the war could be relied on to give adequate protection to the wealthy for a reasonable sum, has now become philanthropic and backs bandits and political parties. The bandits themselves, who were guaranteed to kidnap, kill and rob all classes not many years ago , now hand out pamphlets for publicity in the streets of Palermo, calling themselves the modern Robin Hood, and quixotically robbing the rich to give to the poor. Their days, too, are said to be numbered now that the police have declared their intention of rounding them up..

The simple two-class society has made way for a wealthy commercial class so that every other shop in Palermo is a. flourishing textile business, while the gaps are filled in by jewellers with their windows a fairy-tale blaze of gold and precious stones, and by cafes piled high with every kind of chocolate and biscuit and sweet cream cake. One can point to girls of all classes who work and are proud of it, and who voted at, the elections and knew .what they were voting about. The unexpected success of the Popular Block at the elections provided Palermo with excitement which lasted for days. I heard one little black market cigarette seller, aged about twelve, saying sharply to another aged ten the day after the elections, “You’re a disgrace to the party. You don’t even know the first principles of Marx.”

With the heat interest inevitably returns to the new dance hall on the pier, and even the daily rise in pasta and oil is forgotten in the excitement of cramming into the new trolley bus and sunning oneself to a suitable stage of sunburn on the lovely beach at the foot of Monte Pellegrino. But much is hoped from the new autonomous parliament, and there is a feeling that something new is in the air. .Sicily has had to take a back seat for centuries. Now there are signs that she does not intend to do so any longer.