The sixteen or so months that my wife and I spent living in Rome (September 2016 to February 2018) was an exceptionally happy period of our lives, with all the exhilaration you would expect to result from our having just brought a whole new life into the world. It was a particularly special experience because Italians love babies. Almost everyone we passed while pushing the pram peered into it and cooed delightedly, welcoming our daughter into the world with open arms.
We appreciated their enthusiasm, but occasionally reflected on how it contrasted with the reception granted to other, more socially and intellectually developed newcomers. After all, our daughter isn’t going to do anything productive for the next few years. She’s not going to get a job, and used up a fair share of Italy’s precious healthcare and garbage collection resources without giving anything in return. She couldn’t even speak a word of the language after almost a year living there. Nonetheless, no one told her to go back where she came from, or insisted that the country was full, which are sentiments you do hear expressed rather a lot, especially if you watch the TV news, where xenophobic politicians were given free rein to spread any amount of misinformation in order to whip up hostility towards outsiders.
The joy of parenthood aside, we didn’t much enjoy living in Italy. The work situation was abysmal: low pay, long hours, alternately absent and overbearing management, and a near-total lack of professional development. That’s if you were lucky to have any sort of paid work – shortly before leaving I saw a handwritten advert in a decrepit shoe shop window for a ‘stagista’ (intern). Plus the struggle involved in getting around the city was immense, particularly with a pushchair, and there wasn’t really anywhere decent for a child to play and make friends. Of course, there are the museums and galleries, but you have to get there somehow, and public transport in Rome is so bad that even when the bus finally turns up, there’s a good chance it’ll blow up before it gets 50 metres down the road. On those interminable boneshaking journeys on the 170 from Piazza Venezia to Viale Marconi, the baby would often give voice to her frustrations, expressing at full volume the very feelings being repressed by the other passengers. Porco dio.
The prospect of returning to London was not free of qualms, with the stench of Brexit starting to infect many aspects of national life. But when we announced our imminent departure to friends and acquaintances, few expressed any misgivings on our behalf. If there’s one thing that Italians love more than babies, it’s London. So powerful is the attachment to the UK capital that among the floral tributes to the two young Italian architects who died in the Grenfell atrocity is a note from one of their relatives saying that London is the dream of all young Italians. Emigration has always been a safety valve for the Italian economy, and now more are leaving the country than ever before.
Hence, Italy needs new people to replace those who are dying or emigrating. That’s why the government has run a series of campaigns promoting fertility (including a much-ridiculed ‘Fertility Day’). The birth rate has collapsed, and the country is falling into a demographic hole.
Thus, Italy needs the enterprise and energy that immigrants provide. Italians may work long hours, but they don’t work very hard, and they don’t share the work around among newcomers, whether immigrants or new graduates. It’s unusual to meet someone in the 20s with a proper job related to their field of study; it’s also rare to see a black person gainfully employed, even in retail jobs. Enterprising immigrants make their own opportunities, where they are allowed to. Pakistani and Bangladeshi sell everything everywhere, from trinkets to clothes to pizza, but the only seem to be actually employed as overworked and underpaid waiters. In desperation, some young Africans in bigger cities have taken to sweeping the streets in return for a few euro cents. Some young women suffer a more degrading fate. It doesn’t mean that immigrants are not profitable per se – mafia groups have for several years coined it in from running reception centres little better than concentration camps. It’s just that the newcomers whose initiative and energy Italy so desperately needs are used as the object of trade when they are bursting with economic energy which could be made far better use of.
It might seem strange that so many think that the reason for Italy’s economic stagnation lies with people who have never even set foot in the country. To blame someone who’s just escaped from an Isis torture camp in Libya for record youth unemployment, rather than fingering the successive generations of corrupt business owners and politicians, might even seem irrational. Unless, that it, you’ve been exposed to the aforementioned racist propaganda on the news. Italy’s fascist movement has never gone away, and has seized on the active scapegoating of dark-skinned migrants to promote racist aggression, culminating in a series of terrorist attacks on visible immigrants. The most noteworthy was a few months ago, when a candidate for the anti-immigrant (and, while we’re at it, anti-Italian) Lega shot at groups of Africans in a small town. The attacks were excused by Matteo Salvini, who blamed them entirely on the victims themselves for existing in the wrong place. He also made no apology for the fact that the terrorist in question was an avid reader of ‘Mein Kampf’.
Just as in the UK, where Farage boasted that the referendum was won ‘without a shot being fired’ despite one of his supporters having murdered an MP, the Italian far-right and its fellow travellers in the ragbag alliance of former leftists, internet trolls and anti-science nutjobs that is the 5 Star Movement reaped electoral dividends from the attacks, and only a few brave journalists and politicians openly condemned them. Although Salvini has never publicly called himself a fascist, his political ally, the Putin-admiring Farage-befriending trickster Beppe Grillo, leader of the Movement, has been open about his indifference to fascism. Hence a movement which few would have suspected a few years ago would have called proto-fascist voted overwhelmingly to support a government programme which makes the #MAGA phenomenon look rational and fair-minded, kicking off with the mass expulsion of Africans.
Luckily we escaped from the increasingly fraught and fetid atmosphere, moving back to London at the start of February. We became, after a fashion, Italian emigrants (my wife is actually Italian but holds a UK passport, while I’ll have my own Italian (and hopefully EU) passport within a few months), joining the exodus to the promised land. Given the huge numbers of Italians in Hackney, very many of them recently arrived, it feels a little like we’re still in Rome (although here there are parks for the baby to play in and the public transport system works, on the whole, wonderfully).
A few months ago fascist posters in Rome were screeching about an ‘immigrant invasion’. As I walk around the area where I live, it’s clear that the slogan was mistaken. What is going on in London is an ‘invasione emigrante’. (Or possibly exvasione emigrante…) Now, as far as I’m concerned, all those newcomers are very welcome, but, to be fair to myself here, I’m not the one who has a problem with immigrants. Having smuggled a whole new human being into existence and then moved her from one country to another so very recently, it would be hypocritical in the extreme for me to complain about others who, like all of us, happen to be in a different place on the planet from the one in which they were born. Of course, I’d hate to think that Lega and 5 Star supporters had a problem with Senegalese and Nigerian arrivals *just because of the colour of their skin*, or to suggest that they believe white people should have the right to travel and settle elsewhere with impunity and darker-skinned people shouldn’t. What would horrify me would be to think that there were, among recent newcomers from Italy, people who thought in such a way, who believed that their skin colour made them ‘expats’ rather than parasitical ‘immigrants’. (There were at least a few such scumbags, and kudos to my neighbours who managed to get rid of them.) I also met a few British people in Italy who saw themselves in such a way, and such characters hardly stand out in the sordid history of Britain’s overseas occupations. (We also, of course, have our own homegrown variety – it’s only thanks to an iniquitous electoral system that they’re not now in government.)
But here’s the thing: if Italy is ‘full’, then so is the UK. If Rome can’t accept any more newcomers, then neither can London. If you think that boatloads of desperate people should be left to drift in the Mediterranean because a man who makes Enoch Powell seem like Diane Abbott exerts the actual power to keep ports closed, but also find, following a period of honest self-reflection, that you yourself are actually an immigrant, that you – according to your particular but not unique misanthropic belief system – are using up resources that should be reserved for people who happen to have been born locally, then there’s only really one thing you can do: in the words of the spiritual leaders of Italy’s brand new fesso/fascista coalition, fare le valigie: pack your bags. If you’re a leghista or a grillino living in London, fuck off back home. Or, if you can, find another European country to migrate to: maybe Malta, Portugal or Litchenstein. In any case, qui non ti vogliamo, stronzetto. Siamo pieni.