Clacton or Crotone?

The books that finally got me to live in Italy are the ones I now try to avoid like Maremman malaria. You know the ones: those with titles like “Under the Garfagnana rain”, “Converting a stone ruin into a financial one”, or “Enjoying Florentine tripe with a glass of Cynar”.

There have, of course, been take-offs of this kind of book which, having created its very own inflated niche is now cursed by estate agents selling la not-so-dolce vita. A local (to us) English writer and journalist has written an amusing article on this phenomenon at

Recently, however, my attention was taken up by a book re-tracing D.H. Lawrence’s itinerary described in his marvellous travel book “Sea and Sardinia”. With the utmost diligence the author adhered as closely as possible, even as far as the time-scale, to the incomparable Eastwood author’s peregrinations.

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Niall Allsop’s “Keeping up with the Lawrences: Sicily, Sea and Sardinia revisited”, with stunning photographs by his son Graham, is a highly enjoyable read.

Who is Niall Allsop? Born and educated in Belfast, Northern Ireland, he started out as a primary school teacher in London and eventually became a headmaster. This background should have given Niall more than ample preparation to face any local Calabrian brigands but, evidently, he didn’t really need to use his Ulster life experience there at all (much). In 1981 Allsop left teaching and became a freelance photographer specializing in Britain’s inland waterways. Later he took up graphic design.

2008 was the turning point in Niall’s and his wife Kay’s life when they moved to Calabria to retire. Having heard about dark-glassed, white-suited and steel-toe-capped booted men in flash cars parading on the Calabrian shoreline from unfortunates I felt even more blessed in settling in an unorthodox part (Mediavalle) of an orthodox region (Tuscany) of Italy.

Full marks for a couple who chose not to retire to Clacton-on-Sea or even Tuscany! The fact is that they are having to struggle with two languages – not just Italian but the local dialect which even I, though reasonably fluent in Dante’s tongue, only understood about 1 per cent of when I was last there (sheltering, as a teenager, from a hotel-less night in a disused filling-station kiosk surrounded by both two and four-legged varieties of wolves).

Wonderful books have been written about Calabria by great authors of the past: Norman Douglas and George Gissing come to mind. But present-day, estate-agent engaging, literature on this extraordinarily beautiful part of Italy is miniscule when compared to the volumes (often) wasted on Tuscany.

Two other books by the indomitable Niall Allsop tell you how they got to where they are living now and what their life is like there. The book titles are: Stumbling through Italy: Tales of Tuscany, Sicily, Sardinia, Apulia, Calabria and places in-between and Scratching the toe of Italy: Expecting the unexpected in Calabria.

I admit I thought I wasn’t going to empathise with the stumbles when, after a few pages, the Allsops gave the ineffable fresco of the pregnant Madonna by the supreme Piero Della Francesca at Monterchi a miss. I do enjoy my art in Italy and for someone to be so insensitive to this masterwork, which I travelled a thousand kilometres to see on my saddle-soring motorbike way back in 2007, was inexplicable to me.

I read on, however, and began to thoroughly enjoy the almost-pooterish humour of the book and its completely unaffected style. Niall gives a quite different picture from the Calabria as inhabited by hoards of  ‘ndrangheta henchmen. (Incidentally, the word ‘ndrangheta derives from the ancient Greek-based local dialect andragathía, meaning “heroic defiance”). Find out for yourselves!

We don’t always need Italy-niched books by pretentious ex-executives from across the pond or by escapees from Milton Keynes. It’s highly refreshing to read something about two reasonably normal people who treat their living experiences in a relatively unknown part of Italy in the same nonchalant way as they would a roundabout on the Guildford by-pass.

The rewards are, of course, that at this moment in time when here we are suffering from further waves of that wet stuff sweeping over us, lowering the temperatures and making us feel even more lousy, the happy couple are probably enjoying a sun-tanned afternoon on an idyllic beach free of tourists, hawkers and (hopefully) Ndrangheta gangs – just as one of my students enjoyed when he regaled me with stories from the deep south from whence he’d recently returned.

Ah well, Pisa and Ryanair, here we come – a one-way ticket to Lamezia Terme if this bloody weather doesn’t stop!


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