Sunday, 16 March 2014


Off to Naples, en route to Herculaneum, with a plastic Holga camera and some sturdy walking boots. And an Olympus XA, but that's for another post.

"The first thing we experienced on reaching Naples was the inveterate habit of begging and cheating among the lower classes. Our carriage-driver began by asking three times the amount of the usual fare for driving us to our hotel, and the whole of the way along never once desisted from trying to persuade us that we must pay what he had asked, and perhaps a little more. ... These Neapolitan beggars are as importunate and persistent as a swarm of gnats, and it is almost impossible to get rid of them."

So wrote William Cope Devereux, RN, in his 1884 travelogue Fair Italy. The beggars and cheats still exist, indeed Naples is infamous nowadays for its pickpockets, and for mountains of cancerous toxic waste. Modern Naples is like something from Judge Dredd, or one of those 1970s eco-disaster books, such as Small is Beautiful or Blueprint for Survival. Eventually the whole city will catch fire... and explode, driving the Earth out into space.

During his naval career William Devereux rose to the rank of assistant paymaster on board HMS Gorgon, which spent eighteen months sailing up and down the coast of East Africa fighting the slave trade. Devereux's first book covered his naval adventures. Authors who draw from their own life experiences eventually face the problem of what to write about when they have caught up with their life, and for his second and apparently final book Devereux decided to write about a trip to Italy with his wife in 1883.

Devereux tries to pass the book off as an expose of the gambling fiends of Monte Carlo, but really it's just a waffly diary. So many things are fine and grand. Ernest Hemingway found material for his books by making stuff up and by living more life, but Devereux was not Ernest Hemingway.

By coincidence I found myself following some of his footsteps, one hundred and thirty years later. Much has changed since then. Devereux was ferried about with horse and cart, and Italy was still a young nation. The Vatican city-state did not exist, which was problematic because the Pope didn't want to be an Italian subject, so in a huff successive Popes holed themselves up in the Vatican and refused to leave. The Italian State didn't want to arrest him and throw him in prison on account of him having hundreds of millions of followers.

The world's Catholics presumably hadn't been much use as a military force - otherwise the Pope would still be leader of Italy - but perhaps with time they could have overwhelmed the Italian state with weight of numbers, like the zombies in World War Z. Italy eventually created Vatican City in 1929, although by that time the country had other problems to deal with.

Elsewhere in Europe, Germany was also a young nation, France had recently got over Napoleon III, Spain and Portugal were in decline, Russia's position was akin to someone who had contracted a fatal illness but had not yet developed any symptoms. Across the water, the country of New York had just won a civil war and was busily extending its influence across the rest of the North American continent. Fair Italy was published at a time when the European powers were dividing Africa amongst themselves, with France and Britain emerging as the eventual winners. Germany and Italy got very little out of Africa - Italy was famously humiliated on the field of battle by the Ethiopians - which must have irritated them. Fifty years after Devereux's book Italy again tried to build an empire, with consequences that were ultimately disastrous for Italy.

In Devereux's day Britain was the world's top superpower, a position it had achieved by ruthlessly exploiting first its domestic population and then the population of the rest of the world. It was rather like the Combine from Half-Life II, and because this is real life there was no Gordon Freeman to stop it; not that a lone voice of reason would have been much use in a world of psychopaths. Eventually the European powers fought amongst themselves, twice, wasting all their treasure and killing millions.

A very small number of people profited from European Imperialism. The great mass of humanity suffered, because the majority of people are essentially passive. Britain's superpower status probably explains why Devereux writes his book in absolutes; as a former Royal Navy man he had worked for the armed wing of the masters of the world, the word of an Englishman was the word of God.

On the subject of Naples' people, particularly the women, Devereux has this to say:
    In the time of King Bomba's despotism the people really had little else to do than to amuse themselves, for they had then practically no voice or interest in the government of the two Sicilies, and so became careless, luxurious, and indolent - content to live idly on their hereditary means, smoke, gossip, sip their chocolate, eat their macaroni, roll about in their carriages, and wind up their monotonous and useless day at their earthly paradise, the opera, where they gossiped and flirted to their hearts' content. In consequence of this manner of life, the men have become effeminate, and the women have little left of that characteristic grace and beauty that once so distinguished the Neapolitans.

    It was with surprise that I gazed upon the canvases and statues of the old masters, and wondered where they obtained their exquisitely lovely models. From history we know that the women of Greece and Rome were noble specimens of their sex, and worthy of imitation; but if in later times, Correggio, Titian, and Fra Angelico, took their models from among their own countrywomen, how lamentably the present race must have deteriorated since their time!

Take that. From what little I have seen of Europe, not much has changed; the women of Italy have the bodies of undeveloped pre-pubescent girls, and generally look as if they have swallowed wasps. Nobody does anything; the kids go to useless schools where they study for useless degrees in useless subjects, at which point they either sign on the dole or start working for a government department that does nothing of worth. They are never challenged or made to do anything genuinely difficult. European culture is bland and empty, and the population grow up stunted and mentally empty, without the capacity for critical thought.

And this was probably the case a hundred, nay a thousand years ago. The problem is that in an environment when the majority of people are passive, it is easy for an active force to take over, which is why Europe has fallen time and again for clever tyrants. The enemy of tyranny is an educated population, by which I do not mean a population that possesses meaningless degrees in non-subjects, but a genuinely questioning population whose knowledge is broad and deep. Everything else stems from this.

It was for this reason that the internet seemed like a breath of fresh air in the 1990s. Some people had high hopes that it would end tyranny, because knowledge was finally free. Project Gutenberg's copy of Fair Italy is a side-effect of this.

But I have always been skeptical of internet utopianism. No doubt there were similar hopes for television, but television did not bring about the revolution. I suspect that if you were to dump hundreds of babies into the world's greatest library they would not necessarily grow up to become genii. Instead they would probably hit each other with the books and, as they grew older, they would hoard them in order to be the person with the most books.