23 SEPTEMBER 1978, Page 63

Dolce vita

Alastair Forbes

Insider, Outsider Gaia Servadio (Weidenfeld £6.50) `Like all those reaching old age' idiosyncratically, but surely rather idiotically, declares the just forty-year-old Italian born, British naturalised journalist-author of this higgledy-piggledy, highly readable but often rubbishy book, tend to look down on youth'. Born in the same September Mussolini made for Munich to join Hitler, Chamberlain and Daladier in postponing for a year the outbreak of what was to become the second World war, Gaia Servadio records her four-year-old first memories as of hearing, near Ancona in BBC bulletins, the names Stalingrad and El Alamein come 'crackling through the long (sic) waves'. That wrong detail, long for short, is eye-catching. But by a tradition lately brought into brilliantly sharp and unflattering focus by Mr James Fenton in the pages of the other weekly, Weidenfeld editors — reputed to be Oxbridge ladies of fairly high degree, say up to good seconds — invariably allow to slip past uncorrected a wide field of terminological inexactitudes.

When she was five the author's Jewish paternal grand-mother and greatgrandmother were taken by the SS from their Turin apartment and as she was to learn later, despatched to the everlasting night and fog of Auschwitz, like those haunting Finzi Continis in Giorgio Bassani's wonderful novel of Ferrarese HauteJuiverie. At 'about fifteen and a half' she Clapped for the first time upon the white cliffs of Dover eyes that still dazzle, if diminishingly, and spent four months at the Chelsea School of Art before having to return to Italy. In post-war Parma, where her parents came to live, she spent three years painting. Yet not to any Partigiano Parmigiano did she choose to sacrifice her by now burdensome virginity, preferring to select a smart Cortina playboy for this first of an evidently considerable variety of later couplings (but less than Don Giovanni's Spanish milk tre she modestly assures us) and a handsomer and more patrician Visconti in Rome for the second. Then she turned again for London and its excellent St Martin's School where she became a model pupil, resisting — despite an approval of all things British so uncritical that it extended, almost unbelievably in an Italian, even to cars — the twin Anglo-Saxon contagions of absenteeism and idleness. By a sudden fantastic turn of luck or destiny she found herself taken up by that most remarkable personality and kindest of men, Geoffrey Keating. The legendary Geoffrey, the subject of several good stories repeated in this book, introduced her to Anabel Birley, the most priceless asset ever to be taken over by Jimmy Goldsmith, possessed of 'that enviable gift to which I have always been partial — she was beautiful and relaxed'. Soon she was offered a room in the little Pimlico house where Anabel's sister Jane and their cousin had in those closing pre-pill bachelorgirl years found somewhere to hang up their Dutch caps. In due course Gaia got herself fitted up with one by 'an enchanting woman gynaecologist who asked me whether I minded answering a questionnaire for the use of her French friend, Simone de Beauvoir'. But before she had time to throw her new Dutch cap too far over the Dolce Vita windmill she was swept off by a BBC crew to Sicily for two months to help make a film about that other Dolci (Danilo) a man who was to prove more effective as a sociologist than as a social worker, and, faced with the shock of that island's sub-African Oriental poverty, rather understandably reacted to the experience by joining the Italian Communist Party which seemed to be providing the most effective and compassionate padrini. Of course, as she disarmingly writes, 'My mother was shocked, thank God; somebody had to be shocked'. Later Mary McCarthy was to write in attempted mitigation to Ambassador David Bruce `In 1959 she joined the Italian Communist Party — why I do not know except perhaps for girlish, fashionable reasons. She stayed in it for about two years, was never very active'.

It is very hard certainly to think of her inactive in anything. But she herself writes of 1960: `Stalinism (sic) was not yet an adjective'. She had read neither modern history nor Koestler's Darkness at Noon and thought it `awful to learn', thanks,of course to the CIA's purchase from an Italian of Krushchev's famous speech, `of the amount of lives lost, of suffering'. Elsewhere, and to the point, she writes: 'Freedom of not learning is a fake form of freedom; it is, in fact, the opposite'. In 1961 she drove her red mini to Russia for her first visit, and later, to celebrate Lenin's centenary, went off to Siberia, took a sympathetic Red to her bed and got quite a jolly book out of her experiences. In Leningrad she fearlessly compromised her acquaintances and played the fool with police and the KGB, teasing them `with my little Kodak automatic' (a present from Antonia Fraser) and getting scared for her pains. But the next year she was back, swanning round Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in one of those ghastly gangster-type Chaika limousines. 'The children loved it and made friends with my Moscow and Leningrad friends' who swiftly dropped her when her new book appeared. Not surprisingly, she was invited to Room 055 at the old War Office in Whitehall, where since time immemorial, Intelligence Officers do their interviewing. From the author's account, anybody would think that this ancient procedure had been concocted especially for her benefit and that, like Mr Philip Agee, she was hoping to embarass officers of the Crown to whom, she reminds us, she had, unlike Mr Agee, only lately sworn an oath of allegience. Little wonder that some over-zealous busybody was persuaded to take a dim view of her tittle-tattle tete-à-tetes with Lord Chalfont when the latter was Minister of State in charge of European Community Affairs at the Foreign Office. Such silly conduct is really beneath criticism. `Journalism is a lively excuse for calling on anyone one wishes to meet anywhere in the world' confesses the author who has apparently escaped any expense account worries. Already before her PCI membership the far from Communist La Gazzetta di Parma had accepted, and paid for, her first nonpolitical `Letters from London'. Having taken a shine to Anthony Sampson, 'a true Socialist ... the soul of an excellent journalist', she began to experience marked upward intellectual mobility. `What pleased one in Britain was the feeling people were taken seriously. And when I say people, I really mean me'. She delighted, too, in the company of Terry Kilmartin, 'one of the most intelligent men I knew ... a great editor', a compliment modestly omitted from the literary pages of the Observer where a pre-publication extract from the best of this book was presented complete with a Balmoral-like picture of the author against the background of her husband's Scottish seat. Another favourite was the then `young, left-wing, wild-looking historian Hugh Thomas' (years later to ask her `Would you still talk to me if I were to become a Tory?') who gave up hanging around the old Cavendish Hotel, to marry Gladwyn Jebb's beautiful daughter, Vanessa. Shortly thereafter the author, in an alliance satisfactory beyond her mother's most ambitious dreams, married another Cavendish Stammgast, the rich, landed young art expert Willy Mostyn-Owen who looked full face rather like a skeleton and in profile rather like a corpse but whose charm, despite his irritatingly idiomatic Italian, she fortunately found more calorific than cadaverous. Afterwards 'Willy became annoyed about the idea of babies'. She herself `had no idea what to do with a baby and how to handle him' (of Caroline Blackwood she writes `she had no idea how to deal with a corpse. She never had any idea of how to deal with anything practical'), but was moved by the arrival of her son Owen 'in an extremely dirty nursing home in the West End', an experience that caused her to go and have her daughter on the NHS in Romford, where she secured both better care and better copy. The problems of the Servadio style cannot honourably be ducked, for in none of her previously published ephemera has it seemed to be so obtrusive 'I respected the written word, and all those who had anything to do with it, in an almost paranoiac way ... I had great difficulties in writing in English ... I can't say that my English was good (but not perhaps worse than others)'. She tells us how the late Giangiacomo Feltrinelli himself, before being literally hoist with his own petard on a Lombard pylon, Personally selected for publications her roman a clef Melinda with its privileged paparazzo shots of Michael Astor. But can she really claim not to write worse than Giangiacomo's sometime stepfather, Luigi Barzini, all of whose admirable books are set down by him straight into English, and only done into Italian later? And what of Gaby Annan 'who spoke a faultlessly English English in spite of her totally German background . . . stir wrote reviews . . . she wrote well', a considerable understatement, for the Frau Baronin's essay on the last Murdoch novel was as good as anything of the kind out of Cambridge or Bloomsbury in a long while. Perhaps she only meant `no worse than many other hacks and hackettes of Fleet Street', a faultless proposition. She Is a splendid conversationalist and it is always a pleasure to draw her as a neighbour at table. But, 'remember that writing is not like talking,' Mary McCarthy had warned her. Yet even ill-written her criticism of so much that it took her so long to see was wrong in her adopted country is wholly salutary. Her subjective description of her sentimental metabolism and of her mental and physical attitude to love is even deeply touching, and I do not say that simply because she gives the Briton better marks as a lover than has been customary. On politics she is way behind in her homework, still not understanding that Eurocommunism, while a pasta servable with a thousand sauces, continues to accept the might of Brezhnev's panzercommunismus as right. Her absurd views on literature, particularly English, she should take up with that darling man and fellow Italian journalist, Pope John Paul — who has been talking in his lovely cadenza veneta of his enthusiasm for Dickens and Scott. As for her sickeningly Sycophantic praise of 'nice and straight forward' Jim Callaghan whom she 'liked and respected' even more when years later he became Prime Minister, one can only say that in a Vice President of the Foreign Press Association it looks from here to be cucito al filo bianco. For the rest, she may herself have caught what she has identified as another English disease, namely that they 'seem to understand quality but not produce it'.