24 DECEMBER 1977, Page 9

Traditional values in Rome

Peter Nichols

Rome Some Italians still eat eel on Christmas Eve. Some never did, or have given it up because eels somehow seem out of place in the sort of Christmas the prosperous society brought with it. But every Italian housewife will be able to depend on one fixed point in life whatever she prepares: gutsts will arrive about twenty minutes late. This is the accepted and proper degree of lateness.

Do terrorists synchronise their watches twenty minutes fast before setting off to maim or kill a chosen victim? The newspapers tell us that the likelihood of falling victim to kidnappers or to gunmen is much enhanced among people who keep regular hours most days of their lives. Perhaps this is the origin of Rome's traditional twenty minutes. If you were walking back late across the Tiber, with a suspicion that some of Cesare Borgia's ruffians were waiting for you in the shadows of Castel Sant'Angelo with clubs or knives, the obvious defence would be to get there when they were not expecting you, just as it remains the best defence against the same sort of people today.

All of which suggests that as things have been, they remain. Christmas will bring its tinsel if not everywhere its eels, and there will be some genuine good cheer. But that view would be at least the equivalent of twenty minutes off the true meridian. Italians have had too bad a year not to suppose that they are about to face a worse one. This Christmas is bringing them an intolerable accumulation of bad gifts which they have been busily packing for themselves over the years. Political terrorism, for instance, is now worse than at any other time since the war — and more damaging, because of the length of time it has been working away at the political nervous system. Serious political terrorism celebrated its eighth anniversary this month. It began with bombs in a Milan bank on 12 December 1969. Hearings, supposed to decide who was responsible for them, are listlessly continuing. So are the bombs, and the deaths and the injuries. In the last seven years 293 Police and carabinieri have been killed and 40,453 wounded. The student riots began in 1967 and by the turn of that year— if at Christmas we had thought to take serious stock of the situation — were ready to move to Paris and, after the events of that May there, were even more strongly reflected back to Italy. Like terrorism, the student riots continue and there is no immediate prospect of stopping them as the French were able to do, and as the Americans did once the Vietnam war was out of the way. The one change since the late 'sixties is that violence, whether by students or by political terrorists, is now far left-wing in its origins as well as being very far right. Once something starts in Italy, it is inclined to go on.

The question is, where will neverendingness end? The thrifty Italian habit of mind of not throwing anything away, because it might come in useful sometime, continually complicates life. Italy hardly ever destroys a defeated politican, or chooses to do entirely without any par ticular institution. For years, Italians have been .celebrating both Christmas and Epiphany as occasions dn which to give presents. They ate their eels, and had them. This will be the first season in which the Epiphany will no longer be celebrated as a public holiday, after an agreement with the Vatican and the unions which shifts such holidays to the weekend (if they are moveable) in the interests of production. This innovation should shorten the break substantially as it removes the idea that the celebrations begin with Christmas Eve and run uninterruptedly for twelve nights (unless you happen to be even more a traditionalist and see the start as 8 December, the Immaculate Conception, which has managed to avoid the indignity of being confined to a weekend). The choice between Christmas and Epiphany has been made, and Christmas has won. The long, obligatory wait should no longer happen. It would be no surprise however if a strike at Epiphany were to confound the innovators, so strongly out of character is a clear choice of this kind. It would be like arriving precisely at the time stated.

It would also be like deciding to break with the habit of spending more than the nation is earning: of deciding what political philosophy is really at the base of the Italian system, which is too frequently taken for granted as a normal western democracy when in practice it is quite different. For all this appearance of drifting in the conduct of the nation's affairs, the Italian people are showing themselves to be surprisingly in • favour of more powerful leadership, to judge by a study published by Gabriele Calvi on Italian values and life-styles which has been well received. He found that nine out of ten Italians felt the need for more decisive and more energetic politicians. Over 70 per cent wanted to see. 'severe' legislation introduced to regulate strikes. Nearly 70 per cent wanted to see the police given the freedom to take action with force and decision, while two-thirds favoured re-introducing the death penalty/. These results worried Calvi, who sees in them a potential readiness to turn back to a more authoritarian style of rule.

The experience of the fascist dictatorship had, he says, given the Italians a taste for liberty and democracy. But he believes that there is something in their mentality, matured over the centuries, 'which does not permit tolerance of disorder and chaos, not even as the price to be paid for democracy,' The most surprising result, for many people here, of his inquiry was the continuing strength of traditional values. This probably has more importance than any political conclusions. The eel-eating Christmas is still very real for many Italians, like the twenty-minute wait and other customs which inflation, terrorism, political indecision and what are called 'new values' cannot wear away. That, presumably, is a little comfort with which to face the bleak prospect of life immediately after Christmas.