NAUGHTY NAPLES BY MICHAEL DAVIDSON
The following is taken from English journalist Michael Davidson (1897-1976)’s Some Boys (1969), his memoir of his Greek love affairs.
Of the two episodes recounted here, the second and pederastic one is stated to have occurred in a summer five years before the film of The Leopard came out, which was in March 1963, so in 1958.
The text is taken from pp. 77-86 of the unexpurgated American edition (New York, 1971), which, in the case of this chapter, differs from the earlier British edition only in a few spelling changes.
IT MAY well be that the naughty population of Naples is greater in proportion to her virtuous population than that of any other great city not particularly noted for puritanism. If this be so, the reasons are pretty easy to detect and are to be found, like most such reasons, in history—in that curious Rabelaisian rabble which, half-naked, half-starved and wholly rascally, rather paradoxically provided the most zealous support for the Neapolitan monarchy at the time of the Napoleonic wars, and in the fact that at least two hundred years ago Naples became a principal goal of that incorrigible corrupter, the international tourist, and has remained one ever since. At the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the next, the lazzaroni (the Neapolitan name for the cohorts of lighthearted vagabonds who lived in the gutters and gaily performed every kind of outrage and obscenity in the public streets and whose children were bred to picturesque villainy) were the King's most loyal subjects and consequently enjoyed his special affection and many privileges—he fully understood their ways of life, himself cheerfully defecating along with his courtiers among the Farnese Marbles stacked like rubbish in the corridors of the Royal Palace. No wonder, then, that the lazzaroni and their descendants have during two hundred years become skilled in the arts of swindling, diddling and victimizing in a dozen different ways, with or without violence, the swarms of foreign tourists who year after year come into their town with pockets full of money. One cannot blame them: it's in their blood, the heritage of their history: no more than one can blame a prince for succeeding to his father's throne. A stranger in Naples should be careful; although it's a city where one may make the best of friends, it is, too, a place where rashness can bring painful regret and the delights of temptation turn damnably sour. I was taught a first lesson in 1952, and, not having taken it properly to heart, was given a second lesson a few years later.
My first lesson took the form of a financial transaction: I fell for one of the oldest tricks done by the Neapolitan con-boys since paper currency took the place of coins. Going southward along the pillared frontage of the royal palace, past all those marble kings, you come out of the square on to a high esplanade looking down upon some dusty gardens and beyond to the quays and shipping of the port. Jutting over the road's supporting masonry, there's a walled "belvedere" from which one can survey the full pictorial drama of Vesuvius and, through the sparkling blue haze of the Bay, the grand sweep of the coast and the Sorrentine hills. There is also in summer, for those who want a change from scenery, the spectacle just below of the lazzaroni, or their juvenile descendants, bathing shamelessly unclad from a crumbling jetty. Here naturally tourists are apt to linger; and here too come the professional diddlers of tourists.
Here I was one glorious July morning, during my very first stay in Naples, leaning over the wall and gazing at the boys bathing below. A pleasant-looking young man came and stood beside me and, after the inevitable "Hey Joe—you spik Ingleesh?" began talking with such kindly courtesy that I at once felt I could trust his candid smile and forgive his egregious English. He was willing—indeed eager, he explained in his ingratiatingly convincing yankeefied film-gangster slang—to pay 200 lire above the official rate of exchange for every English pound-note he could buy. His explanation was quite simple, and so plausible he earned an honest living by going aboard British ships in the harbour, buying from the sailors all the English cigarettes he could get, and selling them at a good profit on the black market—I could understand, couldn't I, why he would pay well for all the English currency he could get? Of course I understood, I said; and I thought what a good idea this was—I'd be making a nice profit for myself (don't we all like "getting a good exchange?") and also I'd be doing a good turn to this nice enterprising young man who had such an open, frank expression. I had two five-pound notes in a pocket and pulled them out —and suddenly two or three friends had appeared and were crowding round me, jostling and flustering, while I was given what was plainly a roll of thousand-lire notes in exchange for my fivers. My friend went off, while his companions continued to crowd me against the wall for a few seconds; then they too slipped quickly away—and I had a look at my fat handful of Italian money. Rolled into the outer 1,000- lire note were twenty or so pieces of newspaper, perfectly cut to size.
How can any grown man be so stupid, I'd say, if it'd happened to anybody else—they wouldn't catch me like that. But they would, and they did; and so deft is their skill, so plausible their manner, they go on catching tourists with this simple dodge and will, doubtless, continue to do so as long as there are tourists to be caught.
But there's another way of catching the tourist, or any foreigner, or, now and then probably, the native too; but the field here is smaller, the market limited a special kind of tourist is required, though this kind is in pretty constant supply—it's the paedophile tourist who's caught here, the boy-lover.
Several years after my lesson from the currency-exchange experts, when I was no longer a simple tourist but actually living in Naples—when, that is, I thought I knew my way about, wise to all the usual Neapolitan tricks—I was desultorily rambling one genial summer evening and strayed, foolishly as I should have known, into the famous—or notorious—Galleria Umberto, that huge cruciform crystal palace that rears itself magniloquently opposite the San Carlo opera-house. It was an evening of fiesta, I remember, though I forget what it honored, and the streets were packed with people and the sort of noise that crowds enjoying themselves make. It was one of those evenings when one feels inside one a glow of expectant elation; an evening of soft warmth, dead still, yet freshened from the sea: when one has had a few glasses of wine and knows there are more ahead: when one is light-hearted and fond of one's fellow-beings, and ready for its finale. And, as one saunters through the thronging people, so many enchanting and suggestive faces are about that the imagination becomes aflame and one drops all desires but one. . . .
The Galleria is an enormous and ornate structure of glass, cast-iron and marble, real or assumed, conceived with the industrial-romantic idealism of late nineteenth-century railroad-station architecture. Four wide and lofty arcades, with moulded, arching ceilings, meet like the arms of a cross beneath an immense glass dome and form at their other extremities, north, south, east and west, four splendid portals on to four different streets in the "nitelife" part of the city. Along the sides of the arcades are gift shops offering overpriced trinkets to tourists, and a dozen or more coffee-bars with tables and chairs set pleasantly out on the flagstones—it's amusing at any time of the day to sit here for a while and watch the Neapolitan world go by. Even early in the morning, these arcades are paced earnestly in twos or threes by shabbily genteel signori who, by the important way they carry their briefcases and the condescension with which they bow to acquaintances, make it clear that in their own view at least they're men of consequence; while larger groups of other men, worrying less about what sort of figure they're cutting than what figures their companions are quoting, are vociferously doing business among themselves—but I've never been able to discover what their business is: they look like a conclave of déclassé stockbrokers. Towards lunchtime the tourists come, to drink at the café tables, look in the shop windows and comment on the strollers; and to the strollers are added a few elegant tarts who exchange pleasantries with the waiters and seem, on their haughty high heels, to tittup along in an aura of challenging virtue. Now and then a boy passes languidly, with long bare brown legs under a pair of tight knickers and dark eyes roving beneath provocative lashes. Through a couple of low archways in the arcades one may venture into a dim, cavernous world which leads, down echoing stairs, to a subterranean labyrinth of halls and corridors where daylight can never enter but which resound with the cries of light-hearted—and largely light-fingered—youth it's a world of billiard saloons and one-armed bandits and pintable halls and one or two very cheap cinemas—a world patronized, naturally, by the less honourable sections of the adolescent classes. But from the impeccable paving of the Galleria itself one could never guess that this louche world existed beneath one's feet—so veritably an "underworld.
On that evening I'm writing of, the four arcades of the Galleria were packed tight with people of all sorts excited by the mass-infection of gaiety which the fact of festa always mysteriously spreads. A military band was playing under the crystal cupola—the band, I think it was, of the carabinieri, that super-police force which on gala occasions wears eighteenth-century uniforms. The crowds came and went and pushed and jostled and glided and slid like a pond brimful of swimming live sardines. I managed to find a chair outside one of the cafés— the only café there which sold ordinary wine as well as liqueurs and coffee. So I sipped my glass of heady, acid white wine, and watched the throng seething before me like a gentle brew of colourfully mixed vegetables. Suddenly I saw, standing at the edge of the crowd and staring fixedly at me, a pretty boy of about fifteen with brownish fair hair and the apple checks and blue eyes of some far-off Northern ancestry. But what struck me about his appearance was its superlative respectability: not only was his charming face a picture of innocence and honesty, but his clothes were just what a prosperous middle-class father would want his son to wear. His neat brown suit was nicely made, and he even wore a Sunday-best collar and tie—and there were still a few years to go before the economic "Italian miracle" became reflected in the excellent mass-produced clothes worn today even by the children of the Southern poor. This, I thought to myself, is too good to miss; although I'm seldom attracted to the sons of the bourgeoisie. Yet in Naples, common sense told me, a face however framed—and a delightful face into the bargain—which is beaming with the light of candor like the guileless candles of a Christmas tree isn't often found—and what could the fixity of that lucent stare mean but a desire for friendship? I beckoned him to join me; and after a Coca Cola for him and another glass of wine for me, we went out into the Via Roma—the "Toledo" as it's still popularly called—and crowd over to the entrance to the funicular. With a delightfully confiding smile, he had instantly agreed that we should go to my lodging on the Vomero.
Three funicular railways take one to the top of those splendid slopes around whose feet the city sits and whose crown is the Castel Sant'Elmo. Each starts from a different district of the city below and ends in a separate part of the township above—the Vomero is a big hilltop suburb with an atmosphere and appearance that's almost foreign to Naples proper; my apartment there was so hard to find and the approaches to the Vomero were so varied, that I'd always supposed nobody who'd been there once would ever find his way again.
My new companion that evening was charming in every way amusing, well-mannered, obliging and most friendly; although his interest in the evening's principal entertainment seemed to me vaguely insipid—I thought perhaps this was due to shyness. He displayed a remarkable reluctance to take the little present I proffered when we said "arivederci" (for, of course, I begged him to meet me again the next evening) and only accepted it when I was absolutely insistent. All my first impressions of him seemed to be confirmed. I wonder why I've entirely forgotten his name? Is it because disaster, like a merciful india-rubber, sometimes erases from one's memory the evidences of one's sillier mortifications?
The next evening we met, as arranged, at the Metropolitano cinema, which is just off, so far as I remember, the famous Via Chiaia. After watching a picture we went again to the Vomero, this time taking the funicular from the Piazza Amedeo; and again I had difficulty in persuading him to take my modest gift. The third evening, he said—though the reasons he gave me weren't at all clear—we must meet again outside the Metropolitano and at an hour just after dusk: we wouldn't go to any movie, he insisted, but straight up to the Vomero. Okay by me, I answered; ready to fall in with any plans this charming person might propose.
How clearly it all returned to me, back in Naples five years later when I went to the Metropolitano to see the first showing there of the film of Il Gattopardo—"The Leopard". . . .
Happily, buoyantly, I walked that evening beside him to the funicular station. What a lucky man I am, I remember thinking! Which fairy benefactress at my cradle can have ordained that I should at that precise moment in the Galleria encounter this immaculate creature! He chatted as gaily as always as we ambled along, and seemed even more carefree and winning than he'd previously been. I did notice that he glanced a couple of times over his shoulder—or rather, I remembered afterwards that I'd noticed it; at the time I just thought what a pretty toss of the head!—I was a million miles from the idea of a tiny sly reconnaissance.
An echoing stone stairway took us up to my one-room-and-a-shower apartment on the second floor; I could hear any ordinary footsteps coming up a flight away. I had two doors: an outer landing-door and then, through a tiny hallway, the door to my room; both shut on a spring latch. I led the way in: "Shut the doors after you, won't you," I said over my shoulder as I was switching on the lights—and afterwards I remembered that I hadn't heard the click of either latch. It's extraordinary how minute details, unobserved at the time for their presence or absence, are often brought back to one later by some mental jolt—drawn up by drama from the cellars of the mind as tiny fragments of evidence are revealed by forensic ruthlessness.
He lit up a cigarette, but hadn't even time to take his jacket off before they walked in, all three of them. They must have come up those flights of steps as softly as foxes: I hadn't heard a sound, although both doors were ajar. But there was plenty to hear when they'd come in—with the heart-stopping unexpectedness of a thunderclap in a cloudless sky. One of them stared shouting at me, while the other two set about the boy. There was a good deal of Neapolitan dialect in their Italian, but I got the gist of what they were saying. "They're his brothers, see," said the one to me. "They've come to teach him a lesson for doing this, and to put you where you ought to be—in gaol. Hai capito?—understand?" Meanwhile, the other two were giving the boy what seemed to me an awful doing over, punching him and savagely smacking his face—his whimpering and blubbering sounded so convincing that I felt suddenly more sorry for him than for myself: "Leave the boy alone," I started shouting, "it's not his fault." But they went on pummelling him, and while they pummelled they scolded: Dirty whore, he was, going with filthy foreigners, they said; dishonoring the family—and his own dishonor had got to be avenged; the foreigner had got to make amends—if he dishonoured the family by letting filthy foreigners touch him, the filthy foreigners must pay, to put his honour right . . . e così via, and so on and so on, as the Italians say. . . .
Suddenly the pummelling stopped, and so did the blubbering: the boy calmly brushed his hair back and straightened his tie; the signs of pain slid from his face like melting snow from a roof. Then all four turned to me, and the chief "brother" told me, waving his arms and shoving his nose almost against mine, that I must redeem the boy's honor, and his family's, by paying up, or else we'd all proceed in a body to the police—there was a lot of talk about the boy's being minorenne: under age. But it didn't take much worldly wisdom to tell me that the threat of the police was bluff; what frightened me was the probability of my being beaten up by three well-grown toughs and one growing assistant. I wasted no time arguing: Go through all my pockets, I said: that's absolutely all I've got here. I knew I had a five thousand-lire note, and a thousand-lire—the latter intended for the boy's honorarium. And that's all they found, after searching all my clothes. The chief "brother" pocketed the booty, gave a quick look round the room and jerked his head towards the door. Andiamo, he muttered, and they filed softly out. The boy was the last to go; he turned for a moment to display on his sweet face a mocking mixture of a sneer and a leer. It was a sneer I certainly deserved.
I've never understood why they left so tamely, and with such a poor haul—no more than ten dollars. If they'd looked in a drawer under some handkerchiefs, they'd have found fifty thousand lire, which would have made their evening's trouble worthwhile. And I doubt whether the boy got even half the thousand I was going to give him.
One must watch one's step very carefully in Naples. And yet there are such enchanting friends to be made in that gorgeous city of contrariness: Vincenzo's companionship, of long ago, is one that comes to mind. . . .