Here, in Naples…
I sit and sip a-something or other which is hot, very hot, and small; Cornet-like. My table, it is tinned, faded. It once was navy, rounded. But its lip, it is silvered now, and the understain spreads like a hard core sore. I wouldn't complain though, sitting as I am within the soothing hum of the city which sits crouched, cramped even, beneath the geo-psychic stalker that is Vesuvius.
Outside of the States, where better to come and observe the American Dream – the ‘worker’s sleep’ of which Berlusconi has his classes believe – than to the tumbledown streets of the Camorra?
Where better, indeed.
Across the street, there’s graffiti that reads “See Naples & Die”. Like many things in this supposedly contrary place, the phenomenology has an underside.
They say that Naples is the most beautiful city in the world and, when you have seen it, you may die happy. But there is also a small town nearby called ‘Mori’, the Italian word for ‘die’, where thousands once perished with cholera and typhoid.
Here, as the air fades to sepia, and the clock hands itself over to late, I hear the whizz of life and the clunk of the underworld; the suspicious Fifth Estate. There's banter about that bites, while all-around is filled with sore-eyed sights, and the magical, mysterious mime of a warm wind chiming “Who Cares?”
Not me. This street-cafe spills with segreti dei panettieri, as I ponder the Bourbon Monarchy and what path to beat to my trouser-fit tomorrow with Antonio Ambrosi. Yeah, I'll be here for four days tops, to splash some paint on a page, in a way that’ll look Latin and enraged.
It does not do to upset the locals. Let me give you a for instance: early this morning, I went to collect my suit from the dry cleaner in Quartieri Spagnoli. The lady who runs the dry cleaner is the sister of the landlady at my hotel. She looks identical, and I mean, they could be the same woman. Thing is, we established quite the different relationship from the off.
When I travel, it’s always with an alias. You might assume that I do so to save me from any ‘dairy’, but, I get that wherever I go. So, whenever I adopt an assumed, it’s to upscale my room, or to clear a ‘Carla Rosa’ passed a line of grooms. Insofar as this kind of ‘Falconer trick’ can get one into a jam, I tend to use mine only when I’m faraway from home, on the lam, or in a clink zone. My name this week then, is ‘Giancarlo Gambino’.
Whatever, I’m just back from collecting my ‘tin flute’, and the woman there, Cosi’s sister, she was great. After only 16 hours, my Italian is still somewhat spotty, but when I made a joke about the small horse in her backyard and the open fish tank full of catfish, she seemed tickled.
Ten minutes later, I get back to the hotel, and I run the same line past the other sister, but she gives me the stern face, and the flick of the wrist.
Crushed, I take my pressed suit upstairs before returning for a late breakfast.
My guess is that this is a family place, as the brute of a waiter looks just like the chef, while I think they wear the same kind of ‘divot’ – because this morning, outside my window, they were both doing the 1st of May thing, on their knees in the dewy back green, and they were balder then – so it goes down like this.
In any case, I've polished-off my buffalo, which was delicious, when the waiter brings back a cheque. Without thinking, I've scribbled “Jamieson”. The guy 180's it, and goes white with fright. He says only “Gambino?” and I realise I’ve made a mistake.
“Dialo indietro,” I splutter, before proceeding to put a line through it, and signing my alias sincerely. Realising that he’s pretty shook up, I ask him if he speaks English: “Yes, some.”
“I saw a frog this morning, just along the road. You know, a frog. Tell me, where might that have come from?”
“Ah, ‘Aviation Blonde’?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“There is, how you say, il bordello. A brothel. You want?”
“Thank you, but no! Tell you what though, might I have another one of these?”
“Si, uno Caffe Coretto.”
At any rate, I’m back at that place I was in yesterday, the cafe, but I have to go see Signore Ambrosi now: my appointment’s at four, and no doubt there'll be more small talk on the floor.
There was a young lady at reception, with a well-dressed chap busying himself beside her...
“Hello, my name is Gambino.”
“You have an appointment?”
He took over...
“Ah, Signore Gambino, welcome and good afternoon. I am Salvatore. You must sit, yes? There is something you would like to drink, perhaps? An aperitivi?”
“That’d be great, thank you. Do you have any iced tea?”
“Of course. We also have today the 'Baba' Cake, from Nunzo – the best bakers in Napoli!”
“You have arrived all the way from England, no?”
“Actually, no. I have come from Edinburgo, La Scozia.”
He started using his hands, statedly.
“Signore Gambino, I will be with you in ten minutes. We will discuss your requirements, and I introduce you with my father, Antonio. He will measure, cut, sew, fit.”
“My father, he has no English. You speak Italian, yes?”
“I know enough to talk myself into a fight. Maybe not enough to talk myself out of one, though!”
“Very good. Veronica-”
The sign in front of me read: “Napoli è un' officina dove si coltiva da sempre l' attitudine a trasformare le materie più semplici in somma raffinatezza”
Loosely, this means that Naples is a workshop, where the attitude is the starting point to cultivate and transform the simpler matters into refinement.
I had come here for two reasons. Firstly, to produce a self-portrait for a gallery who offered me double time for a self-expression of my ‘clock’. Stuck for inspiration, and long on separation, this seemed like the place to take stock. I’ve always felt an affinity with this part of Italy. I think it’s something to do with Pompeii, like a feeling for New Orleans, and the sensation of losing a place.
In a little over two days, I have found here a feeling of invisibility. There is a worker’s ethic, and a player’s aesthetic. It’s very male, if that makes any sense, but even now, years after any mass-orphaning war of note, there is a tangible absence of paternity. If it had a voice, it would be a children’s singing one, bastardised by centuries of infiltration, of internal conflict, and the dark arts of exploitation. I feel very aware of it, especially through, as I marked this morning, its pollution of petty crooks and prevalence of pickpockets.
Secondly, I came to Naples to have a garment made-to-measure. Some of the finest names in haberdashery jostle for position, and even just a jacket can set you back £25,000. I believe that some designers don’t even sell their wares here, electing only to have a window. It’s all about awareness.
If you’re looking for a suit, head to Marigliano, Marino, Merolla, Monetti. Should you want something a little extra-special in the shoulder, try Attolini, Panico, Rubinacci, Solito. If you need a custom-shirt made, choose between De L' Ero and Matuozzo. Perchance a necktie? Marinella, baby! If you fancy taking a closer look at the Duke of Windsor’s original cloth, get pally with the nephew of the owner at Kiton, where they’ll give you a tour of the factory, take you for lunch in the staff canteen, and you’ll eat some of the freshest foodstuff in the city, including vegetables grown onsite.
Me, I’m more into getting a pair of strides made – I’ll come back another time to sample the home-made marmalade – as I have enough suits, and quite frankly, I’m of-an-age now where I consider a well-designed handmade trouser an absolute necessity. Which means, for the true Neapolitan look, where the leg fits closely, there is nowhere better than Ambrosi. They make them for the best names in Italy. At least, that’s what they told me.
“Mr Gambino, I have your requirements here.”
“You want a spring weight, 450 grams, with a fish tail?”
“Quite so, like a herringbone.”
“This weight, with this cloth, will be delicate, very beautiful. Molto buon osservare!”
I said nothing.
“We look at colours after, yes? OK, I think my father is ready for you.”
What goes on between a tailor and his client is confidential.
What I must say is that the experience was wonderfully peculiar. Sgr. Ambrosi is a noble and affable gentleman, one who circumnavigated my senses with an equitable chortle. I can tell you that he possesses both the hands of a cherub, and the skin of a Caravaggio. The whole experience was pore-opening, as it should be when spending private time with a master of their craft. I left feeling enriched, becalmed, and strangely secure in the knowledge that, in reality, I knew nothing about nothing.
There was something of the 'Mustachio Pete' about his way, but he wasn't so old-school as to not have his indices on the pulse.
To the strains of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, I was given a sweet tip, with regards to where to get an honest 'hat cut'.
When we were done, he also pressed an envelope into my hand, which I presumed held some kind of receipt to be presented when collecting my purchase.
During his free-dimensional dance, I’d mentioned that I fancied sampling a Neapolitan Negroni while I was visiting. With his seemingly customary urbanity, he told me to ask Veronica to make an appointment at Gianni Cirillo’s, the barber, who might have a better idea of where I should spend an evening.
Good as gold, Veronica called il barberia while I wrote a cheque. My appointment was set.
“Signore Gambino, would you like a taxi?”
“Oh, it’s okay,” I said.
Wednesday was sunny, and I had 15 minutes with my wits to find Via Crispi, "I'll make my own way."
The route from Nicotera to Crispi is something else. The symbolical sons and daughters of the South are seemingly all cutting up touches, as the street-signs shout: Gennaro Serra, Carolina, Sant’Orsola, Filangeri, Colonna. While these monikers may take one to another thyme and plaice, the reality was that my walking pace was quickened and corroded by the bustle of the hustle of hucksters and the all-consuming fumes of Fiat trucks.
Flustered, I reached for the envelope Sgr. Ambrosi had handed me, and from there on in, I was thrown.
My name is Michele. You do not know me, but I am the son of a very powerful man here in Naples. My father was a friend to your grandfather, Gilberto, and he was the Godfather of your father’s brother, Alessandro. I studied with them both, and we trained to be mechanics together.
Don Gaetano would like to meet you before returning to your homeland. On Friday, at 20:00, you will come to Trieste E Trento. It is a dark green door, on the South East corner. You will see two buttons on a panel to the right of this door. Push the one marked ‘Otsukare’.
Strangely, the first thing that struck me was the quality of English.
Elsewhere, in fact, everywhere else, translated text came in a kind of convoluted ‘Inglish’. This was different. At any rate, my tongue found it’s way to my right incisor, and I started biting down on it, indeterminately.
Had I just been fitted-out or fitted-up?
Technically, my grandfather’s name was Gilbert, and my uncle is called Alex. But I am not really Giancarlo. There must have been some mistake.
I’m sure it does say something about my father being an “auto mechanic” on my birth certificate, but I’ve never thought any more of it. But a mechanic, according to the gang-slang anyway, is a hired killer. Or a card sharp. What if I’ve being living some ignorant lie? What did “powerful man” mean?
For a moment, I was fit to be tied. If it was too much to think about, I felt right away that I couldn’t just not turn up, even if I was getting ahead of myself, and this was a case of mistaken identity. Though the more my mind ebbed and flowed, swam back and forth, I lost my sense of self, and wondered why, for as long as I could remember, I'd chosen ‘Gambino’ as an assumed name.
By the time I arrived at Gianni Cirillo’s, I wasn’t even there. Cirillo was an immaculate guy, who was dressed in a grey waistcoat. He has a strong head of hair, and purls with a lisp. I didn’t take much in, but the moment he threw a cape over me, and tucked it under my chin, the conversation drifted to music. Cirillo composes his own, playing it deafeningly loud through an old gramophone. In all honesty, I had a hundred questions in my head, but none that I felt I could ask him.
Eventually, as he angled a mirror to impress me with his handiwork, I began to think of Naples’ secret twin; the passageways and chambers beneath, all allegedly connected by an underlayer of identical avenues, aqueducts and piazzas. What if I was in danger? I thought about that all the way back to my hotel, until I made it safely into my room, locked the door, and realised I hadn’t asked Sgr. Cirillo where I should go for that cocktail. I’d forgotten about the booze: things really were getting serious.
Thursday was a day for redoubled reflection: I'd spent a restless, self-obsessed chessboard night vexing my neocortex over the Aristotelian principles of time, place and action. Riddled with disharmony, I was at least united in distraction, which is as good a denouement as any to go delving for my confection.
Resigned to a drunkard's fate, I spent the whole afternoon – and much of the early evening – in an O. Henry-state, managing to create a self-portrait that looked good enough for the Tate. Before it got too late, I took a cue from a guide of mine, and went looking for the answers in two ready bottles of wine.
‘La Cantinetta’, downstairs at the ‘Hotel San Francesco’, has an air of da capo aria in it. A former wine cellar in what was once an ancient monastery, it offered me a winged-prayer as I parked my derriere on a Philippe Stark chair, and got as drunk as a rogue monk caught on the verge of some unchastely affair.
Signora Cosi wouldn't stop banging on my door. I have to say, I'm glad she didn't because I wouldn't have made the standing eight. Mercifully, she wasn’t having me miss breakfast for a second day.
In the afternoon I collected my pantaloni from Via Nicotera, but there was no sign of the old man. Veronica was very friendly though, and suddenly I felt better about deciding against an earlier flight plan.
At a deferential eight minutes to eight, I found myself standing in the doorway eyeing ‘Otsukare’. I was no longer angry, even though a security camera was staring at me. It was already too late: I was joining the party.
It isn't the done-thing to go about giving out information on private people.
Nevertheless, I'm happy to address the facts as they appear to stand.
Don Gaetano is a freeze-frowned, buttoned-down stand-up figure in shipping, who, back in 1962, gave my uncle his start. Apparently, in those days, my uncle would service the propeller shafts for half-a-dozen small vessels, and he and his younger brother would go on to move cargo along the Amalfi coast, from their base in Positano, on behalf of Gaetano. This was all-new to me, but they broke it gently.
I was told that Gilberto, my grandfather, and his Scottish sweetheart, Mary, first met Gaetano 63 years ago, before they were even married. The story goes that he was just starting-up his own firm, while my grandfather was an industrial engineer for a local munitions company. They both lived in a village where everybody knew everybody, 130 kilometres north from here.
In the early 1970s, around the time my grandparents emigrated to Canada, both my uncle and my father seemingly moved to Scotland. This was the first time, he said, that my bloodline had been back since.
Until today, I had grown up knowing that my grandparents lived near Niagara Falls, and that my grandfather worked for Garrett, a metal detector manufacturer: but I’d always presumed they’d moved there from Scotland. After coming back "home" when I was about eight years old, my darling grandmother passed away when I was 12, and my grandfather died four years ago.
Michele, the younger Gaetano, is a likeable guy. He said he'd actually been to my house once when I was younger. I don’t remember him though, but that’s probably understandable, given that he visited 24 years ago. He’s stayed in touch with my uncle, and maintains an interest in ‘Pavarotti’s’ and ‘Sorrento’, a pair of restaurants in Aberdeen run by an associate, Antonio La Torre. I suppose that’s ‘Etalian’ for Tony Tower. So it seems neither man has anything to do with the Camorra.
I had a fine two hours, and left with a number of gifts to take home. The pointed news though, is that Don Gaetano offered me a price to paint him. That, and the strangely subduing fact I am half-Italian. But I won’t be getting in too much of a lather. Not least until I've spoken with you, father.