Review: Heel To Toe – Encounters In The South Of Italy By Charles Lister Essay, Research Paper
Sex lives of the popesHeel to Toe: Encounters in the South of Italyby Charles Lister288pp, SeckerEleven years ago, Charles Lister wrote Between Two Seas, an account of a walk he made half a century ago along the Appian Way in southern Italy. This new book recounts a more recent cycling trip, but one that took in very similar territory: from Italy’s heel state of Puglia to its Calabrian toe in Reggio. But in a sense the geographical background is merely incidental to the author’s larger lifelong journey towards the heart of Italian society.The depth of his relationship with this subject means that, while Lister gives us some of the national stereotypes – the suffocating bureacracy, the corrupt police force and the casual indifference to authority shown by everybody else – he treads very lightly, or simply laughs them off.The author was born in St Remo, began his career in Rome, speaks the language fluently,
and is thoroughly versed in the country’s modern and ancient history. He is also extremely well read in the works of his English-speaking predecessors, from the 18th-century Henry Swinburne to Norman Douglas and even Bill Bryson. These qualifications should make him the ideal guide. In fact, Lister is mixed company.Ironically, the impressive scholarship raises a barrier more than it opens doors. He is so thoroughly au fait with all things Italian that whatever his theme or location, he can haul into view, albeit in thumbnail form, any number of mythic gods, saints, popes and other sundry historical figures without regard for chronology or connection.One minute we are mutilating a 12th-century saint, the next minute we are rumbling the sex secrets of a recent pope. At times Lister seems rather like a gossip columnist rummaging through 3,000 years of Italian celebrity or scandal and picking out the juicy parts.
The effect can be confusing, the impact unsatisfying.At the same time Lister can also be crotchety, opinionated and wickedly funny. Despite his three score and ten years, he is also remarkably obsessed with sex. Though he blames this partly on the luscious Calabrian landscape, the African climate and the oversexed nature of the people themselves, particularly the women, I suspect much of this is simply projection. But his passion for the act, in its many Italianate forms, makes Heel to Toe good pagan entertainment.Lister is adamant about his status as a traveller as opposed to a tourist. But if the key qualifications are a willingness to let the itinerary unfold naturally and an ability to “get on terms with the locals”, then he has every reason to be snobbish. He has a rare talent for developing friendships. In almost every town he meets a local historian or amateur archaeologist who guides him towards a locality’s wider historical or cultural resonances.One temporary friend takes him on an illegal archaeological treasure hunt; another lends him a scooter to complete the itinerary. The encounters are not part of some strict timetable of interviews with relevant experts to flesh out the professional travel book. One really feels that they are serendipitous, and in consequence Lister’s book acquires a genuine sense of charm and free-wheeling adventure.|· Mark Cocker’s books include Loneliness and Time, a history of modern travel writing (Secker)