Monday, July 4, 2005

Things that move my father to tears (a partial list):

1) The Spanish Republican song with the refrain, "El pueblo, unido, jamas sera vencido!" He and I were singing this, and he had to stop. My mother: "Oh Carlo, it happened over 60 years ago!" (Strange words for a historian.) Father: "I know, [sniff], but the Spanish people suffered so much [cough]."

The great-aunt of an erstwhile flatmate of mine was on a Spanish Republican poster urging women to donate blood; up to then it had been thought that women couldn't or shouldn't give blood.

2) The women farm labourers' song with the following words:

Sebben che siamo donne
paura non abbiamo,
e abbiam delle belle buone lingue,
e in lega ci mettiamo.

O, li-o li-o laa, e la lega vincerà
E noialtri lavoratori
siam per la libertà

La libertà non viene
finchè non c'è l'unione,
crumiri col padrone
crumiri col padrone

O, li-o li-o laa, e la lega vincerà
crumiri col padrone
son tutti d'ammazzar.

Except that he always changes the last line to "son tutti da legar," because scabs and bosses maybe should be tied up, but not killed.

3) Once he was telling me the story of the Battle of Thermopylae, and every few sentences he would stop to putter around. I waited expectantly for him to finish the story, and it took me a while to understand what these frequent interruptions were about. Finally he forced himself to finish, coughing and sniffing his way through Simonides's epitaph.
(I have to say that's how I feel right now about the Iliad. It's taking me forever to finish, partly because I don't want them all to die.)

4) In the country graveyard where my great-grandparents are buried there's the tomb of an anarchist who died in Libya or Ethiopia in the 1930s. The last time we visited the cemetery the tombstone was too decayed to read, but my father had memorized the epitaph: "...mourned by friends and family, he died in un'impresa violenta [I can't think of an English word that would convey the sarcasm of impresa], dreaming of a fatherland not of soldiers but of citizens."

5) Once, late at night, we passed Imola, and my father insisted on stopping to read the the words of Andrea Costa, father of Italian socialism, on a plaque in the main square of the city. It was too dark to read the whole thing, but we managed to make out a few words and even those brought a tear or two to my father's eyes. I've actually found the plaque on the internet, and it's a rousing speech. ( Here's some of it translated:

31 December 1900 - 1 January 1901 It's the dawn of a new century - Toss flowers with full hands - Workers, thinkers, men: if the century that's dying saw the unity and independence of nations, the coming century will see their federation. If the impulses toward emancipation of the working classes were ruthlessly crushed in blood from 1830 to 1871, the next generation will see their triumph. If woman lies still in centuries-old obbrobrio ['opprobrium' doesn't sound quite right], if the child lacks bread and education, if the old person finds no roof or rest, provide, o new century, for the redemption of woman, the protection of the child, the care of the elderly. ... Onward, citizens! ... Let us throw to the century that did not witness our birth but will see our death our living hearts, and thinking, working, struggling, loving, strong in our sense of destiny, by science enlightened, give, oh! let us give to all children of men work, freedom, justice, peace.

Politicians don't give speeches like that nowadays. Is that a bad thing? I think it is. It's a vague speech (but by no means so vague as to be acceptable to all) and perhaps that kind of rhetoric can become manipulative, but these are mealy-mouthed excuses. Besides, it might be easier to spot bullshit in magniloquence than in its opposite. (I know that sounds paradoxical.) But more importantly, one has to take the risk. People need to be reminded now and then (especially now) what politics are really about, what's worth fighting for.

When my father was very young his grandmother, a pious lady much admired for her charity, admonished him not to play with the children of farm labourers. I think that goes some way towards explaining why he became a historian of agriculture, and founded a museum of peasant culture (

He has some good war stories which I'll post here in the coming months; I don't want to forget them.

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