In 1958, aged 14 years and 11 months, I escaped from England for the first time, on a school trip to Rome. Chuff-chuff train from Newcastle-upon-Tyne station wreathed in smelly steam, to London, ditto to Dover, ferry, couchette train via Switzerland to Milan. I woke up on my couchette bunk in the morning to see a big blue Swiss lake outside.
Milan railway station is where I first really set foot in continental Europe—oh the aromas of intriguing tobacco and actual coffee! A lot of people in the station were standing about reading this:
In my memory, until now, they were reading this:
However, this is the English first edition, not the Italian first edition of Lampedusa’s The Leopard, which in 1958 had just burst upon an astonished world. Nowadays Lampedusa is unfortunately better know as the tiny Italian island where desperate refugees from Africa wash up, if they’re lucky; but back then he was a Sicilian prince (newly posthumous) and disciple of Stendhal.
From Milan: another train, to Rome, where us schoolboys were almost entirely unsupervised for the next eight days, not quite the way school trips have happened for many years now, but the perfect way to discover a foreign city. We did have a couple of organised day outings with packed lunches—to Hadrian’s Villa plus the Villa d’Este with its mischievous fountains, on another day to the Roman remains at Ostia—but otherwise, right after breakfast at our hotel, our teachers told us, “Be back for dinner at six!” and sent us off to amuse ourselves in Rome, either alone or together. I’ve no idea which cultural or shopping places or bars the teachers themselves went off to; brothels seem unlikely, considering the teachers.
And I discovered that in coffee bars I could order Cinzano Bianco—more importantly I was served Cinzano without question. An Italian customer preceding me did so; accordingly I followed suite, then suite elsewhere, since the taste and effect seemed rather pleasant. Definitely better than lemonade!
Inspired by Cinzano, I ascended angelically to the roof of St Peter’s on my own:
and went to the Spanish Steps on my own. What a civilised town, chin-chin.
After early dinner one night I went with schoolchums to the Opera to see La Bohème. Our cheap tickets put us all on foot behind a giant pillar, which we took turns peering around. Another evening we went to a cinema, to watch I forget what, and the roof rolled back to reveal the night sky: E lucevan le stelle. (I do realise this is from Tosca.)
It was to be another 45 years before I revisited Rome, in the wake of the Terni Film Festival just to the north, this time to be shown around hospitably by film writer/director Paolo Cingolani with whom I became chums at the Semana Negra in Gijón in 2001. Then in 2009 I returned, after launching The Beloved of My Beloved with Roberto Quaglia at a Eurocon in the off-season spa town of Fiuggi just to the south. My visits to Rome are obviously increasing in frequency: 45 years between, then only 6 years between. Dear me, I’m overdue!