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2 December 2020updated 19 Sep 2023 5:44pm

From the NS archive: Hat in hand!

2 February 1929: When hats play such a large part in politics, one begins to wish they had never been invented.

By New Statesman

In this piece, the author “YY” overhears two men in a pub discussing Mario Carli’s comments on tourists in the fascist newspaper Impero. Carli described them as “fat drones” descending on the country and lamented that tourists treat Italy as a museum. The men think he’s right, and that Mussolini, in the year of the Great Depression, has done Italy good. YY disagrees: he doesn’t think Italy has ever been known as a nation of “organ-grinders”, and thinks that joking amicably about other nations does not preclude respect for them. He considers what it means to be a foreigner abroad, and concludes “the future of Italy does not depend on the good or bad opinion of foreigners but on the good or bad sense of the Italians themselves”.


“It was a silly way to put it,” said the poet, referring to Signor Carli’s attack on tourists in the Impero; “but he’s fundamentally right. How could any self-respecting Italian be content to see his country treated as a museum? The Fascisti at least believe their country’s alive, and they have made Europe believe it.” “I agree,” said a second poet; “Mussolini’s a great man. I don’t like the Italians, but I think he’s just the man for them. There’s a lot of rot talked about the Italians not being free under him. Anybody who stays out of politics is as free in Italy as in England, and who but a fool would have anything to do with politics?” “I don’t agree with that,” said the first poet, who is also a politician; “but I think Mussolini, with all his faults, has done Italy a lot of good. You remember, don’t you, when we looked on the Italians as a nation of organ-grinders? Nobody thinks of them as that today.”

It was strange to hear two men who at the approach of closing-time never cease to rail at the tyranny of DORA glorifying Mussolini in this fashion. It was stranger still to hear them acquiescing in the ridiculous fiction that, until the emergence of Mussolini, the Italians were a despised race and that, after his emergence, they were suddenly welcomed as equals into the brotherhood of nations. I never met anyone who looked on the Italians as a nation of organ-grinders. Browning certainly did not, and Ruskin did not, and to English writers in general Italy has long been a holy land. Jests about organ-grinding, macaroni and so forth are the sort of jests that all nations make about each other: they are comparable to the jokes Englishmen make about Scotsmen and their kilts and their haggis. No one, I think, has yet suggested that Scotland, in order to recover her self-respect, requires a MacMussolini who will make it impossible for an Englishman ever again to twit Scotsmen as being a nation of kilt-wearers and haggis-eaters. No nation depends for its self-respect on not being laughed at by foreigners. The Englishman of Continental caricature has never undermined the self-respect of Englishmen.

As for Italy’s being regarded as a museum, would it show a deeper respect for Italian greatness if the visitor to Florence refused to enter the Pitti Gallery and if the visitor to Rome yawned at the prospect of spending an hour in the Forum? If an Italian visited England, Englishmen would not feel resentful if he overflowed with enthusiasm over the charm of Salisbury Cathedral close, and he could pay a visit to Canterbury without its being suggested that he was thereby insulting the living England of Mr Baldwin. The truth is, of course, nobody would dream of suspecting a foreigner (unless he were a Bolshevik or belonged to the underworld) of having an undesirable motive for visiting England. If he likes ruins, let him. If he likes beefsteak and onions, let him. If he likes the Brighton piers, let him. He is free to regard England as a museum, or as a chophouse, or as a pleasure-palace, or even (if he does not keep saying it in public) to dislike it as a haunt of long-toothed people who say “God-dam”. His opinions are his own, and Englishmen know that it is possible for a foreigner to hold what opinion of them he pleases without their country’s being a penny the worse.

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[see also: On seeming funny to other people]

As for Italy, tourists have visited it for a hundred reasons. Some of them have been interested chiefly in ruins and in the achievements of the past, but these have been the minority. The ordinary man does not really like ruins. He goes to see them as a duty, but he would far rather be eating or playing golf. The ordinary Englishman visiting Italy is more interested in living Italian cooks than in dead Italian painters. He would rather see white oxen pulling a plough through a Tuscan vineyard than visit the Tomb of St Peter. The sight of a mule-driver cracking his whip in the streets of Florence gives him more pleasure than a Virgin and Child of Fra Lippi. Clearly an intelligent man can take an interest both in the life he sees about him and in the riches that past centuries have bequeathed to us, and clearly a man would be a fool not to taste both pleasures. But it was surely only an unimaginative visitor to pre-Mussolini Italy who saw in that country a glorious museum in a despicable contemporary setting.

The simple truth is that most people who visited Italy liked the Italians. Only those who were bigoted against all the Latin peoples ever regarded them from the heights of contempt. There was no country in which life was more agreeable and pleasant to the stranger, and no people for whom it was easier to feel the delight of admiration, even if one were taking a casual stroll through the streets of Turin. The fascist, however, if Signor Carli is to be taken as representing the fascist spirit, is not content that you should like his country and his countryman. He scents a lurking patronage in your admiration. He is as suspicious as a servant of the Montagus or Capulets, and, when he sees a foreign visitor, seems to ask him excitedly: “Do you bite your thumb at me?” This is surely the attitude of a schoolboy who pushes an infant belonging to a rival school off the pavement. It is not evidence of self-respect but of childish folly.

Signor Carli, it must be admitted, has slightly altered his attitude to tourists as a result of the protests of Italians who have reminded him that his country makes a profit of some £82,000,000 a year out of tourists. He now declares that tourists will be welcome in Italy, but adds that, in order to be so, they must add “respect and esteem” to their friendship. If they do, he declares, they will be “welcome to come, hat in hand, to the land of the living”. But quite apart from reverence of the past, they must be inspired by “admiration for the conspicuous virtues of which the Italians of Signor Mussolini are giving proof — namely, order, work, discipline, patience, tenacity, coherence and will”.

This adds a new complication to travelling. Are travellers in future, when showing their passports, to be compelled to take a New Testament in the right hand and to swear: “I believe in order, work, discipline, patience, tenacity, coherence and will”? I myself should find no difficulty in taking such an oath. I believe in all these virtues, and should be delighted at any opportunity of showing my respect for them. At the same time, I believe in lots of other things which I should think it was silly to keep talking about on all sorts of occasions. I should think it absurd if the London bus companies forbade a bus conductor to give me a ticket till I had assured him that I believed in faith, hope, and charity. I should be annoyed if a grocer refused to sell me a pot of marmalade till I had said: “I believe that parents ought not to be cruel to their children.” I do sincerely believe that parents ought not to be cruel to their children, but what has this to do with marmalade? And what has one’s admiration of work and patience and all the rest of it to do with a holiday visit to a foreign country?

[see also: From the NS archive: Gilding the axis]

The truth is, it is sheer egotism in a nation to worry about what foreign visitors think of it, provided they observe the common decencies of life during their stay. How many English visitors would go to France if the French Government insisted that everyone, on arriving at Calais or Boulogne, must literally take his hat off to France? How many foreign visitors would come to England if they were met at the boats with an order to take off their hats to the living land of Mr Baldwin? And, if this sort of thing becomes the custom among nations, it will undoubtedly spread to individual cities, towns and villages. Manchester, jealous of Liverpool, will insist on our taking our hats off to Manchester as we step out of the train. The mayor and Corporation of Bolton will be waiting at the station to to take our hats off to Bolton. As you enter the village of Thursley you will be stopped by a policeman who will point out that your hat is on your head and that Thursley is closed to all visitors save those who approach it hat in hand. Possibly, this will increase the respect felt for Thursley throughout the Five Continents. Possibly it will not. Anyhow, the thing will become an infernal nuisance, and everybody will begin to pray for the appearance of a new Mussolini who will make it a law that nobody is henceforth to take off his hat to anybody.

On the whole, it seems more advisable for the nations, cities, and villages of the Earth to continue to receive visitors on the old basis. A tourist usually visits a foreign country for the simple, but pardonable, purpose of enjoying himself. He has comparatively little interest in politics — he has usually all the politics he wants at home — and the form of government under which foreigners choose to live neither disturbs his happiness nor excites his rapture. He does not travel in the spirit of a man taking part in a desperately critical General Election.

If the wine and the weather are good he can be tolerably cheerful under either a dictatorship or a democracy. Signor Carli is really exciting himself needlessly. Not one in a thousand of its visitors has an opinion on Italian politics that is worth the breath that would be expended in uttering it, and, even if it were otherwise, the future of Italy does not depend on the good or bad opinion of foreigners but on the good or bad sense of the Italians themselves. Apart from that, the admiration of a man with his hat compulsorily in his hand is hardly worth the having. Sometimes, in these days in which hats are playing so large a part in politics, one begins to wish that hats had never been invented.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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