Thursday, 9 April 2009

A Room with a View and, Some Experiences in Italy and Great War considerations

Tonight I watched an Andrew Davies scripted version of E M Foster's A Room with a View, more pulsating than the Merchant Ivory film, passion fired by an encounter in pre Great War Italy, reaching fulfilment in marriage, but ending separated and cold on a Flanders field, but with hope offered, of something new, on the same Tuscan hillside field where the woman's experience of the extremes of life began, and she had learnt not to fear, but to embrace them. The extraordinary aspect of this beautiful tragic story is that twenty four hour ago I first viewed a documentary account of the Italian front in the Great War, and then sat up until five in the dawn reliving my first visit to Italy when I drove from the Grossglockner Pass, travelling from Heidelberg to the Venice, through the mountains and hills where the battles raged and then had an amazing series of experiences travelling through Italy to Rome and Sorrento.

Prior to reaching Italy, a male work colleague and I had driven fast through the fields of Flanders to a beer festival on the banks of the Rhine, and on through Munich, and the Black Forest on our way to Student Prince county and a stop over at Salzburg before taking the Brenner Pass and what remains for me one the wonders of the modern world, the Grossglockner High Alpine Road, completed in 1935, and for three decades the only way through to Italy on this side of the Alps. Although I had seen something of wild places in the area of Holy Loch in early sixties, and the Swedish landscape of water and forest in 1963, I was unprepared for the grandeur, the beauty, the force of nature, of being surrounded by snow covered peaks, and then, the heart in mouth experience of the hairpin bends and sheer drops which prevented enjoyment of the spectacular views as we descended onto the Venetian plain.

When the war commenced in 1914 Italy was involved with a Treaty which could have required active support for Austria Hungary and Germany, but maintained neutrality, until persuaded by Britain and France to join them with the promise of territorial improvements which I assume involved transfer of the foothills and south side peaks which provided Austria with command over Northern Italy. Austria with German assistance, built a line of fortifications on mountain tops over 12000 feet 3750 metres, tunnelling into rock and glacier where avalanches consumed tens of thousands of soldiers whose bodies have never been seen again. You have to have been there to understand one kind of miracle of war.

That Italy first contemplated, and then attempted to storm the heights, showed unequalled courage, because they were fully observed by the other side, and when the shells burst it was not a mixture of metal and mud, but the more deadly metal and rock. When with German support defence turned into offence and Venice prepared for the worst, it is not surprising that heart went out of the fighting and of the population in general throughout Italy. With the help of British and French forces it was possible to change the position and in 1917 and 1918, especially when Germany was stretched on the Western front and unable to provide the support of its highly trained and motivated manpower.

After discovering the extraordinary magic of Venice we had travelled to the Adriatic coast where the adventure nearly ended abruptly in disaster. We pitched our small tent in a large sun baked official camp site outside of town and the beach, and had some alfresco food before darkness descended and my colleague retired for an early night while I decide to find out what the town was like. Alas a woman cyclist without lights came before me from a side road, her backside damaged the windscreen, but she appeared unhurt, There appeared to be no other vehicles or immediate witnesses in the darkness of a badly lit on unlit road, and although she appeared amazingly to be unhurt, because I had been travelling slowly, medical help and the police were called together with an English speaking interpreter. I was required to wait while she was checked out at the nearest hospital and confirmed that she was not injured and that our accounts of what happened matched, I was allowed to go, with my insurance paying for the damaged bicycle and replacement windscreen.

This was bad enough but on returning to the campsite which was crisscrossed with carways and pathways I took a wrong turning and the front of the vehicle ended in a storm ditch. My friend who was asleep was none too pleased, but quickly rallied and we called upon three young men who were still up in their tent to assist in rescuing the car from the ditch. The following morning was taken with clearing out the car and locating a replacement windscreen which we would be able to pick up and have fitted on our way to Rome, after the weekend. Thus the greater part of the day planned for relaxing on the beach passed by and soon after being able to do so a great came our way so we retreated to the nearest cinema, subsequently discovering the need for the ditches which surrounded every group of tents.

This was closest I came to Yugoslavia although at one point we had considered spending less time at individual places of interest, continuing through Italy to Brindisi for a Ferry to Greece and returning via the Balkans to Trieste

The Great War had started in the Balkans with Serbia seeking independence and where the response of Austria to the assassination of the Crown Prince was to crush the rebellion as a warning to others with similar inclinations. However to do this Austria needed Germany and the involvement with Germany meant war against the manpower wealth of Russia. It was after Russia made significant advances into Austrian controlled territory that the Germany had doubts about their allies. Austria was fortunate that Bulgaria joined on its side, doing so because of historical issues with Serbia, but in turn this involved Rumania who had issues with Bulgaria and hoped to resolve territorial issues by siding with the allies. However Rumania was not prepared or equipped for war and was eventually forced to seek peace. Greece, with Turkey on one border and who were allies of Germany, and the Balkan territories of Austria Hungary on the other attempted neutrality, but was forced by Britain to joining the allies who then led a mixed force which attempted to aid Serbia but which for a time was held to a front which stretched from Adriatic to the Aegean.

Whereas those fighting in the Palestine and Mesopotamian campaigns, and the ill fated Gallipoli enterprise, had to contended with extreme heat and the associated illness, those fighting in the Tyrol had to deal with the extreme cold and frostbite. Those fighting in the Balkans had to contend with both malaria with some 150000 cases in three years as well as significantly below freezing temperatures. It is not unfair to record that the position of the fighting forces in the Balkans were the least consideration to the generals and politicians of the main belligerent powers so that when the allies advanced, Germany was unwilling to divert forces from its main front in the west, even after the Eastern front had collapsed with revolution in Russia. When the allies were willing to expand their forces it was possible to penetrate through the mountains and with the collapse of the Bulgarian defences the way was open to free Serbia and to take on Austria and Constantinople as 1918 progressed. The allies had been supplemented by 100000 Serbians who had taken refuge in Corfu and Island I was to visit over three decades later and take ferry to the Greek mainland.

Had it not been for the tonight's TV film of A room with a view, (the lack of such a room led to an exchange offered by a father and his son which led to the intoxication of passion and its ending in wartime tragedy), I would have been inclined to leave the rest of my young man's Italian adventure to another day and especially as there was no Dolce Vita of drugs, excessive drinking, or sex. Which it could be argued is what all those young men of both sides had really died for. It seemed to me then, reinforced by my only other visit, four decades later, that Italy casts a spell on travellers, particularly the British unlike that of other countries, although I could also have lost myself in the islands of Greece.

My experience of Rome was primarily a spiritual one although when I set off from the hillside campsite walking into the city it was an explore without a plan. In part to make amends for the near disaster of the previous weekend and to regain my confidence in driving I had driven into the city during the 1960's rush hour and around the ancient. Sites and this was one of the most terrifying experiences in my life, as vehicles seemed to come at you from every direction, and I had no intention of driving back into the centre the following day.

I came upon the Vatican shortly before the Pope was to hold a public audience and blessing and he then celebrated mass at St Peters, which I attended. I had purchased a cross, a statue and a picture for my mother which were blessed and I knew this would please her and the two aunts with whom she lived greatly. I had some unanswered questions about the role of the Pope during the Second World War, but these were not to the fore. I found an attractive restaurant and enjoyed a delightful meal which had ended with a bunch of grapes, and arrived back at the campsite early evening, after throwing coins into the Trevi fountain, ( I had seen the film) to find that my colleague was helping two well spoken English girls who had spent the previous evening sleeping in their car because the lock on their boot had failed. The colleague managed to fix the problem and in exchange for this good turn we were told of a great camp site among olive groves on a hill at Sorrento, and the promise of a joint trip to Capri was planned when they would join us after they had done Rome.

The Sorrento camp site was as good as promised and on the evening exploration of the town we noted that it was the week of the Sorrento film festival. The story has become a little hazy after this although somewhere, there is a film of part the subsequent adventure. If I remember the sequence correctly the two well spoken English girl did arrive and did go to Capri but with other male friends encountered on their visit to Rome, and disappointed we set off to visit the ruins of Pompeii and the Volcanic mountain of Vesuvius. It was at this point my tale has an unbelievable twist (except that there is the film which was subsequently shown at a party of other work colleagues), for we stopped for two female hitchhikers, Wrens who were making their way back to Malta after failing to meet up with the parents of one of them, the evening before. They decided to detour with us before continuing on their journey. Close on four decades later I visited Pompeii again and discovered a tourist crush second only to that of the Vatican, while we had been able to wander an almost deserted site at leisure.

We then voted against paying an admission charge to go up the main road to the volcano and found a local who explained that if we went up the back way, usually used as the down way we could avoid payment, As we went up a few other vehicles did pass down which required waiting at stopping points and at one of these we were passed by a Jaguar which led to one of the young women shrieking out Daddy.

It is as this point that having a small car proved an advantage because we were able to turn and chase down the parental vehicle and reunite daughter and friend who departed to the parental hotel while we continued back up the mountain to explore the volcano. We did meet up with the two girls and the parents the following day and did have a meal at the water's edge and take a ride an a horse drawn carriage and the amazing coincidence of timing has by now been passed to several generations in the four families and their friends, although what happened next was relayed only to those of my companion and I. I cannot remember the sequence accurately but I think that before our visit to Pompeii my colleague had returned from a solo trip into town with two invitations tickets for the gala performance at the film festival at the end of the week, on the basis that he was the President of the Oxford Film Festival. The two well spoken English girls from our Roman encounter were much impressed with this and my friend then secured two more invitations which impressed them even more, although not as impressed as we were and which is the reason why I have emphasised the well spoken aspect because when we called at their tent, their sophisticated appearance was appropriate for a gala night of Hollywood babes at Cannes. Alas although I had done by best with a crumbled jacket and tie, my colleague was even more casual, which was embarrassing given the quality of clothing, hair and make up achieved by the young woman at what was a primitive encampment by contemporary standards. This however was nothing like the reaction of the reception party with greeted guests for what was evidently regarded as the social event of the town and region for the year, and where everyone else who were ushered to the front rows of the had dinner jacket and black tie!

At the interval the full house lights came on and various quests around us in the front rows of the circle were shepherded away and later appeared on the stage, followed by speeches and then references made to various Italian, French and German Film Festivals, fortunately not the Oxford, although my colleague would have risen to the challenge dad he been called to take a bow. I speculated the lack of a black, or any other form of tie did it. Afterwards the black tie guests and their ladies streamed off to what I presumed was the Gala party mentioned in the invitation but I counselled against pushing our luck and we eat take away pizza in a moonlit square, talking about our work into the early hours and which interested our companions greatly.

While this concluded our Italian adventure, with the moral of the tale, 'always take with you appropriate clothing for any situation,' was underlined during our stay with a German friend from college who lived and worked in Geneva. One evening her boss called to collect some work after our evening meal, we were introduced, and he suggested that we go out for a drink, although my friend added that we should bring our passports. We were taken to a bar at the top of best hotel in the city where it only seemed right that I should, on behalf of my colleague offer to buy one of the rounds of drinks, although my college friend had advised me strongly against doing this. I quickly realised what she meant as I parted with nearly all my remaining spending money. We then set off on a long journey, passing through a frontier into France continuing until we reached a country house Casino where my colleague had to be loaned a jacket and tie. Our friends from Rome and Sorrento would not have been out of place among the array of wives and girlfriends, or the car park full of powerful and new cars.

I invested two pounds on two separate 36:1 or whatever the long odds were, turns of the roulette wheel. My college friend invested more, but only played 2:1 odds such as red or black and ending the night with a little more money than she arrived and which I understood was not unusual and once more I wished I had taken her advice. Alas my ambitions have always been greater than ability, but I have always drawn the line when appropriate. I then spent what was between half an hour and an hour watching the table of high rollers and one Asian young man attracted my attention, and that of others, as within a very short period he had won several thousand pounds probably running into tens of thousands today. What affected me greatly is not that he then lost it all, but throughout his stay at the table he had tipped its manager regularly with chips to the value of approximately £50 and £75 pounds. For this we fought and died in two World Wars I hear voices all around me cry.

Life is often very curious and confusing. Within a few days I have experienced children dressing up with parental permission to celebrate an essentially dark pagan event , later today, for it is another new day we celebrate the failed attempt to blow up Parliament using gunpowder and the symbolic burning of a live human body, and then we stand in silence for only two minutes to remember the multi million dead of two Great Wars and the 16000 British men and women who have given their lives in service since.
Given my re-experiencing of the Great War over the past three weeks, with the DVD's of the Second to follow after a short break, and the daily worries and fear for the future the subsequent generations, I remain optimistic and full of hope. It was good to remind myself that less twenty years after the end of World War I was able to travel freely around Europe without the need for visas and waved through on the flash of a British passport. I had been invited by German strangers whose language I could not speak to join their table at a beer festival on the Rhine, linking arms for songs. I was welcomed into an Austrian Inn in the middle of nowhere and provided a meal very late one night. I was treated with respect and given help by Italian Police in what could have been a serious incident, found a small garage where two Italians went out of their way to quickly replace a windscreen on a British made car, and concluded the adventure by being entertained by Germans in Switzerland who nipped over the border into France to give away some money, having encountered two brave young women serving the UK in Malta, and two remarkable young women who were adventurous, liked fun, but also showed a depth of understanding and caring for others without the advantages of their education and upbringing.

That the rest of Europe and many from the former empire and elsewhere want to come and live and work, as well as visit, the UK is not something we should fear, but welcome and learn how to adapt. That it what they all died for, and it should not have been in vain.

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