England v Italy – An Immigrant’s Guide
Euro 2012′s real glamour tie is only a short while away. Dom Passantino explains why all immigrants are in this together, and why Maureen Lipman in a turban is more Italian than Ciabatta.
Maureen Lipman understands. Remember those late 80s BT adverts? A nominally Jewish grandmother makes a load of phonecalls to her family members, coining the catchphrase “you’ve got an ology” in the process. They briefly captured the nation’s zeitgeist at some point between “The Hit Man and Her” and the assasination of Nicolae Ceausescu.
Lipman’s character in the adverts, Beattie, is never specifically identified as Jewish, just hinted at. The reason for this, as Lipman explained in one of those “100 Best X of All Time” shows for adverts, is that a lot of immigrant experiences are universal. What you go through as a first-, second- or even third-generation immigrant is shared. Making Beattie come out and specifically reference gefilte fish or Meir Har-Zion takes away from the commual experience of the advert.
Colonial babies, being too tied up with the daddy issues involving the British, can’t empathise. But if you’re Jewish, or Chinese, or SIkh, or Polish, Italian, Vietnamese, Ghanaian, whatever the fuck, there’s a secret that we don’t admit openly. Immigrants are pretty much identical. Those “RE:FW:FW:FW:FW:FW You Know Your X When…” chain emails our parents forward contain a list of supposedly unique signifiers, but they’re all the same, just with the nation changed. We all have overbearingly emotional grandmothers, raucous family dinners, gaudy religious paraphernalia on the mantelpiece, plastic covering on the sofa and a cousin who has a job importing counterfeit shoes. Whether your mother used used to hit you with a wooden spoon intended for stirring afang, spezzatino or skirts & kidneys is an irrelevant detail.
So you tend to grab onto anything that ties you close to your heritage. The literature, the cuisine, the culture of the old country became a desperate way to demarcate and tag yourself. Twenty or thirty years ago we had parades, where you could rock up with 200 other people from your dad’s village and march up and down a closed-off provincial high street waving a banner or a figurine of the Madonna about while traditional folk songs play on a Casio keyboard. Unfortunately, white middle class fucks treating everyone else’s culture like it’s some sort of big show put on specifically for their entertainment kinda ruined this. It’s hard to pay tribute to the struggle of your forefathers when a freelance graphic designer called “Sian” is shoving her Diana camera three-inches away from your Black Madonna.
Which is why sports are so important to the immigrant. They provide a tie back to the old country, but more importantly they have their own institutions separate from England, institutions that can, technically, beat England. A victory that ensures that you wouldn’t get ceasely boyed at school the following Monday morning.
All books about growing up non-white in 60s/70s England have to, by default, contain a passage somewhere in the first quarter of the book where the author talks about when he realised he was “other”. It was the 1990 World Cup for me. Italy’s productive run in the tournament is lost to my memory, crowded out from the time period by episodes of The Ratties and Midnight Resistance strategies. But the third/fourth place palyoff is etched in my skull: Baggio seized upon an absolute rickett from Peter Shilton (in his last ever international match) for the first, and Toto Schillaci netted a penalty for the second.
Schillaci was important to me. As a tubby Sicilian with hair so kinky it could hold a Parker pen, let alone a pencil, the sight of a man so brazenly Palermitan becoming, however, briefly, the number one footballer in the world was exhilirating. Of course, he later went on to implode by dropping enough E to single-handedly cause an A Guy Called Gerald comeback tour, before rebounding by finishing a credible third in the Italian version of I’m A Celebrity (behind an underwear model and the guy that played Sandokan). For those 90 minutes though, I discovered an icon.
The pattern continued. Italy would play England, and I’d feel people shy away from me if I was English or give me some dap if they were immigrants (or Scottish). All of those games. The Italian 1-0 victory at Wembley where England explained itself as a country once and for all by removing Matthew Le Tissier and replacing him with Les Ferdinand. England’s victory over Del Piero and ten mannequins at Le Tournoi. David Beckham’s first match as England captain, which was preceded by a one-minute silence to mark the death of Gianni Agnelli’s son.
What can you do? You can’t shy away from this stuff, backing off of antagonism marks you out as a sellout, a house wop, something like Nino Manfredi’s character in Pane e Cioccolata (1974), an Italian immigrant so desperate to fit into Swiss society that he dyes his hair blonde and stops urinating in alleyways.
So force the issue. You know how every couple of years there’s a story about some Goth chickenhawk in somewhere like Merthyr or Otley who’s got into a bit of grief with the local bobbies because he wants to take his 20-years-younger, 10-stone-heavier girlfriend out in public on a dogleash? That’s how you feel wearing an Italy shirt in public during the finals of a major tournament that England are still in. It’s partly out of pride, partly out of a desire to mark yourself out as different, partly out of a belief that it’s the right thing to do, and partly because you’re a bellend.
I watched most of the 2006 World Cup at Bar Italia, a place that before I arrived in this nation’s capital I assumed was just something Londoners made up, like Blitz spirit or the notion of decent fish and chips anywhere south of Walsall. It was enjoyable. The crowd kept growing with each match, Italians are notoriously pessimistic about everything, and eventually we picked up some bandwagoners as well including, for the final, some dude from a local curry house rocking a tricolore turban. You might think that’s a cool symbol of multiculturalism. I saw it as some pandering shit. But, like I say, we’re all in this together.
And so England play Italy in a major tournament for the first time since that 1990 playoff on Sunday, a few months before I turn 30. And it’s hard for me. I’m at the age now where I don’t think I can walk into work on Monday morning pulling a Randy Orton pose and singing Frankie Valli’s greatest hits. And yet I’ve still got to put up with a week of newspapers chatting ill-informed shit about the Mafia (not a relevant concept in modern Italy, replace by the Camorra and Ndroghetta); catennaccio (refers to a specific formation not generic defensive football, created by the Swiss, perfected by an Argentinian); and Italian food (lasagne, ciabatta, tiramisu and pasta primavera aren’t really Italian foodstuffs, they were all created either in America or specifically to swindle money out of dumb tourists).
And, really, that’s what being an immigrant is all about. You come to another country in search of the almighty dollar and, in return, you get most of your chances for happiness stripped away and replaced with a never-ending stream of idiotic abuse. Still, we’re going to fuck your daughters and screw up your gene pool for ever, so deal with it.