Ross is the champion of the impulsive adventurer, the person who takes the leap in the dark which most of us wouldn’t have the courage for. He’s had an extraordinary career and as this breezy travelogue/memoir demonstrates there is never a dull moment for Ross and his family. Ross offers a vivid description of a situation that would sink a lot of people without trace and could be a tale of misery and despair. However, in his hands this is funny and uplifting and a little bit mad.
Beached in Calabria demonstrates just how beguiling the idea of a new family getaway in ‘bandit country’ was for Ross. That is before the strange, difficult and near Kafkaesque pall set in – Calabria is home to the most notorious and successful mafia of them all, the ‘Ndragheta! The tongue-in-cheek charm of this memoir enables us to laugh at the adversity. Ian Ross’s love of Calabria and the local people he calls friends shines through. It’s a light and easy read that is infectious. More a collection of linked witty anecdotes than a structured memoir although it has a clear boundary and time line. However, Beached in Calabria is probably more enjoyable for that. If you are interested in Italy, in travel writing and the tales of a decent raconteur then this is for you.
For me, this book came on the back of reading Black Souls by Giocchino Criaco. A damning and deeply intelligent account of life in the Calabrian mafia, the already mentioned ’Ndrangheta. The landscape is the one beautiful feature of that novel which is a story of kidnapping, vendetta, murder and drug trafficking. So thank goodness this memoir set in the same part of the world is an altogether cheerier read.
Ian, or Jan as he’s known locally, is sitting on the barraca terrace of his house that fronts onto the sea; the Mediterranean, the beautiful Jasmine coast, he is sipping coffee and watching the dolphins. This is the Villa La Buntessa (his wife’s nickname is Bunty), one of only seven properties locally. The beach it sits on is protected by Italian law, EU law and UNESCO so nothing much changes over the years. It all sounds idyllic and if you haven’t been there a quick Google of beaches of Cambria will give you some idea of the absolute beauty of the place. Then we are introduced to the first problems Ross encountered on arriving in Calabria:
– It’s difficult to get to, London to Rome and a layover before flying on South several hours later. It’s worse if you drive which takes forever.
– By some obscure Italian law cars can only be owned by Italian citizen and so Pasquale is the legal owner of Ian’s car. It’s one of the Byzantine features of the local law. [I know from my own experience that the Italian law grinds slowly, takes long breaks for the summer and can make no progress for years on end.]
– The roads are poorly maintained. The budget winds up in the hands of maintenance companies connected to the ‘Ndrangheta or the Camorra (Sicilian mafia) who apparently have different priorities.
Pasquale looks after the house, he has several jobs, several sources of income, he is a very resourceful man. Years later, Ian arrives to be informed by Pasquale that there is a ‘grandi problemi’. The wooden garden house has to be knocked down by order of the courts. Ian informs Pasquale it’s OK, they have a ‘condono’, permission to keep the building despite its lack of planning permission because a fine of €5,200 was paid. This is good but, and it’s a big but, the lawyer Ian paid to arrange this stopped working on the case ten years ago, the document is false. There is no recompense from the lawyer as Pasquale informs him she is mad. The tribunal looking into Ian’s case ignored the irregularities for nine years but eventually issued a demolition notice. Ian has one month to knock the building down. How does he get on, will the garden house survive? We find out at the end of the book.
Meanwhile, we go back to the beginning. To the friendly locals who greeted Ian and gladly took his money. No paradise is complete without its own devil. Ian on the hunt for a holiday home lights on Calabria after reading George Gissing’s 1901 work, By the Ionian Sea, and so he arrives in Brindisi and hires a Punto to tour the area. Maps, local directions and the language barrier wind Ian up on the wrong coast. Crossing the mountains he comes across a tranquil beach and makes his first friend, Celeste. No one will forget that the foreigner immediately shook hands on the asking price of €155,000 (cheap but he should have haggled). Bunty arrives after spotting the police ready to ambush a mafiaso at the airport. In a matter of months the documents are sorted and the work of building can begin. This involves money first, magically appearing and disappearing workers, and is the heart of the memoir, which also goes on to explore the subjects of boats, dogs as pets, the pace of life, bringing the family over, a celebrity paparazzi incident and the fear of kidnapping, Limoncello, and even green politics.
Despite the trauma, which Ian seems remarkably resilient and maybe even immune to, it’s clear that he and the family love their summer retreat. The fact that the world doesn’t change from year to year is something to be cherished. There are a couple of Italian phrases that perhaps might not be as well explained as they could be but they do add to the flavour of the memoir and it’s a minor quibble. Ian Ross has a light touch and this memoir flits across light and dark passages with the positivity of a seasoned explorer. It’s very British in that Ross pokes fun as much at himself as the craziness of dealing with Italian bureaucracy and the mafia culture. It’s an amusing and charming read, not very taxing just fun. An ideal beach read or pick me up after a heavier work.
Some of what makes Ross an extraordinary character is evident in this memoir. Ross has set up businesses, co-founded the, now legendary, pirate radio station Radio Caroline, co-managed The Animals and opened the first roller disco in Hollywood. Beached in Calabria is his third volume of memoir after Rocking the Boat and Beverly Hills Butler.
Paul Burke 4/3
Beached in Calabria by Ian Ross
Arcadia Books 9781911350620 pbk Jun 2019