Allan Massie

In Brigand Country


When asked to name the living writers he admired, the intolerable hero of Cyril Connolly’s novel The Rock Pool replied, ‘Eliot, Joyce and Norman Douglas.’ Douglas was indeed much admired between the wars, especially for his Capri novel, South Wind. Now I suppose he is little read and when mentioned in the press has the word ‘paedophile’ attached to his name, though ‘pederast’ might be more accurate. When I was young myself, in my early twenties, I aspired to write his biography. A foolish notion, for I was unqualified to do so on account of my immaturity. Two writers better equipped than me – Constantine FitzGibbon and John Davenport – had already embarked on a biography and given up.

I failed, of course, to write the book, but I don’t regret the enterprise. Anything but! Research, or the pretence of research, took me to the south of Italy for three months in the spring and early summer of 1964. Old Calabria, the fruit of several visits to that wild and impoverished region, with its distant and seductive echoes of antiquity, was Douglas’s best book, published in 1915. It’s astonishing and melancholy to reflect that more years have passed since my wanderings about the province than elapsed between the first publication of the book and my time there.

Old Calabria isn’t a travel book in the common sense of the term; rather it’s a series of loosely connected essays, some tiresome (as when Douglas mounts a hobbyhorse), some comic, the best wonderfully evocative. It wasn’t like Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes: there was no route for me to follow. A train from Naples landed me at Cosenza, where the great Gothic king Alaric died, doubtless of fever or dysentery, and was buried with his treasure. Slaves were compelled to divert the course of the river – the Crati, as I recall – in order to conceal the grave, before being slaughtered so that it would remain hidden. So far as I know, the treasure has never been found – a good subject for a thriller, but not for me.

From Cosenza I crossed the Sila mountain range, following in the footsteps of the unfortunate brigand chief Benincasa, who, after having his hands chopped off and tied around his neck, was led a day’s march to his home in San Giovanni in Fiore to be hanged. With that odd streak of humanity that characterises the south of Italy, he was allowed to sleep in his own home, surrounded by his wife and children, before being hanged the following morning. ‘It will not take you long,’ Douglas wrote, ‘to discover that the chief objects of interest in San Giovanni are the women.’ Well, there were still handsome women and beautiful girls, and on Sunday several wore gorgeously gaudy traditional costumes. If they still do, they may serve as a tourist attraction, but there were no tourists then except me, and I would have denied being one. Wasn’t I there for purposes, or at least pretences, of research?

I have seldom been happier than when walking alone across the Sila: deep blue skies, lush pasture on a May morning, rolling hills, lofty chestnut trees, pines and oaks, white cattle with bells round their necks, and flocks of long-legged sheep, watched over by a boy, happy to share the time of day and a mug of wine from the flask in my rucksack. I couldn’t understand a word of his high-pitched dialect. It didn’t matter. Tranquillity had replaced the brigand world.

Longobucco was once known as the brigands’ citadel. Douglas found ‘the far-famed’ Hotel Vittoria unable to provide any food and his bed there infested. I, asking for a room in some albergo, was shown a vast and gloomy one with eight beds, two or three of them occupied. Thank heaven, I thought, unusually, for a boarding-school education.

I doubled back, eager to visit the Albanian villages, five or six of them there, dating from the 18th century. I got into conversation with some teachers from the college in San Demetrio Corone and showed them a passage of Albanian poetry quoted by Douglas. They could make nothing of it, perhaps because it was written in the wrong alphabet: according to Douglas, the Albanians have (or had) more than thirty different alphabets, ‘each of them with nearly fifty letters’. Nevertheless, the teachers kindly drove me to the neighbouring settlement of Macchia, birthplace and deathplace of Girolamo de Rada, ‘a flame-like patriot in whom the tempestuous aspirations of modern Albania took shape’. Known as the Albanian Mazzini, he corresponded with Lamartine, Victor Hugo and Gladstone. His venerable and dignified grandson welcomed us, served us wine, bread, cheese and olives, and then commanded a boy – his grandson, I assumed – to show me the patriot’s grave. The boy obediently led me to the grave, where a rose bush was in red bloom. He confessed that he hadn’t read a line of the great man’s poetry or prose, but was eager to question me about George Best and ‘I Beatles’. Later I remembered that Douglas had said that de Rada had died in San Demetrio and been buried in the cemetery there. The stone the boy showed me simply commemorated the great man.

I crossed the Sila again and took a train down the coast to Crotone, where Gissing, whose delightful book By the Ionian Sea was my other reading companion, almost died in the Hotel Concordia, where memory insists I stayed, though memory may, as so often, be playing false. There I imitated Douglas, who would sit in the evening at a marble-topped table and ‘watch the crowd … smoking a Neapolitan cigar and imbibing, alternately, ices and black coffee until, towards midnight, a final bottle of vino di Ciro is uncorked’. On my last day there, like Douglas again, I took a horse-drawn cab to Capo Colonna, where a single column, sole standing survivor of a Greek temple, stands in lonely serenity. There, bringing his book to an end, Douglas reflected: ‘It is good to be merged awhile into these harshly-vibrant surroundings, into the meridian glow of all things. This noontide is the “heavy” hour of the Greeks, when temples are untrodden by priest or worshipper. Controra they now call it – the ominous hour.’

Happy memories of idle youth! ‘Why’, Douglas asked, ‘prolong life save to prolong pleasure?’ Why indeed?

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter