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  1. Wealth
July 23, 2010

Dottore Death

By Spear's

Wanna get someone whacked in Sicily? Easy. Just send them to a local GP, says Andrei Navrozov

Wanna get someone whacked in Sicily? Easy. Just send them to a local GP, says Andrei Navrozov 
YOU DON’T NEED to know about those blooming lemons of Goethe’s to surmise that the South of Italy is as close to Paradise as one gets without being a Nazi war criminal, in which case, anyway, one resides in South America. We’ve got everything here, from medlars in springtime and tangerines in the deep of winter to roast goat at Easter and new wine at Christmastide. We have girls with eyes like black olives and the olives themselves, plump as pretty girls. Sicily is civilisation’s Bondi Beach.

But there is one thing for which the South of Italy is unsuitable, and that is being ill. Seeming ill, pretending to be unwell, malingering is all fine and dandy, and to the womenfolk around here hypochondria is what football is to the men, though I oughtn’t confuse promotional posters in Palermo pharmacies with the national character. It seems that what keeps the healthcare system going is constipation, colds, allergies, insomnia, indigestion, rashes, vertigo, and every other kind of malady that pharmacists can allay with vast numbers of gaily packaged cures.

Doctors fall in with the demand, prescribing these same cures — some of which are bought at the taxpayer’s expense — and taking a cut of the local pharmacist’s profits for every customer they send along. Vitamin complexes are extremely popular.

All this is charming and almost entirely victimless, like so much of southern Italian corruption, except for the one case in a million when a fellow has pneumonia and is prescribed vitamins — as though to make his nails grow faster after he’s passed on — instead of antibiotics. That hardly ever happens, though, because the doctors over here are good at recognising the most common of serious ailments, the top 20 on the Grim Reaper list, and administering suitable remedies. This keeps the profitable end of the operation safe from investigating magistrates’ intrusions, as the sick recover and return to buy more snake oil.

It is quite a different story when, perversely, some denizen of southern Italy decides to come down with a difficult or uncommon disease, say, No. 87 — or, worse still, No. 1,087 — on the Grim Reaper list. My advice is, don’t try it. Don’t even think of having an exotic cancer, or irregular heartbeat, or congenital syphilis like Nietzsche. You want to be like Nietzsche? Go live in Basel. Don’t mess around with the doctors in Palermo. You’ll be six feet under before you can say Superman, though I reckon the sheep’s cheese pastries at your funeral banquet will be second to none.

With lands and climes it is as with people. Don’t ask your cleverest friend to manage your estate, don’t ask your handsomest friend to look after your wife. Similarly, keep in mind that it is delusional to order espressos in London and foolhardy to insist on oysters in Moscow. And it is suicidal to fall ill in Palermo, which is the point I’m trying to make here in somewhat roundabout fashion.

Anyway, after about a month of steadily worsening back pain, I was taken to Emergency one night, on a stretcher in an ambulance jumping up and down on the cobbles, with a lad dressed like a fireman inside with me. He tried to stick something into a vein in my arm, but only half-heartedly, as though we both knew that this whole emergency business was a game, and had for some reason decided to see what it would be like to play it before dinner.

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On arrival to the local hospital, the lad’s colleagues placed the stretcher over a pool of stagnant urine against the crumbling brick wall of a dimly lit corridor, asked me if I wanted a smoke before they went off, and went off. That was two months ago. I haven’t smoked since.

Fortunately, at that point Alfredo turned up. Without further ado, he shouted to the first orderly who passed along the corridor whether he remembered Giovanni, who used to work there. ‘I’m his childhood friend,’ he added. Thirty seconds later I was at the centre of an interested group of nurses, wheeling me to cleaner and less malodorous enclaves. ‘What was Giovanni’s job here, Alfredo?’ I asked between moans. ‘Oh, he never worked here,’ replied my friend. ‘But he used to pick up the payroll for a lot of important people.’

Alfredo could work miracles, but curing the sick was not one of them. ‘Darling, I’m not famous enough for you to want to become a famous writer’s widow,’ I said to my wife the next day. ‘You’ve got to get me to London.’ And that’s where we were the following evening, as I whimpered all the way from Heathrow in the cab heading for St Mary’s Hospital, ever closer to Aneurin Bevan’s socialist paradise. But the diagnosis was swift, the nurses like clockwork, the bed linen crisp, and the food inedible — that is to say, identical to that in my old club in St James’s.

By the time you read this I should be up on my feet. 

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