Friday, 1 June 2012

Squintani's 7S: Why I've Ended Up As I Have

I'm not sure this post is ready, you know. But its as ready as itll ever be.

So… here we go… Squintani’s 7S!
I probably don’t need to, but I shall clarify nonetheless that a lot of what lies ahead is actually quite self-serving. I shall be flattered if you read it and hope you will find it interesting, don’t get me wrong: if you’re into any of the 7S I’ve listed, you might well do. But it has been a cathartic process to think these things through and put some order and structure to traits and values that are such an ingrained part of me that it’s hard for me to establish where they came from. It is certainly an imperfect process: for my benefit, I hope to have got a few things right. For yours, that there is summat worth reading.

Those 7S are:
Sheffield United

S1: Scriptures
Ever since I can remember, I have been a Christian. Initially through geography: children growing up in Italy don’t have much of a choice, or at least they didn’t in the late 70s/early 80s. I was a good Catholic altar boy for around a decade and yes, at one point early on even considered joining the cloth. Regular hours, ample spare time, decent pay, funky collar: one could do worse in the eyes of a 9-year old. Seemed safer than pilot, fireman, soldier, for sure. Anyway, that never happened, as you might have gathered. I’m not even a Catholic these days, for that matter. I was accepted into the Church of England in 1998: I lived in Earl’s Court that summer and, following some challenging discussions with the enthusing and inspiring David Stone, found the Protestant nature of the CoE more akin to my spiritual disposition. That said, these days we, as a family, are part of an Evangelical church, so I’ve just given up on the labels and use the headline description of Christian.
So inevitably, Scriptures have shaped my beliefs and my values. Not that I embrace them wholeheartedly and unquestionably, mind. Which I think is a good start: I don’t like anything being done without questions. Well, it would be good if my kids did stuff without asking questions, but that’s a different matter. Beliefs built on questions are stronger. This is just as well, as I question quite a few things from the Old Testament. I’m not a creationist, for example, and I struggle with some of the ages some of the numbers it contains (e.g. ages that Biblical figures are meant to have reached). But the New Testament, the lives Jesus and His Disciples led, before and after his death… yes, that all makes sense to me. It makes sense from a fallen world perspective and it makes sense from an eternal life perspective. So I can but hope I’m doing enough down here… and that I succeed in granting Scripture the casting vote when different sets of values I shall list here collide. Hence its standing as #1: I can’t vouch for the infallibility of this pecking order, but it’s what I aim for.

2: Savage
Savage as in the surname, my Mum’s maiden surname – I didn’t grow up in the jungle or owt like that. Savage as in the surname of my grandparents, who ran their own business until my Grandmother passed away. They weren’t as fully immersed in it by then, but by that point I had seen them invest commitment, dedication and hard work on a daily basis whenever I stayed with them during the summer and during the three years that I lived with them whilst at Sheffield Hallam. I would often hear my Grandma berate the Royal Mail if the post hadn’t landed on the doorstep by around 7:15am (those were the days!) and I would often see them return from a job over twelve hours later, whatever day of the week it was. Tip: If you want regular hours, don’t become a private investigator.

They did alright for themselves, did Grandma and Granddad. She came from a comfortable background; he came from Hull (Hessle, to be precise). Back then, that was somewhat unusual. He worked in South Yorkshire Police before turning his hand (and brain) to private investigating. Which, by the way, is not as glamorous as it sounds. But they ran a successful home business, only ever employing a part-time secretary and maybe one or two other people, and did alright. I always admired the work ethic and the drive, as well as Grandma’s willingness to take a step or two down the ladder to be with the man she loved. And let me tell you, when you spend almost three months on holiday living in a house where nothing’s ever still, where people are always fretting and working, that stays with you. I never needed any management course to pick up that point: I had D. H. Savage Private Investigators. Priceless.

But Savage extends beyond my grandparents. It extends to my Aunts and Uncles, for example, i.e. my Mum’s younger siblings and their spouses. OK, technically the in-laws had different surnames, but cut me some slack. My grandparents’ house was the hub, and any one of the other family members would drop by on their way to wherever at some point. You didn’t need to schedule things days in advance and the front door was always unlocked, what with this being the North of England.
A special mention here to Rich&Rog (or is it Rog&Rich? anyway
), my mum’s twin sisters’ husbands = my uncles. They’re only fifteen years older than I am and, following Sheffield’s most spectacular double wedding, both had children in their mid-20s. I was fortunate to see them father their children and learnt many a valuable lesson from them, lessons which now I try to put to practice as Roberto and Daniel grow up. For all the love and admiration I have for my own Dad, the reality is that I don’t have the most vivid recollections of him dealing with me when I was a nipper – a void that watching Richard and Roger deal with their kids has filled beautifully. Cheers, Lads.

Now, what do I do with me Mother? What I mean is, Savage or Squintani?

On balance let’s go with Savage. You didn’t find many married women working in late 70s / early 80s Italy, and Mum was no exception. Dad worked, Mum look after me: it’s a model that Karen and I have so far managed to replicate, only a) she will go back to work when Daniel’s in school and b) I doubt my Dad changed anywhere near as many nappies as I have. When that big front door was closed on the fourth floor in via Cervetti Vignolo, Mum would make sure the good stuff made it through and the bad stuff stayed on. She made sure I didn’t watch violent TV, didn’t play with guns but had a Subbuteo pitch and Panini stickers. Years later she’d ruin forever my Subbuteo AstroPitch by folding it instead of rolling it when bringing it all the way to Portishead, but let’s gloss over that – it will only become an issue when the kids are old enough to want to play it, at which point there’s always eBay. She didn’t keep that door onto the outside world shut, but she did make sure I didn’t fall into all the bad things that lay out there. (Hmmm… that may actually inadvertently be a quote from something Springsteen said about his mum, I’m not sure… rings familiar!)
Anyway, in short: she did everything you would want your mum to do, including support Sheffield United and going on awaydays. I could never have asked for more.

3: Squintani
n.b.: ‘Savage’ only precedes ‘Squintani’ on alphabetical grounds
Applying stereotypes, you’d expect me to have grown up within a large Italian family: but you couldn’t be further from the truth! I grew up as an only child; my Dad was an only child; his Dad had just the one sister, who never married. So my Italian family was always a small, compact one – pretty much like my Nonna (Grandmother), who’s about 5ft. 96 she is, Nonna. She still ‘works’, be it ironing or running errands for “old people”, as she calls them. I asked her recently “how’s work?”, to which she replied: “slow”. You’re ninety-six, woman! Pack it in! Put your little feet up!
But she doesn’t. She can’t: she knows no different. Work is what she does, what she’s done since she was a teenager. Not that she does it purely out of the goodness of her heart: there’s always summat in it for her. Not a daft lass! And nowt wrong wi’that. There is no sense of dependency: she’ll take what’s going (e.g. pension), but she’ll still get on with it. And that’s a great lesson to learn.
Her husband, Nonno, was very similar. He was truly an artist, a carpenter whose creations still adorn my parents’ flat. He could have been an Olympian in 1940 but for the small detail of World War II keeping him and every other talented rower away from the water. He had skill and he had graft, he kept his word and expected others to do the same; he would oft be humble but he could also be very firm, be it with Nonna, his son/my dad, me… He passed away when I was nine years old, but by then he had made an impression on me that the years have done nothing to compromise. He used to spoil me rotten, too: not so much with gifts but with affection. Combine that with his craft and graft (people didn’t go to him for standard carpentry work and some would employ him from hundreds of miles away) and you probably understand why my eldest son is named after him.
(Roberto has two middle names: one is Karens maiden name, Miles, and the other my Granddad’s name, Miles. What with being a Squintani an’all, I’m not expecting any huge thanks when he has to write his name out in full or sign it)

And then there’s my Dad… yeah, I’ve picked up a lot from him. I owe him a lot: as with Mum, too much for this blog. So let’s pick out a big’un…
… I owe Dad a sense of perspective when it comes to work, even though it’s taken me a while to appreciate it. In Italy, you could leave school at 14, at which stage you had to choose amongst the various kinds of High School. Mine focused on languages (bit of a cheat, I know), others would look at classical subjects or accounting, more technical subjects… there was a broad range, and that is a big choice to make at 14. My Dad did enough to get a piece of paper that said he had a clue about numbers and joined the local bank, which he only left when he retired. For a long time from my late teens, I found this hugely frustrating. He spent his life as a cashier when to my eyes he was a lot better than that: he had intuition, foresight, people skills, confidence… he could have done better than settling for the first job he got. He could have easily got a degree but those were different times and he needed to start earning. But, even without a degree, he could have progressed further…
… now let’s look at his job again. He changed branches every few years during his early days before spending his last twenty years in the job either in Portofino, picturesque stop for many US cruise ships and just a 15’ scooter ride from home, or in Santa Margherita itself, a 5’ walk. He had a 90’ lunch break so he could come home for lunch every day. “Every day” being Monday to Friday, so his weekends were always free. And he had a level of job security I can’t even dream of, enjoying the same employment rights as an Italian public sector worker even though technically he was employed in the private sector: basically, short of shooting someone, he could never get fired. He had no e-mails to catch up on over the weekends, which he’d devote to sailing and football. So that frustration I used to feel is now unconditional respect, all the more so for looking at things as a father rather than a son…

…and that’s a perspective from which I have learnt far more from him: I always respected my Dad and his way of dealing with me and I hope to live that out in my fatherly days. I remember him politely chastising me once for writing “faccio i denti” (“do teeth”) rather than “lavo i denti” (“brush my teeth”) in a piece of homework describing my routine. He knew I was good enough to use precise words and reminded me accordingly. He wanted me to do the best I could, whatever that was. He accepted my sporting shortcomings and just ensured I enjoyed it. But he certainly realised that I would have opportunities he didn’t, thanks to University and my language skills, and wanted to ensure I made the most of him. I hope I’ve not let him down… I hadn’t when I last asked him.

To be absolutely clear: I never resented my Dad for not climbing a few more rungs. I just felt frustrated for him because I figured he’d be frustrated. Truth is, he was as happy as could be. And there was I worrying about the old codger.

4. Springsteen
Yes, Springsteen. Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen. Heard of him?
I first did in 1988. At the time he was touring with Sting, Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman and Youssou N’Dour on Amnesty International’s “Human Rights Now!” tour. Italian TV broadcast highlights from the tour’s finale in Buenos Aires on October 15, 1988. For reasons I have never established, my Dad recorded them and suggested I take a look. He liked music, my Dad, but was not an avid fan and there were no Springsteen LPs in the house. But he obviously had taste…
…I soon sorted out that lack of LPs by buying all Springsteen’s records. Took several months, but I got there. I loved the music, obviously, but I would also lie down and devour the lyrics. Principles such as commitment, friendship, respect, faith consistently backed up the power of any guitar or sax solo. To me songs like ‘Badlands’ and ‘The Promised Land’ are not just rock gems: they are statements of intent, of belief, of belonging. When you raise your hands alongside dozens of thousands other people, you are making no less a declaration than if you did so at church on a Sunday morning. Indeed, many members of my congregation do raise their hands during songs: I can’t bring myself to do so. Not that I oppose any great resistance, it just doesn’t come natural to me. Is that ‘natural’ as in post-Catholic upbringing (so more nurtured…), where displays of faith were far more restrained? Quite possibly, I don’t know. I just know that when I go to church I stand still even during the kids’ songs, whereas when I go to see Springsteen I raise my hand for three hours. And I’ve seen him a few times…

… the first time was in 1992, in Milan, and that was the first of 35 shows I have been privileged to be a part of. I’ve seen him in places as far and wide as New Orleans, Barcelona, Memphis, Paris, New York City, Verona… and many more, all the way to Asbury Park, New Jersey, where I met him backstage. That alone is a story in itself – for now, let it suffice that our eyes crossed and I froze. I was just too polite, always have been: the show’d just finished, he was dripping sweat and I thought it fair to allow him time to sort himself out. I’d see him later, right? Wrong. And you know what, he was probably expecting me to say something. But I didn’t. Hey-ho – if these are the regrets I take to my grave, I’ll have little to moan about.

I have also devoured countless books and interviews on the subject of Springsteen, who has actually evolved from scrawny Jersey kid to eloquent elder statesman, albeit one who still puts in three-hour shifts night after night after night. One of my favourite quotes of his is:
“You've got to be able to hold a lot of contradictory ideas in your mind without going nuts. I feel like to do my job right, when I walk out onstage I've got to feel like it's the most important thing in the world. I've also got to feel like, well, it's only rock and roll. Somehow you've got to believe both of those things.”
And that’s something I try to live by in my little world, in which I don’t perform in stadia nor have a bank balance that reflects that. Whether I’m doing my job or playing tennis, at that precise moment in time what I’m doing is the most important thing in the world. When that moment ends… well, then a little more perspective can be healthy.

Thanks, Bruce. Thanks for opening my eyes to lands of hope and dreams whilst keeping me well steeped in the real world. Thanks for being a living and breathing example of values such as commitment, determination, graft and friendship. Yes, a God-given talent helps, but you never took it for granted or relied solely on that. And see you in Manchester and Paris over the coming month!

5. Sheffield
OK, this is the tricky bit. I need to do it justice without, hopefully, offending anybody.

I was born in the now-demolished Jessop Hospital, Sheffield, on December 11, 1975. My parents were living in Italy but, after a bad experience with my elder brother’s delivery (he died within hours), my Mum thought it best to come home to South Yorkshire when it was my time. We headed to Italy just some six weeks later, yet I have always maintained that “you are where you were born”. And I don’t mean that it any derogatory way: I just genuinely believe that there are ties between you and the physical place in which you came into this world that survive all the miles and experiences that life has in store for you. That’s why, incidentally, I say and maintain that Italy haven’t won any one of their four World Cups without a foreigner in the side – see how many you can name (at least one per cup).

Sheffield… yes, in my heart I believe that there are values associated with the city that are an intrinsic part of me. The respect for graft, imbedded in its beautiful motto: “Deo adjuvante, Labor proficit”, or “With help from God, graft pays off”.
Given its fame as The People’s Republic of South Yorkshire, it’s surprising nobody added a ‘u’ in the Latin ‘Labor’ to make it “God willing, Labour will win” – but it’s just as well they didn’t. Four words that capture so much: I don’t do tattoos, but if I did… Now, I translated ‘Labor’ as ‘graft’, bringing together five years of Latin with a lifetime of Yorkshireness. But you can use a whole range of shades, from ‘work’ to ‘effort’: the key point is that self-advancement through what you do rather than who you were to start with is admired. Wherever you stand on life’s ladder, wherever you were and wherever you’re heading, that is a principle to be upheld.

To this day, I see Sheffield (from further than I’d like) as a city of grafters. And I mean that as the biggest compliment possible. People respect hard work, be it their own or others’. The question of social class is a quintessentially English one and one that will never go away. It’s not one I have ever really struggled with: I always felt I was middle class, never wondering where my next meal was coming from yet never expecting it to be served with accompanying silver spoon. Even in football I was always middle class, United matches watched from the South Stand where my family had, has season tickets: I didn’t make it to the Kop until we hosted Chelsea and that was the only ticket I could get hold of (and we really should have won that one!). As I type from my detached house in suburbia, I still feel the same way now that I have to pay for my own meals. Yet I sometimes wish I could throw away that label and call myself working class. Because that’s what I do: I work. I’m a grafter. Yes, I graft on a keyboard rather than in a steel mill, sometimes in fancy European cities or even in concrete jungle American ones. But graft is what I do and I’m proud of doing so: may that never change.

“So why did you leave, you wassack?”, you are entitled to ask. Good question. Yes, it was suggested to me, upon completion of my BA(Hons) International Financial and Legal Studies, that London was a more suitable location for me to start plying some sort of trade: and maybe correctly so. I say ‘suggested’… it was an almost throwaway comment by Uncle Rich and I ended up acting upon it! That was fourteen years and six jobs ago, before I moved into my house for a month and ended up buying it six months later thirteen years ago. But I do regret not having a go at finding work in Sheffield before heading Saath. I do sometimes wonder if I left because I felt I wasn’t worthy of Sheffield, hadn’t really earnt my right to live there, even after studying at Sheffield Hallam some inferiority complex kicked in and kicked me out. Who knows. Anyway, the fact is that not a day goes by when I don’t miss Sheffield and all the love it has for me. At the end of every day, though, I understand that we all make our choices, we all have our “what if” questions but ultimately we all have to be grateful for our lot and gerronwi’it. And, trust me, my lot’s not that bad. Besides, I know Sheffield would always forgive this wayward son and have him back. Shes a Northern Lass alright is Sheffield, dont hold on to a grudge.

(If it weren’t for the Sheffield bit, I would have found this a lot easier to write. I feel guilty about my relationship with Sheffield and its implications for how I feel about where I live today. I will cover that ground in a separate post over the next week or so: for now, thanks Sheffield for making me, and thanks Portishead for having me)

So Sheffield made the list whereas Santa Margherita Ligure, where I grew up, did not. It had the right initial… 7S, 8S, wouldn't have been a big deal
I just feel that, as a place, I picked up nothing from it. It is a small and sleepy town, with fewer than ten thousand inhabitants these days; it lives off tourism and I was never there during the summer, which I’d spend in Sheffield. But let it be clear that, whilst I picked up no specific values from Santa as a town, I picked up plenty of values there. The categories ‘Squintani’, ‘Scriptures’, ‘Sport’ and even ‘Springsteen’ are full of them. That said, in recent weeks I have come to be proud of my Italian heritage, to which for a long time I took offence and only six years I started respecting. But that’s a whole different can of worms and self-analysis

6. Sheffield United
Given the similarity of the values I associate with my city and my club, some may argue this is more of a subsection. But I’d tell them to have a word with themselves and sort it out.
Sheffield United embodies many of the values associated with Sheffield but also with sport, with family. It is a club with a long history of failures and the occasional success: most importantly, a club that, on the whole, has not changed its nature in light of either of those imposters. It is a club that has played fairer than most over the years: and if that is my biased, rose-tinted glasses assessment, so be it, it suits me. Its home, Bramall Lane, is where my family has been going for generations: my grandparents, my aunt and uncles, my cousins have all had season tickets there. My Mum may not have, but then she enjoyed the away days more. Aye, a lass in’t Sixties who enjoyed football away days! And that means the world to me, that connection between my family and the local club.
I was fortunate, when I was in my late teens, to work at Bramall Lane, at first as a well-paid interpreter and then as a virtually unpaid general dogsbody. Those experiences strengthened my perception of Sheffield United as a family club where everything matters but nothing is taken too seriously, where you can still smile even though your business has been defined as much more than life and death.

It is hard to explain that bond with your hometown football club to people who don’t enjoy it themselves. Sheffield United is an extension of Sheffield to me: as well as affinity with the club, I instantly have a bond with any fellow Blade I meet, for we share a common background of dashed hopes and disappointment. I wrote about this in an earlier entry, back in April. There’s no point in me trying to explain it because you either get it or you don’t: logic is pointless. My wife and I recently had a disagreement when United reached the play-off final scheduled for May 26th, the day we were set to return from our family holiday in North Devon. She couldn’t understand how I could even contemplate heading to Wembley alone instead of heading home with the family and I couldn’t understand how she could not understand how I could even contemplate heading to Wembley alone instead of heading home with the family. I ultimately did go to Wembley, not to enjoy myself (North Devon was far better for that) but out of duty to My Club, My City and My Family. My wife is a Reading-born Liverpool fan and, whilst she has made trips to Anfield, including one for a Champions’ League semi-final against Chelsea, I can’t help feeling that the fact that her team is not from her hometown prevents her from fully grasping what your club means to you when it is. As for whether that is even more so when you still live and breathe that city or when you don’t, thereby making it something which connects you back to it when you can’t be in it, who knows. But it matters an awful lot to me.

7. Sport
For the benefit of this entry, ‘sport’ encompasses everything from a kick-about in the local park to the Olympic Marathon. Not that I have any ambition to cover the whole spectrum, I just sometimes feel obliged to use some running reference.
I wrote in my previous post about feeling part of a community as part of a football fan. That alone brings with it a whole set of values, which needn’t always be positive, of course. But sport in general and team sports in particular can play (gerrit?) an extremely positive contribution in the formation of one’s values. They certainly did for me… I learnt to win but also to lose, to see efforts go rewarded but also unrewarded, to depend on others and to be there for them – in every sense.
During the football season, ahead of one of Sheffield United’s key matches, someone tweeted two of the best-known lines from Rudyard Kipling’s “If”:
“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same”
If sport teaches you nothing else, let it teach you that. For, no matter how seriously you take it, it really isn’t a matter of life or death, let alone more than that. And that is one of its joys: while you’re out there you can give it your all and be extremely intense, but when it’s all over you can walk away. Now, that’s sometimes easier said than done: I still recall the Portishead Lawn Tennis Club’s 2009 Mens Doubles Semi-Final and the dodgiest line call you’ll ever see from our opponents in the deciding tie-break. I was so annoyed that I had a t-shirt made featuring, on the back, tennis’ rule 12, namely that, as long as the ball touches the line, it is considered as ‘in’. I did wear it down there a few times, but nobody ever got it – maybe because I did write it in Spanish, to be fair. I’m sure you get the jist.

Well, that’s me done, folks. Thanks for reading – and thanks to each and every one of the people behind these seven Ss for the wisdom they sought to impart to. Something must have stuck. Thad like to think so, anyroad.

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