Magazine article The Spectator

Facts and Figures

Magazine article The Spectator

Facts and Figures

Article excerpt

Low life

Facing each other across the piazza of the Sardinian village we stayed in last week were two bars, one right-wing and one communist. The communist bar sold cigarettes, sweets and stamps and the fascist bar sold newspapers, magazines and stationery, so even if we weren't drinking in them we were popping in and out. The communist bar was run by a breathless old comedian and his wife; the right-wing bar by the village mayor. You didn't have to be a political extremist to gain admittance to either bar. It just so happened that a group of young communist intellectuals, including some young women, habitually congregated in the one bar, while the other was the male preserve of hunters, local worthies and the retired. In the left-wing bar you sat down and in the right-wing bar you stood up. I liked both bars, but I got a lot drunker in the fascist bar, partly, I suspect, because the ceiling was much higher.

I first went into the communist bar early one morning to buy five stamps. The owner served me. I mimed 'stamp' by licking my thumb and pressing it on the counter. After looking high and low, he eventually produced a book of stamps from a sweet drawer. He couldn't read the tiny prices on the stamps, however, so he excused himself and went to look for his glasses. (I couldn't help him; my eyesight wasn't up to it either.)

Careful examination of the stamps revealed a price of 67 cents. Neither of us could do the sum 67 x 5 in our heads. Another search produced notepad and pen. In a shaky, rococo hand the owner wrote the figure 67 five times as a column, and drew a line underneath. Unfortunately, even with our combined intellects powerfully concentrated on these figures for a couple of minutes, their aggregate remained a complete mystery. He excused himself again and returned a moment later with his wife, also elderly. Taking turns at the pen, and disputing quietly together, they finally came up with a figure, which the owner wrote down and revealed to me with something of a theatrical flourish. Their defeated expressions suggested it was a ball-park figure, but if I was happy with it then so were they. Then I went and spoiled it all by asking for 20 Diana cigarettes as well.

One evening I went to the communist bar and one of the young communist intellectuals was serving. Nice chap. Spoke English too. Completely deluded though. …

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