On Writing ‘Framing Ilva’ – George Sandison

The landscape of Southern Italy coexists with myth. Antiquity is commonplace, and life there centres around history in a way I envy. It’s easy to romanticise the food, the weather and the sweltering, lazy summers, but my fascination with the region goes deeper. I was born in Hertfordshire, the birthplace of the new town project, and now live in London where the ancient and modern rub shoulders without respect.

I should confess I fell in love with one of Puglia’s expatriates long before I saw it, so perhaps I am biased. But my mind, still savouring aspects of childhood, inevitably fills it with Harryhausen’s skeletons, Roman legions and the ash of Pompeii. The endless olive trees fascinate me, with their twisted trunks like frozen jets of wood. My milieu is the metropolis, human development and scant greenery in managed spaces. Puglia is farming land: necropolises lie half-forgotten, a few sun-baked signs their only indicators; walled towns top every hill, belltowers continuing vigils centuries old: and sometimes, undesirable but lucrative industries take root.

Ilva is one of those names everyone knows there. It is bedded in the national consciousness like a tick, perhaps like Sellafield is for me, except this is still happening. I first came to hear of it from a news report my in-laws were watching. My wife translated, told me about pollution, corruption, terrifying rates of cancer in Taranto and the surrounds. This was a wound on such a scale, a depth of feeling I wasn’t born in to. It was a lens into the dichotomies of Italy, a country of incredible beauty and fundamental divisions.

Briefly, it came to our attention, in the UK.

This story was written shortly after I visited a beach past Taranto with my wife and her cousin. We drove through the city to get there, and whilst they chatted I was glued to the views we passed. The cranes and the concrete frames are real. The beach, the quasi-solid sand and the flat, inert sea are real. I am told the dust is real as well, though we didn’t stop to find out.

Like all stories, it’s not all true. I have described the landscape as I remember it, and as befits the country, and its wounds, that I have come to know. That’s why it had to be told through the camera lens, perhaps, to stop me taking ownership of it. It’s a piece about witnessing, and understanding how the experience of a thing can be distorted, or recognised truthfully.

I am fortunate enough to be friends with Aliya Whiteley, a writer and voice of wisdom, and she has said to me she writes to understand a thing. I find I agree. It has to be caught and codified, with my final understanding being as much about what I didn’t say as what I did. My relationship with Puglia is ever-deepening, and I doubt this will be the last I will write for the place, which is why I worry deeply what any Italian who reads it will think. I fear I’ll have left out the wrong things, done Taranto an injustice, or cast the wrong light on the scene.

But that says more about me than Italy. My country taught me to bend in the wind. Italy would have me set in stone.

You can read Framing Ilva’ in Issue 8 of The Lonely Crowd.

George Sandison is Managing Editor at Unsung Stories, an independent press publishing literary and ambitious speculative fiction. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Unofficial Britain, Shelf Heroes, KZine, Bourbon Penn, In Shades, Pornokitsch, Jupiter SF, Perihelion and more.

© George Sandison, 2017. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2017.