The Rome Plague Diaries
Lockdown Life in the Eternal City

By Matthew Kneale
Publication date: February 18


In times when many of us have been wondering why we didn’t get ourselves stranded near a Caribbean beach, Matthew Kneale decided there was nowhere on the planet he would rather be locked down than where he was in his adoptive city of Rome.

Kneale has lived in the eternal city for nearly two decades, and when he rejoiced in his context in April last year, Italy was in strict lockdown, battling what seemed then to be the cruellest weeks of the pandemic.

Nearly a year on and we’re all hardened and saddened.  Some of Kneale’s observations about mask-wearing, social distancing and etiquette in shops have become entirely banal and the Italian prime minister in whom he had considerable confidence has gone the way of so many post-war Italian political leaders.

But Kneale’s wisdom, knowledge and skill as a writer mean he has given his lockdown diaries enduring relevance and turned them into a new hybrid genre: diary-cum-guidebook-cum-history-lesson.  To cheer us all up, he throws in a few Italian film tips and recipes, without which no portrait of Italian life would be complete.  Italy’s national cuisine, which transforms the simplest of ingredients, is itself a triumph over adversity.

“It could be a great deal worse,” is a refrain and a sentiment anyone can be forgiven for sharing in Italy, given that the country’s cultural feast makes it almost too easy to forget its enormous problems of corruption, unemployment, tax evasion and now COVID-19.

Nearly a year on, it is a great deal worse and the death toll Kneale was lamenting of more than 10,000 deaths has multiplied many times over.

For me, one of his most prescient questions is: “Are we becoming institutionalised?”

After so many months of fearing the outside world as much as we long for it, that risk is much greater than when Kneale threw it lightly into mix of informed generalisations on Roman life.

In general, he errs on the side of the overly upbeat, but it’s a danger of which he appears well aware as he strives against smugness, tempers his optimism with reminders of the crippling uncertainties, and is so tolerant he could only offend a bigot.

He is passionate enough about Europe to have taken German nationality (his mother Judith Kerr, the illustrator and writer, fled Nazi Germany for Britain, where he was born), but he begins his very balanced mini essay on why island Britain decided to leave the continental club with the apologetic “at the risk of making myself unpopular with some readers”.

The bigger issue could be that his pro-European readers find him too forgiving.  They will still rejoice in a work that is the next best thing to experiencing first-hand the rich texture of Roman life.

Barbara Lewis © 2021.