You do not need to be a reader of this column to surmise that the South of Italy is as close as one can get to Paradise without being a Nazi war criminal, in which case, needless to say, one resides in South America.  We’ve got everything in Sicily, from medlars in springtime and tangerines in the deep of winter to roast goat at Easter and new wine in Christmastide.  We have girls with eyes like black olives and the olives themselves, plump as pretty girls.  Da noi, the sea, the sun, and the song are civilization’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 pharmacy promotions with national character.  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.  Come to think of it, that doesn’t happen either, because the doctors over here are good at recognizing 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 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, 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 the famous German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.  You want to be like Nietzsche?  Go live in Basel.  Don’t mess around with the doctors in Palermo.  You’ll be six foot 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 foolish to order an espresso in London and dangerous to eat 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 ancient cobbles, with a burly lad dressed like a fireman inside with me.  The lad tried to stick something into a vein in my arm, but only halfheartedly, 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.  On arrival to the local hospital, the lad and his fire-brigade associates carefully 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 center 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 medicine 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 wailed all the way from Heathrow in the cab heading for St. Mary’s Hospital.  Every moment 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.

In a month’s time I should be up on my feet.