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Percy Allum obituary | history books


In 1975, a 549-page book was published in translation by the Italian publisher Einaudi. Its original English title was Politics and Society in Post-War Naples; it came with a distinctive orange cover and its author was a British scholar from the University of Reading called Percy Allum. The book caused a sensation in Italy. A rigorous analysis of the workings of politics and society in Naples, it was written with verve, panache and crystal clarity. Most amazing of all, he was naming names.

Allum’s analysis of the political power structures used by the Christian Democracy Party and other groupings in this southern city, and in particular what he called the “clan” around the Gava family, and the “bosses” Silvio and Antonio Gava, sent shockwaves through Naples. and its political institution.

Allum, who died at the age of 88, showed with meticulous care how the vote and power were organized and how the patronage structures worked, linked to the political culture of the city, street by street, commission by commission, newsletter by newsletter. It was obvious to all that the Italian edition of Politics and Society would be controversial, so the translation was carefully watched, and there were fears that the Gavas would take the publication to court, which they never did. . Allum’s book made him a household name in Naples and drew the ire of Antonio Gava himself, who disparaged the British academic in interviews and reacted with irritation whenever the book was mentioned for the rest of his long political career.

How did Allum come to write such an extraordinary book, with its quotations from Mao and Stendhal, and its ironic use of proverbs, as well as sociological theory, history, political analysis and anthropology?

Allum’s professional life has encompassed a number of institutions and universities

Born in Thame, rural Oxfordshire, one of six children born to Doris (née Clark) and Robert Allum, he adopted the name Percy (instead of his first name, Peter) from an early age. He went to Downs School in Colwall in the Malvern Hills, where he was first inspired to draw by an art teacher called Maurice Feild. He would draw and paint for the rest of his life, exhibiting his work in France, Italy and the UK in subsequent years. To celebrate the New Year, Percy sent his friends hand-drawn cards.

Winner of a scholarship to Cambridge, he studied law and history there after his military service and also obtained a law degree. His parents had wanted him to join the family business (a laundry based in Thame) but a teacher had noticed his potential and insisted that he continue his education. His doctorate at Oxford with the Italian historian Christopher Seton-Watson was a pivotal moment and formed the basis of his book on Naples. Allum had previously spent time in Naples, learning Italian while living in the city as an English language assistant in the 1950s. In 1957 he met his future wife, Marie-Pierrette Desmas, in France. They married in 1961.

Allum’s professional life has encompassed a number of institutions and universities. He taught in Manchester, and from 1966 in Reading (where he never played the academic game, causing enormous delays in his promotion to the rank of professor, which took place in 1994), but also in Padua and in Naples, Paris and the Sudan. He was cultured and always aware of Italian and European politics, which fueled his teaching and later studies.

His masterful comparative textbook, Democrazia Reale, was written in Italian in 1991 (based on lectures he gave in Padua) and then published in English as State and Society in Western Europe. Once again, the clarity of his writing was able to combine high-level analysis, stories, an eclectic body of sources, ideas and passionate political positions, and deep and concrete research.

He was a leftist and often spoke out in favor of ethical positions in public life. At Reading, he was part of a wealthy group of Italianists who flourished there in the 1960s, 70s and 80s in the history, Italian and politics departments – such as Stuart Woolf, Paul Corner and Christopher Duggan . Later, he devoted years to another in-depth study of Christian Democrat power and culture, this time in northern Italy around Vicenza. This work has been published in a series of edited articles and books, often in collaboration with local scholars.

The great Italian novelist Luigi Meneghello was a key figure in the rise of Italian studies in Reading, and he wrote a fine portrait of Allum (Percy Agonistes) in his festschrift. Meneghello highlighted Allum’s “torrential” way of speaking, as he threw references, his long blonde hair flowing around his head, and his intense ability to debate and discuss current as well as historical issues.

With the support of Marie-Pierrette, whose devotion to her husband and their two children enabled her to write and travel extensively, and to spend time in archives and libraries, the Allums moved between France, Italy and the UK.

After his early retirement from Reading in 1995, Allum was appointed to a chair at the Università Degli Studi di Napoli “L’Orientale” in Naples, where he taught and researched for 10 years. It was a tumultuous time in Italian politics, and Allum was at the heart of political debates and issues, writing frequently and directly in Italian for the Italian daily newspapers La Repubblica and Unità, as well as speaking at numerous conferences and Congress.

His work had a profound influence on key figures in Neapolitan and national politics and society, for example the former mayor of Naples, Maurizio Valenzi, the Italian (and communist) president Giorgio Napolitano and a whole generation of magistrates and of judges who, thanks to Allum’s original writings on Naples, were able to engage in epic battles against the influence of the Neapolitan version of the mafia – the Camorra – in the 1980s, 90s and 2000s.

Later, in retirement from Naples, Allum continued to draw and exhibit his work, ranging from innovative cityscapes to intimate portraits and self-portraits. He suffered from dementia in the last period of his life.

He is survived by Marie-Pierrette, their son, Fabrice, and their daughter, Felia, and two granddaughters, as well as three sisters.

Percy Allum, scholar, b. July 22, 1933; died on April 28, 2022