Percy Allum obituary | History books

In 1975 a book of 549 pages 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 academic from the University of Reading named Percy Allum. The book caused a sensation in Italy. A thorough analysis of the way politics and society functioned in Naples, it was written with suspense, panache and crystal clarity. Most incredible of all, it gave names.

Allum’s analysis of the political power structures used by the Christian Democrat party and other groupings in the southern city, and in particular what he called the “clan” around the Gava family and the “bosses” Silvio and Antonio Gava, sent shock waves through Naples and its political establishment.

Allum, who has died at the age of 88, showed with careful care how voting and power were organized and how clientelist structures linked to the city’s political culture worked – street by street, committee by committee, ballot by ballot. It was obvious to everyone that the Italian version of Politics and Society would be controversial, so the translation was closely monitored, and there were fears that Gavas would sue at the time of publication, which they never did. Allum’s book made him a household name in Naples and attracted Antonio Gava himself, who would demean the British academic in interviews and react with irritation when the book was mentioned for the rest of his long political career.

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

Percy Allum's working life included a number of institutions and universities
Allum’s working life included a number of institutions and universities

Born in Thame, rural Oxfordshire, one of six children of Doris (nee Clark) and Robert Allum, he adopted the name Percy (instead of his first name, Peter) at an early age. He attended Downs School in Colwall in the Malvern Hills, where he was first inspired to draw thanks to an art teacher named Maurice Feild. He would draw and paint the rest of his life and exhibit his work in France, Italy and Britain in later years. To celebrate the new year, Percy would send his friends hand-drawn cards.

When he won a scholarship to Cambridge, he studied law and history there after military service and also took an additional law degree. His parents had wanted him to go into the family business (a laundry based in Thame), but a teacher had noticed his potential and insisted that he continue his studies. His Ph.D. in Oxford with the Italian historian Christopher Seton-Watson was a crucial moment, and formed the basis of his book of Naples. Allum had already spent time in Naples and learned Italian while living in the city as an English-speaking assistant in the 1950s. In 1957, he met his future wife, Marie-Pierrette Desmas, in France. They married in 1961.

Allum’s working life included a number of institutions and universities. He taught in Manchester and from 1966 in Reading (where he never played the academic game, which led to huge delays in his promotion to professor, which came in 1994), but also in Padua and Naples, in Paris and in Sudan. He was educated and was always up to date on Italian and European politics, which nourished his teaching and further studies.

His master’s 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 analyzes, stories, an eclectic collection of sources, ideas and passionate political views, and deep and concrete research.

He was a left-winger and often spoke for ethical views in public life. In Reading, he was part of a wealthy group of Italians who flourished there in the 1960s, 70s and 80s in history, Italian and political departments – such as Stuart Woolf, Paul Corner and Christopher Duggan. Later, he dedicated several years to yet another in-depth study of the power and culture of the Christian Democrats, this time in northern Italy, around Vicenza. This work was published in a number of articles and edited books, often in collaboration with local researchers.

The great Italian writer Luigi Meneghello was a key figure in the emergence of Italian studies in Reading, and he wrote a beautiful portrait of Allum (Percy Agonistes) in his festival script. Meneghello emphasized Allum’s “torrential” way of speaking as he threw out references, his long blonde hair fluttering around his head and his intense ability to debate and discuss current but also historical issues.

With the support of Marie-Pierrette, whose dedication to her husband and their two children enabled him to write and travel far and wide, and to spend time in archives and libraries, Allums moved between France, Italy, and Britain.

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 another 10 years. This was a tumultuous time in Italian politics, and Allum was at the heart of debates and political issues, often and directly writing in Italian for the Italian dailies La Repubblica and l’Unità, as well as speaking at numerous conferences and congresses.

His work had a profound impact on key figures in Neapolitan and national politics and society, such as the one-time mayor of Naples, Maurizio Valenzi, the Italian president (and communist) Giorgio Napolitano and a whole generation of judges and judges who, thanks to Allum’s original writings on Naples, they 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.

In recent years, after retiring from Naples, Allum continued to draw and exhibit his work, which ranged from innovative cityscapes to intimate portraits and self-portraits. He suffered from dementia in the last period of his life.

He leaves behind Marie-Pierrette, their son Fabrice and daughter Felia and two grandchildren and three sisters.

Percy Allum, academic, born July 22, 1933; died April 28, 2022

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