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The Sicilians who can't escape the Mafia

Giovanni Spadoro at work Image copyright ALAMY

For many, life in Sicily is played out against the backdrop of corruption. The Mafia, if not as pervasive as it once was, still exerts considerable influence over the island.

Giovanni Spadoro spends his days mending saucepans and fixing old shower heads, smelting metal inside a tiny, charred-walled cave which has served as his workshop since 1947 on the edge of the town of Scicli, Sicily.

Now 85 years old, surely he must be considering retirement, I suggest, as I sit with him over the course of a weekday afternoon, during which time not a single person stops to buy a pan.

Spadoro shakes his head. "I'll keep going for as long as I'm capable," he says, standing up and walking about the cave to prove his mobility. "For six days a week, I have earned my bread."

The hills around us are dotted with hundreds of caves like this one. Until well into the 1970s they were occupied by as many as 2,000 people who lived and raised their families without any modern facilities. The residents were then moved into social housing in another part of the town.

More recently, the stylish Milanese have been buying and renovating the caves as novelty residences. You can snap one up for around 7,500 euros. How times change.

Image copyright ALAMY

When the film director Pier Paolo Pasolini visited in 1956, he compared the caves and their community to a scene from Dante's Inferno. And yet my friend Teresa's grandfather was born in a cave and went on to become mayor of Scicli in the 1950s.

In town, when I quietly ask around about how the local Mafia - who always have their eye on any kind of construction - feel about this new little housing boom, I am met with sour shrugs. "They are here," someone says, "but we don't know these people."

There is, in fact, less Mafia activity in this far southern part of Sicily than you might imagine. You see fewer of those Mafia-linked abandoned housing projects, high-rise flats inexplicably built in the middle of supposedly protected orange groves, endless roadworks and half-finished bridges that scar the landscape further north.

Tonnes of dead fish were recently washed up along the coast near here, however. This, locals said, smelled of the Mafia - money ruinously diverted from one budget elsewhere, corners being cut, jobs done badly, if at all.

It was ever thus in super-corrupt Italy of course, but friends in Sicily speak of a worsening of the country's perennial mood of apathy, of nervous listlessness and iniquitous social collusion.

The facts do speak for themselves, with 16 of Italy's 20 regions - from the north to the south of the country - currently under investigation for the misappropriation of public funds worth around 60 million euros.

More than half of the population are currently employed by the government - doing sometimes entirely pointless and deeply spurious jobs.

Ways of cheating the system seem positively encouraged, and the cost of tax evasion is estimated at anything up to 275 billion euros a year. Never forget that the former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, during one election campaign, said people were "morally justified" to withhold their taxes.

"It's a mafia logic, a mafia mentality," rages my Sicilian friend Luca. "People never do what's right any more, only what lines their pockets.

"There is no meritocracy, no quality in public affairs, no structure, no certainty of punishment and no belief in your rights as a citizen if you protest. This is now entirely the culture of the chancer, of the wide-boy." The mafia, he says, "has won".

Image copyright Thinkstock

We're driving past olive trees heavy with deep-green fruit behind a truck piled with honeydew melons and white onions. Terraced vineyards and misted hazelnut groves stretch to our right and left along the quiet roads towards Catania. It's easy to forget that this is a country that leaves many with such a bitter taste in the mouth.

Luca is considering running for mayor in his town close to Messina on an anti-corruption, anti-Mafia ticket.

I've known Luca since I was 19. And although I encourage him - he is a moral man and would not flinch at the challenge - it does strike me later that it might not be all that wise. The Mafia in northern Sicily remain strong.

In the down-at-heel Kalsa quarter of Palermo, I watch as a man, bold as brass, pulls up a chair on the pavement and receives his "pizzo" - protection money handed over by local stallholders and restaurant owners.

In the background, you can hear the choir practising for Sunday through the doors of the nearby church. There is no protest, no rancour, no questioning of the status quo.

You can almost imagine this man saying, like Giovanni Spadoro in his cave in the south, "for six days a week, I have earned my bread," such is the perpetual muddling of what constitutes work, respect, and self-respect in Sicily, as the migrating swallows dart along the narrow autumn streets like little hot whirlwinds towards Africa.

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