Percy Allum obituary

Academic whose bold analysis of Neapolitan politics and the Camorra sent shock waves through the city

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 academic from the University of Reading called Percy Allum. The book caused a sensation in Italy. A rigorous analysis of the way politics and society worked in Naples, it was written with verve, panache and crystal clarity. Most incredibly of all, it named names.

Allum’s analysis of the political power structures used by the Christian Democracy party and other groupings in that southern city, and particularly 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 aged 88, showed with meticulous care how voting and power were organised and how clientelist structures, which were connected to the political culture of the city, worked – street by street, committee by committee, ballot paper by ballot paper. It was obvious to all that the Italian edition of Politics and Society would be controversial, so the translation was carefully monitored, and there were fears that the Gavas would sue on publication, which they never did. Allum’s book made him a household name in Naples, and attracted the ire of Antonio Gava himself, who would denigrate the British academic in interviews and react with irritation whenever 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 encompassed a number of institutions and universities
Allum’s working life encompassed a number of institutions and universities Photograph: none

Born in Thame, in rural Oxfordshire, one of six children of Doris (nee Clark) and Robert Allum, he adopted the name Percy (instead of his given name, Peter) at an early age. He went to the Downs school in Colwall in the Malvern hills, where he first became inspired to draw thanks to 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 later years. To celebrate the new year, Percy would send his friends hand-drawn cards.

Winning a scholarship to Cambridge, he studied law and history there after military service, and also took a further law degree. His parents had wanted him to go into the family business (a laundry based in Thame) but a teacher had noted his potential and insisted he continue his studies. His PhD in Oxford with the Italian historian Christopher Seton-Watson was a crucial moment, and formed the basis for his Naples book. Allum had already 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 working life encompassed a number of institutions and universities. He taught at Manchester, and from 1966 at Reading (where he never played the academic game, leading 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 well read and always bang up to date on Italian and European politics, which fed into his teaching and further studies.

His magisterial 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 man of the left, and often spoke out in favour of ethical positions in public life. In Reading he was part of a rich 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 dedicated years to another deep study of Christian Democrat power and culture, this time in the north of Italy, around Vicenza. This work was published in a series of articles and edited 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 beautiful portrait of Allum (Percy Agonistes) in his festschrift. Meneghello underlined Allum’s “torrential” way of speaking, as he threw out references, his long, blond hair flapping around his head, and his intense ability to debate and discuss up-to-date but also historical issues.

With the support of Marie-Pierrette, whose dedication to her husband and their two children allowed him to write and travel widely, and 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 in the Università Degli Studi di Napoli “L’Orientale” in Naples, where he taught and researched for a further 10 years. This was a tumultuous time in Italian politics, and Allum was at the heart of debates and political issues, writing frequently and directly in Italian for the Italian dailies La Repubblica and l’Unità, as well as speaking at numerous conferences and congresses.

His work had a deep influence on key figures in Neapolitan and national politics and society, for example, the one-time mayor of Naples, Maurizio Valenzi, the Italian president (and communist) Giorgio Napolitano and a whole generation of magistrates and 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.

In later years, on retirement 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 final period of his life.

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

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


John Foot

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Paul Ginsborg obituary
Historian, author and leftwing activist who was professor of contemporary European history at the University of Florence

John Foot

03, Jun, 2022 @4:36 PM

Article image
Philip Morsberger obituary
Other lives: Accomplished painter and first American to hold the position of Ruskin master of drawing at Oxford University

Christopher Lloyd

26, Feb, 2021 @6:05 PM

Article image
Letter: Percy Allum obituary
Michael Kings writes: Among an idiosyncratic bunch of academics in the politics department, he stood out as radical

Michael Kings

26, Jul, 2022 @3:45 PM

Article image
Betty Wood obituary
Other lives: Historian of slavery, gender and religion in America

Ben Marsh

15, Oct, 2021 @7:17 PM

Article image
Roy Wisbey obituary
Other lives: Leading figure in British German studies who was a pioneer of humanities computing

Jeremy Adler

18, Dec, 2020 @2:59 PM

Article image
Muriel Chamberlain obituary
Other lives: Professor of history promoted to head of department at Swansea University who was also the university’s first female dean

Michael Simpson

31, Mar, 2022 @6:23 PM

Article image
Michael Page obituary
Other lives: Physical-organic chemist who made a formidable impact at the University of Huddersfield

Guy Lloyd-Jones

14, Feb, 2021 @4:52 PM

Article image
Gerard Hemsworth obituary
Artist who played a key role in the emergence of a new kind of British conceptualism

Charles Darwent

24, Feb, 2021 @6:12 PM

Article image
Brenda Almond obituary
Other lives: Philosopher and ethicist who promoted the application of her subject to practical concerns and served on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority

Martin Cohen

07, Feb, 2023 @4:59 PM

Article image
Marisa Merz obituary
Italian sculptor who was the sole female artist associated with the arte povera movement

Oliver Basciano

26, Jul, 2019 @11:56 AM