Impressions

Impressions

All things pass,
Leaving their scars
Upon our skin.

Moments of ecstasy.
Trauma.
All of it, fleeting
Yet stubborn,
Fixed in its place.

The remains are there
For all to see,
A reminder not of who I am,
But of how
I have been made.

What can I be
But a palimpsest of
My experiences?

Shaped by how
I have lived.
Living by how
I have been
Shaped.

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Mob Mentality: A Brief History of The Mafia

Last week Trevor McDonald attempted the impossible; to shed light on the current state of the Mafia in America without taking into account the complex history of the organisation. The show, rather self-explanatorily titled ‘The Mafia with Trevor McDonald’ largely failed as an exercise, but that is perhaps more to do with the direction that was taken within the programme itself.

McDonald could have made an interesting exposition of the history of the mob from Sicily to America, tracking the rise in the late 19th century to its more recent fall from grace. Instead, however, it became a rather banal two hours of watching what felt like the same five minute interview over and over again, feeling like a circle of Dante’s infamous inferno. Abandon hope all ye who enter beyond the first five minutes, it gets no better.

It did, however, get me thinking about the cultural power of the Mafia, and how little we actually know about the inner workings of the gang. Sure, we have The Godfather, The Sopranos and Goodfellas as our pop-culture reference points but how accurate are they really? So I thought it would be a good excuse to dive into the history of the group, from its origins in Sicily to its more famous American cousin. In order to give a brief background to this, I am going to ignore the offshoots that have appropriated the name mafia in other countries such as Russia and China, and focus solely on the rise and fall of the organised crime unit that began in Italy and slowly planted its roots across the Atlantic.

The Italian Origins

So how did it all come about? Myths abound about where the Mafia came from, but it all probably started a lot more recently than you think. Despite various sources claiming it comes from the times of Arabic occupation of Sicily and the feudal system that was created because of that, actual evidence of the Mafia’s activities cannot be traced until the mid 1800s, just after the forced unification of Italy by Garibaldi.

According to John Dickie’s excellent book ‘Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia‘ the now eponymous crime organisation actually began in a somewhat unexpected place; the citrus groves of the Italian island. According to Dickie, by ‘the mid-1880s an astonishing 2.5 million cases of Italian citrus fruit arrived in New York each year, most of them from Palermo’.

This burgeoning industry required an incredible amount of start-up capital, but could make you rich if you spent your money right. This, however, created the ideal setting for the mob to hone their now famous intimidation tactics. To quote Dickie again:

‘As well as being investment intensive, lemon trees are also highly vulnerable. Even a short interruption to water supplies can be devastating. Vandalism, whether directed at the trees or the fruit, is a constant risk. It was the combination of vulnerability and high profit that created the perfect environment for the mafia’s protection rackets.’

So, the most famous criminal fraternity in the world has its roots in intimidating extremely wealthy lemon farmers in the late 19th century. Hardly the first image that springs to mind when you hear the word mafioso now is it?

Of course, the Cosa Nostra has moved on a little since those days, and we are principally aware of it because of the pop-culture influence it had during the late 70s through to the late 90s. From Scarface (loosely based on Al Capone) to The Sopranas, we are lucky to an abundance of riches in mob figures taking over our screens, but of course these principally focus on the American arm of the infamous mob, so how exactly did what started as a small but successful profiteering racket manage to make the leap across and ultimately have such a huge influence on the organised crime of the world’s most powerful democracy?

The Transatlantic Leap

The short and honest answer is basically immigration. From the 1870s onwards, America, and particularly New York, saw huge waves of immigration from Italy, some of whom were inevitably ‘men of honour’ who had had some exposure to the Mafia lifestyle in Sicily. This led to the establishment of the prototype for the American arm of the mob, the Five Points Gang, by Paolo Antonio Vaccarelli. This gang would be the making of some of the most famous names in Mafia folklore, from Al Capone to Charles Luciano, and was the foundation upon which the pyramids would later be built.

Luciano got his start in the Five Points Gang
Luciano got his start in the Five Points Gang

The American Mafia’s true period of success, however, came during America’s bizarre experiment with the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s. A fresh wave of Italians showed up, fleeing Mussolini’s Italy, and joined forces with their Mafia brethren that were already settled in the States. Together they created a huge industry of illegal alcohol production and bootlegging, and established themselves as the most powerful organised crime network in the country, finally overpowering their Irish-American rivals in a long-running battle that ended in Capone ordering the now notorious Valentine’s day massacre in 1929. This marked the beginning of Mafia domination that was to last decades.

For 50 years following Prohibition, the mafia had a hand in most industries of which you could think. After alcohol was made legal once more in 1933, they had to branch out into more traditional money making roots in order to keep the healthy profits they had accrued in those years, and they began getting involved with things as wide ranging as construction and drug trafficking to go along with their traditional racketeering, and thus they were cemented as easily the most successful crime syndicate in the country.

The Fall

The mafias true power, though, came from its mix of intimidation and influence, which allowed its code of silence, the famous omertà, to remain functional. Part of the success of the American Mafia was that anyone that was caught committing illegal activity knew they had a better chance serving their time  in prison than they had if they broke the code. Traitors were murdered in cold blood, while those who co-operated with the families’ wishes found key witnesses in their cases disappearing or refusing to testify, while those who did end up in jail always had their families looked after while they were away.

However, this could only last so long before the police began to offer better deals than even the Mafia could offer, and everything came crashing down in 1992 with the conviction of ‘Teflon Don’ John Gotti, head of New York’s Gambino crime family. Gotti had previously been acquitted in a number of high profile trials, hence his name – nobody could make anything stick to him.

The Teflon Don before his conviction
The Teflon Don before his conviction

This all changed in 1992, when Gotti’s former underboss Sammy Gravano agreed to testify against him, based on the fact that Gotti was looking to blame the family’s violent nature on Gravano. The FBI offered him protection to pin it on Gotti, with whom the blame lay, and the rest, as they say, is history. The illusion was shattered, and since then an increasing number of pentiti (former mafia men turned informants) emerged from the woodwork and undermined the power of the organisation by showing the authorities how it all worked.

This isn’t to say the Mafia has disappeared of course, only that now they hold significantly less sway than they once did, but they are still certainly alive and well, if perhaps not in the way we think of them in the movies. One thing McDonald’s documentary did do was shatter that illusion. Most men he interviewed were street level thugs in hoodies, hardly the suit wearing, fedora-tipping, gun-toting mobsters of our imaginations.

So there we have it, a very brief history of the development of the mafia from Sicily to the present day. It is far from comprehensive, of course, but I can only hope that it provides some context to any of you who saw the ITV documentary, or indeed have a passing interest in the subject. There are a number of fascinating longer histories of the subject out there, and the works of Mario Puzo are an excellent introduction to the genre, but if you want a more scholarly approach then I would certainly recommend John Dickie as a starting point, who himself gives an extensive bibliography of works worth reading on the subject for those interested in further reading.

Poetry 101 Rehab: Thaw

Again this poem is part of Mara Eastern’s Poetry 101 Rehab, which you can find here. I actually wrote this before seeing her prompt, but it fit so well that I decided to just submit it anyway. Hope you enjoy it.

The First Day of Spring

Just as in Winter
Even the prettiest flowers whither
And die,
Longing for the summer sun
That makes them whole.

As they wait,
So I wait for
Your return.

Knowing that until that
Beautiful, joyous first day
Of Spring,
I will never more
Be all that I can be.

Poetry 101 Rehab: Right

Shoutout once more to Mara Eastern and her Poetry 101 Rehab section, which you can find here http://maraeastern.com/2015/03/16/poetry-101-rehab-right/. This week’s theme is ‘Right’, and you can find my effort below.

Right

Their words washed over me,
Ever since I first understood them.
Almost everything I have heard
Optimistic, supportive, loving.

‘Life is what you make of it.
And you, little one,
You can be anything
You want to be’.

Now me, I’m not so sure.
I don’t know if I believe in
Their loving deception,
Their little white lies.

But there is one thing
I do know.

For the very first time
In my limited life,
I am utterly terrified
That they are wrong,
And I am
Right.

A Letter To Myself: A Reminder of Why I Write

Lately I feel as if I have just been going through the motions. I’ve been writing for the sake of writing, and deriving no joy from it. I’ve put pressure on myself to publish a set amount of blog posts per week, even if I haven’t felt like it.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with this, it helps me hone my writing style and practise creating even when I don’t feel inspired. That’s a useful trait to have, particularly for someone who wants to write for a living. However, it brings with it a strange sadness.

Before I started forcing myself to write X number of words a month, I could never imagine a world where I didn’t want to write every minute of every day. Now I am living in it. It is as if I have forgotten why I started writing in the first place, what it is that drew me to the keyboard and whispered to me that I should let the words flow. This is my attempt to recapture that, by reminding myself of why exactly I started doing this.

First, I write because there is still injustice in the world. People may say that one voice does not matter, but that one voice is infinitely louder than the silence that stems from ignorance of issues. And so I have, usefully or otherwise, taken it upon myself to highlight events that I think err on the side of the morally wrong, or the morally dubious. I try to find causes that I really care about and bring them forward into the eyes of you, my audience, who are kind enough to read my musings.

But there is so much more to it than that. What I have just said may seem very noble, but the reason I write is the opposite of selfless. I write for the same reason that so many people love to read. When I am doing it, nothing else matters. I can escape from the horrors or injustices I am writing about by pouring myself onto the paper upon which I am analysing them. In that moment, the outside world becomes irrelevant and I can say what I like in the knowledge that, at the end, I will have reached some form of closure with myself.

I write when I struggle to express myself, when I know that I have an opinion but I can’t pin it down. That’s when I open my computer and let my thoughts bleed onto it. It’s a way for me to debate my ideas with the privilege of being allowed to find out what I think as I go along.

Most of all, however, I write because it is a reminder that I am not defined by who I am, or what I do, or the mistakes I have made in my life. Some might say that you can tell the most from someone by the way they speak when you meet them. I disagree. Any piece of writing is a beautiful window into someone’s personality. It is like a self-portrait, or a photograph, from which you can begin to discern the psyche of the author at that particular moment in their life. It is very difficult to hide or conceal when you write, and that is why I adore it as an art form. Emotions come in their purest state, and are laid bare for all to see who care to do so.

Everyone has a reason for writing, but personally I love the idea of words cascading from my head onto the paper, and making a permanent mark, an indelible reminder of how I was feeling at the moment I produced that piece. My writings are insights into my innermost thoughts, things I might never dare to say out loud if I hadn’t written them down first, and I am thrilled that I can share that with the world.

Ultimately writing is something that allows me to express myself when otherwise I might not be able to do so. It is a way for me to combat what I find unjust about the world, and add my voice to the choir of authors singing disharmoniously on this beautiful invention that is the Internet.

Writing permits my thoughts to transmit themselves to something more tangible, if only I can restrain them and force them to stand together in something approaching a consolidated process. It is my mouth when I cannot speak and my eyes when I cannot see. It is me, distilled into a more concentrated form, and put out for all to view, something I would never dare to do without the protection of a pen and paper to guard what I have exposed.

So there we have it. That’s why I write. Please, please comment and let me know what inspires you to write. I know writer’s block is something we all go through and this has been my way of dealing with it. I would love to hear thoughts on the piece and if anyone else has other reasons for writing, I’m always interested.