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San Patrignano... Inspiring, so why not here in the UK?

There can never be too many TV shows about Italian food and drink. Indeed Italy is the most perfect place in the world because it is so chaotic, so arrogant, so set in its ways of family-first, table-groaning, quality-not quantity, love, sex and above everything else, passion. So what has caught my attention to gromble about? Last night Antonio Carlucci, a well known, somewhat elderly, he'll pardon me for saying that, overweight, cuddly TV chef, famed for his mushroom risottos, visited N E Italy with an old friend, cooking as they go. You know the sort of thing. Personal reminiscences, slurps of fine wine, effervescing over a particularly smelly cheese or smouldering rabbit stew, more hand gestures than Simon Rattle, etc. Well forget all that (actually it was rather too 'its all about love' for me anyway). These portly chefs visited a place near Rimini called San Patrignano. Its a massive (2,000 'guests') community complete with hospital, vinery, cheese-factory, equestrian centre, sausage production centre, bicycle factory (indeed), and 50 other trades, all for people with a drugs problem. Apparently around 70% of the 20,000 or so people who've passed through their doors (most stay for several years) are now permanently off drugs.

But the real contribution they make, is that they give back people's dignity. They encourage, through peer mentoring and the infectious momentum of community enthusiasm, young people who have lost self-esteem, to recover it... big time! Some of the comments  were tear-jerking (admittedly to camera, and, the cynic might suggest, highly selected). Young lads mostly (although you could see a few girls in the background) said stuff like "I'm finally good at something", as he offered the chefs pieces of the cheese he'd produced, and "I hated it at first, but now I love it here. We're all one big family. I don't need drugs any more."

Interestingly, although they do have a medical centre which helps wean the 'guests' off drugs and treats some of them for associated conditions like hepatitis or AIDS, one of their busiest and 'most important' facility is their dental clinic. Drug addicts, on the whole, don't care about dental hygiene or prevention of decay etc. They have little self-respect, and one of the effects of this is that they don't have confident smiles - so the more they don't smile, the more they lose self-respect / gain self-loathing, the worse their teeth get. It's a spiral of despair. Break that spiral by giving them a respectable set of gnashers, and they'll not only smile more, they'll talk more. Which means they'll contribute more to society and gather momentum about feeling valued - which they will be - especially because everyone at the centre has been there before themselves. So community support is evident everywhere. The cameras caught several lads with arms around each other (OK - a very Italian thing perhaps - or maybe it's indicative of another sort of institutional passion, but that would be too cynical, so forget I suggested that).

Enough of me describing what goes on there, check it out yourself:



So all very nice and well done an Italian family 35 years ago for setting it up (they claim to be half funded by selling their own stuff, and half sponsored - not by government. Guests never pay). So inevitably I started thinking, why not here in the UK? What would it take, and would it work?

So. Would it work here...? Hmm. Yes, giving self-respect to people who've lost it, works (I have been a volunteer for the Prince's Trust in the UK for over 10 years, and have seen the power of restoring people's confidence in what they can achieve). Yes, giving people trades and constructive skills so they can stand on their own two feet financially, works (although it's not always easy to find work of course, even if you are skilled - but it will always be easier than not having skills). Yes, peer-mentoring works. A drug addict respects lessons from a reformed addict. A budding entrepreneur respects business advice from a successful entrepreneur more than a teacher or a parent.

All positive, universal stuff. But community passion? A common love of good food and wine? What would be the equivalent in the UK - Bottle beer? Fish and chips? Prawn Korma?. My worry is that we're just not Italian enough for it to work here in the same way. Let me explain:

Now I know that group stuff works to a point, and there are many British charities and training facilities already helping similar young people who have fallen by the wayside. But do kids here have deep within their genes, the same sort of respect for producing something of quality, something they can truly take pride in, that the hugging, emotionally effusive, passionate Latin youngsters all have just beneath their skin, and propagated by generation after generation of mammas (if not their own, then certainly their neighbours')? Sadly, I suspect not. What do we have that nationally we can take pride in? Of course we do have sausage, wine and cheese-makers. And of course they take the same amount of pride in what they produce as their Italian counter-parts. But suggest to a drug addict, or just an ordinary kid on the streets, that we can make them into the country's finest sausage/wine/cheese/or anything other than a singer, and they'll think you're mad. Italian kids want, deserve the same respect as British kids. But what does an Italian kid believe s/he might be able to do that will earn the respect of their society. Well an understanding of respect starts with whatever their parents believe stands for quality, and which they might feel proud that their child has become an expert in producing - and in Italy it's the things they do at San Patrignano.

So if we were to do something similar in the UK, what would be the equivalent? What could we teach a kid to do that their parents would be proud of, or at least their kids might hope that their parents and their generation might applaud? I don't mean become doctors and lawyers. They're givens. I mean artisanal training to provide skills that students will want to go on improving and honing all their lives, and to become and be recognised as a master-xxxx. Ultimately for them to become respected throughout our society for producing great xxxx. And earning a decent enough living taking a lifetime's pride in what they create.

And that is where I have to sadly sit back and admit, I just don't know. What artisan skills are we proud of as a nation? Sports maybe. It's hard to make this a profession, and it can very rarely last a lifetime. Engineering used to be a great British thing... but no longer. OK, we do have individuals like Dyson and Sinclair (remember him?), but long gone are the days of national engineering heroes like William Lyons or Brunel. Today we've got bankers (rich and loathed) and pop stars (thick). Are money and fame the only measures which we encourage our kids to use to value their achievements? Is that the only reason we give for them to go to school and take exams? Is that the only way that they believe their peers, parents and friends will respect them?

I started this blog by considering how we could get San Patrignano to work here (or in any other money / fame oriented country). There are definitely lessons from there we can take on board, and I'm sure we do (free dentistry for drug addicts? - politically very tricky of course), but I just don't believe we're sufficiently cultured as a society to offer alternatives to money and fame as the measures for our childrens' aspirations. What hope do they have of finding self-esteem if they believe they are failing to impress their own society by these artificial and shallow measures of success.

I have no idea how we're going to change, but I envy nations like Italy, for all their other faults, where they respect their craftsmen as national treasures, and thereby offer their young self-esteem they really can attain, if they only feel motivated to try.

So what enterprises might reasonably be expected to emerge successfully from a UK version of San Pat (as it will no doubt affectionately be known by those of us who struggle pronouncing an N after a G)? The answer is the same for SP UK as it is for all start-ups. Your customers will tell you. All businesses evolve. Not a single one does now what it was set up to do. The trick is to start somewhere sensible, with the minimal of funding (so you don't waste a penny on trying to sell what people don't want to buy), and buckets of tenacity. Then you listen very hard to what your customers, and especially people who don't want to be your customer, want to buy. Pure Darwinian enterprise.

It deserves to be tried here, but cautiously, and with as many lessons from SP Italy as possible taken on board.

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