In 1975, a 549-page book with an orange cover by Percy Allum, a British academic from the University of Reading, was published by the Italian publisher, Einaudi, in translation. It was titled Politics and Society in Post-War Naples. The highly-regarded book caused a stir in Italy due to its rigorous analysis of politics and society in Naples. The work was written with panache, crystal clarity, and a depth of knowledge, revealing information that had never been exposed before. The book named names, much to the shock of Naples and its political establishment.
Allum focused his analysis on the political power structures used by the Christian Democracy party, and other groups, in Napoli. The "clan" around the Gava family and the "bosses", Silvio and Antonio Gava were also scrutinized in the book, which sent shock waves through the city and its political structure. In his book, Allum showed exactly how voting power was organized. He highlighted how clientelist structures, linked to the political culture of the city, worked on a street-by-street, committee-by-committee, and ballot-paper-by-ballot-paper basis. The book’s controversial aspect was anticipated even before the Italian translation hit the shelves, with Allum’s publishers ensuring that the translation process was carefully monitored. Some feared that the Gavas would sue on publication, however, this never happened. Allum’s book made him an instant household name in Naples while also earning him the ire of the Gava’s, who continued to speak ill of the British academic throughout their political career.
So how did Allum come to write such an extraordinary book, employing quotations from Mao and Stendhal, and making ironic use of proverbs, alongside sociological theory, history, political analysis, and anthropology?
Born as Peter Allum in Thame, rural Oxfordshire, one of six siblings to Doris (nee Clark) and Robert Allum, he adopted the name Percy at a young age. He went to school at the Downs school in Colwall, located in the Malvern hills. It was at this school he became interested in drawing, thanks to an inspiring art teacher called Maurice Feild. Allum continued to draw and paint for the rest of his career and exhibited his work in France, Italy, and the UK. He would send his friends hand-drawn cards to commemorate the new year.
Allum won a scholarship to Cambridge post-military service and studied law and history, earning another law degree in the process. Against his parents’ wishes, who wanted him to join their laundry business located in Thame, a teacher noticed his potential and encouraged him to continue studying. His Ph.D. work under Christopher Seton-Watson in Oxford was the foundation for his book on Naples. Allum had already lived in Naples and learned Italian while there as an English language assistant in the 1950s. He met Marie-Pierrette Desmas, his future wife, in France in 1957, and the two married in 1961.
Allum’s career spanned numerous institutions and universities. He taught at Reading, where he didn’t participate in the academic game, leading to huge delays in his promotion to professor until 1994. He also taught in Padua and Naples, Paris, and Sudan. Allum was well-read and up-to-date on Italian and European politics, which provided essential input to his teaching and further research.
Allum’s magisterial comparative textbook, Democrazia Reale, was written in Italian in 1991, based on lectures he gave in Padua, and later published in English as State and Society in Western Europe. Once again, his writing displayed clarity, combined with a high-level analysis of issues, flow of stories, an eclectic array of sources, ideas, and passionate political positions, alongside deep and concrete research.
Allum was a man of the left. He often spoke out in favor of ethical positions in public life and was part of a group of Italianists at Reading who thrived in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, working in history, Italian, and politics departments. His colleagues included Stuart Woolf, Paul Corner, and Christopher Duggan. Allum’s scholarship continued with a long study of Christian Democrat power and culture, this time in Northern Italy, around Vicenza, with the publication of several articles and edited books, often in collaboration with local scholars.
The great Italian novelist, Luigi Meneghello, was instrumental in the rise of Italian studies in Reading, and he wrote a beautiful portrait of Percy Allum (Percy Agonistes) in his festschrift. Meneghello highlighted Allum’s "torrential" way of speaking and his intense ability to debate and discuss recent and historical issues, referencing his long, blond hair, which always flapped about his head.
With Marie-Pierrette’s unwavering dedication to her spouse and their two children, they were able to travel extensively between France, Italy, and the United Kingdom, allowing him to conduct research in archives and libraries and write. His early retirement in 1995 from Reading paved the way for his appointment as a professor at the Università Degli Studi di Napoli “L’Orientale” in Naples, where he continued teaching and researching for an entire decade. During a time of great political upheaval in Italy, Allum emerged as a key player in the debate and political landscape, frequently publishing in noteworthy Italian dailies such as La Repubblica and l’Unità and delivering speeches at various conferences and congresses.
His research had a profound impact on prominent individuals in the Neapolitan and national political and social realms. For example, one-time mayor of Naples, Maurizio Valenzi, communist Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, and a generation of magistrates and judges drew inspiration from Allum’s original writings on Naples to combat the Neapolitan version of the mafia, the Camorra, during the 1980s, 90s, and 2000s.
After retiring from his post in Naples, Allum continued to showcase his talent as a painter by creating unique cityscapes, intimate portraits, and self-portraits. Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with dementia in the later years of his life. He is survived by his wife, Marie-Pierrette, their son Fabrice, their daughter Felia, two granddaughters, and three sisters.