Saturday 24 November 2012

A Story from Miss V About Italian Internment,

Feedback counts. We writers are needy people. We like to know that people read us and get us. This has always been so with my novels: every letter or note of appreciation warms my heartAnd response is equally significant with blogging and the world wide web. If someone takes the trouble to comment on the blog or email a response to a post I am very excited to know that someone somewhere has been touched by my notions.And now to my delight I have had wonderful verbal and email response to the Letters to Ilio from the Cafe de Luxe. Different people were touched in different ways by this post.

Sometimes people respond to a post by telling me their own story. This was the case with my London friend Miss V. (I didn't even know she read the blog...) Miss V comes from an  artistic and theatrical family herself and is a wonderfully ironic storyteller. But I had never heard this story until she read that post and wrote to me:

Dear Wendy,
I have just read your piece on the Italian cafe owners and the most interesting book you mention, both of which struck a cord with me. I will definitely buy it.
My former husband, Joe, had a musician Father who, like so many foreigners living in this county, was interned on the Isle of Wight during the War. Later he taught the cello at the Royal College of Music, but when he was young was a member of various dance bands which played in the fashionable night clubs of the day. One of his great stories, regaled in an almost unfathomable Italian accent-he spoke very bad English! was the time when the the ultra glamorous Prince of Wales asked him to play a certain tune, saying he would tip him later. He never did. `That man owed me money' he used to say !
Anyway, in the War there were loads of Italian musicians in the Camp, people who later became famous who all formed a huge orchestra. One imagines they were among the lucky ones who had something to do. Later he married a girl from his town in Northern Italy and moved to Dean Street, where Joe was born. He was their only child and Mama called him Pupo (baby) always !!
Later his parents divorced and Papa returned to Italy, Mother decamped to Tunbridge Wells. She died of cancer but Papa came to my wedding and I have a wonderful photo of him, in his 90's but still handsome and charming, talking to my Ma who fortunately spoke very good Italian.They were entranced by one another !

With much love 

A great story
- it could inspire a great novel couldn't it?

 And now it seems to have set off a chain of stories in my head. In searching the net for information about Italian internment I came across an interesting article by TANYA STARRETT telling the story of her grandfather Tomasso Pia. Fascinating stuff.All this convinces me that so many families have their own extraordinary stories of complex identity and citizenship. The novel is a great form to explore the ambiguities and contradictions embedded in such stories. Small Island by Andrea Leveyis a great example of this, I am not aware of a novel that springs out of these powerful stories of Italian internment in Britain. Let me know if you know of one.

I hope you enjoyed this post. As I said, feedback has its own delights.


Sunday 18 November 2012

Letters to Ilio from The Cafe de Luxe - An Extraordinary True Story

In considering the history of my small Northern town I am always coming across glamorous Italian names - often but not always on the fascia of shops, cafes, and ice-cream parlours names like Gabriele, Alonzi, Zair, Rossi, Serefini, Franco.

We have a well embedded Italian presence here which started in the late nineteenth century, when young men travelled from rural Italy to Britain here for work, escaping from poverty and the sometimes feudal pre-war conditions of farming life. In later years a young man who grew up here in these families would return to this same Italian home district and come back with a wife well versed in taking care of Italian menfolk.

Now in this  twenty first century we still have shops sporting Italian names but – as is the way with successful migration - in more recent history the children of these families have strayed from the shop counter and taken their skills into other professions – education, the law, the media, and business.

I am reminded of this by a great book by Barbara Laurie entitled Letters to Olio from the Café de Luxe. This is an archive of more than 200 love letters written by her mother-in-law, Gloria Serefini, to Olio, an Italian prisoner of war who had, before being repatriated, worked in her father’s café in Selkirk.

Earlier in the century, Gloria’s father had come as a young man to Scotland from rural Tuscany. Later her mother had come across at fourteen first to help in the house and the business. Eventually their café – one of several Italian businesses in this small border town – flourished. Later other members of the family made their way into England as far as Easington and Darlington in County Durham and finally to my small town of Bishop Auckland.

The Selkirk café had to close when Gloria’s father – like other foreigners – was interned as an ‘enemy alien’ on the Isle of Man. (Churchill had crudely ordered the authorities to ‘Collar the Lot!’) Gloria,  with her mother ill and her brother in the forces, was virtually alone. So her formidable aunt drove up from Darlington on her motorbike and took her back to Darlington until her father was released and able to opened thecafe again.

On his return from internment the café and the next door chip shop were opened and flourished. Then Gloria’s father, looking for workers went to the local POW camp which housed young Italian men who were offered for work on farms and in businesses in the town. Apparently he want said, 'Any Tuscans here who want work?'

So Ilio came to work alongside Gloria in the café and they fell in love. The café was a gathering place for young women from the town and for the Italian workers and Gloria – because of her fluency in Italian – gained a central role as interpreter. At first this made her an arbiter of relationships in the café but then, when the young men were repatriated to Italy, she translated letters for the Scottish women from their Italian boyfriends as they desperately tried to sustain their wartime romances.

It was at this time that Gloria herself wrote this flood of letters to Ilio which is at the core of this excellent book. Interestingly these letters were only discovered by Barbara and her husband Peter at the turn of this century when Peter – through the magic of the internet – had tracked down Ilio. Now an old man with a family of his own, Ilio had kept the letters safe in a wooden box. He had clearly never forgotten Gloria. This quest and its outcome are the most moving part of the end of Barbara’s book which reveals secrets kept for over half a century.

Barbara reading from her book at
the Room to Read and Write Book Group
The letters themselves comprise wor an historic archive of the intricacy of lives in wartime Britain and a vivid record of first and second generation migration in all its complexity. Barbara sets alongside the letters very useful contextual information about Britain in wartime and also the wider personal context of this idiosyncratic family.

But these letters are not just plodding memoir material. Fluently and passionately written, they show us the yound Gloria’s own character in depth - vivid, attractive, articulate, adaptable, clever, observant, hardworking, generous, and controlling to the point of manipulation. She could be the heroine or anti-heroine of any great novel. In a good writer’s hands she could be a World War Two Anna Karenina. Or a World War Two Carmen. Her story would make a great film.

And as is the case of great heroines, her life was threaded through with secrets. Finally and famously ensconced in her Café Marina in Bishop Auckland she put the glamourous Ilio on this evidence the love of her life)  behind her, ruthlessly painting him out of her history and her life. Her family knew nothing of those times and these potent events.

That is, until Peter tracked his Tuscan family down and he and Barbara were shown the wooden box of letters by the now elderly Ilio himself . In time they were given the box and started to read the letters, uncovering the whole secret story. This led Barbara to collate the letters in book form and put them in the context of the extraordinary times and this extraordinary family.

Highly recommended.

You can obtain the book Barbara directly if you email her at
ISBN: 978-0-9523461-6-6

Monday 12 November 2012

Mapping The Imagination: The magic of a New Novel on the Horizon.

I’m in that very enthralling, exciting, worrying, phase of embarking on a new big novel. I have this big idea and am reading like crazy, checking facts and looking at landscape in a different way.  It has been some time in coming. I have been waiting for a decision on my last novel about writers living together The Art of Retreating and this process has frozen me like a hare pretending to be a statue in the middle of a harvested field.

 I’ve kept busy, as an artisan writer should be, with my short story collection Painting Matters. I have read novels for my Room to Write reading group although novels have been losing their escapist appeal for me as I take it all too seriously and read as a writer, tending to be too analytical and failing sufficiently  to suspend my disbelief to read with true  pleasure. The other members of the group are very patient.

Then in a London park I was introduced to a girl called Lisa who talked about her current obsession:  Ley Lines in London. I wasvery  intrigued because the past-in-the-present is part of my own world view.  Layers in time and figures in old landscapes are a long obsession for me which has inevitably emerged in some of the novels. For instance it’s an important element in my novel An Englishwoman in France where present day Languedoc lives alongside Roman Gaul in the life-changing experience of a woman mourning her lost daughter.

So, when I got back home I started to read these esoteric texts about  Ley lines and this got me looking at maps in a different way. I looked at the ley line maps and moved on more conventional maps - both contemporary and historical.  Maps can be very exciting sources for a writer. They are both precise and non-literary. You have to think imaginatively to elicit their meaning.  My own invented maps are an important element in the way I have laid the ground work (the ground-world?) for my stories. For instance I made a whole 1850 wall map for my novel A Woman Scorned

Now from these maps there emerged a new person and an very new idea for a novel that had not been there before I started looking at the maps. Magic. . This story is not at all, except tangentially, about the things called Ley Lines. From the Ley line books I have leapfrogged to more intensely serious sources about pre-history and Romano British history and then - I realised -  into the world of polite internecine strife between,  conventional historians and progressive archaeological historians in their increasingly rigorous search for meaning in a world about which there is no direct written record. And I am looking at ancient songs.  Fascinating. 

My new novel  will be (I think) about a certain woman, about a landscape, about journeys, and about what it is to be British. I am  just now trying to make logical sense of the Druids, and the function of the myth of  King Arthur as a metaphor. A long journey ahead.

Beginning again. Ha-aleluya!!

Work In Progress

A Sketch.
In the beginning - alongside the reading -  there are always 'sketches'  which may (or may not) end up as part of the novel. Do you think this sketch will find its place?

... So anyway I came into this world of light quite by accident, first in my mother’s belly then into the throng of a broad river well known for its dark spirits. The rain was sleeting down. A strut of the bridge creaked and broke and the chariot carrying my mother and her sister Branwen slid into the river, rained on by golden bangles and silver brooches. 
My brother Lleu told me years later that he heard the river sing like a choir of many voices. I have a ghost memory of the strange glow of the water and also the singing.  No doubt there were also shouts and screams but I do not remember them. .. 


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