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


  1. I agree Wendy - this is a fascinating story, well told, with an extraodinary and unpredictable woman at its centre. It's full of surprises and works on all kinds of levels - as you say it would also make great fiction.I too would recommend it.

  2. Such a pity it isn't available as an e-book - I'd love to read it, but the luggage allowance on Ryan Air doesn't stretch to books!



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