A Day on the ’Ill, for John Besagni

From the life of John Besagni

By Erica Masserano

(Special thanks to Clerkenwell community historian Olive Besagni)

His first memory is the wail of the sirens; his second of everyone running for cover down to what he didn’t know, couldn’t have known, was Chancery Lane. Sometimes the bombs never came; they missed and they went, and they could have hit anyone ten miles away, but it wasn’t him, so he didn’t know, couldn’t have known. Johnny was one, two years old, the baby of eleven. The tube station is dark, packed with people. They will tell him about his grandfather, Nonno Pietro, who spent the nights sleeping there, the shellings shook him so bad. Johnny thinks about those days of endless night sometimes, but mostly he doesn’t. He is a sprightly, dark-haired ten-year-old now. The war is over. The mothers and sisters of the dead Italians have dressed in black and cried and then they have stopped crying. Johnny’s father is not an enemy alien any more, and has a new job in a café in Hammersmith; though it’s not outdoors and not in the asphalt trade which is his profession, it helps put food on the table. Slowly, the rubble is being carted away, the craters filled. Half of the neighbourhood is still in ruins, but that’s okay. That is where Johnny and his friends go to play.

Johnny gets up at dawn, downs some tea, then goes to St Peter’s church next door to help serve morning Mass. He likes it there. He likes the quiet; he likes the Latin, though he doesn’t understand it; but most of all he likes the clothes. Before each service, he goes into the sacristy at the back, sheds his hand-me-downs and throws the black cassock and white cotta over his head, so much softer, all smooth, clean cotton, with lace at the edges. He is only slightly self-conscious about the Father. There are several boys in the room, so he doesn’t need to worry. He is ready for the show, and if he is good, maybe the Father will let him ring the bell when he lifts the chalice and wafer up high for the people to adore; and if he rings the bell, he is the boss. Of course, Johnny is not always good, but the Father doesn’t need to know. Last week, the boys were behind the altar putting away the holy wine as the Father was talking and didn’t know, couldn’t have known; and Johnny said, let’s have a little bit, un goccino. Silently, he brought the bottle to his lips. A couple of hours later, in school, Johnny still hadn’t been struck by lightning.

“I swear,” he giggled to his friends, “that is not God’s blood. That’s just wine.”

St Peter’s school is tall and narrow. The boys kick their football hard on the sloping rooftop terrace during recess, scaring the girls underneath with its sound of thunder. After a daring pass, a goal, they shout Mercer!, Lawton!, but most of all, they shout Bacuzzi! Joe Bacuzzi was born in the Quartiere too, olive skin and all; signed with Fulham, and played for England thirteen times. That was before the war, when the Sunday football matches stopped and the pitches stood empty, not a young man to run on them or brawl with the opposing team’s supporters in the break; but now the games are on again.

“And if he made it,” Johnny thinks, all the boys think, “I can make it too.”

Then the school kids come back in to the smoke and the small heat of the coal fires, and hope that they don’t have to use the lavatories, because it’s winter and they are frozen. As much as their homemaker mothers try and try to keep them warm and clean, someone is always ill, and someone has always got lice. Johnny’s class, like all others, is mostly Italians and some Irish children, so he feels safe there. He went to Mass today, so he doesn’t get the cane from Mr McKay, but some of his mates do. The kids learn their arithmetic tables, they write, they read. Sometimes they throw a piece of chalk at Mr McKay’s back, to see him turn around all red in the face and screaming:

“Who was it?”

“That was Reppoli, sir!”

It wasn’t Reppoli, but Reppoli doesn’t speak a word of English, so he gets a proper caning from Mr McKay as the other kids try to keep a serious face. Johnny and his siblings speak excellent English; their family has been in London for longer than most. They speak dialect at home, the language of their peasant families who crossed the Channel in the 1890s because all they had was a cold stone hearth and some trees to chop; and English with kids from similar families, to bridge the gaps. Italian, they learn from books, and they speak for a week or two in the summer, when the Government sends for them and ships them all to the Ligurian coast to breathe salubrious air and remind them of a motherland they themselves never knew. Johnny likes the sea, the sand, the space. But he likes London most.

On the way home, he scampers past The Coach and Horses. Through the gratings, he can hear the River Fleet, the stream catching a breather before it disappears underground again. He pokes his nose in the pub, where the gangsters are sitting amongst the wafting smoke of cigarettes, exchanging Darby Sabini stories from decades past. He was the most feared and revered, but these days he lives out of a hotel in Hove. The times of the Italian bookmakers with the stylish hats are gone: there’s easier money to be made than from the horse and dog races.

“Johnny!” shouts the young gangster they call Bananas.“Come here, boy. Here, go buy me some baccy.”

Johnny knows the men in the pub; he is not scared of them. He is more scared of the raised fists and knives that may meet them outside the triangle of their own streets, because of his complexion, his attire, the signs that betray him for a boy from the ’Ill, Clerkenwell, the Italian Quarter. Stuck between East and West, he rarely ventures in either direction. But within the Quartiere, he is safe; and these men, protecting people, avenging wrongs done on women when the police won’t listen, surely cannot be all bad. Of course they ask money of shops and businesses for their services. A man’s gotta eat, and they’re no exception. Johnny runs to the off licence, and comes back with the tobacco.

“Good boy,” says Bananas, and gives him a penny. They always give him a penny or two, but whatever they give, he has to work for. One day he came to the pub, to ask if there was any work at the market down Leather Lane, and the Falco man made him pull a barrow of goods all the way from the garage to the market in the morning and from the market to the garage in the evening; it was heavy, but he had a job and he did the job and got paid like a man. If he had continued working for the Falcos or the Nataros then maybe someday they would have given him another kind of job. And then, he reasons, he would have made proper money and wear a clean collar-bar shirt every day and eat lasagne for lunch and dinner and be rich and powerful on the ’Ill. But there is something about money that he does not understand past the fact that it can get him nice threads and a Lambretta, something about how he has nothing except his family and yet he is happy. And the men working for the Falcos and the Nataros, they always have a boss, and the bosses are heavies and Johnny doesn’t care much for them. He always thinks, they live the good life, but it’s not the life I want; so he always does the work, and then he leaves again, and goes back home.

When he gets home to Victoria Dwellings, Anita is already busy dishing up the lunch, and has no time for ceremonies.

“Johnny, sed zo e mangia,” she says in Piacentine.

She is filling a bowl with soup as she speaks. Johnny sees there is an extra chair at the already crowded table; his mother has invited in a beggar from the church again. They live next door to it and she does housework for the Father, so it’s a regular occurrence. Some of them Johnny only sees once, then they disappear again to a life of wandering; others he sees several times a week. Johnny smells the earthy, warm soup, and the heat and smell burn into his nostrils. Ingredients: bones, all the bones Johnny could carry home from Mariani the butcher’s on a big sack on his back: pork, beef, snout, leg, whatever there was; with vegetables, all the vegetables the market couldn’t shift: potato, carrot, cabbage, whatever there was, all boiled in the pot for one or two days.

“I’m not that hungry,” says Johnny.

Anita looks up imperiously, ladle still working, and passes him the bowl. Johnny looks at the slight circles of fat floating on top of the brownish minestrone, squashes a few with the spoon. His brother Bruno passes him a slice of bread and nudges him:


Johnny knows there is no point in arguing. If he gets hungry later, la suppa is still what he’s going to get: it’s the only food in the house. The wallpaper is creased from the damp here and there, the water from the scullery tastes like pipes; in the bedroom next door Johnny’s people sleep four to a bed every night. But the doorstep is immaculate, the room lived-in but tidy, their clothes and faces scrubbed clean. Were there not rich people in the world to confront them with it, they wouldn’t know, couldn’t have known they were poor. And there are many other families in the tenements that are worse off, lots of them English. When Johnny goes to their door to ask if his British friends are in, he knows to wait outside, so they don’t have to show the dirt, the lack of furniture, the bundles that are their beds.

After lunch, while the girls are helping to clean up, Bruno and Johnny go for a walk. It’s not the season for the ice cream vendors that normally dot the streets, but there are a few men roasting chestnuts on flaming barrels, selling small paper bags of hot nuts for a few pennies. The boys look for cigarette butts and talk about the future. After the munitions factory where he worked during the war, Bruno, the eldest brother, discovered he had his father’s hands. He started working in the statuette trade and opened a struggling business; he doesn’t know, couldn’t have known that in a few years he would have his own cast factory and workshop in Stratford.

“Everyone wants the same things,” muses Bruno. “Cats and dogs and Davids and Cupids. Sometimes a few Shakespeares or Julius Caesars.”

“I like your statues,” Johnny says.

“Mom says you should find a job in a café in a couple of years”, says Bruno.

“Mom says a lot of people should find a job in a café.”

“That’s because people will always eat.”

Johnny shrugs. Johnny has seen the statues, and is fascinated by their smooth plaster curves, their delicate spray colourings. He would very much like to make Shakespeares or Julius Caesars, to feel the levigated surface under his fingertips. His hands itch just thinking about it, like when he draws, or makes mud cakes. Every year he sees the floats at the procession of Santa Maria del Carmine, Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Every year he walks behind the statue of the Madonna or a float depicting the Nativity or the Last Supper, dressed in white amongst all the neighbourhood children, carrying a lily, through the streets packed with people in their Sunday dresses, on the cobbles strewn with petals, while the Irish Pipers play for the neighbourhood and its god. He doesn’t know all the ins and outs of the work that goes into making every detail of those scenes; couldn’t have known that he will learn all it takes to fashion huge white doves out of wood, to sculpt every ripple on seas of papier-mâché.

When his brother leaves for the company of the older boys, Johnny still has a couple of hours of sunlight left. He walks to one of what the kids call their camps, a razed bomb site. Debris piles up all the way to Old Street and all the way to the Barbican: a huge playground, uncontaminated by adults. Johnny and his friends meet there, play knock-down-Mary, kick around an old football stuffed with newspaper, stumble, run some more, climb along the wreckage of a house. It’s hard going, but he puts his foot on a dislodged brick here, a windowsill there. When they come to the top, lungs heaving, he looks down. Some of the buildings have been crushed to nothing; some have been purposely torn down, to avoid the risk of them tumbling down later; some walls are still standing, bereft of roofs or floors, gaping at the sky in astonishment. The ruins are dusty and unstable, and under them lay unexploded bombs like sleeping giants. It’s dangerous. It’s abandoned. It’s perfect.

“Johnny!” shouts Razzy Tufano. “Make a jump!”

Johnny looks to the spot where he is supposed to be landing. They have done it all before; they vault over the disappeared rooms, the places of someone else’s life. They were too young; they don’t remember; they are free.

“It’s too far,” Johnny says.

“It never is!”

“It is.”

“You chicken?”

“I’m not!”

“Jump! Jump! Jump!” call his mates.

The wall is tall. Johnny takes a deep breath. He coils and he springs, flying through the air like he’s never going to land again. He doesn’t know, can’t know that he is; but he has to believe he will.

A vibration runs up his body; his feet have hit the ground. Johnny looks up at the smiling faces of his friends. The kids scatter about, laughing, running green and wild through the neighbourhood, and he runs with them. The ’Ill, London, the world may still be scarred and burned; but they’re the ivy growing on the ruins, stronger than any fire, climbing on every stone.