for Johnny Besagni, by Erica Masserano
(Dedicated to the memory of Clerkenwell historian Olive Besagni)
Johnny walks round the back of Holborn. He’s been doing this two or three times a week the whole winter. He comes to Central to see some hustle and bustle; he likes that. Though he was born in Wiltshire, where his whole family was evacuated during the war, he couldn’t live in the country; he’s a city boy through and through. But despite the Christmas lights strewn over the streets it’s quiet out there. The buses roll by empty except for the occasional tired-looking worker. Oxford Street isn’t that busy; Christmas shopping does not seem to be on top of people’s to do lists this year, and when Johnny crosses someone on the pavement they mostly give him a wide berth. Even in Piccadilly shops were closed. If they don’t open soon, he thinks, they will collapse.
He walks and remembers and thinks; it’s what he does these days when he’s not home. Most often, he thinks of when he was little. There’s a story about a schoolkid like Johnny once was. His teacher asks him where Italy is. “I know, Miss” he says, “my nonno is from there. It’s in Clerkenwell!”
At that time, you could say it really was. In the quartiere, the butcher, the baker, everyone was Italian. You could get through the day without speaking a word of English, and you wouldn’t want to go elsewhere anyway, not to the rest of London where they still considered Italians enemy aliens and they would call your mother puttana. Clerkenwell was different, a safe port in a storm of changes, and the Irish and Cockneys there, whose kids went to the same school as the Italians, were kind.
Still, St. Peter’s Italian School used to send them on holiday so they didn’t lose their connection to the motherland. The night classes were where the Clerkenwell kids learned to read and write the language; by then, the majority of them were already really English kids with Italian names, and those who weren’t spoke their dialects at home, and never the official tongue. The Italian embassy would send the school some money so the Italian teachers could take them down by the coast of Livorno. In theory, a postcard view: an earthy, hilly seaside pin-pricked by maritime pines, bluish-green waves and billowing clouds to match the white surf. In practice, the experience barely resembled a vacation at all.
The trip took two days: train to Calais, ferry across the Channel, and then more trains and buses and trains to and from Paris and through the Alps to Italy and finally down to Tuscany, with the kids all crammed into smelly, old carriages, no water or food available, trying to sleep but no one succeeding. Every five minutes someone would be fighting or hungry or need to go to the toilet, except there weren’t any toilets and no way to go until the train stopped and a crowd of kids would jump off all at once to run and have a pee and a poo.
Finally, they would get to their destination: a former school or monastery or army barracks, where their dormitory was thirty beds to a room, a sheet and a blanket and no pillowcase. They’d have to wake up early, go down to the hall and have coffee and a bit of bread for breakfast every day, which was fine for the kids with more Italian habits but mostly turned the stomach of the more English kids. Then, they’d sing Com’è bella la nostra bandiera saluting as they raised the Italian flag, which apparently was a way to educate them about the Italian way of life. For lunch, they’d have a sandwich with salame or prosciutto or some other cured meats, which was commonplace in Italy but luxurious for their standards; the problem was, everything came in very small portions, including the vegetables they had in the evening. These were the fifties, right after the war years. England had recovered quite quickly, whereas in Italy there just wasn’t much to go around, no matter how much their hosts tried to make the kids comfortable.
There was nothing to do there either. They were not far from the beach, but it was hot, forty degrees every day, too hot for the English Italians, the really pale ones, much paler than Johnny. A lot of them got sunburned, their skin turning from white to purple if they went out from under the canopies the school had set up. Lotion wasn’t readily available back then, so they got their backs rubbed with a bit of olive oil, to help them fry better. They’d cry all the way back and then keep crying, traumatised by being away from their parents for the first time in a place where they could not communicate.
The kids were supposed to be practicing the language, but really, they were isolated, far from the centre of town, and they just asked the staff for food in Italian and for the rest they chatted amongst themselves in English. Still, Johnny and his friends who did speak Italian, would often jump the walls around the grounds and run away to the nearest village. Though the locals mostly understood they were immigrants’ kids and were kind to them, the kids were still frightened to approach them. It hadn’t been that long since the war. In London, Italians were only a decade off being branded enemy aliens; in Italy, mistrust towards the English was still in the air, and they didn’t feel particularly welcome. It turned out that while in London the Clerkenwell kids were very Italian, in Italy they were very, very English.
Still, Johnny and his friends would muster up their courage and their language and walk into a little bottega or salumeria, or go down the fields and buy a watermelon from the local farmers for whatever change in lire they had. The watermelon was good, juicy and sugary from ripening under the scorching sun, at least; even better because they were hungry. The market, to which Johnny and his friends were forbidden to go, but they snuck out to anyway, only sold vegetables, and there were barely any other shops in town. It was easy to steal a few carrots from the grocer, but if anyone had wanted a new shirt, they wouldn’t have known where to go.
The day trips to Pisa and Lucca were almost worth the whole dreadful experience. Everyone would get on the local train and head off for the cities to see churches and monuments, and that was phenomenal, better than St. Paul’s or Westminster. Around the Italian cathedrals there were huge paved piazze, not just cramped city streets; the blinding white marble buildings towering over the children like perfectly preserved dinosaur skeletons. They’d scamper in and out of the palaces, all over the grassy and gravelly grounds, feeling like they had crossed over to a different dimension in which soot, back alleys and poverty did not exist.
And yet, in a way, they were the closest to home they’d ever been. Johnny and his Clerkenwell mates, he thinks, were the descendants of asphalt workmen, ceramic and mosaic makers, even marble cutters. The hands that raised the cathedrals are those of their forefathers, the skills they used handed down through centuries of gruelling work, the satisfaction at the end of the day the same for the tiled roof of a church or a well-decorated vase. Not that Johnny knew or cared at the time. Maybe later, when he’d renovate restaurants all over London or mould his own papier-maché sculptures for the Our Lady of Mount Carmel procession. But right then, he just wanted to run around the sunlit squares with his friends, slapping each other on the back of the neck and then running away, passing the time while they waited, they couldn’t wait, to get their London back.
Johnny goes down on Clerkenwell road to Terroni to order his homemade ravioli for Christmas, and thinks back to the ones he used to have when he was little. His mum used to make them herself, and the kids helped her. Johnny still has her little roller she used to flatten the pasta to then fill with il ripieno; where Johnny comes from, the traditional filling is mainly cheese with a bit of chicken stock and nutmeg. Then she’d flip them over and the kids would cut them and leave them on the tablecloth sprinkled with farina because they were a bit umidi. They’d have to stay there overnight and then in the morning they were nice and almost dry, though even when you put them on the plate you’d still put some tissue in between the layers so they didn’t stick together. It was always a wonderful thing to do because you only got to do it at Christmas; the rest of the year it was pastina in brodo and bread.
There were no antipasti, of course, the meal went straight to the pasta. To fill the pasta, to make the broth it was served in and the casserole to eat as secondo, they had one chicken to clean out that stayed on the stove for six or seven hours and boiled and boiled, very very slowly. Johnny liked the chicken broth so much that once grown up he’d make it himself and then freeze it, the pure chicken broth, so it didn’t go to waste. After that, all the goodness would be boiled out of the chicken, leaving this chicken that doesn’t have much taste to it, so that went in the casseruola. When Johnny was little, you’d only get chicken at Christmas. It’s not like they could afford it every day; it was kind of expensive. They did appear to be much bigger than chickens are now, though; they used to be huge back then and they’re tiny little things now, or maybe Johnny used to be smaller. Then, his mother prepared the English stuff, the patate and Brussels sprouts, the verdura, but not broccoli; broccoli wasn’t even invented when he was little. Things were so hard to come by after the war anyway, though there was always the black market if you could afford it. Besides, Italian Christmas dinners are much simpler than English ones: there is no duck or turkey, or gravy from granules.
They’d borrow a table from the neighbours so they could all sit together; he was one of ten children. His dad had died when he was very young, so with his mum they’d be eleven at the table, when they were still living all together in Clerkenwell. Everyone was still suffering from the war years, but they always managed to have la festa, with more than they could eat. Mum made the plate up for the kids, not like now when everybody helps themselves; she’d give them the ravioli with the warm brodo full of savoury fat eyelets she’d drained off from the chicken and Johnny’d have to wipe the plate clean with a piece of the nice fresh bread she got from the bakery, un po’ di pane. Mum would say “You can only have six ravioli”, and she’d portion them out, counting them so everyone got the same amount, but they were so much bigger than they are nowadays, or maybe Johnny used to be smaller. Johnny’d say to her “Dammi un altro piatto”, and she would say “Eh no, you ate too much already”, because there had to be enough for everyone to go around.
They didn’t do fruit at the time, but mum would always get one panettone because it was an Italian tradition, quite a big one that would come out as a dessert, soft and airy and full of raisins and candied orange peel, a real Christmas treat. Johnny might get one from Terroni this Christmas; he has to get his Motta to take down to the kids, they look forward to it, they might be suspicious about polenta and such and say they don’t like the look of itwhen they’re served it, but they do like their panettone. He thinks about what he will be getting his grandchildren. He’s never been one to buy his kids £300 train sets or anything like that; when he got them toys that took an hour to set up, everyone got bored with them anyway by the time they got to play with them. But he doesn’t want his grandchildren to go without toys like he did, without presents unless one of the older brothers who was working got them something, or Christmas parcels from his married sisters in America arrived. He remembers the cowboy guns everyone in school wanted to see, the pair of baseball boots he would wear until they were utterly destroyed. Christmas Eve is for the kids, and especially coming from an Italian family it’s important to do something, to keep the traditions alive.
Up until this year, some of the pubs used to be open on Christmas Eve, although not on Christmas day or Boxing Day, so he’d go have a couple of beers or a nice mulled wine with friends. He’d start at 12 and finish at 5 – when your friends start falling over you know it’s time to come home to a nice dinner, though as you grow old you learn to stop earlier. When he was little, he’d go to Christmas Eve Mass at midnight, then back again for the 7am Christmas Day Mass. It’s going to be different this year; it’s going to be sad. His daughter will organise something for Christmas, and there’s about seven of them, so they won’t be affected by lockdown too much. It’s not a fabulous time for anybody, but what can you do?
Johnny walks past St Peter’s Church and the now-closed Italian School to Terroni, and looks towards Farringdon road to his home in Victoria Dwellings, his mask on, in the neighbourhood he’s lived all his life. They say the streets around here were like a piazza once, everyone coming out to pass the time, especially in the summer, even the priests chatting to their parishioners from the step of the church. The ice cream vendors would go to Fraulo and Perelli for their ice, then add it to the milk they boiled in their own kitchen and carry the ice cream around on a wheelbarrow and sell it. The men coming home from the asphalt or the statuette trade would walk home with paint or plaster dust on their faces and clothes; shoeshines would do their shoes for a few pennies. The women, poor and impeccably clean, would be trickling back in small groups from the shopping, pushing prams loaded with children and pasta, or just lifting sacks and packs from Leather Lane market in their strong arms and carrying a baby on their back. Kids would run after rag footballs, cats and dogs, risking being run over by carriages first and cars next. But right now, there’s barely anyone around, and the ‘Ill has never been so quiet. It’s cold and bleary and grim, and Johnny wants his London back.