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Stuck in the middle with you...

In my book Noisy at the wrong times I wrote that 'to this day, I feel Italian.'
Ever since, people have asked me what I meant, but to be perfectly honest, I am not entirely sure I have a ready or easy explanation.

How I perceive myself has always been framed by my family and childhood experiences, by the culture and language around me, the places that I spent time and the dramas and angst that seem so uniquely Mediterranean. This perception of myself seemed never to be just incidental or a mere oddity, it was more than that and was something I believed set me apart - I still think it does. 

I identify with Italy, and although I have never made it my home, at home is where I feel whenever I visit there. The determination of others to criticise and upbraid me for feeling this way appears to be endless: "You were born in England and so you are English,' they say.

Really?  If a dog is born in a stable, does it moo?

Well, does it?

"Ciucciarella inzuccherata
quant'è lunga sta nottata
Fai la ninna fai la nanna
che il tu babbo è alla campagna"

Sugared little one
this night is so long
sleep, sleep
your dad is in the countryside

These are the first words of Italian that I recall being aware of. They are from a lullaby sung to me by my mother as she stood at the side of the bunk beds that my brother Sergio and I shared in our damp basement bedroom. There were two sets of bunk beds, the other was shared by my brothers Matteo and Luigi, and in the middle of the room was Mum's large double bed onto which we would launch ourselves from the wooden wardrobe in the corner of the room.

"Sing the song mamma, sing it!"

Fai la ninna, fai la nanna....

I didn't realise that my bedtime lullaby was different to those of my nursery playmates. I understood what Mum was singing, her voice heavy with Nnapulitan dialect. It didn't seem odd to me that I had brothers with names that always stood out in a crowd, but my unusually English name was chosen by Luigi, who at the age of six, had already come to loathe his for the attention it brought him. Neither, for that matter, did I flinch at the taste of garlic, or the mounds of spaghetti that we were served for dinner, nor find curious the rows of gnocchi, curled by Mum's fork on a kitchen table spread with flour. The gentle canzone of Sergio Bruni emanating from the sideboard gramophone as she toiled were familiar, too.  

Tu chiagne sulo si nisciuno vede
e strille sulo si nisciuno sente

You weep only if no one sees, and you cry out only if no one hears.

I had a mother who spoke with a strange accent and who had been told to stop speaking Italian to me because I didn't appear to understand English as a toddler in nursery.  This was my world, one with loud relatives and family friends, who would pack into the living room around a table whose edges got close to our tatty torn wallpaper but left enough space to squeeze us all in. I enjoyed my daily job of grinding the coffee beans in the little dalek-shaped machine, down by the electric fire where the mice scurried, at the only power point in the room, and I remember screaming one day as a drawing pin was plunged into my knee.  We went to hospital to have it removed because Mum couldn't face doing it herself. The smell of coffee was ever present, along with the sound of gurgling stove-top percolators, brought steaming to the table on a tray with a miscellany of small clay tazze, painted with scenes of Paestum and Vesuvius. 

"Let me put the sugar in Zio!"

Now, who would hand me their Amaretti biscuit?

Our house was always full of this life, this volume of complex, emotional dialogue with its undulating lyricism and rat-a-tat speed. And hands would wave and gesticulate, something for me to mimic as I clashed with my brothers or my friends. I knew when they were swearing too; the presence of children was no reason to stop.

"Fa fancul' a mamat'!"

These are not romantic inventions of my imagination. They happened, daily, in Shepherds Bush, as a group of exiles gathered, a simulacrum of the old country in a two roomed slum, made habitable by inventive make-do, graft and wire wool in the cracks and creases of its cold, crumbling stone. Mum would scrub away at the floors and walls, as if bleach and endeavour would wash away the squalor, but warmth and colour was there; it came from music, language and food, rich with the aromas of southern Italy. My uncle and other Italians who had come to London clung together, like all immigrant communities do, forming a critical mass to fend off the hardships of sixties London, aliens in what must have felt like an alien place. We criticise people for that today, too; they must integrate, we say, as we chuck bricks through their windows and call them "swarms".

It was all I knew. It was the air that I breathed. 

My earliest memory is of my mother and I standing at the side of a bed in which a pale, gaunt man was sunken into the mattress with scarcely a flicker of life in him. The man smiled effortfully, and slowly reached out a hand in which I saw a small foil-wrapped sweet. I took it and stared at him. Even in the darkened room, I could look up to see my mother was crying. So many of my recollections of Mum are of her crying.

The man was my grandfather and this was our first and last experience of each other. Word had come that he was dying and that Mum should hasten to his bedside. I was only two years-old so Mum had no choice but to take me with her on the long train journey to Italy, leaving her three other sons in the care of the Tully family a few doors along. I remember nothing else of the trip; it is as though my consciousness recognised the significance of the moment in that room and awoke to record a minute of grief, like a photograph. I can describe the painted wooden cross on the wall above his head, the shutters that brought darkness to the room and the height of the ceiling which seemed to tower above us like a cathedral. I remember the smell, too; it was like sweet butter. I have only one photograph of my maternal grandfather, from the wedding of my mother's youngest sibling, Ines. In a ramshackle street, a doorway of some kind, a group stands as children sit on a step looking longingly at the bride and my grandfather is at the edge of the group in a shabby, stained suit that is far to big for his slender frame. I can't help noticing that the three button jacket is correctly fastened: by just the middle button. This was a man who fought for the Mussolini fascists, but he looks beaten down, haggard and not ferocious at all.

Even though her father was a hard, unforgiving alcoholic by the time of his death, Mum's grief was profound. Her mother's demise, several years later, was too swift for Mum to be able to return in time. I came home from school to find her making gnocchi and weeping. 

"My Mamma is gone," she said. 

I was about eight years-old. She had no husband to support her and I was the first of my brothers home from school, so it was my job to comfort her and be the first person to share her news with. Even as a child I recognised the gravity and the finality of her parental loss, and whilst I didn't myself grieve for a grandparent I barely knew, I felt Mum's pain. 
And her guilt for not having been with her.

I often think of my first trip to Italy and how Mum must have felt to trudge with a toddler through the village of her birth to be at the side of a dying patriarch who, along with her four siblings and mother, she had left in order to escape poverty and chaos. Accompanied as she was by a husband who specialised in capriciousness and deceit, she didn't escape it entirely, but she'd at least removed the risk of cholera, and her poverty wasn't nearly as grinding as that of her family back home. For me, the child at her side, the visceral image that remained - as clear as any memory I have -  was like the opening credits of a film; a journey of identity was beginning, my cultural reference points staked out for me to follow and explore in future. I was there, in Pugliano, scarcely out of nappies, in a place of ancient history and heat. My earliest memories of Italy would be associated with death, but that trip is part of my story, part of me and part of what I would become. I know that place from whence my genetic story emerged. I returned there many times to add my story to that of my relatives who knew nothing of our home in London, but whose lives would intertwine with ours for a few weeks. I had two worlds of which I was a part.

It can't be so strange that these events have shaped me in a way that is profound and lasting. Is it logical that the world in which I grew up, a transplanted circus of pungent, Italianate vivacity embroidered with misery, cruelty and suffering, is one I might value or define myself by?  By the time I was old enough to understand the differences between my home life and that of my friends, I was lost to its potency, gathered up in its embrace and fully embarked on its dissemination to all who wanted to hear of its wonders, or were drawn to its exoticism (they would hear about it whether they wanted to or not, if truth be told.)

I often wonder about this dichotomy and have a million questions, but I don't have many conclusions. I may one day set out to explore the idea fully and if I had the answers already, my questions would be a waste of time.  As the fifteenth century Italian philosopher, Giordano Bruno (which sounds like an operatic stage name) said; "time is the father of truth."  Plenty of time has now passed for me to make some sense of it or even find some truth, but it is worth pointing out that he also said "with luck on your side, you can do without brains." If, as a master at my school, he'd said it about me, we'd be applauding his perspicacity.

Clever bloke, was our Signor Bruno.


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