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Living in a post-Brexit cultural limbo

There are some nationalities that resonate powerfully - and not just negatively or disdainfully -  with British people. These cultures and countries are never fully denounced or vilified but are valued, admired and even absorbed to some degree. The French enjoy this privilege, although there is something of a schizophrenic approach to Francophilia in the UK; 'The Bloody French' is a term never far from the lips of Brits as they buy up swathes of Provencal countryside, and its still there after years of  living in the country. America is popular by and large, and a dream vacation for many; they might drag us into wars occasionally, but there is that special relationship to think of. Scandinavians - if not their pickled fish - are admired too. Germans are grudgingly respected, although never fully trusted and Asian culture is generally seen through the blurred vision of a late night curry or special fried rice. In essence, the world is viewed as "them and us" by British people, never more so than right now, but some of it gets an easier ride; Italy is one of them.

I conducted a piece of unscientific research recently, in which I asked friends to give one word that for them summed up Italy and Italian culture, and the first ten answers, in order, were these;

Chaotic, Food, Life, Opera, Ice-cream, Colour, Barolo, Riot police, History, Sun

I had asked for "opera" to be excluded because so many of my friends practice or work in it but obviously the significance was just too powerful for one individual. I had eighty responses to the survey and food appeared many times, as did history and culture. 

'WorsthotelIeverstayedininSanRemo' made me chortle.
'Riot-police' came from a football friend.
'Quality' I loved.
'Gioia!' I loved even more.

One could conduct a survey like this on any country, but I would venture that few could produce so many responses that had a depth of feeling quite like one on Italy; I like to think that the responses from my circle of friends were dripping with affection. Apart from the one who said "turncoats". 

In the wake of the EU Referendum, we find ourselves in a political and cultural morass. I say cultural because racism has raised its head in the guise of "Britishness" or British identity. But for millions of people born in the UK, there is a strange, and perhaps now, uncomfortable, link to a European heritage that seems to have been largely ignored in all of the discussions of migration. It is a reality of life in Britain that, for me at least, demonstrates the absurdity of our approach to Europe.

Across Britain there are first, second and third generation populations of Italians, Greeks, French, Spanish, Portuguese and many others. Probably millions of us by now - I don't know the numbers. Many of us, who were born to immigrant  parents who came here post-War in the fifties, have very strong emotional and literal links to the homelands of our mothers and fathers. We are British by nationality, but have a pride in our heritage that feels at odds with our birth nation's current approach to Europe. Many of us support the sporting teams of our forefathers, but that doesn't make us less 'British'. We have made our lives here, even though, I have to confess, we sometimes feel ourselves to be occupying a strange cultural limbo.

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 by that, 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 think it still does. After all, I spend my working life proselytising about the wonders of Italian opera.

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 Neapolitan 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 English 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. It buried itself deep inside me.

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 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 a  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. 

For me, the child at her side on that grief-stricken journey,  the visceral images that remained - as clear as any memories I have -  are 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 Montecorvino  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.

Even though her father – a committed fascist in his youth - 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, her guilt for not having been with her and I understand now what a sacrifice she had made. The distance between her and her family is one I think began to resonate with me too.  I can't, and never could, reject the roots from which I grew.

It can't be so strange that these events have shaped me in a way that is profound and lasting, and thus it can be of no surprise that Brexit has evoked an anxiety in me that had never before existed. I have had abuse as an Italian, but now, superficially, half the nation has said it wants nothing to do with us. 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.)

After years of feeling that my ethnicity was somehow joined to that of my home in the UK, my Italian heritage  is something that I found myself grasping when the Brexit result came through: my first act was to call the Italian Consulate to explore how to most quickly acquire the Italian passport to which I am entitled (I am an Italian citizen too, I was called up for military service, I can vote in elections there, I have a tax number).  It isn't that I have an immediate desire to live and work in Italy, but to me, the passport says I am still European, I am not like these islanders who wish to dismiss us. 

You see, I often wonder about the dichotomy of my ethnicity, 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."  At the age of 51, 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." 
Clever bloke, was our Signor Bruno.


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