When I was growing up, my Italian grandfather was my favourite person. He taught me to play a mean game of draughts. He told me stories about his childhood in a remote mountain village in Abruzzo. I couldn’t hear often enough about how he got the deep scar across the bridge of his nose.
He was standing as a little boy behind his father who had a pair of shears slung over his back and they fell and sliced his face. He told me they had to stick the adhesive strip of an envelope over the cut. My mother told him to be quiet every time he gave me the lurid details but I loved it.
The builder boyfriend and I have been thinking a lot about our heritage. Like many Brexit voters, we find the charge of ‘little Englander’ ironic.
We are a nation of immigrants, and the BB and I are hardly indigenous. We both have Italian mothers. My father is from Lancashire, but his father was brought to England by the Red Cross as a refugee orphan from Guernsey. The BB is French on one side, Italian on the other, a fact he finds amusing whenever a Remainer is berating him.
It is strange to have to explain that because our continental ancestors came to this country and were proud to become British, bequeathing that attitude to us, we are more distressed not less by our own patriotism now being frowned upon.
My grandfather was so keen to be British he anglicised his Italian surname to something quite ordinary. You wouldn’t hear of that today, but in those days it was what you did.
I never heard him speak Italian except to say ‘Come stai?’ or when he taught me to count to ten — if I could get to ‘otto nove dieci’, he would clap his hands.
I only heard him in full flow when his brothers came to visit from Australia, where they had settled and where the rest of our family on my mother’s side still lives. Then they would sit around like a scene from a movie, addressing the eldest as Don.
Nothing to do with the mafia, although my grandfather was the spitting image of Al Pacino. His view of democracy was clear cut: he despised despots, having fled from them. To him, Britain was a place to love with values to defend as it had welcomed him and offered him opportunities he would not have had in his homeland.
Some years after his death, I took my mother there on holiday. A place of breath-taking scenery, it is now a national park. Even to this day there is no hotel, no shop, no services for miles.
The village is perched on a cliff’s edge, with a sheer drop down to the gully below. It took us an hour to drive up there on winding roads. I realised then that the envelope story was probably true. And I realised, too, what it must have meant for four brothers to come down off a mountain in search of a future.
When war broke out soon after they came here, my grandfather was a heating engineer so was joined to the home guard. His three brothers fought for their new country. One was taken prisoner and survived one of the worst prisoner-of-war camps. I have some of the tiny Catholic medals of protection he kept with him in my jewellery box.
After starting out in London, my grandparents eventually settled in Coventry and by the time I came along they were living in a pretty house in nearby Kenilworth. My grandfather was a keen gardener, taking pride in his flower beds full of lupins. I remember his beloved brown Reliant Scimitar, kept in mint condition to the day he died.
His devout Roman Catholicism and love of fine clothes was how you knew he was Italian.
The builder b’s grandfather was a tenor and the stage director for several opera companies, both in Italy and England. He is buried in Naples, having gone back there in later years. We wonder what both men would have made of the current debacle.
I think my grandfather would agree with not wanting to be run by the EU here. Somehow that is too painful. But it might be acceptable to be run by them in the sunnier part of the empire, where one could argue the people take a lot less stick from the elite and stand up for themselves much better than we seem to do here these days.
This Brexit backlash makes you think in new ways. And one of the ways we are now thinking is to question whether and where we belong.
It makes us think of going all the way back to where we started.
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