Soon after All Saints – quite an important feast day – the weather had begun to get cooler although there were still many sunny days, and it did not yet seem like Winter. By December we had come to realise that there was to be no spectacular Allied advance or more northerly landing and that the war in Italy was coming to a stalemate. In the Picacchi area there were one or two houses with a radio and at some time during most weeks, one or other of us managed to hear a BBC news bulletin; this was on short wave and could only be heard after dark. It was more likely to be Norman, Freddy or Alec who listened to the news – they went visiting more often than we did. However I went often enough for the ‘Lillibulero’ signature tune of the BBC overseas service to be capable of giving me a little thrill even today.
Alec, who seemed to me a genius at anything electrical or mechanical, was by now establishing a reputation as a man who could mend thinqs. In the district he repaired one or two radios and a larger number of clocks and watches. Sometimes he went to the owners, usually taking one of us with him to ‘help’, but any practical help was with the consumption of whatever delicacies might be offered in addition to the wine. Alec was able to build up a stock of spare parts by cannibalising irreparable watches. This enabled him to make up a wrist-watch for me, to replace one which I had flogged for food in early days as a prisoner.
Alec’s real name was Italianised into Leonardo, with the rest of us becoming Federico, Arturo (Hoop) and Paolo. Only Norman was known by his own name, I suppose because no-one could think of an equivalent.
With the darker evenings and some rainy days, more time was spent indoors. Hoop was slowly working his way through Hogben’s ‘Mathmatics for the Million’; I spent quite a lot of time puzzling over Stelvio’s school text-books. There was an Italian grammar and a history reader, both books well produced and with good illustrations but loaded with propaganda; even the grammatical examples were built around fascist slogans. The grammar was set out very fully and formally with lists of conjugations which clearly had to be learned by rote; the Italian language was something to be acquired at school, not what was spoken at home. This was however a considerable help to me, as our family never explained points of grammar – I expect they were scarcely aware of them. The history reader helped widen my vocabulary, and it was interesting to learn what were regarded as the key events in modern history. In addition to Mussolini’s march on Rome there was the inspiring story of someone called Giovanni Berta, a young fascist martyr of the twenties, who seems to have been killed in a street brawl. Somewhat more important was the Lateran pact, even now still operative as regulating the relationship of the Italian state with the Vatican. Also important was the establishment of the empire in East Africa, by then of course already lost. As far as I can remember, these two books were the only ones in the house.
The family could always find things to do in poor weather. Vivenzio made several pairs of clogs; he could shape the sole using only a hooked chopper, with just one saw-cut to make the instep. The uppers were from old leather boots, salvaged after the soles had worn out.
The women were always busy at mending and in knitting the wool from their own sheep. The spinning of the wool had been a constant occupation of the younger women, not so much in the house, but more often when out in the fields watching the sheep.
The distaff was a bamboo cane, split at the top to hold the little roll of carded wool, and tucked into a belt – usually string – around the waist and then through a loop pinned just below the shoulder. It held the wool just above head-height from where it could be teased out by one hand while the other one controlled the twirling of the hanging spindle as it twisted the strands into thread. The spindle slowly descended, but was caught before it went too low and the thread wound up on to its shaft. They also spun hemp, using a different distaff with an opened-out top around which the longer fibres could be coiled. The stems of the hemp had been retted in smelly pits down by the river, then, after drying, bundles of them were beaten on a kind of wooden horse, the top of which was a bed of nails. The decayed fleshy parts of the stalk powdered away, leaving only the long fibres, similar to flax but stronger and coarser. These processes may have been unfamiliar to us but they were identical to those to be seen in medieval manuscripts. Most of the country tasks of ploughing with oxen, sowing, harvesting, wine-making, trapping birds, killing the pig, were as shown in the illustrations to the seasons in sixteenth century calendars or Books of Hours. Indeed they would have also seemed quite familiar to Virgil, sixteen hundred years before that.
The younger men found time for some amusements, visiting each others’ houses in the evenings and on Sundays. They often played ‘Briscola’ – a card game using the traditional Italian pack of 40 – which was a game of chance about as intellectually demanding as our ‘Beat your Neighbours out of Doors’.
However a maximum amount of drama was extracted from this simple game; every card played was brought down with great emphasis, often from high above the head, and with accompanying shouts of triumph or dismay. Federico, in particular, revealed a considerable histrionic gift.
One evening, Federico took us with him on a visit to a house a mile or two away towards Gualdo where, he said, there was to be a tombola at which the unlikely prize was to be a calf’s head. This indeed turned out to be so, and some twenty young men were there to compete at this bizarre bingo. However, the real business of the evening was to follow; the head had been merely a loss leader to attract buyers for the remaining joints of the illegally-slaughtered calf. The young men settled down to a session of cards, spending any winnings on cuts of veal. As we had not much interest, and no money, for gambling, we went home quite soon, leaving Federico to return in the small hours. Next day, with our mouths watering, we watched him grill and eat a thick veal steak. No-one was offered even a taste.
Guerino had a concertina upon which both he and his friends would play, somewhat tediously as they knew only one tune between them. This they had learned by memorising the fingering; they were amazed to find that Alec could actually play any tune he wished.
Chapter 8 Supplement – November 1990
Hoop has reminded me how unimportant time was at the Cardarelli. They had no clock and depended on the ringing of the Angelus at six in the morning, noon and six in the evening at a chapel south of the river. Money too was not important: generally we had none, nor any need of it. Sometimes Alec did receive money for his clock and radio repairs and Hoop remembers visits across the river to buy locally grown tobacco. Riccardo smoked, but tobacco was expensive and he did not light up very often. Hoop smoked too when he got the chance and I sometimes rolled his cigarettes for him as his fingers were always rather clumsy. Freddy, who often helped Alec with his clock-mending jobs relates how alarm clocks with broken mainsprings – a very common fault – were dealt with. A T-section was made in one broken end of the spring and a slot in the other, and Freddy’s job was to heat the ends of the spring over a candle until they were soft enough to make the T and the slot. Freddy also taught himself to make clogs, and made several pairs for the ladies of the house.
The linen was all of a homespun sort and although there was no working loom at the Cardarelli, I seem to remember what must have been the dismembered parts of one stored in the cellar. The Di Luca did have one; indeed Margaret Towle found a loom still in operation there when visiting in 1956. On the same visit she thinks it was old Vivenzio who came across to their house and played the concertina for her to dance. Was it the same tune, I wonder?
Link to Chapter 9