Visiting my parents down in Somerset last weekend, we fell to reminiscing. With two people well into their 90s, the memories go back a long way: we ended up talking about my great-uncle Bill.
Bill was the son of the Scottish headmaster of the English School of Genoa in Italy. He was charming, excitable, gesticulated furiously with his hands whenever speaking (in comic-book Italian style) and was, my parents say, one of the funniest, most entertaining people they’ve known.
We’re not sure how they met, but he married my Dad’s Aunt Elsa, his father’s sister. Bill was by then a kind of land agent, based in Rome, among his clients the deposed and exiled King Alfonso of Spain. The young couple lived a good life, loving Italy and the Italians.
As outsiders integrated into the Italy of the 1930s, Elsa and Bill arguably had a perfect view of the distortion of a nation’s ethos by an intolerant nationalist message. Their experiences, as my great-aunt described the rise of fascism changing people, can shine a light on our times too.
Elsa would recount how people took to the streets of Rome in their thousands to see Hitler greeted by Benito Mussolini. As his open car passed by, Bill, ever the joker, dramatically plunged his hand into his jacket pocket. Immediately surrounded by several enormous security men, he pulled out a colourful handkerchief with a disarming smile and blew his nose loudly.
In 1941 Mussolini declared war. Bill and Elsa boarded the ship taking all the British diplomatic and other personnel out of Italy. Apart from a few possessions they left with friends, they lost everything.
The Foreign Office posted Bill to South America. His job was to hang around in Montevideo and pick up information in the manner of a Graham Greene character. Clearly he was a spy.
Their daughter Hazel had been to a European finishing school, and spoke several languages. She spent the rest of the war training SOE agents who would be dropped into occupied Europe. Frustratingly, like most who worked in wartime intelligence, she never said a word about what she got up to.
After the war they returned to Italy, Bill now working for the Diplomatic Service, vetting applications from Italian families to emigrate to Australia. Always the life and soul of the party, Bill was somewhat fond of a drink. Elsa described how she went home for a few weeks, leaving him strict instructions to walk the dog every day.
On her return to Rome she took the dog out: it trotted straight to the nearest bar and sat down, clearly expecting to wait.
What an extraordinary set of adventures, and what a colourful character at the centre of them! Sadly, I never knew Bill: he died when I was a baby. My Mum still says, “Bill was the perfect gentleman. Even if he was too drunk to stand he would always raise his hat to a lady!”
I think I’d have got on with Bill! Sure, he was fun. More important, he and Elsa (whom I remember as a very old lady) bestrode the decades and the politics to build a lifelong love of another culture, fostering friendships across Europe.
That seems to me a much healthier attitude than the xenophobia dominating today’s European elections, Euro-sceptics in all parties winning too much air-time for their blinkered views.
I don’t defend European bureaucracy, sprawling, interfering and inefficient (much like our UK administration, then?). But we shouldn’t confuse justifiable dislike of Europe’s officialdom with unthinking distrust of its peoples.
On the contrary, we need to work with our European neighbours to overcome differences and build friendships.
If Bill and Elsa could do that through a world war, by comparison the anti-Europe lobby shames us Brits.
It threatens to take us up a blind alley. Doing us no favours, such narrow-mindedness makes all of us the poorer.
- Dr Bernard Trafford is Headmaster of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School. The views here are personal.