On stage, a doughty 93-year-old is crooning along to an old Italian favourite, while a handful of couples waltz between rows of dining-tables. Some unattached octogenarian females gyrate to the accordion music squeezing out from a bank of speakers. ‘Only the young ones are dancing!’ admonishes the DJ, Pietro, but all around he’s blissfully ignored by the smiling members of the Circolo della Terza Eta’ (‘Circle of the Third Age’) club.
Over the previous two hours, Clerkenwell’s fascinating history as London’s ‘Little Italy’ and the ebbs and flows of Italian immigration have been gently revealed to us during our trip with Shared City. Deborah (half-Italian) has led us through the streets around St Peter’s Italian Church. Now bedecked with office blocks, these narrow thoroughfares demand some imagination to conjure up the days when ragamuffin Italian emigrant children laughed and played on the cobbles of what was a mere immigrant slum.
Here and there, traces of the old days do still remain: the beautiful church itself, of course, built for Italian immigrants in the mid-19th century; a couple of pubs with robust English names but once run and frequented by locals of Italian heritage; the factory façade of Chiappa Limited, organ builders, whose last instrument left the factory years ago. (Still family-owned, the building is rumoured to be replete with a dusty stock of fairground organs and their music rolls).
In time, the old slums were pulled down and replaced, gentrifying this part of London and neutralising much of its Italian character as the residents dispersed to other parts of town. But the Church of St Peter, now flanked by a new hotel and an old Italian delicatessen, attracts back the Italians on Sundays, for a big procession on the 3rd Sunday of July and around Christmas, too. A scooter dealership opposite showcases those well-known two-wheeled icons of Italy: Vespa, Piaggio, Aprilla. The slums may have gone, the ragamuffin children too, but the heart of London’s Italian community still beats, showing itself in many ways.
Two memorial plaques at the church juxtapose the varying treatment of those who, over the years, resettled in London from various regions of Italy. Driven from their homeland through politics or economic necessity, this was where they chose to live and worship. The first plaque soberly lists those local London Italians who perished fighting with the British in World War 1, while the second one commemorates those who died with the sinking of the Arandora Star, a commandeered ocean liner torpedoed in 1940. Interned by the British, and on their way to a detention camp in Canada, these poor souls fell victim to the torpedo of a German U-Boat. Hundreds died, most of them of Italian origin: perhaps some listed on the second plaque were relatives of the heroes on the first, deprived of their liberty and classed as ‘enemy aliens’ on account of nothing more than their surnames.
Back at the social club and the Circolo della Terza Eta,’ lunch is over and the septuagenarian DJ is announcing the ‘ultimo ballo’ (last dance). The floor swarms again with those waltzing couples. A raffle draw is made, winners announced in a language I barely speak. We all stand and the British National Anthem is respectfully followed by the Italian one, the latter sung with perhaps more gusto. Our lunch over, a quick arrivederci to our new-found and welcoming friends and we’re back out on the street. With the social club door now closed, it’s hard to believe in the existence of such a community that thrives largely out of our sight.
At Terroni’, the next-door deli which dates from 1907, displays of tempting pistachio-stuffed pastries and oozingly soft cheeses lure me in. I am unlikely to ever forget my Shared City tour of London’s ‘Little Italy,’ but taking home a few edible souvenirs will guarantee that I don’t.
Murray Stewart, Travel Writer