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‘Things got better, because we were together and we were in love’
An Italian family relocate to Longsight in the 50s
By Sophie Atkinson
Dandelions is about a lot of things: romance paperbacks, low-level xenophobia, storytelling, gaps in history, the moments in our past we preen ourselves on and the parts we’d rather not talk about. The memoir is also about author Thea Lenarduzzi’s family history, documenting four generations of migration between Italy and England. Understandably, much of Dandelions is set in Italy — but Manchester and Sheffield both play decisive roles in the book.
Dirce, Thea’s grandmother, first tries to leave Maniago, a town based in the northeastern Friuli Venezia Giulia region, for England when still a child in 1935: “the Great Depression was dragging on and Mussolini’s government had taken control of around 75 per cent of Italy’s businesses, a light touch compared to the policies that would soon follow”. But tragically, just two months after the family arrive in Sheffield, her father dies of rheumatic fever and the family move back to Italy.
1950: take two. Dirce, then 24, moves to Manchester with her mother and a two-year-old son, Manlio. Leonardo, her husband, follows them shortly after. As Thea puts it, “On some level, she had always known she would try again to settle in England…if pre-Second World War Friuli had been tough, post-War Friuli was in some respects tougher.” Thea counts the various obstacles: the local industry in Maniago, which was heavily reliant on steel, had been “decimated” and the knife factory where her grandmother’s husband worked was withholding pay.
Dirce had chosen a good time to move. As Dandelions recounts, the British Ministry for Labour launched their Official Italian Scheme in 1949, which recruited a skilled foreign workforce with experience in factories and mills.
While only moments of the book are set in Manchester, I enjoyed one such scene so much that I reached out to Thea to see if she’d be open to letting us publish an extract. What I love about this part of the memoir is the way it grants us an insight into a vision of the past we don’t usually have access to — that of dreary post-war Manchester, as viewed through the eyes of those from sunny South Europe (Dirce’s tale wouldn’t have been uncommon — Manchester had a substantial Italian community from the 1880s onwards).
But first, please enjoy the following introduction to the extract, written by Thea exclusively for the Mill.
Dandelions author Thea Lenarduzzi introduces the extract
“Dirce, if you could live in any part of Italy, where would you live?”
We were sitting in my nonna’s kitchen, the blinds drawn against the oppressive summer heat characteristic of this part of northern Italy, where the plain runs a seam along the Venetian Prealps. My husband and I had come up to visit after a brief spell in Tuscany. He was making conversation while my nonna pottered at the ancient wood-burning stove, stirring the dinner’s various components: chicken with a simple but unctuous clove-y sauce, potatoes to mash, courgettes plucked from the edges of the garden and smothered in butter and a little salted water.
She turned to us, squeezed together on the small red sofa. Now in her later 90s, she spends much of the day stretched out here, flicking channels between dubbed American soaps and the rosary. “Manchester, a’ course!” A broad smile; her adopted Mancunian accent strong more than 50 years after leaving the place.
Perhaps she had misheard the question and assumed he had said “in the world”. But there’s a poetic truth in her seeing Manchester as a kind of enclave of Italy. From the 1860s, amid the chaos of the newly unified country, millions of Italians from mostly rural parts left to try their luck in foreign lands. Word of a better life — or at least, better money — passed from mouth to mouth, generation to generation. Manchester, predominantly down-at-heel Ancoats, became home to many, attracted by the area’s industries, from mills to masonry. They brought considerable skills and traditions with them; new businesses flourished. Ancoats became “Little Italy”, where Genovese families lived cheek by jowl with Sicilians and Friulians, like my great-grandfather Angelo. These are the —elli, —icci, —utti, —izzi, names you encounter about the city still. My dad, who grew up in Longsight in the 1950s, recalls a “microcosm”, with residents from different regions mixing in a way they never had in the motherland.
But Nonna doesn’t talk of Manchester in generic terms. Nor does she describe it that way in the diary she wrote years after moving back to the Friuli (against her will, but that’s another story). She gave me the battered exercise book, containing her account of a life “real and without fiction”, a few summers ago. “Do what you want with it.” “It”: her memories and her memory. Inside she writes of “my Manchester”, “mia Manchester”, a land of contrasts: the excitement of arriving as a child cut short by the premature loss of her beloved father; the pleasure of introducing her youngest son (my dad) to his first giraffe at the Bellevue; the agony of losing the baby that would have been his younger brother; and the elation of adopting a baby daughter. When she speaks English she does so with the accent in which she first learnt how. “Good mornin’”, “y’arigh’?”, “int’it”.
Dirce worked as a seamstress in Manchester's many factories, while her husband Leo worked as a mason, specialised in laying terrazzo, the smooth colourful floors, flecked with broken bits of tile, stone and glass, that you see in churches and department stores up and down the country. They call it “poor man’s mosaic”, but the job paid enough, alongside nonna’s tireless piecework, for the family to eventually move out to Stockport where there were a few more trees. Years later came the various calamities that led them, in 1971, to return home — if that’s what it still was.
Things might have turned out very differently. Fate’s twists could have scattered us anywhere from the north to the South Pole. Yet we came to count Manchester as ours, and a century down the line — and in my case having never lived here at all — can describe a clear winter sky as “Man City blue”. Over the decades the city’s dust must have worked its way into our blood; the dust of terrazzo and the sweatshop floor, of the bombed-out buildings and school grounds my uncle and father scrapped in, sure. But in my nonna’s memory there’s some kind of magic in it, too. The kind that never washes off.
An extract from chapter 4, Dandelions
In 1950, Dirce, with her mother Novella and little Manlio, went ahead to England. With the help of zio Gioacchino and a cousin in Manchester, they found lodgings in Longsight, where all the buildings were made of red brick, ‘un rosso forte, come il sangue’ (a strong red, like blood). The three of them shared a single bed in the attic, beneath a small, leaky skylight. ‘When it rained the house cried.’ Having received British citizenship from her father – and, thanks to the British Nationality Act of 1948, having been allowed to keep it in spite of marrying an Italian – Dirce would find it easy to get set up. That’s what zio Gioacchino said. And the idea was that then, after a few months, she would be able to apply for permission to have Leo join her as a legal resident. She would be allowed to work straight away – she had brought her heavy sewing machine with her – but Leo would have to wait. In the meantime, zio said he would help them in whatever way he could. If they needed anything, Sheffield wasn’t so far away.
Though she did not know it at the time, Dirce’s lodgings were about five miles south of streets she had strolled hand in hand with Angelo. ‘When I got to Manchester,’ she once told me over the phone, ‘I was consumed by a desire to see the church he used to take me to. There was a little grotto of the Madonna, like at Lourdes, and as a child, I thought it was Lourdes. I dreamt about it frequently, sometimes many nights in a row.’
Dreams mean something to Nonna. She would not disagree with scientists who say that sleep is when our minds process the past, ours and others we have heard about, looking for patterns by which to understand the present and so prepare for the future. But dreams are more to her, more than preparations: they are predictions, divine interventions, with a language of their own, sometimes direct, other times oblique. Often, they feature animals.
Fat black vultures, gentle doves with unusual markings (‘stains?’), snakes with human mouths, cats, sheep, once a hare with purple eyes who stood up on his hind legs and spoke. A bestiary of omens, not to be ignored. Only try to dismiss one of Nonna’s dreams and she will set out her record: the night of my first asthma attack, at the age of four, she dreamt that a rabbit was hanging in the mouth of a snake (‘And the next morning your father told me’); a few nights before Leo died, she dreamt that three big black birds were flying towards her and suddenly one dropped to the ground like a stone; a week before her niece ended her own life, a grey-blue cat looked her square in the face, then slinked away. ‘She was saying goodbye.’
Not speaking any English but remembering the name ‘Ciii–Tam’, Dirce asked her landlady if she could help her find the church of the beautiful Madonna. She, a garrulous Genovese woman who kept the shared bathroom (but not much else) spotless, seemed to know it immediately. The next day, Dirce set off on an empty stomach, too nervous to eat, and walked along the city’s thoroughfares. I imagine her now, passing the haberdashery where she’d bought everything to make Leo a smart new shirt, past the Marks & Spencer Penny Bazaar that her cousin had taken her to not long after her arrival to admire the terrazzo flooring he had laid, past countless newsagents who shouted so loudly that she flinched – ‘Better Pay For the Forces!’, ‘UNA Chief Says, War If We Fail In Korea!’, ‘Distressing Accident at Torrisholme!’.
‘Ciii–Tam?’ she asked strangers every few minutes, to make sure she hadn’t strayed from the landlady’s directions. And almost two hours later, she saw beside Cheetham Hill Road a familiar honey-coloured church. But inside there was no grotto and no one to ask, had she even known the words.
‘I never felt so lonely,’ she told me, ‘I don’t remember getting home. Years later I realized that the scene I remembered must have been the nativity crib, which my father took me to see some days before he got sick.’ Slowly, though, things got better.
‘Better’: one of the first English words Dirce learnt, at the clothing sweatshop where her landlady’s husband, a Ukrainian who used to bow whenever Dirce entered a room, had found her a job. ‘You’re doing better,’ the manager told her, resting one hand on the machine, at the end of the first week. Not knowing what this meant Dirce smiled and replied with a non-committal, ‘Yes, yes.’
‘You’re doing better, understand?’
She kept repeating the word to herself – ‘betta’ like the Queen, ‘la regina Elisabetta’ – until the evening, when she could ask the landlady what it meant.
Better, she soon learnt, also meant more money. Because she was so fast on the machines – ‘sveltissima’, she says, as though the word itself were flying through her fingers – she moved into piecework. The best scenario was when the components had already been cut so it was simply a case of stitching them together. She could run up items at ten times the normal speed (it is possible that this is an exaggeration), and before long the owner’s wife had commissioned clothes for herself on the side. ‘My only fault the padrona told me was that I left too many hanging threads.’
I know that piecework is where pay is granted per item produced, but I can’t retrain my mind not to think of it as a work in which an item is pieced together from constituent parts. The definitions are not mutually exclusive, I suppose. But in the first I imagine a finished ‘piece’, entire and, ideally, indistinguishable among others, whose value lies in quantity. In the second, I picture a process in which fragments are integrated into a whole, each with its own quirks – there cannot be two identical – shaped by the worker’s skill, choices, mood, surroundings. In the first, I see a pile of inanimate things; in the second, the creator herself, absorbed in the act.
As Dirce worked, she studied the expressions of the women around her, in whose chatter she could not yet participate, trying to match the word to the tone to the gesture to the outcome. She gathered everything together in a personal dictionary. She learnt dumb and goody-goody and eejit and bitch and filthy. But also, never mind and int’it and starvin’ and help and cake. Help signalled an opportunity, when she would jump to her feet and run over to whomever had said the word, ready to intervene in whatever mess they had got their needle into. Cake was what one of the women, ‘una Africana’, probably Caribbean, brought her in gratitude. Thank you, was what she said. W*p. That was one of Edna’s. Edna who studiously ignored Dirce’s ‘good mornin’’ and scoffed every time Dirce went up for more cloth. Goody-goody. Show-off. Then a chorus of directionless tuts and never minds would ensue from the other women.
Pauline, who lived next door and who had started inviting Dirce around so that their sons could play together, became an unofficial teacher, soon adding biscuits, chips and friend to the list. Afraid of going to Pauline’s empty-handed, Dirce would buy bottles of dandelion and burdock to share, and when the habit became too expensive, she simply stopped going. Pauline berated her when she found out why. Don’t be daft. And that was that.
‘I learnt English quickly from there,’ says Nonna. The pair used to take the bus to visit Pauline’s mother, or just to get them out of the house, and Dirce’s friend paid both fares. Pauline was desperate to get away from her fuss-pot husband, a real pignolo (now they were swapping words). ‘I know a joke about Italy,’ he said to Dirce one evening when she had stopped by for tea and biscuits. ‘What’s the shortest book in an Italian library? The book of Italian war heroes.’
Leo came earlier than planned, on a tourist visa, with one flimsy cardboard suitcase of belongings, like a shoddy theatre prop. ‘He didn’t listen when I told him to wait.’ Perhaps, after his brutti giri, he had convinced himself that Dirce was walking out on him. When she had been gone just a few weeks he had sent her a postcard from Maniago with a carefully staged ring of red wine across one corner. Would she have seen the funny side then as she does now?
‘Things got better,’ Nonna writes in her diary, ‘because we were together and we were in love,’ but also worse, ‘because I was the only one earning and everyone was eating.’ As a tourist, Leo was not eligible for a work permit. By this time, Dirce was making about £6 per week, equivalent to around £200 per week today and somewhat below the national average. Half of this went to Novella, ‘to look after Manlio while I worked,’ with the rest going on rent and feeding the family. Anything left over was split between two envelopes – the first, to be sent back to Italy, to Leo’s parents; the second, stashed in the attic, wedged behind the bed. At night, she took on more work, producing cushion covers for another factory, and with the scrap bits of fabric, she made her rose hairclips, which she sold for a few extra pennies to colleagues and their friends.
To save money, Dirce walked to work rather than taking the bus and skipped breakfast, dropping a hardboiled egg into her pocket for lunch. ‘All morning I’d think about the egg and tell myself it was as heavy as metal so that when I ate it, I felt full.’ At dinnertime, she served everyone else first and ran a bit of bread around the pan. Sometimes she pretended she had a headache and excused herself. ‘I lost a lot of weight. I didn’t look after myself.’
Starvin’. One Sunday, she fainted in Church and everyone turned around to stare at her. She was upset, concerned about having disrupted Mass. Never mind. Someone helped her into a car and drove her home. Thank you. Tea and biscuits. Everyone was kind. She was out of action for weeks.
‘What was wrong with you when you couldn’t work all that time, after fainting?’ I ask her, looking up from the book. ‘Ah, nina, non mi ricordo. But during this time,’ she starts – ‘well, I’ll let you read it yourself.’
And she retreats behind the orange faux-satin curtain that separates the table area, where I am, from the working part of the kitchen, where she is.
You can pre-order Dandelions by Thea Lenarduzzi (£12.99) here. The proposal for the book won the 2020 Fitzcarraldo Editions/Mahler & LeWitt Studios Essay Prize. It will be available in bookshops from 7 September.
On 29 September, Thea will be discussing Dandelions with the co-director of the Centre for New Writing, Kaye Mitchell, at Blackwell’s Manchester. You can book a ticket for this here.