If you want to start at the beginning: Sonhood 1
Ernesto was a small strong man. Until the very end of his life he was active either in his business or his garden – he lived on a peasants schedule, moving from dawn until dusk. When he retired from business he diverted his energy to growing vegetables. He lived on a boiled diet. My father used to joke when his parents were coming to stay that the boiled beef brigade were on their way. And we all laughed. In fact the diet that his parents lived on was low in fat and full of fresh fruit and vegetables – even if the vegetables were over cooked. My granddad ate fruit at every meal and had a small silver pocket knife attached to his key ring with which he would carefully peel everything. Ernesto had come to Britain from Italy after the First World War. He was one of four sons. His father had lived in Peckham before the war and tried to fight for the British but was rejected so he took his family back to Italy. When the war was over the four sons set out to reclaim their house. Two sons got as far as Paris and settled there. The other two got back to London and stayed there. Their father never came to England again.
One of Ernesto’s first jobs was as a mason working on a new floor for the concourse of Waterloo station. Later he ran a series of cafés around London, including one on Richmond Hill. He finally settled on one in Exmouth Market, Clerkenwell. This was in a very good position. It was across the road from the main postal sorting office at Mount Pleasant and around the corner from the Guardian. Later he expanded into a restaurant, called Brivati’s, which was next door. The café itself remained a traditional working class one, serving fried breakfast, lunches with some Italian twists and reasonably good, for the time, coffee. It was also close to the main centre of the Italian community in London. They must have opened the café before the Second World War because my grand mother used to tell the following story. The local policeman was a regular customer. He would call in on his rounds. When the government decided to intern Italians, after Mussolini’s suicidal decision to enter the war on the axis side, this policeman stopped by as usual. He told them it would be better if Ernesto was not around the following morning. My grandmother gave him a chicken and granddad did not end up on the Isle of Man in the first round-ups.
Ernesto and his wife Eugenia, my grandmother, retired to Italy in the 1960s but frequently came back to England to stay. They sold their business to Ernesto’s brother, Cesare. He ran it successfully into the 1980s. I remember going to Smithfield Market to buy the meat with Cesare. He was immensely fat and very sweet. But he was well known in the area, I much later discovered, for being very tight. He had two sons, Tony and Dino.
We would occasionally come to eat at the restaurant when we were in London for a wedding: the ceremonies taking place in the Italian Church and the receptions at Finsbury Town Hall. My Dad’s sisters, Marion and Jeanette, had continued to live in London. Jeanette’s husband worked as a postman at Mount Pleasant. Bill was very English and very tall. Marion’s husband, equally English and tall, though considerably more fun, was called Fred. Bill and Fred would help in the kitchen at the receptions, cutting the salami and dishing out the wine. Drinking as much as they served the guests. Gradually getting drunker and drunker until they would disappear finally in search of “something stronger”.
Dino eventually took over the business and opened a high-class version of Brivati’s in St Johns Street. It started trading just before the stock market crash. It went bust when expense account lunches declined. The restaurant was taken over by the administrators. Dino was always very charming and good at front of house. He got a job with the administrators looking after other restaurants that had gone bankrupt. Brivati’s became a chain restaurant making real stone fired pizza. In the heart of the rejuvenated Clerkenwell area. It must be a gold mine today. I never heard my grandfather say a word about it but I often wondered how he felt. He did not speak that much, my grandmother was the more dominant and verbal partner, but in his quiet way he listened and I liked being with him. He used to call me Charlie Brown.
There were corners of the bake house in which debris of the different production processes assembled – the flotsam and jetsam of a partially mechanised factory. Old bread tins, old trays, bits of machines, old mixers and an assortment of broken peels and mouldy oven gloves. I liked to sit alone in these quiet corners and have cups of tea or Danish pastries pilfered from the racks in dispatch. What was possible here was to revert to being a child by playing and imagining. In these moments the anxiety of work was removed. Things could assume magical qualities in these spaces, becoming caves filled with elves or pirates. Whenever he came to stay my grandfather would like to spend the day at the bakery. He would often work in these places. Overall, I think he liked things more than people. If we found ourselves together then he would get me to hold something or pass him things. He would spend hours carefully mending trays or tidying up the tools and if I could I would spend those hours with him. I think he felt that the big factory was somehow extravagant but that this corner was okay. At the height of my father’s business success the trade magazine for bakers came to do a spread. While the photographer was walking around the factory he climbed up to the storeroom that had been built above the offices to take a photograph of the whole layout of the plant. There he found my grandfather, hammer in hand, fixing wooden cake trays.
My Dad and his dad were happiest when working together. Either doing jobs or at home making wine. This was an annual ritual in the later part of Dad’s life. A few of his friends would club together to buy grapes. These would arrive in a lorry and be put through a grape crusher which they hired in turn. The wine was of variable quality. Nunno, (my grandfather was Nunno and my grandmother, Nonna) would turn the handle on the crusher and clean the demijohns. At these moments Dad and his Dad would talk, comment and discuss the process. I cannot remember a single conversation between them that was not about how to do something. They also napped in almost exactly the same position. After lunch or dinner they would retire to the sofa and very quickly be fast asleep, head back and mouth slightly open. In later years my brother sometimes joined them. Three generations of sleeping Brivati.