Two Italian Connections in My Old SE London Work-place

The programme for the Bagni di Lucca branch of the University of the Third Age is out. This university, or Unitre as it is known here, is a Europe-wide movement in support of life-long learning.


Like a good brisk daily walk of not less than half-an-hour is essential  if one is to keep in good shape at all stages of life so reading and listening to interesting discussions is equally essential if one is to keep one’s brain receptive and active.  Recent research has shown that playing video games can help older people in avoiding cognitive problems but frankly, I’d far rather go to interesting talks, read good books and watch selected programmes on television.

Unitre has been around for some time in Bagni di Lucca. I’ve written several posts on its activities.

There’s one at:


and at

Unitre’s academic year for 2015-6 is full of interesting topics. The programme kicks off with a talk by the brilliant young archivist Tommaso Maria Rossi on the immensely rich diocesan archives of Lucca cathedral. Our librarian, Angela Amadei, presents a mysterious topic on the Cunninghame affair which I’m intrigued to find out about. Subjects from astronomy and ancient history to local mediaeval history, from Winston Churchill to Benedetto Croce and from commedia dell’arte to migration are all covered. Among these multifarious topics I’ve got one of my own on the 21st of January entitled ‘the English experiences of Italo Svevo’.

As some of you, who have read that amazingly seriously comic book, “The conscience of Zeno” may know, Italo Svevo, alias Ettore Schmitz, seemingly gave up his attempt to become a literary figure after writing two abortive novels and accepted his brother-in-law’s offer to set up a branch of the family marine paint factory in Charlton, South East London. I taught for many years at a college in Charlton which was only a few steps away from the Veneziani paint works and just up the hill in this barely distinguished area of London there’s the house, now adorned with the blue plaque customarily affixed to dwelling of famous people, where Svevo spent, on and off, over twenty years of his life directing the factory.

Svevo’s letters from London to his wife and relatives and his set of essays on what was then the world’s greatest imperial city make fascinating reading. A Triestine, Svevo had taken English lessons from his teacher in that cosmopolitan city, then under the Austro-Hungarian empire (see my post at for more on this fascinating city),  who was no less than James Joyce, but somehow found it very difficult at first to understand English as she is spoke in London. Perhaps a shade of Irish brogue didn’t prepare him too well for the sharp machine-gun-fast utterances of inner London cockney.

Anyway, Svevo eventually managed to come to grips with a country he found so “differente” and actually grew to love it very much. He especially appreciated the escape from Triestine snobbery into the matter-of-fact working class camaraderie of a Thameside factory. He enjoyed London’s parks and the great art collections and was able to comment very usefully on the structure of British society at the time. Being also an amateur musician Svevo set up a chamber music group which was especially appreciated in the days before hi-fi and cd. Last but not least, Svevo was a loyal supporter of that great football team, Charlton Athletic!

It’s incredible how the unexceptional area of London in which I spent most of my working life has at least two important Italian connections. Svevo’s is, of course one of them but the other is in the park opposite my college, Marion Park. When I first stepped into that park I had an uncanny feeling I’d been here before. Indeed, I had but not in real life. It is, in fact, the park scenario for the seminal film with Vanessa Redgrave and David Hemmings and directed by one Italy’s greatest film directors, Michelangelo Antonioni, ‘Blow up’! An old park-keeper there was even able to tell me the exact spot where the disappearing corpse shown in the film was laid!

Maybe you’ll be able to attend some of the unitre lectures?



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