A sample from the autobiography, ‘Confessions of a King’s Road Cowboy.’
Chapter 1. War
He had a beautiful young English wife, three gorgeous daughters and a studio on the Harrington Road. Life must have been sweet for my father, in London in the 1930s. It was surely the dream life for any photographer. That dream came to an end when Italy declared war on Great Britain. It was 1940.
Armando Cigarini was born in 1896 to an Italian family in French Tunisia. It had been recently established during the French colonial empire era, and was still the second-largest colonial power on the map. When he became an adult, Armando made his way to Paris where he apprenticed to Marcel, the well-known French photographer, and he saw the First World War – fortunately only as a war photojournalist for a French newspaper, as his heart condition prevented him from being drafted in as any kind of soldier. As the story goes, he was present during the famous retreat from Caporetto in 1917, taking photographs on the Austro-Italian front of World War I – the one Hemingway documented in A Farewell to Arms. Near the town of Kobarid, Austro-Hungarian forces, reinforced by German units, broke the Italian frontline and overwhelmed the Italian army. It was the war of poison gas, the terrifying storm troopers, the trenches. Those who read the Hemingway masterpiece would often summarise it with a word: bleak. The backdrop of the First World War, cynical soldiers and the displacement of populations would have been nothing but bleak; it is what my father would have surely seen, like the lines of men, marching in the rain. A Farewell to Arms is quite a story of love and pain, of loyalty and abandonment, ironically the exact themes that would encapsulate his own life. But not yet. First he would need to meet her, my beautiful mother.
After The Great War he moved to Berlin, where he opened a photographic studio. They must have been fun days during the Golden Twenties in Berlin, a sophisticated and then developed culture of architecture, cabaret, literature, painting, film and fashion. Considered decadent by rightists, it was surely fabulous for my father but he didn’t stay long and moved swiftly to London to become a court photographer for the Royal Court, a title of great distinction in those days. He photographed young Princess Elizabeth, now Queen Elizabeth II, and I have a photograph of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, inscribed Portrait by Cigarini. He was also a society photographer for Tatler and Bystander out of Fleet Street and The Sketch, the newspaper weekly that cornered high society and the aristocracy. Armando’s photographs were hand-coloured, which I believe he did himself and I find that to be quite fabulous. On the Internet, I found one he had taken of film actress Eve Gray, and another of Miss Peggy O’Neil, now in the National Portrait Gallery archives.
By the early ’30s, Armando had met and married my mother, Ruby Davies, who was a wonderful and beautiful young model. Likely they met on a photo shoot in the studios of Kensington and Knightsbridge, or perhaps even in his own on Harrington Road. They had three daughters, Maria born in 1933, Luisa in ’36 and Christina in ’38, and they lived in a home in Kenton, North London.
It was June 10, 1940 when Benito Mussolini stepped onto the balcony of the Palazzo Venezia and declared war on France and Britain, bellowing in his uniform to a quarter of a million in the Piazza. ‘Soldiers, sailors, and aviators… black shirts of the revolution and of the legions… men and women of Italy… of the Empire… and of the kingdom of Albania… pay heed. An hour appointed by destiny has struck in the heavens of our fatherland. The declaration of war has already been delivered…’ and the crowd chanted two words back to their Mussolini: ‘war’ and ‘war’.
The reaction by the allies was swift. In London, all Italians who had lived on British soil less than twenty years and were aged between sixteen and seventy were interned. For the Italians of London, life had changed in a heartbeat. Panic had hit the city streets and what was once a place of opportunity, wonder and excitement had turned overnight to a place where people feared for their lives.
Faced with the certainty of internment, the family packed and moved to Rome. It may have suited my father, who avoided internment, but life was not easy for my mother and the English girls in German-occupied Rome. To begin with, none of them could speak Italian; only my father could, as he was already well travelled and fluent in Italian, French, Arabic, German and English. Like in all wars, hardship was evident, everywhere. The German forces took most of the available food, with bread being rationed to just 100g per person per day. Utilities were cut off, and the family had no electricity, gas or water. Subsequently, my mother had multiple miscarriages during the war due to the hard conditions, until eventually they had their first son, Giusseppe – but he died after just forty days. They had twin daughters Lilliana and Silvana, but they also died – after just four days. My mother was exhausted, she had no milk in her body, and there was none to buy.
The bombing of Rome took place on several occasions in the early 1940s, most notably on June 1943, when more than 500 allied planes dropped bombs, causing thousands of civilian deaths and even the Vatican City was under attack by both British and German forces, despite it maintaining neutrality.
Rome was hit by 60,000 tons of bombs over seventy-eight days before her capture. Yet quite amazingly, against a backdrop of all of this, in late 1943, my mother fell pregnant… with me. She woke up on the fifth of June 1944 to a great sound – American tanks on the main street, near home. She left the house, heavily pregnant, and walked up to the American soldiers. Holding me in her tummy, she spoke to them in English – which would have been unusual for the American GIs to hear.
‘Which way did the Germans go?’ the US Fifth Army asked her as she stood in her long coat. They befriended her and gave her a supply of milk, chocolates and bread. It seemed that day was to mark a turning point on the war in Europe, with Rome being the first of the axis power capitals to fall to the allies. American troops took control of Rome and the Germans had been ordered to withdraw. Rome was liberated and the people emptied themselves onto the streets in celebration, welcoming the allies with cheer and applause, hurling bundles of flowers at passing army vehicles. Three days later I was born. It was June 8, 1944. What I’ve come to realise is that those very provisions the Americans gave my mother enabled me to live. I owe my life to those soldiers on that day. My luck had just begun and I was given the middle name Victor to denote the victory.
Being multi-lingual and a wheeler-dealer, my father began to supply the Allied Forces with dried fruit, which he sourced from North Africa. He became quite rich in the process, but sadly lost most of the money buying a warehouse full of old-master paintings, which turned out to be fakes. Quite the businessman, he got involved in an enterprise, which I remember well from my childhood in Rome. He invented a chocolate-banana machine. You put the chocolate and the banana in one end, and the chocolate-covered banana came out the other. The machines were big, about the size of a supermarket freezer. I remember those bananas being quite delicious, but the business didn’t take off. I have since only come across chocolate-covered bananas once, in Hawaii.
Likely through his American Army connections, my father was offered the job of running Coca-Cola in Italy but, much to the exasperation of my mother, he turned the offer down. He said he had never worked for someone else in his life, and he didn’t want to start. Whether for that reason or because the war was over, my mother decided she would return to England, which she did in 1949, but before we left, we had a visitor – my maternal grandmother, Mabel, likely giving my mother guiding words from a generation that had seen war before. My mother decided to only take my eldest sister Maria and me, Little Johnny, back to England. By this time, my father was already ill with the heart disease that would eventually kill him. Luisa and Christina, then aged thirteen and eleven, were put in a convent in Rome. The family were beginning to split apart.
Although I was only five, I remember the journey to England. We went for a final pizza before the trip. I went back to the flat sixty years later and after all those years I was still able to walk straight back to our apartment building from the tram. The pizzeria was still there too! I remember my mother wearing her long black coat. I remember us stopping off in Paris. I remember seeing one of my father’s brothers. I remember his family at the station. It was a long time ago; I will be seventy next June. But I remember.
My sister Christina, who stayed behind in Rome, has since told me that my father did not know we were leaving and that he had his first heart attack when he found out. All this because of the war.
When we got to England, my mother left my sister and I with two of her sisters, while she got her life organised. She was looking for a job and somewhere to live and started calling herself Johnson, presumably so my father could not trace her. I still don’t know why my mother left him – I guess I’ll never know; perhaps I’m not meant to – but it must have been terribly hard for her in Rome during those times; I’m sure she must have missed England dearly. Maria was nearly sixteen, and was left with Aunty Mabs in Broadstairs, Kent. Mabs was a hairdresser and her husband, Les, a postal worker. I was left in Coventry with Aunty Alice. Her husband Ted worked as a toolmaker at the Standard Motor Company. They had three small children of their own.
That was it, I never saw my mother again. Four months later in London, she was dead. She had started vomiting blood due to a serious liver disease and went into a coma. She died, aged thirty-nine, of haematemesis. The last time I saw my father was when he came over for my mother’s funeral in 1950, when I was just five. He gave me a red twelve-inch tin-plate model car with a battery and working headlights. I still have it and it is my most treasured possession, still with the original battery. Armando went back to Rome and died of heart failure in February 1954, aged fifty-seven. My father was dead, my mother was dead, three siblings had died before their first birthdays, I had two sisters back in Italy and one I had been separated with in England. I was alone, kind of. Maybe it were the early years that were to shape the rest of me. It would certainly explain a few things.
I remember my first few months in Coventry. I don’t know whether I spoke any English when I arrived – my first language would have been Italian. Perhaps my mother and sisters had taught me some English when we were in Italy, I don’t even know. In Coventry, however, I had no one who spoke Italian, and I lost it, forever. People have always told me that it’s in there somewhere, but I can’t find it. Even now after living in Italy for ten years, I still speak Italian badly, like an Englishman.
After the death of my mother, it was decided I should live with my grandmother, Mabel Davies, in Margate, Kent. This reunited me with my eldest sister Maria, who lived nearby in Broadstairs. She was working in my aunt’s hairdressing salon, and would visit me on Sundays and we would always make a big meal.
My granny Mabel was a great old bird. She was seventy-six when I went there and eighty-six when I left, at sixteen, just before she died. She brought me up really well, and it must have been difficult for her. She had had no sons but four daughters of her own. Her maiden name was Pearse, and she was from Cornwall – she claimed descent from ‘Tom Pearse, Tom Pearse, lend me your grey mare’, from the folk song ‘Widdecombe Fair’, and it’s quite possible, as that spelling of Pearse is quite unusual.
In Margate I also had a grandfather, but don’t remember much of him. I do remember him chasing me, and him often falling from his bike, but that was it. Jack Davies was around for the first couple of years, but I probably killed him off. He was a stern ex-professional soldier in his eighties, and probably didn’t much like having a six-year-old running around the house. Funny thinking back while writing my memoirs, forcing myself to remember; strange, too, the things that come to me, strange also – the parts I have forgotten.
After my father died, my other two sisters came to Margate from Rome. Christina was now sixteen and Luisa eighteen. They were good girls but they were strangers to me, and seemed so much older, more like aunts. Although they had both been born in England, they didn’t speak much English. Christina stayed with me at Granny’s for a short while, and worked at a deaf-and-dumb school. Luisa studied nursing and lived in the nurse’s hostel. Amazingly, she found time to become the Margate Beauty Queen. As I’ve said, they were more like aunts, women who helped, like my granny. Everyone seemed to be there to help me, or be there to just be there. It was as if they were worried something was going to happen to me as a result of the trauma I had faced in my life so far but I, I suppose, was none the wiser. I was happy in fact, but perhaps the trauma had affected me subconsciously because at about seven years old I began twitching my head. As I had fine blond hair, Granny thought that was the reason (to flick it out of my face), and she put a hairpin on me, which I of course found very embarrassing. No one knew where the twitch came from, what it was or how to get rid of it. Over time, the head twitching turned into eye blinking, and even came small sounds from deep in my throat. ‘What’s happening to him?’ I recall them all asking one another, panicked in a frenzy of Italian irrationality. They were only trying to help, I suppose. I would only do one thing at a time, but I had a compulsive need to do something in a repetitive manner. Over time, it settled into the head twitching as being the dominant tic. I tried various cures, including hypnotherapy, but nothing had any effect. For nearly fifty years, it was the bane of my life.
Although I wasn’t to know it, the decision for me to move to Margate with Granny would ultimately help shape my entire future. By living in Margate, I would meet someone who would change my life, forever. Oh, he would play with my penis too.