Eighty one Trust supporters, including six original escapers, met on 2 November 2010 at the Royal Overseas League Club for the annual Fontanellato/MSMT lunch. The guest speaker was Kevin McCloud, the TV presenter and a patron of the Trust, and the guests included the US Air Attache, Colonel Sonny Blinkinsop. Also present was Rossella Ruggeri, a retired English teacher from a school in Modena, who has sent many of her students to England on bursaries, and Sarah Moorhouse, the Principal’s assistant from Oxford House School of English, which is attended by several Italian students on Trust bursaries every year. The Italian Ambassador sent apologies for his absence, as he had been called away to Italy.
The Rev Bill Bowder said Grace and the Secretary, the Hon. Letitia Blake, proposed a vote of thanks to the Italian people. The Chairman, Sir Nicholas Young, paid warm tribute to former PoWs Maurice Goddard and Stan Skinner who had both died within the past year. Maurice’s daughter, Judith, with her husband Nick and two daughters (plus one fiance) were all present, as was Jo Skinner, Stan’s widow, and her grandson Miles. Happy Birthday was sung to Mick Wagner, an original escaper, who was celebrating his 90th birthday that day.
Christine English, one of the Trustees, brought several books from her father’s library which were sold to raise money for the Trust. The Chairman also introduced Sue Comber, the Trust’s new fundraiser.
In his amusing and wide-ranging speech, Kevin McCloud – the presenter of Channel Four’s “Grand Designs” and “Grand Tour” series – introduced himself as an “interloper”, in the sense that his family had not itself had wartime connections with Italy. However, as he explained, his connections with Italy went back to 1977. In that year, he took a bus and train through Europe to learn Italian at Florence, where he was taught by a Milanese lady. He then spent a year working for an Italian family in Tuscany, picking olives.
“It was my first encounter with another culture. I am enormously grateful for this, in forming and informing my own experiences and that of my children,” said Kevin.
“For the past 30 years I have been back and forth to Italy. As I discovered while making my Channel 4 series on the Grand Tour, a huge number of ‘us’ went to Italy. This helps us understand why our buildings are as they are – the biggest single influence on our country’s built environment has been Italy.”
Kevin went on to discuss the significance in Italian of the terms “patrimonio” – meaning pride of sense of place – and “bella figura”, which can be applied to a car, a woman, a landscape or to behaviour. “Bella figura,” he said, was especially evident in the redesign of Rome by the 17th century architect Carlo Fontana. “Rome is my favourite city,” said Kevin. “It can absorb hundreds of thousands of tourists and still function well.”
He concluded with a long list of things that Britain has enjoyed at the hands of Italy. These range from the Renaissance to Ferrari, pizza and proper coffee – not forgetting, naturally, Sophia Loren and the Monte San Martino Trust.
Winding up proceedings at the lunch, Michael Lacey, who was a PoW at Montalbo and Fontanellato, amused listeners with tales of his ultimately successful trek to freedom after escaping from Fontanellato in 1943. The walk took him and his companions four and a half months. He said jokingly that it wouldn’t have taken so long if they hadn’t taken circuituous routes to avoid wolves, having been wished “in bocca lupo”. He only discovered 30 years later, he said, that this meant “good luck”.
His party did indeed have several encounters with wolves and he described a dramatic moment when the animals tried to break down the ramshackle door of their mountain hiding place. However, despite this nerve-racking experience, no harm was done and they all eventually made it home.