Cosimo Togna is the last living interpreter of the former Stewartby, the works as big as a city which produced bricks for the reconstruction of British cities after the bombings of the second world war. He remembers everything of those times; he is one of those people who have more familiarity with their past, than with their present. His house is a mix of horror vacui and amarcord, a long, narrow living room in a vaguely popular area, with a small kitchen and a bedroom, entirely filled by a double bed. On his bedside table sits the urn containing his wife’s ashes.

We met him a few hours before at the museum “The Higgins” in Bedford, where he was browsing through the photos and magazines from the time of the brickworks. He recognised old friends, colleagues, a few rivals. All disappeared now. It is a melancholic note, and this is why he feels more comfortable in his living room, after a moka coffee and a cigarette. He starts to tell us how he became an interpreter. In 1945 the American troops were still occupying Benevento. He was selling chestnuts with his uncle in front of the American headquarters, and befriended a young Palestinian girl. When we ask him whether they became more than friends, he does not answer but cannot hide a smile.

Cosimo learned English thanks to this friendship, and thus decided to go to the employment office in 1949, asking for a job outside Italy. His desire was to have a better life for himself and  his wife, as he had recently married. In 1951 he was sent to the UK, going by train to Milan, then Calais, taking the ferry finally to London. Before giving him an id and a job they asked him a few questions: «How old are you? What was your last job? Are you a communist? ».

The officers liked the answers and destined him to a coal mine. He had to leave this due to the protracted strikes by the British workers who found the Italians an uncomfortable presence since they  worked harder and better. He then went to the brickworks in Bedford, living in a former prisoner of war camp, now called by the more appealing name of “Wings Hostel”. Every morning he went out with thousands of other workers to the brickyards, which were so large they had their own hospital and firemen. After a few years he bought a house, brought his wife to the UK and started living in what was at the time the Little Italy of Bedford.

While making another coffee, he wants to show us what he is narrating. He inserts a VHS in the player, while his golden neck chain with a crucifix dangles from his shirt and he adjusts his ring, which has a cross on one side, a portrait of the Queen on the other.

The cassette starts playing.



All of this did not last forever. At the beginning of the 1970s the brick industry was declining. Cosimo saw the owners of the brickyards blowing-up one, two, three and then many more of the thin chimneys. Areas were closed and then demolished, leaving nothing but emptiness. It seemed that, day after day, the city of bricks was shrinking. Only a few Italians worked there until the end, and also Cosimo was seeking a different future for himself and his sons. Hence why he bought a chip shop, but two out of his three sons absolutely did not want to work there and decided to set fire to it, to force their father to close it down.

In 1972, he left Bedford.

He came back years later, to join his wife who was in care there, but he found a completely different town. Workmen had been replaced by commuters going to London and to the hi-tech companies in the south: Sony, Airbus. The Italian community still had its own places, but he was missing the familiarity of old. After thirty-five years he was almost a foreigner, and many at the Club Italia regarded him as the guy who left. To Cosimo, nothing has changed.

In his mind, the brickworks are still there, and his life is still following the thread of that adventure as a migrant he had loved so much. He shows us, as if it was an id document, a yellowed piece of paper. Arrival in the UK 10.04.1951 is stamped on it: this is the paper he has carried around with him for all the years that followed his arrival.

Yet, much has changed since he left.



As rains slowly caresses the holes left by the razed chimneys I remember, by chance, the only comment Cosimo made on the Palestinian girl:



« The Americans when they left, they all left. Before I departed for England they had already left. But the only, the only thing I always remember, is the song I’ll never forget, eh eh, the one they taught me every day I met her or when she was with her friends and they made jokes with the Italians. It is the song “You are my sunshine” the one that goes:

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are grey. You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you.

Please don’t take my sunshine away».


— Photo: Giacomo Togna showing the card he received when he first immigrated to the UK, in 1951.



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