My paternal great-grandfather, Giovanni, was born in Naples in 1898. I don’t know anything about his life as a boy or even how many siblings he had, but I do know that he served in the Italian army during the Great War: first in the Bersaglieri from 1916-17, then in the IX Reparti d’assalto, (the Arditi) and took part in the famous raid on Col Moschin.
For those who haven’t heard of them, the Arditi were the first modern special force. They carried out rapid assaults and instead of serving in the trenches, and unlike regular soldiers they were transported to and from their destination and rarely took firearms into battle. Their principal weapons on an assault were the grenade and dagger and their tactics were to throw their grenades at the enemy, then quickly fall on them with their daggers leaving no one alive. They took a lot risks and had a high causality rate — they would sometimes blow themselves up — but they had great success and a reputation in hand-to-hand combat was unparalleled. Their scherma di pugnale militare (military dagger fighting) was supposedly drawn from Fiore dei Liberi Flos Duellatorum.
The Arditi were demobilised in 1920, most of them joined paramilitary groups. Giovanni joined the “Arditi del Popolo”, an anti-fascist paramilitary movement, that took on Mussolini’s Blackshirts. The Arditi del Popolo was a militant left wing group, although a lot of the membership had served in the Arditi and were more interested in fighting the fascists than politics. Giovanni was a devout Catholic and communist but he also hadn’t spent a day in school and could read Latin better than he could Italian.
Giovanni competed in Greco Roman wrestling and cycling in Italy. He also took up .came over to London in 1924, where he met then married, my great-grandmother Fiorenza, who was born in 1905 in ‘Il Quartiere Italiano’ (the Italian quarter) in Clerkenwell, London. He took up boxing and wrestled for a while at the Ashdown wrestling club in Pentonville, where Bert and Joe Assirati trained. I’m not sure if he trained with them because they would have been teenagers at the time. But they were all coached by 6x British lightweight freestyle wrestling champion, George MacKenzie.
By 1928, Giovanni and Fiorenza, were living in Bethnal Green. I don’t know too much about this period in his life, other than he was a docker and took part in The Battle of Cable Street, fighting against the police and Mosley’s Blackshirts. But what I do know is that he knew bastone napoletano — the art of using tàccaro (a 70cm branch of wood) or stacco (the same with nails in the end) — and scherma di pugnale militare. His back-stabbing methods were brutal but effective.
My Grandad, Giuseppe, was the eldest son of Giovanni and Fiorenza. He was born in Bethnal Green, London, 1928, and baptised in St Peter’s Italian Church, Clerkenwell, London. He had an older sister and younger brother. Like his father, Giuseppe was a keen wrestler and boxer. He competed in freestyle and Greco Roman. His father also passed on his knowledge of bastone napoletano and scherma di pugnale militare. Growing up in the East End, Giuseppe also learned how to have a straightener (bare knuckle fight) on the cobbles.
He managed to miss WWII, but if he thought he had a touch, he was very wrong because as soon as he joined the 2nd Battalion 1st Independent Parachute Brigade, he was sent to the British Mandate of Palestine in April 1946, which put him right in the thick of it. On the 25th April the Stern gang assassinated seven paras of the 5th (Scottish) Parachute Battalion — “the car park murders” — the 2nd Battalion were tasked with counter terrorism, taking on the numerous Jewish terrorists groups out there, like the Haganah, Palmach, Irgun and Stern Gang. It was an odd situation because they were being trained, equipped and supported by the British establishment. Most of them were or had served in the Jewish Brigade Group of the 8th army or the Jewish Settlement Police. The paras turned over every house in Tel Aviv and the 2nd Battalion hunted down and killed Jewish terrorists, with or without orders.
The Jewish population hated the paras, who they called “Kalaniot” (poppy) because they wore red berets and a poppy is a red flower with a black heart. He hated it out there because the British army were an occupation force that did very little to protect the Palestinian population from ethnic cleansing. When he was over there he took part in boxing and wrestling and carried on competing when he returned to London. He got a job on the docks and met an Irish girl from Cork, called Evelyn, who he ended up marrying.
In the fifties, he put his wrestling and boxing skills to use working as a bouncer in the East End. Giuseppe was a good stand up and a good ground fighter, but although he was trained in submission wrestling, he thought submission holds were a waste of time in a real fight. If he was on the ground, he wasn’t going to lie on his back with his legs in the air. He would pin them and someone to the ground and unleash with headbutts or dash their head against the floor; and if anyone was daft enough to try and eye gouge him or grab his bollocks, he would bite off one of their fingers or nose.
Giuseppe and Evelyn were married in 1950 and had five kids: Francesca, Caitlin, Giacomo, Gino and Lorenza. My father, Jack (Giacomo), was born in Bethnal Green, in 1955 and my uncle Gino was born in 1957. Like their father and grandfather, they took up boxing and wrestling — lets be honest, they had no choice in the matter — their father was a boxing and wrestling coach. They might have been growing up in the sixties but they weren’t part of the long-haired, soap-dodging, pot-smoking, layabout brigade. Giuseppe wouldn’t have stood for it. They both won London area titles in boxing and competed nationally in wrestling.
When he was seventeen, Jack left home and married my mother, Maria, who was born in Nissa, Sicily, in 1956. Her parents had brought her and her two sisters and brother over to England from Spain in 1964. He worked on the docks then on the building sites. In the seventies Jack, Gino were coaching wrestling and training in judo with Ian (Caitlin’s husband). Giuseppe wasn’t keen on judo: he couldn’t see the point in wrestling in your pyjamas. But when Jack and Gino got their black belts in 1980, he let them teach judo at the wrestling club, along with submission wrestling. Ian moved to Romford and set up his own club — all four of his daughters are black belts. In the late-eighties Jack was working as a bouncer at illegal raves with Gino and Dave (Amica’s father). They made an absolute fortune in the Second Summer of Love.