Over Christmas, I read the lovely book Sweet Pizza by G. R. Gemin. It’s set in the Welsh valleys, where I grew up, and tells the story of Joe, a boy who wants to find out more about his Italian ancestors and the history of his family’s café. It’s a touching, funny, modern day story, but, through Joe and his grandad we also find out about the amazing story of the Italian migrant families who moved to Wales during the early twentieth century looking for work in the booming mining industry. They faced the usual predjudice and suspicion that all migrants seem to encounter, and had to work hard to become accepted in their new communities.
My ancestors also moved to Wales looking for work at around the same time, but they came from Ireland. My grandma told me that they too were not very welcome when they first arrived. However, by the time I was growing up, in the Seventies, our little Welsh mining village had as many Italian and Irish families as Welsh families. I really don’t remember there being any problems between the communities by then. On our street there was an Italian Café, similar to the one in Sweet Pizza, sandwiched between the Irish run pub and a Welsh funeral directors! Irish, Welsh and Italians are well known for their love of music, and on Sunday mornings the chapels and churches were full and it could sometimes seem as if the whole village were singing. It was a time of prosperity and people lived and worked together quite happily.
Then the mines closed, many people lost their jobs and there was no spare money. Like many families, we moved away. The Italian café closed and many of the other shops shut down too. The village seemed to be in decline. However, on my last trip, I saw that an Eastern European grocery shop has opened up on the High Street. No doubt it will take a while for people to accept the new shop owners, in the same way as it took a while for them to accept the original Italian and Irish immigrants all those years ago, but it’s good to think that there will once again be new mixes of people learning about each other, enjoying each other’s cultures and I hope, once again building a stronger community.
Sweet Pizza by GR Gemin (Nosy Crow 2016)