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London Letter: A Meeting With The Mafia

Some women talk about love
Because they do not understand
That love needs more than words
Or sinks like water in sand,

The indomitable Henry Jackson brings us a poem, an account of a meeting with the Sicilian Mafia, a slice of history and a summary of the main news stories of the week in London.

Ninety-five-year-old Henry is England’s oldest weekly columnist. To read more of his word please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/london_letter/

Earliest snow for 70 years

Londoners woke up on Wednesday to the earliest snow cover for more than 70 years as a freezing blast of wind from the Arctic hit the capital. Some areas of north London saw two inches of snow fall in two hours when temperatures dropped to zero. Snow fell on the city from 10 pm the previous night. In Brent a heavy snow flurry caught residents by surprise as streets and cars were quickly covered in a white blanket. On the M25 near Enfield a car overturned and skidded off the M25 and the driver was injured and taken to hospital.

The Westfield Centre opens

Westfield, a new shopping centre covering 44 acres in Shepherds Bush, West London, opened to the public yesterday in the shadow of a looming recession. It is the third largest shopping centre in the country and contains 265 shops, 50 restaurants and a multiplex cinema. It aims to serve 60,000 shoppers every day.

Fire damages Garrick home

A historic building that was once the home of David Garrick, the Shakespearean actor, was seriously damaged by fire. The entire roof of the Grade 1 listed building in Hampton Court Road, South-West London, was destroyed but no-one was hurt. Built in the Middle Ages the building was acquired by Garrick in 1754 as his country retreat and converted into flats in 1969.

Bahrain buys 200 black cabs

London black cab maker Manganese Bronze received its biggest ever order for 200 cabs from the Arab state of Bahrain.

Two killed in car-bus crash

Two people were killed and three others injured when a car collided with a double-decker bus in Corkscrew Hill, West Wickham, South-East London.

The car driver died at the scene and a woman passenger died later in hospital. Both were in their early 20s. A second female passenger who was also in the back seat of the car was critically injured. Two other female passengers received non life-threatening injuries.

In another accident a 47-year-old London woman and her 12-year-old daughter were killed when their car veered off the road and overturned near Okehampton in Devon. A second daughter aged 14 suffered minor injuries.

Motorcycles in bus lane trial

Motor cycles will be allowed to use most of London’s bus lanes from next March in an experiment to cut accident rates. The situation will be reviewed every six months.

Jazzing up Crossrail Station

Plans for the new £500m Crossrail Station at Canary Wharf show that it will include a shopping centre plus a restaurant and cafes with the roof transformed into a public park and water features. It will also have walkways to Poplar in the north and the Isle of Dogs via Canary Wharf in the south.

Crossrail will run from Maidenhead and Heathrow in the west to Shenfield and Abbey Wood in the east via the West End, City and Docklands.

Workers cut down travel time

The TUC published a survey stating that the number of London commuters travelling for at least an hour to and from work last year fell 7.2%, more than 100,000, to 1.2m. They explain the decline to people working away from the office and flexi-time. The survey points out, however, that one in five employees still spends more than an hour a day commuting.

Women join the top chefs

Two Mayfair restaurants run by women have been included in the Harper’s Bazaar list of Top Twenty restaurants in the capital. They are The Murano run by Angela Hartnett and The Connaught run by Helen Darozzel, aged 42 and French. They are joined by old favourites like The Ivy in Covent Garden, the Quo Vadis in Soho and Hix Oyster & Chop House in Farringdon Street, Holborn.

Polo returns to Hurlingham

Polo is to return to Hurlingham in West London after an absence of 70 years. It had been played there regularly from 1874 until the last War. The first match will take place in June and members of the Royal Family are expected to attend. The game will be played in four seven minute sessions known as chukkas with four players on each side.

Big swoop on uninsured cars

The number of uninsured cars and drivers in London has seen a big increase. Officers seized 14,133 cars between April and September under Operation Reclaim which was launched earlier this year. In comparison, 14,520 uninsured cars were seized in the whole of 2007.

New Covent Garden opera

A new opera with a libretto by Booker prize winning author Ian McEuan made its debut at Covent Garden. It is named “For You” and its co-author is Michael Berkeley, McEuan’s long time friend. The author said that he deliberately chose themes of sex, obsession and adultery because they suited opera. McEuan and Berkeley previously collaborated on the oratorio “O Shall We Die?” 25 years ago.

New Spurs 50,000 stadium

Tottenham Hotspur FC announced that it will be building a new 50,000 capacity stadium near their White Hart Lane ground. It is part of a development scheme to include a new training centre, leisure facilities, public space and housing.

Princes attend Bond premier

Princes William and Harry attended the world premier of the 22nd James Bond film “Quantum of Solace” in Leicester Square. Proceeds from the event will go to the British Legion and the Help the Heroes Fund.

Fireworks Day for 13 nights

London’s fireworks season will last almost two weeks this year because of the midweek timing of Guy Fawkes Night. As the celebration falls on a Wednesday the public are being treated to two weeks of pyrotechnics with major displays this week-end and next. There are more than 20 public displays across the capital, plus smaller local events. The main shows begin tomorrow with events in Battersea Park, Enfield Town, Hampton Court, Morden Park and Roxbourne Park, Pinner. Sunday also sees a handful of events including Victoria Park and Richmond Athletics Ground. There are several shows on November 5 itself including Brockwell Park, Clapham Common and Kempton Park. Then the fun begins again the following week-end with three days of explosions including the only display in central London. As a part of The Lord Mayor’s Show fireworks will be let off at 5pm on Saturday November 8 from a barge in the Thames moored between Waterloo and Blackfriars bridges. Victoria Embankment will be closed to traffic all day.

Drum maker hit by anthrax

A drum maker from Hackney, East London, is seriously ill in hospital with anthrax that he contracted while handling hides. Seven others are receiving antibiotics. A search is under way to discover the origins of the material.


Poems for Posterity
Women Talking
by Henry Jackson

Some women talk just words
Like worn out ballistics,
That give no hint of feeling
Just boring statistics,
Some women talk about love
Because they do not understand
That love needs more than words
Or sinks like water in sand,
Some women talk about clothes
And silk stockings of fine mesh,
And know nothing of the lustre
Of a tongue on soft flesh,
Some women talk of friendship
And become a big bore,
They could learn volumes
From a middle-aged whore,
And that, my dear, leaves you
More than a voice on the line,
Just emptying out your heart
Last night just after nine,
And what was it you said?
I cannot quite recall,
Your voice made me tremble
But I felt ten feet tall,
So this is what I discovered
About what women say:
It’s not the words they use
But how they say them
That makes the day.

Inspired by a beautiful voice on
August 27 1994


Today in History

1875. Edmund Degas, French painter, delivered “Place de la Concorde” considered to be the world’s greatest painting.

1875. Bizet’s opera “Carmen” opened in Paris.

1957. Vatican Radio began broadcasting.

1958. PanAm flew first TransAtlantic jet flight from New York to Paris.


Famous Quotes

Anger is as a stone cast in a wasp’s nest---Pope Paul V1

An intellectual is a man who doesn’t know how to park a bike
Spiro Agnew

Politics is compromise—Paddy Ashdo


This Wonderful World---8

Deep in the history of the rugged, unruly and beautiful Sicily on the North-East coast of Italy, nestles the primitive and historic walled city of Taormina. Its origins go way back in history but it first gained prominence when the ancient Greeks took over around 4000 BC and brought culture and learning to an unruly tribe who were at war constantly with everyone else, and this included their nearest neighbours.

The Greeks returned to their own country but they left behind an indelible mark of their culture on the way of life and customs of the primitive Sicilians. In particular they erected a noble outdoor theatre that has defied the elements and is a lasting reminder of ancient Greek culture.

Its peace was shattered by two successive invasions—the first by the Romans around 400 BC and then by the Spaniards in the Middle Ages.

I found traces of these invaders in the faces of the modern Sicilians when I first went there in 1946 and was so captivated by what I found that I returned every year for five years.

The introduction came about when my company auditor told me about his sister Betty who had settled in Taormina after inheriting a fortune from her husband, an Australian millionaire, who died soon after the wedding and left her all his money. She married again a Sicilian sea captain and had a boisterous daughter named Georgina who went to an English boarding school. Betty settled in a large house opposite the Greek Theatre and was the Grande Dame of the district.

I went there on honeymoon in 1946 after marrying Eve and we flew to Rome and then travelled down Italy all the way by train that finally boarded a ferry at the southern tip at Reggio Calabria and then continued into Taormina.

We shared a carriage with an Italian army officer who took off his jacket before dinner and then tucked into an enormous plate of spaghetti on to which he emptied a large dish of Parmesan cheese. Then he surprised us by doing it again a second time. He practised his English on us and we tried out our Italian on him. He told us that the Sicilian language was not Italian—he gave it an unrepeatable phrase but with a wide smile.

Betty and Georgina met us at Taormina railway station and on the trip to her house by road I was staggered by the rugged and beautiful mountain scenery everywhere. The smell of wild flowers was overpowering,

Betty lived in grand style. The ground floor of her enormous house was occupied by staff and the rest was for family and guests. It was a succession of grand rooms but the main meeting place was the outdoor reception area on the roof of the first floor that was the size of a football field and overlooked the village. Music was always trickling through from the houses below even though it was muted by the distance. In the distance towered the mighty Mount Etna volcano and it rumbled non-stop except when it erupted into action and the tremors spread a feeling of helpless terror.

We drifted easily into a new daily routine. It began with breakfast with thick black coffee and croissants after which we were picked up by a driver in a large and decaying German limousine who took us a few hundred yards down to the centre of the town where we had more coffee in a café where they treated Betty like the Queen of Sicily. Here we were joined by a friend of Betty’s, a middle-aged English widow from Kensington, who wore impossibly short shorts and gave me hot, wet kisses that meant something to her but nothing to me.

Then we strolled down Corso Umberto, the main street, and stopped at every one of the antique shops and the owners treated Betty like a queen and frrquently interrupted the conversation with little bows and smiles. This took more than an hour then the transport returned and we drove to a little food market where Betty bought masses of food with a heavy bias on fresh fish and lobsters that had been caught the previous night. They were very much alive and squeaking and were thrown into a huge pot in the kitchen when we got back home and retreated to the roof garden where snacks and wine were laid out

The afternoon siesta was strictly observed and helped us to cope with the heat of the day. We came to life again around 5 o’clock and after more coffee and wine Betty took us off to meet some of her friends who lived in equally grand homes in the neighbourhood. I remember in particular a German woman artist whose salon was filled with paintings of famous people including one or two she fell in love herself and refused to sell to the sitter.

On one occasion I was surprised to meet the controversial American writer Truman Capote who was on a visit after raising storms of protest by criticising fellow writers in Los Angeles. He was truly pint sized and had a shrill peevish voice that produced a discordant note in the elegant salon.

Betty gave a series of early evening parties and the elite of Taormina turned up in force, especially super wealthy Italian and Scandinavian couples. The women always wore their most expensive jewellery and each time it was like a lavish fashion show. But there never were any safety problems because Betty through her long standing friendship with the Mafia hired a guard and the atmosphere was exciting but safe and peaceful.

Betty had drifted into a happy relationship with the powerful Mafia leaders because she had at one time run a nursery school for the children of the Mafia bosses and their secret power guaranteed unmolested peace and safety.

On one occasion Betty asked me if I would like to meet the Mafia and, of course, I said Yes without hesitation. They fixed a date a week ahead and on the day four large cars turned up at Betty’s house. The first and second cars each had four occupants, the third was empty but was reserved for Betty’s party and the last had another four occupants. They were all armed.

We set off through the narrow mountainous roads and after an hour came to a long tunnel barred with a steel gate. One of the guards in the first car got out and made a telephone call. Two minutes later he nodded his head and the gate was raised and we passed through.

We drove along a narrow road and came to another gate and after a further telephone call were allowed through. At the top of the hill was a large mansion and in front was a group of young men and women seated at a table. They stood up as we arrived and greeted Betty affectionately. They invited me to sit in a very large armchair and went through the usual pleasantries and then invited us into the house where a large table was laid out with food and drinks.

The men were all around the age of 30 and had black, tight fitting clothes and ties. They all wore shiny black pointed shoes. The women wore glamorous, long flowing gowns but it was the men who made all the conversation. The talk was about the weather, money and the Stock market and they were surprisingly well informed.

A young man who seemed to be the boss asked me if I would like to see their offices and he led me along a long windowless corridor into a room full of computers, files and adding machines. A small group of women sat engrossed in their work. The young man smiled, waved a hand and said “Not busy today” and we returned.

We stayed eating and drinking for another hour when the head man waved a hand and the cars turned up again and we exchanged good wishes and were taken home.

My explorations around Taormina included one to a monastery in the mountains at a place named Castel Mola where noblemen from the past were preserved in their original finery on hooks in niches in underground tunnels. Time wore out the clothes and some of the limbs fell to the ground where they were left. Historic but very sad.

Sailing, bathing and boating took up a lot of our holiday time. The nearest beach was 500ft down the cliffs to Mazzaro and we used the luxury St Andrea Hotel private beach to park and afterwards relaxed in the seclusion of their lounges. From here we had a wonderful view of the island opposite but were not allowed to land there because it was privately owned by the Fiat family.

I have one vivid recollection of the St Andrea gardens---the pungent smell of mimosa that hung like a fragrant cloud over the whole area. It was like living in another dream world and I came back for a holiday on five further occasions and only broke off when Eve left me and I could not face questions from Betty about the failure of our marriage. She rang many times and then gave up and it made me very sad and lonely.



I was pitched into deep feelings of sorrow at lunchtime on Monday when we were informed that John, one of the residents, had died suddenly during the night. There was a personal link between us because he had also been in the Navy during the War as a teenage wireless operator and frequently stopped to tell me of his experiences. He had occasional outbursts of bad temper with violent language that masked his feelings of helplessness and frustration at being confined to a wheelchair with diabetes for the last 18 years.

*I had a check-up on my Pacemaker that is still working well after 14 years.

*I am still slightly ahead with my investments despite the worst week for years on The Stockmarket.


Friends & Family

Lorraine had the week-end off in Amsterdam with former work colleagues. I had Sunday lunch with Lorraine’s mother Mavis and can understand why Lorraine is such a good cook.

*Annaliese began ballet lessons.

Non-Stop Polly (Bristol) - Polly hosted a promotion about Cuba for 180 clients of Marco Polo Travel on Thursday. On Sunday she visited her mother at Ross-on-Wye after which she went on a four mile walk in the Forest of Dean near the village where she grew up.

Charismatic Camilla (Palma) = Camilla has been to the nearby Mallorcan resort of Soller chaperoning a team from the German company Bertelsman while it undergoes a course on management skills. She has also booked a 11-day Christmas break with the children to Miami and Orlando during which they will visit Disney World.

Lisa (Croydon) - On holiday in Ischia with Douglas.


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