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At the 126th Italian Parade in Clerkenwell

July 18, 2011
by the gentle author

In spite of the volatile weather, alternating downpours with blazing sunshine, I set out (with my umbrella in hand) to Clerkenwell yesterday, where photographer Colin O’Brien invited me to join him at the Italian Parade that he first attended in 1946. For one Sunday each year, the narrow backstreets are transformed when the descendants of the immigrants who once lived in here in London’s “Little Italy” return to participate in a procession honouring Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and, such is their love for their culture and custom, they were not to be discouraged by a few drops of rain.

Growing up in Victoria Dwellings at the corner of the Clerkenwell Rd and Farringdon Rd, the Italian Parade was an annual fixture in Colin’s childhood and in 1946, at six years old, he marched in the procession as a little blond boy dressed in white – the picture of innocence – to celebrate his confirmation. Later, as a precocious child photographer, some of Colin’s first pictures were of the parade and when I saw these recently I suggested that he might like to return, a lifetime later, to photograph the event this year.

There is a certain magic that reigns on these occasions, when a Neapolitan atmosphere presides upon these London streets where for one day of each year, only Italian is spoken, and the recorded mellifluous tones of sentimental songs echo between tall old buildings towering over a full blown Festa taking place in the secret enclave of Warner St, between the major roads of Clerkenwell on either side. Here, on this special day in July, polenta is cooked in a barrel and served with sizzling sausages and Chianti, old ladies offer homemade cakes, veterans of the Alpine brigade from the nineteen fifties run a coconut shy and old friends meet to enjoy ceaseless embraces, recounting the passing years with sentimental delight.

Walking a little further, you come to Back Hill where the floats assemble and encounter those who will feature in the tableaux, all toshed up in robes thrown together from pairs of old curtains, with unnatural orange makeup applied to their skin and sporting bad wigs and dodgy facial hair, all to give an authentic effect of life in Biblical times. Like a fantasy sequence from some mid-century Italian neo-realist movie, I once saw Jesus step from his car with his crown of thorns already in place. And, as you weave your way through the alleys and byways on this day, it is not uncommon to glimpse angels in tinsel nighties fleeting in the distance.

I joined the hushed crowds outside St Peter’s in the Clerkenwell Rd as the dark clouds gathered overhead and three doves were released into the lowering sky. Then, in an explosion of glitter, came the procession of saints, borne aloft and bobbing over the heads of the crowd, each with their attendant retinue of dignified matriarchs from Woking, Aylesbury, Ponders End, Epsom and Hoddesdon – to name but a few of the Italian communities represented.

When the heavens opened and the rain fell upon us, a forest of umbrellas came forth and the saints were swathed in an additional layer of polythene robes, floating ethereally upon the breeze. And, since the commentator reminded us of the afflictions of these medieval holies, like St Rita of Cascia – the patron saint of the impossible – who suffered from a splinter of the cross lodged in her forehead, we were able to draw consolation that a shower of rain was an inconsequential discomfort by comparison. Yet there was an additional poignancy to the tableau of Jesus nailed to the cross, shivering in a loin cloth, as the rain poured down upon him, and to observe the devout concentration of those who maintained their static postures whilst holding trumpets aloft in frozen moments of religious transfiguration, seemingly oblivious of the wet.

With floats and marching bands, and the latest batch of newly-confirmed little children in white, the procession approached its climax, and along came St Michele with one figure raised heavenwards to a sky that was visibly lightening. Then, sure enough, as the figure Our Lady of Mount Carmel appeared, the clouds parted and a ray of sunlight descended upon the church, the catalyst for a spontaneous round of applause from the crowd and even for some, among the credulous, to wipe away a tear.

Once the procession had walked up Rosebery Avenue, down the Farringdon Rd and returned to Ray St, the Italian community had unified for another year in celebration of its common ancestry. It was time for the devout to attend mass, crossing themselves and dipping their fingers in holy water as they entered St Peter’s, London’s oldest Italian church. While for the rest, including Colin (who is a longtime lapsed Catholic these days) and myself, it was time to savour the temporal delights of the Festa before the rain came down again.

Colin O’Brien marches in the Italian procession in 1946

The procession photographed by Colin O’Brien in the early nineteen fifties from the flat where he grew up at the junction of the Clerkenwell Rd and Farringdon Rd.

Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien

More photographs by Colin O’Brien

Colin O’Brien, Photographer

Colin O’Brien’s Clerkenwell Car Crashes

Travellers’ Children in London Fields

Colin O’Brien’s Brick Lane Market

5 Responses leave one →
  1. good-tree permalink
    July 18, 2011

    Viva l’Italia!

  2. Joan permalink
    July 18, 2011

    Remember going to this procession as a child and then also more recently. What is striking is how the tradition has continued in such a big way despite, I guess, the Italian population having largely moved elsewhere. (I’ve also been to a very lively Italian procession held in Miles Platting in Manchester – another area once working class Italian.) I have photos of my dad taking part in the large, mainly Irish, Catholic procession that used to be held in Wapping/ Tower Hill with a flower laden altar being placed outside the flats where I was born (Stephen and Matilda House in Wapping). Can’t imagine lots of people showing up for a present day equivalent. But then the lure of pigs trotters and boiled bacon probably could not equal that of polenta and pizza! And the Italian community – particularly with the experience of how even the most anti-Fascist were badly treated in the UK in the war years – may be better at keeping traditions alive. Best wishes,

    Joan

  3. Vernetta Calvin-Smith permalink
    July 10, 2012

    Beautifully written article which made all the activities seem so vivid and alive. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about this festival – even felt a little wistful that I was not Italian!

  4. September 23, 2012

    My family grew up in Little Italy before moving ‘upmarket’ to Rupell St. Waterloo!
    The ‘Procession’ was once an annual ‘duty’ but has faded within our family – which is now far flung. My sister and I try to attend whenever we can. Although the area is much changed, the ghosts are still there and the enthusiasm and atmosphere is the same. It’s all so very Italian.
    Thanks for reviving the memories, Gentle Author.
    Bruna

  5. Anthony Ernestino Stephano Novis permalink
    June 18, 2013

    I was born in Clerkenwell Close E C 1 My Grandparents Giovanni and Giovanna Sartori owned the house and my grandfather started his business there under the name of J Taylor & Sons Asphalters Ltd. I go back there to visit the streets and the Italian Church (St. Peters) To me it will always be home.
    I do have some photos from 1940′s 1950′s

    Nino, a boy from Clerkenwell.

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