These days, whenever I write about nostalgia, it tends to be with a degree of suspicion, since I feel that in the past five years or so this wistful, sentimental feeling has had a dramatic, self-destructive effect on world politics. People turn to the past in times of economic uncertainty. They pine for a simpler life, which they generally perceive to have exited when they were children, before the burden of responsibility had swept over them. Nostalgia allows them recall their youth in an overwhelmingly positive light—and so, for instance, white Americans who grew up in 1950s may feel that that period was synonymous with mini-skirts, Elvis Presley and economic dominance, rather than, say, brutally enforced racial segregation, the Korean War and McCarthyism.
Since discovering Clerkenwell, I have become increasingly fascinated by the area’s Italian community, and particularly the Italians that settled here in the 19th century. These brave migrants, many of them poor and unskilled, came to London in search of a more prosperous life. They were the victims of the grave economic conditions following the Napolionic wars, which also caused much political unrest among the Italian people, and divided Italy up into many subjugated states. During this period of impoverishment, migrants came to England on foot, tramping their way across Europe and stopping for periods in various cities and villages along the way. Once in London many made their money as organ-grinders or artisans, crafting picture frames and plaster statues. Others, invariably those from the South of Italy, sold gelato on street corners and became known to locals as “hokey pokey men” owing to their familiar cry of ecco un poco, meaning “here’s a little (taste)”. It was a gruelling life for these Italians, though they were on the whole extremely hard working, and adapted quickly to their new surroundings. In Clerkenwell they built an entire community for themselves. They called it Il Quartiere Italiano—the Italian Quarter. The English called it Little Italy.