Vinny’s Italian serenade was our harvest highlight

AMONG the notable characters in our village during the war was a stocky individual we knew as Vinny. His acceptance there, let alone popularity, said much for an engaging personality. For Vinny was the enemy , an Italian prisoner of war. He d arrived in

AMONG the notable characters in our village during the war was a stocky individual we knew as Vinny.

His acceptance there, let alone popularity, said much for an engaging personality. For Vinny was "the enemy", an Italian prisoner of war.

He'd arrived in the village early on, having had the good sense to be captured when Mussolini's army was in headlong North African retreat. Italy was then a long way from changing sides, so under quite what arrangement Vinny got to do farmwork must have been between he and Winston.

The giveaway to us on his military background were the yellow patches he had behind his knees and on his back. When we first saw those we eyed Vinny with silent mistrust and suspicion. But it was soon impossible not to like the least soldierly guy you could come across.

He worked on the widespread acreages of Charlie Hobbs. Mr Hobbs to us nippers was a tall old farmer, who was much respected for always acknowledging everyone, including us, and for biking rather than driving when not on what he rated war work.

Our regard for him increased on learning he could talk to Vinny in his own lingo, having been with the Italians when they were Great War Allies.

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The main Hobbs land was a distance off, but he also had fields close by us, and it was there we got to know Vinny.

Clearly familiar with agriculture, he was delighted at how his war had turned out.

What made him a favourite with us was his clever hands.

Mr Hobbs had equipped him with a clasp-knife, and Vinny regularly fashioned wooden trinkets for us with it.

For the girls it was crucifixes, for the boys model planes and such-like. Once Vinny spent his lunch-times in foster-uncle's workshop, crafting me a splendid garage for my birthday, complete with hinged doors and interior light.

We also liked Vinny for his readiness to join in our games. At football, we hooted over his wild, ball-missing kicks, but Vinny had real batting flair at rounders and cricket, to which we introduced him.

The cornfield next to us, one of the smaller and last cut, was always used for the harvest home supper. Mr Hobbs laid on the trestle table, benches and victuals for an occasion, which started decorously and ended a near riot.

Besides Mr Hobbs and Vinny, and fellow harvesters, the 1940 supper was also graced by the Roberts family from next door's farm, headmaster Clement Bush, and his senior teacher Olive Taylor. Her many roles in the parish, some self-given, including historian, and she rarely missed a supper.

It wasn't my last, but remained among the best. The late afternoon sun was warm, the sky cloudless. Maybe it had Vinny thinking of home because, after a brief word with Mr Hobbs, he sang Italian songs in a surprisingly rich baritone.

By home time, alas, a red-faced, slurred Vinny had to be levered into Mr Hobbs's venerable Austin, having sunk a jar too many of the plentiful cider.

Vinny stayed among us even after Italy had changed alliance.

He picked up only basic English, but one he had off-pat was the affirmative "Ar", sounding so like Fred Clark, there was no doubting who he got it from.

We never saw him go. After all that time it was a shame we didn't get the chance to wave him off.

Possibly he had a sudden opportunity to go home, after Jerry was evicted.

Such abrupt comings and goings were part and parcel of wartime life. We were used to it by then.

Years later, Vinny's Calabria became a regular holiday haunt of ours.

In the meantime, I'd also learned the right way of saying his name, following Ilford FC's appointment of an Italian manager in Vincenzo Siccardi.

On our visits to Cosenza and environs I kept a keen but vain eye open for our old POW pal. It was a haystack-needle job, looking for an older, plumper, greyer Vinny.

But I'd see the good old boys sat outside village cafes and speculate on Vinny being there, regaling them with his days in England.

Especially the one when we cheered his serenading at the harvest home supper - before Mr Hobbs's powerful brew laid him so graphically low.