Local author Stefano Paolini has just had his first book published, Missing Presumed Drowned: A true story of the internment of Italians resident in Britain during the Second World War. Born and raised in Brixton, Stefano is a second-generation British Italian who has worked locally as a car mechanic and voice-over artist, as well as a stand-up comedian.
What inspired you to write Missing Presumed Drowned?
My interest in the internment of Italians during the Second World War started ten years ago when I was researching and writing a comedy show for the Edinburgh Festival called, ‘Britalian’, which was about my upbringing in an Italian-speaking household in Brixton, south London. I didn’t realise it at the time, but writing a comedy show would spark an interest in a subject that would lead me to write a book about one of the lesser-known tragedies of the Second World War, on the Home Front.
In 2005, as part of my research into ‘Britalian’, I’d read a chapter about the subject in a book called ‘The Italian Factor’, by a British Italian author called Terri Colpi. Eager to know more, and wanting to speak to someone who had been interned and listen to their story, I visited St Peter’s Italian church in Clarkenwell and the Scalabrini Centre on Brixton Road, which is a Catholic mission for the pastoral care of Italian migrants. Both were very helpful in putting me in touch with Italians who had been interned, and I started interviewing people who then put me in touch with people they knew that the defence measure affected. After several interviews, a very interesting story began to unfold.
Keen to know more about how internment not only affected Italians in London but in the rest of Britain too, I spent the next three years tracking down former internees, relatives of internees, men who had been shipwrecked and survived, former guards from the internment camps in Manchester, Glasgow and the Rhonda Valley in Wales. In total I interviewed 20 people and corresponded with a further two. For many of these people, this was the first time they had spoken about the episode in their lives when they had been enemy aliens.
How long have you been working on your début novel?
It’s taken me around 10 years to write because I had to find people who were willing to be interviewed and then transcribe the interviews. Many of the people I spoke to were octogenarians living in old people’s homes. The book was self-funded so I tried to coincide the interviews with comedy shows in cities or towns where I was performing to try and reduce costs on travel and hotels.
Internment is most often associated with people of Japanese origin in America after the attacks on Pearl Harbour, but it happened in Britain to Italians more than a year earlier. It’s a fascinating book, which details a chapter in the Second World War that has largely been ignored by the history books.
Missing Presumed Drowned is available on Amazon kindle for £3.99, and will be available in print later this summer for £7.99 plus postage and packaging.