ON September 13, 1944, Captain George Wordingham Scarf of the Royal Artillery was on manoeuvres in a Jeep near Cattolica, on Italy’s Adriatic coast, when he was killed by a German sniper’s bullet. He was 25 and had married while on leave a year earlier.
He and his wife had two weeks together before he was posted and they never saw each other again.
He was buried with 1,190 comrades in Gradara War Cemetery, beneath a simple white stone with the inscription ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’.
George was the brother of my future mother-in-law, Marjorie, who by 1990 was fighting cancer and coming to the end of her life. Neither she nor any other member of the family had ever visited George’s grave, and Margaret and I decided it was time to put this right.
For various reasons it was impossible to arrange a trip to Italy at short notice but we realised we could book a package holiday in Yugoslavia, on the other side of the Adriatic, and take a ferry from Dubrovnik to Venice, where we thought it might be jolly to get married. The best thing of all was that the flight was from our local airport, Southend-on-Sea.
Which is why, in early October, we found ourselves on the island of Korcula, with a harbour full of yachts and restaurants devoid of food. There was a stock menu printed by the socialist government with a long list of dishes, hardly any of which was available. Those that were had a price pencilled alongside them – one of them I remember being ‘cheese from island Pag’, a grey and unappetising prospect but just all about that Margaret, then a veggie, could eat. Other than that there was the odd pasta dish and possibly a bit of stewed lamb. The shops had nothing in them. Everywhere there was graffiti – political slogans and often swastikas. The atmosphere was ominous.
The food was only slightly better at our hotel, where we were on half board. At mealtimes we heard familiar accents – a family from Bromley – and one group of six who spoke gobbledegook. We presumed it was Serbo-Croat. In fact when we asked they told us they were Brummies. We christened them the Birmingham Six.
One of the few highlights of our stay on Korcula was a trip to a nature reserve on the mainland. There we puttered through a sort of European Everglades, seeing water snakes and bee eaters but sadly no alligators. Our guide was a handsome, long-haired young man who gloomily informed us that there would soon be a war. We often wondered what happened to him in the conflict.
Entrusting our main suitcases to the Bromley mob, who agreed to take them to the airport for us, we set out with light luggage for Italy. First we hitched a lift on a tourist coach to Dubrovnik, then boarded a large ferry to Venice via Split.
It was an overnight journey during which we got no sleep because there were some rough types on board and we thought they might steal our stuff. There was also no food. So we were tired, starving and crabby when we arrived at the scruffy industrialised port of Venice soon after dawn. There were no signposts and we hadn’t a clue what to do. Remember this was long before the internet, and you had to make travel plans on the hoof.
Leaving me with the bags, Margaret set out on foot to find a tourist information booth. An hour later she returned to say she had booked a couple of nights in a small hotel near St Mark’s Square, the Mercurio, and we needed to find a vaporetto into the city. This was a functional bus-boat which took us through the outskirts leaving us thinking it was all a bit grim. ‘If this is Venice you can shove it,’ I said peevishly.
Suddenly, we rounded a bend and shivers went down our backs. This was the Grand Canal, and it was magnificent, breathtaking, a wonder of the world. What a thrill.
Arriving at our hotel Margaret collapsed knackered on the bed while I set out in search of sustenance. I found a dear little corner deli where I bought bread, butter, salami and dolcelatte. When I produced the cheese on my return she fell on it like a wolf on the fold; her first decent scran in ages. We visited the Guggenheim Museum where I was delighted to see the Magritte picture Empire of Light, which inspired the cover of Jackson Browne’s album Late for the Sky.
That evening we ate at a nearby restaurant where the prices were truly scary. We had the cheapest thing on the menu, pasta with mushroom sauce, which was 16 quid a pop. St Mark’s Square prices. At the next table were a group of businessmen clearly on expenses, downing champagne like it was Peroni. A waiter appeared shouldering a platter of lobster, crab, king prawns and other seafood which must have cost getting on for £500. As he neared his destination he tripped, causing the entire restaurant to hold its breath, but miraculously regained his equilibrium and kept the pricy cargo on the plate.
The following day we set out for Cattolica, now a holiday resort next to Rimini. We’d always been told that Mussolini got the trains running on time and old Benito’s legacy was still in place.
From Cattolica we got a cab to the Gradara cemetery, preparing to be disappointed. It was magnificent; beautifully kept in every way and a fitting tribute to the fallen.
A ledger at the entrance told us where George’s grave could be found. On the way up through the terraces we passed memorials to many Canadians who had perished on the same day.
George lay in a line of white gravestones, the topmost row of many.
We both wept long and hard for a man we had never known but who had given his life for us. I wondered aloud if his spirit might still linger in that peaceful but tragic place and at that point, I swear, a butterfly appeared and landed on his gravestone.
Meanwhile the gardeners worked silently for a man who had brought his mother’s ashes to be interred in his father’s grave. She had never married again.
Looking across the lawns, seeing so many gravestones was staggering. Yet this is only one of 27 war cemeteries in Italy, containing the graves of 17,750 men – a truly humbling figure.
Having paid our respects to George, we returned to Venice and visited the British Consulate to ask if we could be married there. No, was the answer. The red tape was formidable and we would have to spend at least six weeks in Italy before it could happen. (Nigella and John Diamond had managed it, but, hey, two hacks from the Daily Mail?)
However, all was not lost. Margaret’s old friends Marion and Annie were in Venice at the time. Both spoke fluent Italian and were hugely familiar with the city. We met in a square called, propitiously, Santa Margherita, opposite St Mark’s on the unfashionable side of the Grand Canal. At a family restaurant we had the most marvellous meal, accompanied by countless carafes of house wine. Highlight for me was a delicious bowl of tripe soup. We ate and drank all afternoon yet the bill came to almost nothing. Staggering back to the hotel we happened on a small bar which sold Barolo by the glass, again for pennies. Moral: when in Venice, go where the Venetians go.
Providing for the journey back to Jug, as we called it, I returned to the corner deli and bought more bread, cheese and salami. Unfortunately the latter was fatty and disgusting. In the harbour at Split, I slung a huge (half-brick size) chunk of it into the water thinking the fish could have it but was astonished to see a gull swoop down and gulp the lot. When it tried to take off, the weight of it caused it to splash back in the water but with a mighty effort it managed to fly away. (Must have been three times its normal weight). By the way, here’s some footage of a truly greedy gull.
Back in Dubrovnik we were entranced by the beauty of the walled city with its shiny paving stones polished by centuries of footwork. How tragic that only months later it was being blown apart by shellfire.
We met the Bromleyites and our suitcases at the airport and before long were back in Southend, still unmarried. But the state of living in sin didn’t last much longer, as I will relate in a future column.
A PS from PG
It was a confusion of ideas between him and one of the lions he was hunting in Kenya that had caused AB Spottsworth to make the obituary column. He thought the lion was dead, and the lion thought it wasn’t.
PG Wodehouse: Ring for Jeeves.