FEATURES » "A better life" by Olive Besagni

"A better life" by Olive Besagni


“A better life”, by Olive Besagni is a collection of almost forty oral histories of Italian families who emigrated at the beginning of the 19th century from Northern and later Southern Italy, in search of a better life in London. These poor immigrants lived in the slums of Clerkenwell.

The book vividly describes what “the hill” meant for the Italian community, a piece of Italy in London. From their own stories emerges their courage in the face of hardship, their jobs, childhood dreams and preoccupations. The strong family relationships of the Italians are portrayed together with their faith and the devastating effects of two world wars.

Olive Besagni collected these stories while she had a column called “The Hill” on “Backhill”, at that time a paper publication run by St. Peter’s church. For 5 years she published every week the story of a family. Many people contacted her providing also old photos of their relatives and their childhood.

Olive had so much material she decided to write a book on little Italy through the voices of their inhabitants and she is now writing a new book still based on the same material which she didn’t manage to convey in “A better life”.

As Olive told us, “A better life” was a big success. It was very easy to get it published “Camden History society” was immediately interested in the book which is still considered their best seller.

The Italian community received the book with great enthusiasm and it has always been available in the last editions of the Summer procession at St. Peter’s church.

Olive was born in Gospel Oak in London in 1925. her grandfather Giovanni Ferrari arrived from Borgotaro in 1880 to teach Italian (as most of them could only speak dialect) and he also taught English to the Italian immigrants.

Her father Giuseppe Ferrari married an English woman, Netta Oxley. She never spoke Italian at home because her mother didn’t like it. When Olive was eleven they moved to Hampstead and at fourteen, when the war broke out, she was evacuated to Rutland where she spent her free time writing sketches for performances in the village hall.

Even though Olive never lived in little Italy, she kept in touch with the Italian community because her father was in the church choir and her first job was in an Italian factory, “Pagliai’s” making religious statues.

Then she found a job as a trainee negative cutter at a small documentary company in Dean St called Realist Films.

She also worked for Alexander Wilson Gardner making short pieces of film and she edited Butlins’ first adverts.

Olive never became an editor, because, after having her children she didn’t manage to complete the six years of training as an assistant editor required to be fully qualified.

Olive also wrote amateur plays since she was very young. Some of them have had a reasonable success and have been performed by amateur actors.

The main theme of her plays has always been integration.

Olive named a few of them for us.

“Yesterday” was the story of an Italian family who didn’t welcome an English girl who was having an affair with their son.

“Down the hill” was about an Italian villain who married an English girl and left her.

“St Agatha” was about a convent which become a private school.

“The hostage” was about the return home of a hostage.

“The bully” was about school bullying.

In Olive’s plays, as she told us, there was always an element of truth.

As mentioned before, Olive is now working on a new book on little Italy and she expects it to be finished before next year but there isn’t a publisher yet.

We congratulate Olive for her success and we wish her good luck for her new project!

Giulia Lombardo

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