JUST FAMILY MATTERS: The boy and the godfather

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JUST FAMILY MATTERS: The boy and the godfather

Outside the family, I'm sure no one would believe this, but my godfather was Italian.

Yes, improbable as it may seem for a boy born in Edinburgh, I had an Italian godfather.

I don't tell you this as a warning, however.

There was always a large Italian population in Edinburgh although I remember my mum telling me that during the war there was a terrible shortage of restaurant staff and you couldn't get a decent hairdresser anywhere: the waiters and hair stylists had been rounded up and shipped off to prison camps Canada as suspected subversives.

Most of them never got there.

The Arandora Star carrying them was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland in 1940 and more than half the 734 Italians on board were killed. The survivors were returned to Scotland – along with the surviving German prisoners of war and other Germans also rounded up and on the vessel – and imprisoned.

My godfather Dominic Valente wasn't among them.

He was a respected businessman with – among other interests – an ice-cream shop on Princes Street. After his death the local business association gifted a seat on the opposite side of Princes Street in his honour.

I saw it once but on a recent visit all the seats had been removed while road works were undertaken and then – to the outrage of many citizens – it was later revealed many of them had just been destroyed.

Another time I was there after that I had a cursory look but couldn't see Uncle Dom's seat with the plaque on it.

My mum and dad – Mum an Edinburgh girl, Dad brought up in New Zealand to Scottish migrant parents – weren’t especially religious but had me baptised and asked their good friend, whom we always called Uncle Dom, to be my godfather.

Screenshot_2023_11_06_at_8.30.52_AMI guess he was made an offer he couldn’t refuse.

I don't remember much about Uncle Dom and his wife Aunty Meg or their children, I was too young. But stories about them became legendary in my family.

By all accounts Aunty Meg would affect airs and graces but was always let down by her unintentional profanity. My dad's favourite was when she tried to impress someone with her sophistication by saying, “Was you really? Was you fucking really?”

Uncle Dom stories often revolved around cars.

He would buy a new car every year, do nothing to it other than put petrol in the tank. He never checked the tyre pressure, radiator, spark plugs, timing, tappets etc which seemed to be what everyone did in those days, and I spent a decent part of most weekends doing as a boy in Auckland.

Uncle Dom cared for none of that but at the end of a year he'd sell the car and get a new model.

His rationale was no once cared about condition, they were only interested in the year.

He was right, he always had a new car.

One newspaper clipping about Uncle Dom's latest possession was kept under the glass top of our bar in the lounge in Auckland.

He'd bought a massive vehicle formerly owned by the Shah of Iran which was bulletproof and had room for two bodyguards in the boot.

I never asked why Uncle Dom would have wanted a bulletproof car in Edinburgh.

I'm sure he was as unpopular as he was popular.

He had a factory somewhere – doing what I don't know – and Dad told me on the walls he had signs which read: “If you are reading this you aren’t working hard enough”.

It was sort of a joke, but mostly not and my Dad called him “a hard do-er”. It was sort of a compliment but mostly not.

Dad loved Uncle Dom but very disapprovingly told a story once about the workers in his factory – who were on minimum wages – going to Dom to ask for a wage rise.

“And if you don't get one?”

They said they would go on strike, just not come in to work.

Uncle Dom's response was brutal.

He said he too would just not come in to work either . . . and so effectively locked them out.

When they came back begging for their jobs he opened the doors again. There was no wage rise.

There was also some money laundering scheme which involved boxes of bills to be shooftied to the States which one of his cronies hid in an attic. But by the time they were ready to be smuggled out they'd been eaten by mice.

The most famous story about Uncle Dom spoke about his love for Meg and his pride.

One day as a prank someone hung a pair of woman’s panties in the back window of his car parked outside his home. He saw them, told Aunty Meg to pack their bags and that very day they left the house -- and abandoned the car -- and never went back.

He never knew or cared about what happened to the car.

Uncle Dom didn’t like to take time out from work and his idea of exercise was to walk to the cinema next door and smoke cigarettes while watching a movie, as you could do in those days.

When Dad suggested this would kill him Uncle Dom’s reply was, “Maybe, but I’ll be the richest man in the cemetery.”

Dad later said he probably was.


These entries are of little consequence to anyone other than me Graham Reid, the author of this site, and maybe my family, researchers and those with too much time on their hands.

Enjoy these random oddities at Personal Elsewhere.


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