| The Wedding Officer
The Wedding Officer had a slightly unusual genesis. I thought I had already found the idea for my next novel – had written a few chapters, in fact, and done several months’ research. Then I happened to visit Naples, in Southern Italy.
The purpose of my trip was food-related – at the time I was doing some work with Jamie Oliver, the passionate young British chef whose shows have done so much to demystify Italian food, and Niall Downing, the equally food-obsessed tv director who makes them. Needless to say, a large proportion of each day was spent discussing where to eat dinner, and an even greater proportion of the next was spent discussing what we had eaten. (They have a saying in Naples: here you eat dinner three times - once when you plan it, once when you eat it, and once when you tell your friends about it.) But food wasn’t the only thing on my mind. I had also taken along a couple of books set in the city I was about to visit. One of them was Naples ’44 by the great travel writer Norman Lewis. In this, his wartime diary, he relates how as a young Intelligence officer he was sent to the city during the first months of the Allied invasion of Italy. The Germans were in retreat, but slowly, and Naples was the headquarters of the combined Anglo-American Fifth Army as they fought their way up to Rome.
I can still tell you the exact page number – page 100 – where the words leapt out at me. “Any job that no other branch of the forces wants to tackle is automatically thrown in our direction,” Lewis lamented. “It is now announced that we will investigate and report on all applications by Italian females in the Naples area to marry British soldiers. This is a chore nobody else in the section wants to take on, so it has fallen to my lot.” Too many soldiers were falling in love with their startlingly beautiful – and desperately impoverished – Italian girlfriends. The high command had decided this was bad for morale, the men being less likely to volunteer for dangerous operations on the front line if they had a bella signorina waiting for them fifty miles away. The answer was to investigate the women to establish if they had been living off prostitution or the black market. Since at that time most good-looking young women in Naples were surviving by doing exactly that, the rate of marriage could be expected to fall sharply. A few days later Lewis noted, “Twenty-eight investigations of prospective brides for servicemen completed so far, of which twenty-two proved to be prostitutes… one would like to be able to do something.”
The comic potential of such a situation was obvious. But I already had my story, so I thought little more about it. Then I happened to read some references in Lewis’s memoir to a harbourside restaurant called Zi’ Teresa. Officially, all the restaurants in Naples were closed during the war, owing to food shortages, but this one somehow managed to stay open, defying the rules on the strength of its food and the fact that its clientele included most of the U.S top brass. By a remarkable coincidence, Zi Teresa’s was not only still open sixty years later as I read those words, it was the exact same restaurant where we were planning to eat dinner.
As we devoured plate after plate of exquisite, fresh seafood that night, I couldn’t help picturing the room as Lewis had described it – the blackout blinds, the grand piano, the men in uniform mingling with local gangsters, the upmarket prostitutes who had somehow managed to find their way in, including one with a glass eye who was reputed to be the best whore in all Naples…. and the dishes, which would surely have been very similar to the ones we were now enjoying. “Food,” Lewis wrote, “for the Neapolitans, comes even before love, and its pursuit is equally insatiable and ingenious.”
With stories, it’s often the case that you need not one but two ideas – it’s the collision that creates the ‘what if….?’ Norman Lewis was married when he was stationed in Naples, but I started to wonder what would have happened if he hadn’t been. What if he had been a rather more enthusiastic stickler for the rules than had actually been the case? What if, as well as denying the prostitutes their marriages, he had closed down Naples’ last remaining restaurant? What if the Neapolitans, in a desperate attempt to civilise him, had arranged for him to employ as his own cook the most talented chef in the city? After all, they have that wonderful proverb, “A well-fed stomach makes a forgiving heart….” And what if that chef was not only beautiful, but had her own reasons for hating her new employer….a local woman, perhaps, whose husband has been killed by the Allies… And what if they fell in love…?
In other words, as I ate, Lewis’s wartime story became, first, a story about food, and then a story about passion – or rather, a story about a clash between two cultures: one obsessed with regulations, orders and order, and the other with family, food and pleasure… I jotted down a few notes on the back of a menu. Somebody asked me what they were. Nothing, I said, surreptitiously making a few more notes on my napkin. By the time dinner was finished I had half-a-dozen napkins stuffed into various pockets. Back at the hotel I kept waking up to scribble more, and then more…. It was a bit like one of those chemistry experiments you do as a child where you make up a beaker of copper sulphate: the liquid looks completely empty, but if you lower a tiny crystal on a thread into it, overnight it starts sprouting tiny skyscrapers of crystal in all directions. By the next morning I had a stack of notes on hotel notepaper beside my bed – including one on which I had scribbled the words Wedding + Officer? Tentatively, I carried my crystal back to London….
There was another piece of research which affected me. Back in England, I started doing some work at the Imperial War Museum. I already knew that Vesuvius, the active volcano which dominates the skyline of Naples, had last erupted in 1944, the same year that the Germans and the Allies fought over it. (Some said, in fact, that the relentless air raids might have had something to do with the eruption). Now, as I read the reports of that disaster – and realised just how devastating it must have been for the Italians, just as they were rebuilding farms and villages razed by the invasion, to have them buried under several feet of red-hot clinkers – I read about an extraordinary episode that I knew would also have to be part of the tale. After the eruption, Allied servicemen on leave from the front line voluntarily gave up their precious R&R in order to help the civilians by digging out the vineyards and vegetable patches. Even in the midst of war, it seems, Italy was working its magic.
Of course, that was only the beginning of the idea. The book took me a couple of years to write, and indeed to re-write, as my story – which was by then not my story at all, but the story of James and Livia, the Wedding Officer and his fiery Neapolitan cook - took shape. When it was finally over, I went back to Naples again. It was strange, after so long poring over maps and pictures of the city as a bombed-out ruin, to see it as it really is again…. That night, we ate at Zi Teresa’s, where we lifted a glass of the local falanghina wine to toast the story’s begetter and his wartime diary.
You can find more information about my sources in the links on this page, discuss the book with other readers on the message board, or download a reader’s guide. Have fun.
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