Wartime love affair is brought to book

Barbara and Peter Laurie with letters to Ilio.
Barbara and Peter Laurie with letters to Ilio.

“THE Hotel Celide sits close to the massive fortress walls of the ancient Tuscan city of Lucca. We are in the reception area, waiting for my father, Ilio Orlandini, to walk through the main entrance. I am 53 years old. I have never met my father.”

Although these words from Peter Laurie conclude the just-published book his wife, Barbara, has written about his family, they explain how Letters to Ilio from the Cafe de Luxe came to be compiled in the first place.

Letters to Ilio. Cafe.

Letters to Ilio. Cafe.

The book contains more than 200 letters written by Peter’s mother, Gloria – who, together with her family, ran the Cafe de Luxe in Selkirk during and after the Second World War – to Ilio, the former Italian prisoner-of-war who was the father Peter never knew about.

Ilio, a farm boy from Tuscany, was called up to fight in Mussolini’s army in 1940 and taken prisoner in 1943. Shipped to Scotland to a camp just outside Selkirk, he was to meet and fall in love with Gloria Serafini, the teenage daughter of the couple who ran the Cafe de Luxe in the town’s Kirk Wynd.

Ilio was sent back to Italy a few weeks after Gloria found out she was pregnant with Peter. She had not told anyone.

After Ilio was sent home Gloria started writing her letters, almost daily.

Letters to Ilio. Ack Ack.

Letters to Ilio. Ack Ack.

Sadly, despite both wanting to be reunited, fate continually seemed to conspire against the young lovers to make this impossible.

And for more than 60 years the letters that documented that love lay hidden in a secret place in an old villa high in the Tuscan hills.

The meeting between Peter, now 65, and his father led to Ilio showing his new-found eldest son the treasured cache of letters his mother had written to him after he was forcibly repatriated at the end of the war.

When Ilio died two years ago, Gloria’s letters were left to Peter. Not only are the letters a moving testimony to the love and hope shared by a young couple separated by the cruelty of war, they are an invaluable insight into life in Selkirk during the almost forgotten period immediately following the end of a conflict that had brought death and despair to millions.

Letters to Ilio. Book cover.

Letters to Ilio. Book cover.

Barbara explained how she and Peter – both retired teachers who now live in Bishop Auckland – had finally tracked down his missing father.

“Peter lived in Selkirk until he was 11. His mother had left him with his grandparents at the Cafe de Luxe and it was only because his grandfather died and was going bankrupt that he had to move away,” Barbara told TheSouthern. “After his grandfather died, his grandmother, Teresa, took over shop and business and Peter went down to Bishop Auckland to stay with his mother and stepfather.

“But Peter’s mother never mentioned Ilio to him.

Nobody mentioned him. But there was an elderly lady at a family wedding who had drunk perhaps a little bit more than she should have, and she let it slip to him his father was an Italian officer who lived in a castle. It wasn’t true, but Peter did believe the story.”

When Gloria died, Peter and Barbara started a search to find Ilio. The first attempt proved fruitless, but the son of a colleague, who knew about the internet, put out a message asking if anyone knew someone called Ilio Orlandini living in Tuscany.

“Someone else called Ilio Orlandini did reply and said while he was not the person we were looking for, he had looked in a telephone directory for the area we had thought was relevant and there were six people by that name listed – so we wrote to all six,” said Barbara.

After the couple made contact with Ilio, the meeting took place at the Hotel Celide, and regular visits to Italy every year became the norm for Barbara and Peter – who also own a holiday home in the Borders.

“Once we traced Ilio, we set up a pattern where Peter and I went once a year to see him in Italy together and Peter would go for a second time. Peter also learned Italian pretty quickly.”

Barbara had already amassed considerable family information from Gloria while she was alive and it was this, plus information from Peter, that allowed her to put together the narrative of Ilio and Gloria’s relationship. Barbara contributed all the chapters that split up the letters in the book.

“If these were only love letters, it would be of only personal interest – although that will be the appeal for a lot of readers. But to me it’s history. It tells what it was like living in the years just after the war. It’s the sort of history that just gets lost. The sort of thing people don’t think about. And things you find out are fascinating social history.

“For example, Gloria used to send Ilio copies of TheSouthern to keep him up to date on what was happening and she writes that he will see details of the squatter problem that emerged after the war.

“That had never occurred to me, but because the war saw so many damaged houses, many families couldn’t all go on holiday together at the same time or they would come back and find someone had taken over their home.”

Barbara says Peter contributed a small section at the front and another for the back of the book, but did not want any more involvement in the actual writing part of the process than that.

“I think he probably felt he was too near it.

“But he is very pleased with the way it has turned out.”

Perhaps the last word should belong to Peter, who can now see a record of his family’s life during the post-war years preserved in print.

Just minutes after he and his father had enjoyed an emotional first embrace, Ilio had pulled from his pocket one of Gloria’s letters, telling Peter: “I want to show you how much your mother loved me.” And then he began to read...

Peter told us: “After my father died and I was standing there with all the letters, I wasn’t sure what to do with them. It felt it would be an intrusion into their lives to read them.

“But I thought I should read at least one, which I did. In the end I spent the next three days reading all of them.

“We might not sell that many copies of the book, but it is a unique, colourful period of history and we felt it had to be set down.

“Hopefully, it will add something to the historical record of Selkirk for it is a period that deserves not to be forgotten.”

Copies of Letters to Ilio from the cafe de Luxe are available from newsagents and bookshops throughout the Borders, including offices of TheSouthern in Selkirk and Kelso; Forest Bookstore and McCudden’s newsagents in Selkirk; Masons in Melrose (where Barbara will be signing copies on Saturday from 11am to 3pm); W.H. Smith in Galashiels, Hawick and Kelso; E. Frame in Newtown St Boswells; Hoolet’s Books and White’s Books, both Peebles; and From Me to You in Jedburgh.