Australian Biography

Franco Belgiorno-Nettis - full interview transcript

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Could you tell me what kind of a family you were born into? What your background was, and where this was, and when?

Well, my family came from south Italy ... very, I would say, modest ... not necessarily poor, from my mother. She came from Cassano delle Murge, a little town with an agricultural background and my father, he said was from Gioia del Colle, not far away, and they must have married them pretty soon, at least for my standard. I was married at 35, 36. I think by 21 they were already married. And my father, then, was in the railway and I was supposed to be born in Salerno — that's somewhere near Naples — so by chance I'm not a Neapolitan ... [laughing] ... and so I was born in Cassano delle Murge in 1915. And I would say that is to be the cradle of ... my beginning because I still remember places — I went to a few years ago — where I was playing, when I was a kid; I could recognise places where I was sitting. So I have been living in that area with my cousins [and] particularly, my mother, in a very simple surrounding. People they cater to the agriculture, even if they were property ... propertari — that means they were the owner of the farms — still they were working very hard during that type of civilisation, that possibly now is disappearing, when these people get up at 4 o'clock, 3 o'clock in the morning, and over there, leave the fireplace on with some pots and come in the evening and have the legumes ready for the evening with oil, and only elementary basics available, I could say, that they in the evening will be basically, with a bit of oil, that was the basic feeding for these people.

What kind of a house was it?

Well the house, I would say, the type of very simple houses — I talk about on my mother's side — where the property ... the animals were on the ground floor and people were living on the second floor, very small, if I could see now the proportion of these houses, I could see they were just almost a place for dolls and above the ... under the roof, normally found all the produce; they left it there for the winter. Basically just elementary, that was on my side, on my mother's side. My father, in a way, was much more advanced than them, I mean he had the fifth elementary school — that was his own degree, let's call it, in education.

That was to fifth grade? He had spent five years?

Fifth grade, fifth grade, yeah. And he seemed to be advanced, he considered himself in self-education, because he became a fuochista —that means an engine driver — because he was looking after the fire, to the fire usually. And he built himself ... an adequate, I would say, exceptional, I would imagine for his standard and even, at a later stage, when we were living, he would always tell us something that we didn't know. He had built up an education, remarkably, the character of my father, he had built his own education gradually, as part of the work he was doing at the railway, because eventually he became an engine driver, very important I mean for Italy, and for his surrounding. And so, eventually our house ... that was moved from different places, Gioia del Colle first, and eventually we went to Taranto and we went to Valletta, all still within Puglia area, where we soon became a very well-to-do family, even if my father was obsessed with saving. He didn't spend the money that he was making. He pretended many times that he was earning more than a professor at university and the fact that he was earning something like 1000 lira per month — at that time was really an exceptional salary — because he was doing overtime ... is not really for the kind of a type of, it is called, profession, but he was doing repair of hunting guns, he was an accomplished tradesman and he could make more money through that kind of thing. He was not sitting or counting it himself but he was repairing for the type of professional hunters, so he was really in a way a very wealthy man. So we didn't suffer from lack of money, eventually we suffered from the tendency of my father to save money to do something else. The kind of money eventually he lost because with war he had always counted to the type of national bond or whatever, for which the value became nothing.

So his savings were destroyed by inflation?

That means sometimes it is wise to spend the money now.

How did he learn these skills of taking care of guns?

Well, his father, my father's father, or adopted father, he was a ...

Your adopted grandfather?

He was an adopted grandfather. He was a tradesman, he was a blacksmith, and he was a very good blacksmith, and he had been working as a kid in his little workshop. So most of my background comes from me working in the blacksmith workshop and helping first my grandfather and eventually my father, because eventually my father built his own house, so all the type of equipment, or type of tools, or type of inches or type of locks, etc, were all done by hand. My father was absolutely an accomplished tradesman. I had a great admiration for my father. If he had adequate schooling or education, I'm sure that my father could have become quite an important man in the community.

Why did he choose to go into the railways rather than develop this tradesman side of himself, which sounds as if it could have been more profitable?

Well it might, but the concept of the railways already — what in Italy is called a safe position. Normally the public servant is considered in Italy an absolutely top position, therefore the idea of my father, could be ... could be working in the shop of my grandfather [but] was to establish himself in a sort of safe position, posto sicuro, you understand that. Therefore I can't blame him, the idea of being in the railway was already for him an important step to maintain the security for the family for himself.

So security and savings were very much part of the value system in the house?

Absolutely, you could see these people that were building little bit by little bit, the substance with security, and sometimes they lose track of where that security goes. Sometimes they lose track because security is just good enough but eventually you lose everything unless you look with some other different kind of security.

It's an interesting background for someone who became a great risk-taking entrepreneur ...

... [chuckles] ...

So, that was with your father ... he taught you those skills and you learnt them in your grandfather's shop, that were the basis of a long-term interest in engineering and making things. But what other values did your father impart to you.

Well, my father was a great disciplinarian. He was strict, I mean, the family where I come from, he would not allow us to do the sort of thing that we let the kids do. We were very strict with what we were supposed to do, the study or do the homework or do a type of looking after the house for many details. We basically didn't have the kind of freedom, I mean, even the idea of having a bicycle was a real luxury to us and we were to repair the bicycle ourselves. I mean, the story of looking at this kind of family for which [there is] a very close-knit relationship, where freedom really doesn't exist, but you have to concentrate and do it properly what you are doing now and dare don't you do it wrong. My father was not hesitated to beat us when necessary including my mother.

He used to beat all the family?

So, I would say, that the kind of affection that is natural in the family, for the family, that didn't appear at least when I was a kid, that was coming from the mother or father; we were just almost regimented. My idea that me and the children, the other two children, we had three in the family, and I was the oldest of the three, and normally I was carrying responsibility for the others too. I was the one being blamed for anything that went wrong.

But it sounds like a very hard childhood?

Very hard, that childhood, I agree that there has been a pretty hard period for my life.

What do you think ... what marks were left on you by that very hard discipline?

Well, I think that basically the first is that you are trying to escape from the family. And I remember that although I was 16 or 17, I was already trying to understand if I could possibly get something. In reality, when I was 18, I had already completed my Leaving Certificate in Taranto. The first thing we heard from my father [was] to get some employment, whatever employment possible, because again was the concept of a safe position and between different kind of competition that I had to do, still, and one day I was successful, was the station master. I became station master at 18, I was the youngest station master in Italy. Remarkable, so I was earning almost as my father and in a sort of instinctive revenge ... sending to him half of my salary, you know, to be sure — 'now I'm grown up, I don't need any more your protection, I don't need any more your control, I could do my own life' — by still giving half of my salary to him.

So this tough, tough, way of being brought up produced in you a very strong need for independence.

That's it, it was exactly a great ...

Did you bring your children up the same way?

I tried really, but my wife has been the great compensation element.

What about your own mother. Did she offer you the sort of affection your father wasn't giving you?

At least I didn't feel that, probably because she was also very disciplinarian in her own way, so I didn't really feel the kind of affection that I think is natural for a mother toward her children. I mean, the mother was just as tough in a different way as my father, so the family was always a very good controlled surrounding, and this certainly has gently given some remarkable repercussion in my early childhood that possibly has had repercussion also possibly in the rest of my life.

Could you characterise what that was?

Well, eventually you get so much practical in certain aspects that it takes a long time afterwards to realise that you, and the factors of the family relationship, that they were probably distorted by this kind of relationship at that age ... probably were quite artificial or, worse, we couldn't understand as kids of the difference between affection and protection type of love for children, and the wish to make these children to go in the right direction.

Was education valued in the family?

Well, my father was certainly not a religious man. My mother, probably coming from the Cassano, was more keen for church type of business, I would say, but we didn't ... we were not really in a way guided on that religious aspect even if at school. At the Italian school we had religious part of the normal curriculum but we took never for granted on that, quite frankly.

Did your parents value education for you? Did they want you to go on at school?

Well, certainly education, particularly from my father's point of view, was an important element. He realised that it was a great asset but he was not very keen for me or other children to go to higher education mainly because it was safer for us to get a job. The concept of getting a job was less riskier — many times earlier, even before the period when I became station master (to get other jobs of no importance whatsoever) I could have been landed in any other job whatsoever and the pressure sure ... [interruption] ... as in the case with the shipyard in Taranto. I made an application and thank God for some friends in the family — we made sure that the document disappeared out of the way —otherwise I could have been landed and become one of a kind of a labourer in the Italian shipyard in Taranto.

So your father made an application for you to become a labourer in a shipyard and friends of the family saw that this was going to destroy other opportunities for you and intervened to ...

Yes, I had let my mother in on that one too, so my mother had the more instinct to assist us and assist me because even in that period I still remember that I'd had so much diversion in my curriculum of studies and eventually she succeeded in assisting me in studying Latin in order to get some jump to another little course. All my education had been scattered in different directions since I was 13 or 14, in a way very complementary, because some of my education became a very matter-of-fact workshop, the very essential of it ...

Very technical things?

Most of my background is basically [as a] tradesman, I could have become a very good tradesman and I am a good tradesman. One day I'll take you and show you what is my workshop right down here.

Looking back, do you feel angry with your father for the way that he treated you, for the fact that he wasn't looking ahead for you but rather looking to the good of the family at your expense?

No, no, I think that eventually I looked to the perspective ... I think that my father was very strict, but I owe nothing but a great admiration in a way.

So you think that in his own way, although it wasn't always obvious, he actually loved you?

Well, I think that he realised that he had to be tough, you know, to get some result. Probably he did it in a different way, but there was nothing but the great pressure of my father ... has made a contribution to what I am today.

He toughened you up and you see some value in having been toughened up in that way ...

During this period of your development and the early phase of your life, where you were learning a lot of skills, what do you think — out of the skills that you learnt — what came through into your later life that was of value there?

Well, I think that this period was a very formative, because I'm convinced that what you learn in that period — I'm talking from about five to 15 years of age — is very essential for the formation of character. So that was very essential for me to maintain that close-knit to the family, I am very grateful, even if critical of my family background, but that they have been extremely important.

And in the things that you learned from your father and your grandfather, with the hands-on, you said you were really made a very good tradesman. Was there an aspect of that that was very important later on in your life? What do you think you learned from that ,that came through in your later life, that was important?

Well, certainly for me, I would not have given away, I mean, what I learned I could say was very formative ... through my grandfather, through my father and even my mother. They were just very important formative element for the character. And I would say today that the education for children that they receive in the family is probably the most important, [more than] the one they get at school.

So you became the youngest station master in the whole of Italy and proudly sent home some of your wages to your father. What was the next major step in your life? What was the next big thing that happened?

Well, that was one chapter. I was then 18 years of age and I knew only then that my destiny was the railway but my brother, younger, he eventually was able to go to the military academy in Torino and that was a disappointment to my father, he only said the first, the oldest ... I think he suspected that I was more intelligent or whatever or of great character ...

... we'll just pick that up so that we can get it clear, because we can edit that out and we'll start again and get you to the military academy ...

So what was the next major chapter of your life? So what was the next big turning point for you?

The turning point that I could have landed and remained a station master or do something else. The coincidence of my brother, younger, that went to the military academy in Torino and therefore he could have more education in a way convinced my father that there could be still another chance for me. He was the one, quite frankly, that during ... he was an engine driver coming often from the station where I was in Calabria — that is between Taranto and Metaponto ... He told me there was a chance for me to make an application for this position. In a way that was attractive, was a distraction [from what] I was doing. Incidentally, the station master would become very important in a little town; I became a friend of the priest, a best friend of the Lord Mayor, I was in the high echelon of responsibility in the place, even as young as I was, and that was probably the first period of great freedom for me. I had even my love affair right in the little town of Trebisacce.

That was?

Trebisacce. And I said ‘okay, let's try' so we prepared all the documents, etc, etc, and that to create another background of examination, for it is very hard to get an examination form for the military academy of Torino, because that is mainly best in mathematics, geography and Italian, [I had] to study pretty hard to catch up and my brother was pretty tough with me, incidentally, because he knew already the difficulty of the subject. He considered me really second-rate, he just insulted practically every ... in that particular summer and I succeeded ... not only in successful there but in the fact I got also the bursary so I was able to spend two years at Torino without spending any money. It was a great satisfaction for me, you know, my father wouldn't spend anything.

And also that your brother hadn't got a bursary so you were able to do even better than your brother.

Yeah, but still now I was lagging behind him. He was younger than me, I was behind him, so that was in a way some type of ...

... of incentive to do well ... .

... incentive to do better. I didn’t realise that eventually the history would change entirely, the succession value and responsibility, or whatever success. So you see that after that period there is in front of me another period that basically is four years of a very hard study at the military academy and the scuola d’ applicazione, the second two years, and eventually a further year that I spent in Rome for an electronic type of postgraduate, right in Rome — and that was another period of five years that I spent and by then I was already 25. I was basically robbed then of all my youth, because from station master when I was a free citizen, free to move and do what I want to, relatively to my commitment to the railway, I was regimented in a very solid kind of surrounding that is the military academy with discipline of the highest standard and the study that I considered, even one subject that I went to university, the study at the military academy by far was much tougher that you get at an ordinary university.

So what were the kinds of standards that you were being led to in this study?

Well, that was the standard that you'd expect from a permanent officer of the Italian army in the engineering corps. As I said, my channel mentally is in engineering and that was another important segment of my education, coupled with all the type of training and study and hard practice I had since my childhood, you see — that is pretty compact preparation for what is supposed to be the second or third jump that I had to do and I didn't know subsequently what ...

So you were at a military academy at a period in Italian history when Mussolini was in power — that must have been by then? What were you taught politically at the military academy?

Well, I, at that time, I didn't feel any restriction beside the restriction already existing in the academy. Quite frankly, I didn't even know that the politics were part of the game of everyday life. I mean, I didn't feel any kind of brainwashing or persuasion, that is obviously apparent and that was already there, because when you finish the period I was totally brainwashed, I suppose, as I can see now. Because people are prepared for a certain kind of function and, to me, military people should be trained that way just as priests are for their function in life. So I thought that it was absolutely natural that the discipline was part of the preparation for what was the function of officers.

And what was the function of officers in your mind at the time?

First of all, officers were supposed to be very dedicated to their function, totally committed to the life of their country. It is a fact, it is a fact, people they take it not seriously, but I think that officers, they have been trained to do that, they should be totally convinced. I would not have tolerated that officers should be married, I mean, the question of marrying is an obstruction to an officer. They are supposed to be ready to defend or attack or whatever that may be for the development of the country or protection of the country. That was my mentality at the time.

So during all that period leading up to the age of 25, during your youth, you weren't interested in girls at all?

No, in reality, the question of the girl was only during the outing during the academy at Torino [which] always is certainly wonderful, one of the most beautiful cities in Italy, and beautiful girls are all over and even my wife, who comes from Torino, is one of the typical. In reality, you were more or less imprisoned in the academy. You only had two hours per day freedom and the ... yes, after a period, you go on these military exercises. There is not much room left for it, I mean, there is no question that you can have a season love affair, but they are spasmodic and a quick result of quick contacts of no consequence whatsoever. In reality we were very close to ... I am talking about 1941 now, 1940 to 41, so you can see that already [in] 1939 there were some important developments taking place in Europe, Italy and Germany, still [a] pact between the two, you could see all this big parading in many parts of Italy particularly, as well as in Germany, you could see combustionism, therefore we were already ready for this tremendous conflagration that was happening, so therefore the question of a love affair was very, very secondary.

So you were motivated as a trainee military officer more by patriotism than by a dedication to fascism. Or were they at that time seen as one and the same thing in the academy in which you were trained?

No, I think that the military academy was basically [about] patriotism. To consider the duty for the Motherland — all the sort of tradition that you are to maintain, the flag, the feeling of honour, the question of dying for the duty — that you should enjoy when something is really hard. That's the typical ... the fascists were a different thing altogether, but still I can see now that there was permutation, type of, coming into the military academy. The fascism, as part of even some examination for which you had to respond in a certain way where for the, say, the good of the country ... you had to sacrifice a certain kind of, type of, principle. So the idea of that for the good of the total you should sacrifice a certain kind of thing, that I think could now appear quite uncivilised, but to me that was pretty obvious for me, if there was something to be done, a certain kind of sacrifice, a principle to be adopted automatically, that was fascism. So automatically fascism will come indirectly in the military academy. Unavoidable.

So the notion of obedience to some sort of regime which you may not approve of was one — that principle was taught in the Academy — and you didn't at that stage see the danger of that sort of idea?

No, definitely not. And even earlier, I still remember that even before I went to America, I'm talking about when I was 15 or 16, my father was totally anti-fascist and where the argument is with children in the family, where we had been brainwashed by the school system automatically, I could feel the clash between my father. There was a gangster, the big bosses in Rome, and we instead from the school bring a certain kind of, different kind of, gospel, you see, already there before we were 16 or 17 ...

[end of tape]

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