R.I.P. Ian

Burials have not taken place in Bagni di Lucca’s protestant cemetery, better known as “Il Cimitero Inglese”, since 1953. There are suggestions that, since over half of the allotted places for inhumation have not yet been occupied, perhaps the cimitero should be re-opened up for non-Roman Catholic burials. This, however, would require a considerable bureaucratic process involving not only religious authorities but also health ones as well since, as I have stated in previous posts, the standard process of inhumation in Italy is to inter the coffin into a ready-made concrete cavity from which it may be easily lifted when the tomb’s lease expires, and the bones of the deceased may be collected and placed in a spatially more economical ossuary to leave space for newer burials.

We visited Bagni di Lucca’s main cemetery near its parish church at Corsena yesterday not just out of curiosity but unfortunately because now, after having lived in the area for nine years, we know several of the cemetery’s current inmates.

There were, however, some persons we had never met but would have liked to meet. Two of these will form the major part of a conference to be held courtesy of the Michel de Montaigne Foundation this autumn at Bagni di Lucca’s ex-Anglican church, now the library.

The first of these persons, Ian Greenlees was, in fact, known by my wife since he was a regular visitor to the Italian institute of Culture in London’s Belgrave square where her father was Secretary-General and where, indeed, she was brought up in the flat which went as part of the job.

Greenlees was born in 1913 into a family of Scottish background (hence the “Gordon” of his middle name) who made their fortune in distilling whisky and he had the luck of inheriting this fortune. He was educated at the Roman Catholic Ampleforth College and obtained a first in Italian at Magdalen, Oxford.

Greenlees taught English Literature at Rome University under a person whose name I can only mention backwards for reasons which will become clearer later on: Zarp Oiram. Ian was appointed Director of Rome’s British Institute in 1939 and evacuated his staff courageously across a Nazi-invaded France back to London in a style reminiscent of certain episodes in Olivia Manning’s  “Fortunes of war”.

Greenlees was put in charge of Italian language broadcasts for the BBC precursor of the world service and also took part in the allied invasion of Sicily in 1943 which led to the armistice and the terrible two years of civil war which followed.

Undeterred, he ran a free Italian anti-fascist radio station from Bari (where the Italian Royal family had fled to) and was promoted to Major.

Deeply involved in intelligence operations and with establishing allied-partisan coordination, Greenlees played an important part at the end of WWII in setting up a new government free from Fascist influence. In fact, the “epurazione”, as it was called, never quite happened (as it certainly did with Nazism in the two Germanies after 1945) and has been a major hindrance in the almost seventy years of fragile and too- frequently changing governments Italy has had to endure in a tug-of-war between extreme right and extreme left factions.

Interestingly, one of Greenlees’ friends was Graham Greene who was also a Roman Catholic and who had worked for a short time for MI6 under Kim Philby!

From 1947 to 1954, Greenlees was back working for the Rome branch of the British Council and among his friends was the one who was still Professor of English literature at Rome University and whose name I have had to spell backwards above. Why?

It’s because this club-footed person was regarded as possessing an “evil eye”. Merely by looking at objects he could make them fall down whether they be a porcelain service or even a candelabra. He could turn presumed successes into disasters. Even the mention of his name brought maledictions and more than one death car-crash was attributed to his evil psychic powers.

Just to show you that this belief is still strong among circles who knew him, including my wife and her immediate family, I was severely told off when mentioning his name with regard to a book he wrote which I thought was particularly good. (“The Romantic Agony”). The evil eye of this person caused some disasters at London’s Italian Institute itself! I would need to write a separate post about this sinister character whose house has now been turned into a museum and who was also a highly influential writer on interior design.

To return to Greenlees: he was also a friend of Norman Douglas, the travel writer (whose last words where he died in Capri were “keep those fucking nuns away from me”).

From 1958 to 1981 Greenlees was director of the British Institute in Florence, which he expanded with his assistant, who was none other than (ex-Sir) Anthony Blunt (one of the Cambridge pro-Russian spies and subject of that brilliant play by Alan Bennett called “ a question of attribution” if you didn’t know.)

My wife remembers Ian Greenlees as being powerfully instrumental in starting the appeal for aid to help flood-struck Florence in 1966, in collaboration with London’s Italian Institute and her father. In particular, pumps were sent out from the UK.

Together with Agatha Christie, Graham Greene and Kenneth Clark he also wrote a strong letter to The Times in defence of the traditional Roman Catholic mass at a time when the newly sainted Pope John 23rd was heading the Concilio. (The traditional RC Mass is in Latin with the back of the priest mostly to the congregation, doesn’t dumb down the horrors of hell and adds loads more mystery to the liturgy.)

For me, the best thing Ian Greenlees did was to help form LIPU (“Lega Italiana Protezione Uccelli”), the Italian equivalent of the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds).

When one thinks of the mass slaughter of migrating birds then in vogue in Italy, with the regular eating of blackbirds, thrushes etc. at the dinner table and the nonchalant attitude towards hunting them practised even by that great composer Puccini (“I love hunting wildfowl, good libretti and beautiful women.”) this was truly a revolutionary act.

One of the mysteries regarding Greenlees is what happened to much of his huge collection, not only of books (which are said to have totalled 28,000), but also to his paintings (including three Sickerts etc.) and objects d’art (Chinese ceramics mainly.)

Greenlees’ collection was housed in the huge villa he’d bought in 1969 in the old part of Bagni on the hill above the town and the original centre of the spa. He lived there with his long-time partner Robin Chanter. In the winter Greenlees, with Robin, moved to Anacapri which was also Norman Douglas’s, Graham Greene’s and Elizabeth David’s favourite place, escaping the depressingly damp winters of Bagni di Lucca (in the same way that I moved to Vietnam, earlier this year, I suppose…)

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Apart from my wife’s teenage memories, and those more substantial ones of her sadly deceased dad, the only other person I’ve met who knew Greenlees is Sam Stych, at almost 98 years of age, still of sprightly mind, although rather less mobile. Recently Sam, who still lives in Bagni di Lucca, was interviewed with regard to Greenlees and he told us of the outcome of the interview.

“I came to the conclusion that although I spent years with Ian as a close neighbour – indeed it was he who suggested I purchase this property in Italy when I retired – I never really knew him and nor did anyone else. He was a very cultured and courteous person but you felt you never really got to the heart of the matter and the man in most ways remains a mystery.

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The Time obituary writes about Greenlees:

“He was an unambitious man but he mastered the art of being happy and knew how to impart this gift to others. He hated war, the army, nationalism and public schools.”

And yet Ian Greenlees was heavily involved with all those things he hated… an enigma indeed!

As for Robin Chanter, that name must remain for another post which, regrettably, has to involve a fatal car-crash as predicted by the unmentionable name.

I looked out across Bagni di Lucca’s cemetery and thought to myself “why surely how many lives remain mysteries to us, even more when death takes then away from this world”, and cast my eyes upon the lovely green hills surrounding this place of peace and tranquillity in this wonderful beginning to Italy’s most glorious month, May.

 

 

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15 thoughts on “R.I.P. Ian

  1. What a wonderful post. This is very interesting. I’m sure any of us who travel to, or live in Bagni (regardless of nationality) would be very interested in Ian Greenlees, a major figure in Anglo-Italian affairs. I must go and have a nose at the house in the summer.

  2. Hi, does anyone know what Ian’s parents were called as wondering if there is any connection to a relative of mine called Victoria Isabel Greenlees, who I know came from a whisky distilling family in the Campbeltown area.

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