O Ce Biel
From the Friulan song "O Ce Biel Cjiscjel a Udin"
Memories of 1970s Friuli
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These poems are the work of Charles Thompson, who arrived in Udine in the autumn of 1975. We shared two years there before he returned to England and I moved to the Veneto. He has lived and taught English in Bristol for many years, not far from my home in Gloucestershire, so we still meet up. He's now heavily involved in theatre, cabaret and poetry.

The first poem addresses the Friulan earthquake in May 1976. My account is in the "Terremoto" section.

Who called to God

Who called to God
that May evening
under the grey mountains?

The priest, his whole house
crumbled into bits and pieces
scattered about his papers and books?

Startled, the Friulan men and women
in the tent-fields
their bodies alive
and their souls too

Though no prayer alive
held back the boulders
as the earth shook -
they were alive

Grandmothers spooning the giant pasta pot
children sparkling here and there
like lizards

Babies and toddlers glimpsed
behind the tent walls
Friulan mothers too

The priest tasted the red wine
the bread too
as did the working men

How the sorrow yearned
through the work
and how could joy grow again?

Such unexpected events

The rumble of the earth god
the collapse of secret mystic churches
the sudden mortality
in the midst of May abundance

And now the rain
bundling incessantly
lavishly onto the fields and tents
and there Friulani

This next poem is a big change of mood, altogether more cheerful. One way to supplement the Oxford School's meagre pay was to give private lessons. Chris had a personal student who was an Udine "avvocato" or lawyer. A rotund, gruff, larger-than-life man. This is Charles's tribute.


And so, dear friends, L'Avvocato
As plump he is as an avocado
A roister-rooster 'Al Bar Marinaio'
Whose crow is gruff
Whose laugh is rough
A wit unforced
Rich, well-resourced,
Adapted, agile,
Oh no not fragile
A temper, balanced,
Just, on the razzle,
A man who handles local crooks
For crimes I would say mostly petty
and handles too his wife's spaghetti.
Sleep, eat, drink, law all uncomplicate
To live, laugh and intimidate
For an encore this grizzly bear
Intones with feeling 'My sweet-coloured pear
When I see you I feel brave'1
The simple lines the bright folk crave
Volcanic earthy a rumbling yarn
Round the rapt crowd the lyric Friulan.

1 Piru my do inculurit
quant y chi viot, dut stoi ardi't

from the oldest Friulan poem

August 2021

Once upon a time in Italy

Once upon a time in Italy
the game was bumpeting to the end
of the bus line no. 17 per
scoprire qualcosa di buono
or playing swag cricket with
a ping pong ball and a cardboard poster holder
Che cos' questo cricket? pazzo?
Che cos' questo wicket? Per l'amor di Dio?
Spiego tutto. Allora ...

or laying trails - amici tutti -
through Venezia - la bella -
or translating Italian menus
into English - per far ridere -
the owner wouldn't pay -
hiccough hiccough salad -
per esempio -

Was this fun or something else?
In your twenties Italy the heat
the gaudiness the electric charge!

O youth bizarre have fun
along the dark lightsome
travel of your Mediterranean

We got up to no end of "japes" in the mid-1970s. Somewhat embarrassing now - but it was fun, entirely unmalicious, an exuberant expression of youthful energy - or so I like to think. I have documented the Venetian "laying trails" episode elsewhere in this memoir (see the Venice section👉). The indoor cardboard-tube and ping-pong-ball cricket session took place in the small hours at Charles's flat after returning from Bar da Brando. The neighbour from the flat below called the police, justifiably given the sharp noise we were making on the uncarpeted floor. Two 'poliziotti' duly arrived. We had just met them at the bar! They had crept in under the half-lowered security shutter for a late shift drink. We were reprimanded very gently for our misdemeanour.

October 2021

O youth

O youth forwards and arcing into the air your arrows
which settle far off like rain
your spontaneous quick moments
like those of wood pigeons or larks
like fledglings of a hawk
like Mercury quicksilver

in Italy those years past
those moments I snapped
fast as they happened
and engage me now

a golden eagle with red claws
Friuli of fields and woods level out stretching far
far to those sharp white mountains
Friuli of green rivers rocking
from those steepling mountains

friends startling
like swifts
thus to my life
and thus
one such - with the open quickness of a gazelle
practical as all Friulians
- those carpenters -
youthful as a football

swearing about an officer in the caserma
- a soldier - for a moment
- in front of an officer without his hat - shirt unbuttoned
'I thought we were an army not a group of bandits'
says the captain
'grounded in barracks for two days'
swearing again

One such
she took me to the discoteca
her Italian quickened itself like a stickleback darts
or a flute jaunts sweetly
so far
so far
so far from Farra d'Isonzo -
thus her village
green Isonzo - once
in ceaseless turmoil seething
prophesying war

to the east Gorizia
to the east the border
to the north and east - war
twelve times - mountain war

but now
no more
how a flame quickens all youth
as if they were the sons and daughters of Jupiter

Charles Thompson, Charlie Lewis (additional text only) 2021
Email: charlie_c_lewis@hotmail.com