Prior to the Second World War millions of British people had rarely strayed far from their hometown. Travel was expensive. There was just one commercial airline offering to take passengers to far-flung countries, such as South Africa, India, Australia and the Far East. But the cost was something that only wealthy businessmen or colonial administrators could afford. The poster below proudly announces that it would take just nine days to travel by air from London to Cape Town and the ticket price would run to thousands of pounds in today’s money.
For the ordinary person a day trip to a British seaside resort might be the only chance to experience something outside of their immediate locality.
As a result when young men returned from fighting they brought tales of the places they had seen – France, Italy, Egypt, North Africa – countries with cultures and foods so varied and exciting.
One young soldier spoke of taking refuge in a barn in Terracina, Italy, only to look up to see dozens of Parma hams hanging like bats from the roof. Another writes of a day trip to visit the Pyramids in Egypt, of wonderful swims in an outdoor pool. Of course, there were downsides – apart from the constant fear of enemy fire, the men had to deal with the heat of vast deserts. Foods were so different they resulted in stomach cramps or worse. Malaria was also a big problem with many soldiers being hospitalised as a result.
But many who survived the war came back to Britain with a new outlook and a desire to explore and experience new places – places that would attract British holidaymakers for decades to come. Italy became a top tourist spot in the 1950s, although many would still struggle to afford the cost. For those who were able, travel was mostly by train or sea. Then, as the 1960s brought a boom in the standard of living, package holidays became affordable for many with cheap flights taking tourists to the Spanish costas and the Greek isles. At the same time continental foods were being enjoyed across Britain, with a favourite dish for many being ‘spaghetti bolognaise’ – a bit different from the spam fritters of the tough post-war years.
My sixties crime mystery series, the Giuseppe Bianchi mysteries, tells of a retired Italian detective visiting his family in Sussex. A short visit turns into a longer stay when Giuseppe becomes embroiled in tragedy. Giuseppe and his cousin, Mario, have both experienced Italy in wartime and share memories that both bind and divide them.