IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF MY FATHER`
This is the unabridged article I wrote for the Mail on Sunday in July 2001. A slightly shorter version appeared in print.
“Well, where would you like to go?” The cheery voice belonged to Catherine, researcher for the BBC`s “Summer Holiday” programme, who had rung to ask me to present an item for them. What an invitation!
With the world at my feet I suggested Ischia, an island nestling in the Bay of Naples, a short distance from its more famous neighbour, Capri. Why there, rather than some exotic, far-flung destination?
It had nothing to do with “The Talented Mr Ripley”, a film I had just seen, which was shot on the island. My purpose was far more serious – A Daughter`s Pilgrimage.
My father died last February at the grand age of 90 and, although we enjoyed a full life together and I am rich in happy memories, I began to ruminate on the things we failed to do – the shared experiences we missed through the sheer pace of life and his failing health in later years.
I knew he had spent the latter part of the war on the island and I had grown up with the enormous oil painting of Ischia, illuminated address and gold medal the islanders gave him when they made him an Honorary Citizen when he left in 1945. But I did not fully appreciate until after he died quite what an impact he made on the people of this beautiful island.
My father, an RNVR Surgeon Lieutenant Commander, arrived there on 20th August 1944, aged 33. Having served on Atlantic convoys in the Destroyer, HMS Atherstone, earlier in the war, he then took part in the Sicily landings in 1943, and percolated up the toe of Italy, driving out the occupying German forces.
Some 20 miles offshore from Naples, the Ischians were in a very poor, demoralised state, half-starved by German troops and suffering a raging smallpox epidemic.
My father was appointed Director of the island`s British Military Hospital, making his base at the Regina Hotel. He had extremely limited, at times non-existent, resources with which to treat patients, complicated by the islanders` hiding smallpox sufferers in caves, terrified they might be taken to the mainland. Naval ratings scoured the island at night to bring them in for treatment.
Dashingly handsome, my father cut a fine figure in his white naval shorts, limbs bronzed by the Italian sunshine. Little wonder the local girls fell for “Il Dottore Inglese” back in 1944! Nearly 60 years later at 90, virtually blind and in a wheelchair, he still had the power to charm the fairer sex.
Prime Minister Asquith`s wife, Margot, said her husband was so modest it “amounts to a deformity.” So with my father, who sought no publicity or glory for his achievements.
He was eventually rumbled by British journalist, Rex North, who holidayed on Ischia in 1953 staying in the Villa Paradiso, a hotel run by my father`s interpreter, Joseph Iacono. Astonished that North had not heard of the legendary Dr Holman, Iacono pointed to a house along the coast, “See that white villa. Churchill stayed there and as he is a very nice man I bought the villa. But Dr Holman is the greatest man who ever set foot on this island.”
He piled North into a car and rushed him around the island to introduce him to many of the individuals my father had treated, often beyond the call of duty. Anna, the pretty girl scarred with a hideous hair lip, now beautiful after an out-of-hours operation; Franca, a teenager going blind for want of an operation, but now cured and married with a young child; Maria, now a beautiful shapely woman but then starving to death and Netta, now a pretty teenager the fingers of whose deformed webbed hand my father had painstakingly separated. He was told “the doctor worked 24 hours a day to save hundreds of lives. I will take you to scores of people who owe everything to him. I will prove he is the greatest man who ever came to the island.”
Prompted by the overwhelming gratitude he found amongst the locals, North wrote an article headlined “The Uncrowned King of Ischia – if only he knew it” in the Sunday Pictorial. My father, unused to publicity of any kind, was horrified and highly embarrassed.
He had rarely talked in any detail about his assignment in Ischia and it was only when I was going to the island for the BBC that my mother produced some contemporary documents, including a translation of the Mayor`s speech when he left in 1945. I had never seen this before and, reading it only weeks after my father`s death, it moved me to tears.
I was filled with pride but also great sadness that I had not gone to Ischia decades ago, when more of his generation were still alive. My parents did return twice, when my brother and I were too young and were left in the care of friends. If only my father had been less modest about his legacy on the island we would have insisted we visit sooner but, sadly, it is too late now.
In November 1945, the Mayor, with typically operatic Italian brio, spoke of Il Dottore`s “…fine qualities of heart and mind. You have been our consoling angel, with a nobility of heart dedicated the best of your scientific acknowledgement and accompanied your activities with such a gentility and delicacy of manner to conquer us in heart and soul. You have performed a mission with the highest human sentiment and with full efficacious results. It is indeed beautiful and honorific for Ischia to count among her best souls you Doctor Holman, benefactor of everlasting memory.”
“Destiny has ordained that the honour to preside this pleasing and memorable ceremony be reserved to me, who among the few, even when the flashing Teutonic victories astonished the world, and when the Hun hordes seemed to submerge everything, I always kept faith in the destinies of Great Britain, for the saving of civilization and for the eventual triumph of liberty and justice.
“Above all we wish to assure you that across the sea, that does not divide but unite our island to the Great Island, your country, will flow forever a stream of our affection and faithfulness, and that it will become ever stronger when Italy, risen again, can with dignity squeeze the hand of the valorous United Nations.”
The obvious sincerity of the mayor`s exuberant rhetoric, crashing through all grammatical fences, moved me across the years from the printed page. Tears trickled down my face as I filled with pride at my father`s legacy. I was more proud than ever to be his daughter.
As he gave him the painting by a local artist of the Aragonese Castle, the Mayor continued: “Whenever you happen to look at this picture, we are comforted by the thought that you will feel a beat of longing for our island as you may feel certain of our lasting gratitude.”
That “beat of longing” surfaced in me. I felt ashamed I had never visited and knew virtually nothing about “Daddy`s island”. This was my chance to pay homage to his memory, just a few months after his peaceful death – an end that had been denied to so many on the island he loved.
As the ferry from Naples approached Ischia, I could see the outline of the Castle rising from the sea, its extraordinary shape familiar from childhood because of the oil painting which had dominated our hallway. It had always seemed unreal but suddenly there it was, rising majestically out of the sea, like a miniature rock of Gibraltar, just as it appeared to the British troops arriving in 1944.
In an earlier war in 1809, the situation had been rather different. Then, instead of liberating, the Royal Navy had almost pulverised the Castle with broadsides of cannon-shot. Our excuse? Napoleon had installed one of his Marshals as his puppet King of Naples, causing the kingdom to defect to the enemy. As I later stood in the ruins of the magnificent Cathedral Dell`Assunta within the Castle, I was glad my family had been able to make some reparation to the islanders for the devastation of 150 years before.
Sadly, I had no time to visit the island`s highest peak, Mount Epomeo, to view its magnificent panorama. My mother told me how, on a rare free day, my father and his chums would drive their jeeps as far as they could up the steep winding road and then recklessly hare down on rickety bicycles with scant regard for their own safety. She would have been horrified if she had known at the time. Life was precious and, working extremely hard for the Admiralty back home, she would have been less than pleased that her relatively new husband was exposing himself to unnecessary dangers! Later my father named one of his sailing boats Epomeo and delighted in the quizzical looks and enquiries from others as to what it meant.
Ischia now, as then, is renowned for its thermal waters and the healing qualities of its volcanic mud. Under clinical conditions in our hotel, I was slathered in warm mud under the eagle eye of the cameras, with only a small towel to preserve my modesty! I remembered the photographs in my father`s album of the little wooden sign by the roadside advertising “Baths – mud, showers, mineral” and hoped he had had some time to relax and enjoy its therapeutic properties.
Sitting on the sea wall in Ischia Ponte, sipping glasses of chilled Vini D`Ambra – my father`s favourite local wine – I watched the moonlight shimmering on the rock walls of the Castle and the world of war and suffering seemed far away. I was supremely glad I had chosen to come to Ischia, only regretting I had not come with my father many years ago when I could have shared the experience with him. Nevertheless, in a small and inadequate way, I felt I had helped to bridge the gap between the rest of my life and the end of my father`s