26 December 2021

Christmas Past-


Perusing the diary notes of my grandfather’s brother, Ninio Serretta recently, I was struck by the similarity of the circumstances when his family emigrated from Sicily to England in 1898, and then to South Africa and when my family emigrated from South Africa to England in 1998, exactly 100 years later!    Ninio’s family consisted of himself and his brother, Giovanni Jr (my grandfather) who were nine and eight years old resp. and their three sisters Maria, eleven, Virginia, six and Ester, four and their mother Maria Concetta Ammirata and their father, Giovanni Serretta Sr.  Giovanni Sr was an artist and had no interest in joining the family’s banking business.  There was no work for an artist in Sicily, so he left Palermo to make a new life for the family in London, where he thought that he could make a living with his artistic talent.  He went to London in 1893, five years before his wife and children joined him. 

Reading between the lines, and using the limited facts as I know them, I am of the opinion that it was his father-in-law, Giovanni Ammirata, who arranged for Marie Concetta and the children to finally move to London to join her husband.   Evidently the marriage was arranged by the two families in order to consolidate their respective business interests and properties, and was not a happy one.   Both families were wealthy with considerable land holdings and properties.  Giovanni Ammirata financed the travel expenses of his daughter and grandchildren, purchased a house in London for them, furnished it lavishly and installed a servant come housekeeper.   I can imagine him admonishing his son-in-law: “No more excuses!  Now you have tour family and a home!  Get on with it!”  He returned to Sicily shortly thereafter and left his daughter to her new life in England.

I arrived in London in August 1998, looking for a job, and it was three months later before I was joined by my wife, Noelin.  Some of my children were already in London and some would follow shortly after.  I did not have a wealthy father-in-law to pave the way for my family to start a new life in a strange land.  However, we also experienced a degree of non-acceptance and bias towards us as “foreigners” by a lot of the English people, as had my grandfather and his brother.  Here is an excerpt from my great-uncle Ninio’s account of their arrival in London in August 1898:

Lucio’s Serretta’s memories of his parent’s emigration to England when he was 9 years old- Quote:

"It was an evening in autumn of 1898 – to be exact, Sunday 24th October.  A cloudy sky over the mountains that surround the Bay of Palermo in whose port the small vessel ‘Gallilco – Gallile’ was anchored which we were to board.  We were seven, six of us never to return to see our beloved land again.  Besides myself there was my mother, my one brother and three sisters.  My maternal grandfather accompanied us.  We were destined for England where my father awaited us and from whom we had been separated for just under five years.  The vessel was bound for the port of Naples and on the morning of the 25th it passed the isle of Ischia,

I had already risen and was on desk when we sighted Naples.  Although chilly it was a beautiful sunny day and the sight of Napes with its busy port, Mount Vesuvius on the right and the hills of Pozzuoli on the left was most impressive and a sight never to be forgotten.  My mother’s uncle Bartolomeo (Brusco) met us on the quay, and we spent a very pleasant day sight-seeing with his family.  The next portion of our journey was by train to Rome, where we arrived at nearly midday on the 26th and left at 10.30pm.  We arrived in Genoa on the afternoon of the 27th and took the train to Turin late that night.  At Turin, we stayed at a Hotel and had our meals there.  I was very cold.  As we came from a warm country, we had no overcoats and warm clothing and my grandfather bought some for us.  By this time the children were already getting rather too much for my poor mother.  Ester was a baby of four.  I remember my sister Virginia had a stomach disorder.   My brother John wandered off in the crowd and got lost when we were sight-seeing.  It was very tiring for a woman with five children.  We left Turin at night the next day 29th October on a train to cross the frontier at Modena on our way to Lyon, where we again changed trains to Dijon and again to Paris.  It was just terrible taking our entire luggage off one train to load on another in the dead of night.

We arrived in Paris on the night of the 30th, and had to stay on the station until daylight and then transferred to the Gare Saint Lazare.  We wandered around Paris in a carriage all day and had a good meal at one of the Boulevard Restaurants.  At 9.30 pm our train left for Calais to cross to Dover.  The crossing was dreadful.  A big storm got up.  The small vessel was crowded with people of all types, many from Russia and Bulgaria.  Everybody was seasick and rolling from one side of the salon to the other as the vessel swayed.  Although we boarded the vessel at about 1:30am it took over three hours to cross the channel.  It was still very dark when we landed at Dover, but we were soon helped into a train.  As it was getting light we were able to see the country around us.  It was Sunday morning, 1st November 1898.  The country all over was covered in snow and we shivered and cried with the cold, but we very soon arrived at Charing Cross Station in London where we expected to see our father again after 5 years.  My mother could not believer that she would set eyes on him.  She was filled with anger and resentment towards him.  I remember grandfather warning her to be calm and forgiving and to look forward to a new and happy life even though it would have its trials.

But it was difficult to calm her.  My father was on the station awaiting us.  He was tall and wore a warm light brown overcoat.  He was good looking.  He received us very happily but my mother was very cool to him.  We went to another platform on the other side of the station to board another train.  We though that very strange as we had not imagined London to be so big.  The train took us to Clapham junction about 4 ½ miles, and from there we went to a house in Swanage Road, Wandsworth Common in a horse drawn cab.  Everywhere was snow.  The road had about 18cm snow.  All the roofs and gardens were covered.  We alighted and the door was opened by a young woman servant with a black frock and white cap and apron.  The house was magnificently carpeted in red plush heavy Wilton throughout.  We were first taken upstairs to our bedrooms which all had double beds and bathrooms.  We changed into what new clothing my mother had been able to buy for us and then we came down to the dining room.  Fires were burning in the grates and all lights were on.  The dining table was fully dressed and the sideboard was laden with food.  Hams, cheeses, fine rolls of bread and many other things – all ready for us.  We all sat down to a meal, my father explaining that in England it was the custom to have breakfast.

Being hungry, we all had plenty to eat.  The servant was doing her best to make us understand.  She took us to the kitchen where a big fire was burning in the grate, and utensils and crockery were on the shelves.  My sister wanted to inspect inside the pantry and she cried “Mama! Mama! Come and see all the food!”  We were all enchanted and asked many questions.  My brother John was curious to know what was inside some jars on a shelf.  My father said it was jam, but no one knew what jam was.  My father explained that it was fruit cooked with sugar, and as we had always regarded sugar to be a luxury and prohibitive, we were all anxious to taste it.  So my father opened a jar and with a teaspoon we all tasted it.  What worried us however was that when we pushed the curtain aside there was no sun and only heavy snow.  “Do people go out?” we asked.  “Yes! Tomorrow, not today.  Tomorrow will be Monday and all the people go out.  You will see children playing ‘snowballs’ and other games in the snow”.  Shivers were running up and down my back and legs as he was saying this!  We could not imagine anyone wanting to go out and to play in such weather.  Thus, we spent our first day in England.

We passed the next few days indoors in the same way, while my father went away to business in the City.  More snow fell, and we were afraid to open the windows and doors.  We thought our father very brave to go out in the snow.  Saturday came, and my father said he never worked on Saturdays and Sundays, which we thought strange but wonderful.  So, he took us all out.  We went to St Johns Road, Clapham Junction, where there is a very large shopping centre with very large department stores.  One of them was called Harding and Hobbs which was the biggest.  My father bought new suits for my brother and myself, and dresses for my mother and the girls.  Also shoes and hats.  I remember my mother looking very elegant in an outfit made of Scottish tweed, with long skirt, very narrow waist and very wide sleeves, narrow at the cuffs, called ‘leg of mutton’ sleeves.  The hat was a Trilby to match and it had a peacock’s feather at the side.  My mother said it was ridiculous, but my sister Maria (Marie) liked it very much, so the assistant fitted her out with something very similar.  She was only 11 years old, and my mother said she looked 20.  So, my father was pleased.  We boys had Norfolk suits with straps below the knees, and wool stockings, and nice wool caps to match.

The next day was Sunday and as the weather had cleared a little we were allowed to go out, so we walked a short distance near a railway line.  The road was wide and lined with very large oak trees.  Maria was wearing her new dress but thought she was too conspicuous and so when people were approaching to pass us Maria would hide behind one of the large trees so that she would not be seen.  She cried when we returned home and said she looked like an old woman.  My father suggested that it was the red woollen muffler that was too large.  My mother laughed and said my father should have known better that to have dressed them both that way.  Maria would never wear her outfit again, but my mother kept hers and when Queen Victoria died in 1900 she wore it at the funeral procession.  During the following week, one morning, John and I were allowed out again to the Common.  We went a little way and noticed a very large field.  The snow had melted and it was very green.  We saw a group of boys kicking a very large ball, very high.  We had never seen this before so we were curious and went near to watch by the iron railing.  Then one of the boys came over and spoke to us.

We could not understand what he was saying, but I could see he wanted us to go over the fence onto the green.  As we just stood looking at him I understood him to say “you speak?” I replied “Italiano.” He then called to all the other boys – shouting “Forina! Forina!” so they all ran over, about eight or more, aged between 8 and 13 years of age also shouting “Forina! Forina!”. First, the first one then all of them began hitting us.  They got us on the ground and punched and kicked us still shouting “Forina! Forina!”.  Then they all started to run away and I saw a gentleman in an overcoat and gloves had come over to us, but we could not understand.  He took us with him.  We were crying.  Our faces were bruised and bleeding and our clothes were wet and soiled.  The gentleman took us to a nearby house, which long after I got to know on Westside, Wandsworth Common.  A very nice lady took us in.  She washed us, gave us tea and biscuits and later the gentleman took us around the nearby streets until we were able to recognise our own house.  My parents were very upset, but nothing could be done about it.  However, I always remembered and later understood the meaning of what to me had sounded like “Forina”.  It was Foreigner.

Evidently, they had a dislike for foreigners, which I did not understand then, but later when I could read in English I concluded that certain classes of the English were politically indoctrinated to hate all foreigners.  This caused the whole family very great sorrow through the years in England.  The months of November and December 1898 were passing and my grandfather’s return to Italy was nearing as he wished to be back for Christmas.  However, before his departure he was taken to the City and the West End and to see the sights of London.  Christmas came and we saw that the people celebrated immensely and so did we.  As we could not speak English we naturally could not make friends even with our neighbours.  Early in the New Year my father managed to get us, the three eldest into the local school, which was called ‘The Swaffield Road Primary School 

(Swaffield Primary School is still there now (2021) 

Lucio and John suffered severe beatings from bullies, but Lucio who was more aggressive soon learned to defend himself and his brother, who was gentler of the three children, hampered by having to learn a new language and culture, Lucio progressed the best.  Maria was relegated to the back of the classroom and given knitting to do by the teacher, who provided her with wool and needles and who’s family benefiting by the supply of socks and stockings.Unquote.

Now I daresay that it would have been much more difficult for such young children in those days to integrate into a new culture, especially children who had never had the opportunity to experience any other culture than their own Sicilian one, which was very cloistered, than it is for children today, who have had exposure to other cultures via the WWW.  I, however, did experience resistance from some British people when I first tried to fit myself into the local society, as did my family.  I came up against some vehemently unwelcoming individuals who had very preconceived ideas about people from South Africa, even though they knew nothing about me, and even less about that country, but strangely enough, never people of colour.  The fact that I was comparatively well educated and was arguably more proficient in the English language than they were, created some great hurdles for me to climb over.   I succeeded by demonstrating ability and accomplishment but I had to start at the bottom and work my way up the seniority ladder, re-inventing the wheel that had come to a crashing halt in a political ditch in South Africa.  My efforts were also made easier by the fact that I had a better and more disciplined work ethic than the average Brit.  This is a fact that applies to most South Africans, Australians, New Zealanders and East Europeans.  The average British worker is very unionised, and is more concerned about the length of his tea break than his productivity.  South Africans stop work when the job is done, Brits stop work when the clock strikes four-thirty.

One can only admire Concetta and Giovanni Jr for taking on the huge task of integrating their family into British society, and becoming British.  My grandfather, Giovanni Jr (Big John) went on to fight with the British Army at the battle of the Somme in 1915.  He drove an ambulance between the front lines and the field hospitals.  His ambulance, a commandeered truck, took a direct hit and he was blown into a lake of mud, which saved his life.  Nevertheless, he was invalided back to England with burns and concussion.  Here is a photo of him and one of him and his crew, taken in Calais in 1914:

Giovanni on the left.


Covid Vaccination

We won't be safe until we are all safe......

So said the chief of the World Health Organisation.  

Another lockdown.  Another year wasted.  More covid statistics showing that the majority of hospitalised covid patients are those that are not vaccinated.  when our health service, the NHS, is under extreme pressure and clinical staff are working insane hours under appalling pressure, these nay-sayers are consuming resources that could be more deservedly used on the vulnerable and elderly.  WTF!!

I have read reams of reportage on the vaccination naysayers and their stupid beliefs as a result of which they refuse to get vaccinated.  Such as:

1) Being made to get the vaccine inoculation is against your human rights and is a breach of your civil freedoms,

2) The vaccine will have a negative effect on your fertility and your ability to have children,

3) The vaccine will make you vaccine dependant and you will therefore have to have a dose every year or you will die.  This will allow Big Brother to know your whereabouts forever,

4) The vaccine has not yet been proved to be safe and may have long term side effects,

5) The vaccine is not necessary because the seriousness of infection is not proven to be serious.

6)The vaccine contains microscopic nano-chips that will allow Big Brother to monitor your every thought and movement,

And on and on……..

The one that really gets me is No.1 above - it is a breach of my civil rights!  Tell me, would you agree to allow someone to walk around in public spraying  deadly disease from a spray bottle, such as Anthrax?  If someone who was infected with Ebola, would you agree that they be allowed to walk around your local shopping centre if they wished to do so? Why not?    Because preventing them from doing so by criminalising their actions is a breach of their civil liberties?    Because you may become infected and it may kill you? Well listen up!  If you are carrying the Corona Virus I don’t want you walking around  my shopping centre where you may infect me!  In fact, if the government passed a law making it mandatory for you to get vaccinated and forbidding you to appear in any public place unless and until you have been vaccinated, that law would have my full support.  By passing me in the supermarket or in the street or in church where I may inhale your virus-laden breath puts my life in mortal danger, just the same as if you were walking around spraying bullets from a gun!   Wake up and get real!  Get vaccinated!  Now!  Once all of you idiots are vaccinated we may start on the road to normality.


21 December 2021

A Ghost of the Past


The above missive is from James Buchanan, Secretary of State in the cabinet of president James Knox Polk of the United States, to my ancestor, the reverend John (Jno) Serretta dated November 1st, 1846 in response to the previous request from John Serretta that United States of America passports be issued to himself and two fellow Spanish priests who wished to travel from New Orleans to Vera Cruz in Mexico, in order that they may join the mission of the order of St Vincent de Paul there.  As a state of war between the United States and Mexico existed at the time, this request could not be granted.  I wonder if the three priests ever managed to get to Mexico?  I have no further information to offer on that question.

There was a Guiseppe Serretta born around 1800, who married Marietta, Comtessa-Teresa, the daughter of the Comte Costa-Teresa of Spain.  They produced 5 children, none of whom were named Giovanni or Jao (Johnathan).

The family archive, in an entry in the diary of Ninio Serretta, has the following:

Domenico Serretta born in 1789, had three brothers Enrico, Luigi and Antonio.  Together they formed a Banking Co,  Banco Nazionale de Sicilia

Domenico’s son Giuseppe married Maria Costa.  Their children were (of those known):-

Lucio born 1843 married Maria Brusca born 1837 was a Brigadier and is direct ancestor of the South African branch of Family.

Cosimo born 1844, became a general.  

Luigi born 1845 married Guiseppina Scutta and immigrated to USA

Elvira born 1847 married Prof Cutrona of University of Palermo.

The Jno Serretta referred to in James Buchanan’s letter must be of the original Spanish family from which all of the Sicilian branch are descended.  The Luigi Serretta referred to above, as having emigrated to Spain, was only born in 1845.  However, one is left to presume that he had relations in Spain to pave his way.  

12 July 2021

The Nikon Z fc. Why I want one.

 I read an article on the new Nikon Z fc today which compared Nikon’s marketing strategy to that of Hasselblad in 2012 when Hasselblad introduced cameras that were no more than Sony models with cosmetic enhancements and high price tags, simply to retain some market share.  The writer was of the opinion that Nikon's introduction of the Z-fc was comparable and that the Z-fc was no more than a "gimmick."  This really irritated me.  Why?  Because the puppy who wrote the article is obviously one of the new breed of photographers who have no knowledge of the roots of photography and who have grown up with an iPhone and has missed the point of the Z fc completely.

The Z fc emulates a real camera.  Made of metal.  With dials and knobs.   Just like the legendary Nikon FE or FM series of film cameras.  It is not merely an electrical appliance like many of today’s cameras, made of polycarbonate and “engineering” plastic.  Nikon sold hundreds of thousands of FE’s and FM’s,  if not millions.  They were designed for the enthusiast market, but were used by professionals, enthusiasts and amateurs alike.  I “graduated” from a Nikon F to a F3 to a FM to a FE to a FE2 to a FM3.  The FM/FE was lighter, more compact and beautifully built.  It looked and felt like the Z fc.  Which is why I want one.  And which is why many, many photographers who once used an FM/FE will also want one.  I may not even use it that much, but it will give me a great deal of pleasure when I do.  The only people who won’t appreciate the Z fc are the geeks who want Alexa built into their camera in addition to the automatic scene modes and maybe a 'phone as well!

Nikon have nailed it.  Like the Df, the Z fc will become a classic in it’s own right.  It will sell far more units than the Df primarily because it is DX format and there are millions of DX format lenses out there, which can be used on the Z fc with an adaptor.   It will also be bought by those who are up-grading from a camera ‘phone to a real camera.  It will kill the market for the Z 50.  Now all Nikon need to do is equip it with an electronic viewfinder like the Sony A7 III.   Nikon, are you listening? 

London, July 2021 

7 April 2021


 Operation Noah - A recollection.

Two Kudu calves coming to drink while cautiously accepting my presence without fear.

In May of 1959, I was fortunate enough to accompany my father on one of his many trips to Kariba dam on the Zambesi river in what was then the border between Southern Rhodesia and Northern Rhodesia, today Zimbabwe and Zambia respectively.  My memories of that trip are fragmented and incomplete but what I do remember are probably the most important experiences, such as spending a day alone with Sir Rupert Fothergill on a boat out on the immature lake.  I write this before the memories that I do have are lost, and as a tribute to Sir Rupert, who invited me to join his team of game rangers when my schooling was complete, one of life's opportunities lost.  Rupert Fothergill was a visionary and dedicated to the conservation of the wildlife of Africa at a time when the very word "conservation" brought shivers of discomfort to bureaucrats everywhere, especially those who walked the department-of-public-works-green corridors of government in Bulawayo and at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Whitehall.  It was with a good deal of fortitude and foresight that the Federal government asked Rupert Fothergill to "take such measures as he thought necessary to save animals from the rising water"  of the slowly filling Kariba dam.    Fothergill's rescue effort became known as "Operation Noah."  In the end, Fothergill, two junior game rangers and some assistants from the then Game Department rescued over 7,000 animals from the rising waters of the newly formed Lake Kariba.  Rupert Fothergill was one of the giants of African wildlife conservation.

Kariba Dam in 1959, about 60% full


I don't remember which day of our six day visit to Kariba, I was asked if I would like to accompany Rupert Fothergill out onto the half-filled lake in one of the small boats, but it was a day I shall not forget.  Denis was busy filming on the dam construction site, and didn't need my help.  Rupert sat me in the bow of the little boat and pulled the cord to start the outboard  engine, and we powered our way from the landing below the dam wall to the opposite side of the still filling lake, a distance of about two miles.  Rupert proceeded to mark the location of newly formed islands on a map.  These were places where animals, reptiles and monkeys would be stranded and in need of rescue.  We had a couple of hessian sacks with us and Rupert used these to hold a couple of vervet monkeys that he fearlessly caught by the tail as they clung to the branches of trees that had become surrounded by water.  He then gripped them by the scruff of the neck and I held the sacks open while he deposited the monkeys inside and tied the sacks closed with a piece of fencing wire.  We freed the monkeys on the nearest shore.  This was my very small participation in what would become one of the biggest animal rescue undertakings ever known, Operation Noah.

The Operation Noah team setting out for a day's work

Rupert Fothergill and his team study a map on which newly formed islands have been marked.

"For five hours he had been swimming, and he was a long way from any land now.  And he became frightened.  The aching tiredness brought fear, for it was becoming almost impossible to keep his head up and the tip of his trunk clear of the water.  The tip had taken on a pale, almost bluish pallor.  And the old bull began to flounder, the confusion and fear amalgamated into panic.  His tusks were beginning to pull him down. That was how the game rangers found him, there in the spreading waters of this new man-made lake in the Zambezi Valley.  At first the old bull fought, smelling the smell of man, desperate against this new enemy as well as the water.  But he was exhausted and his struggles diminished.  The rangers improved their initial rope supports around the huge head, manoeuvring their launch so that the elephant was up beside the bow, tusks pointing ahead, away.  The trunk was held aloft so he could breathe.  And slowly, very slowly so as not to create too much of a bow wave, they guided the elephant back across the flooded country to dry land." - K. Meadows (1996) : Rupert Fothergill; Bridging a Conservation Era pg. 96

A ranger carries an antelope to a boat.

Antelope being checked by Rupert Fothergill

While we were out on the lake we were chatting about rifles and calibres for different types of game and to demonstrate the effect of trajectory to me, Rupert allowed me to fire a shot with his Wetherby .375 H&H Magnum big game rifle loaded with a 270gr bullet.   He told me to count off the seconds from the shot until I saw the splash of the bullet in the water.  I counted six seconds!  The recoil actually shunted the boat back a bit.  I had never fired a large caliber rifle before and I was suitably impressed, surprised and duly bruised.  I now realise how privileged and fortunate I was to have been able to spend time in the company of such a great man at such a momentous time and in such a beautiful place.  The innocence of youth precluded me from fully appreciating it at the time, but I cherish the memory now.  

A Rhinoceros is brought ashore for release 

 A Rhino being released on dry land. It has woken from the tranquilliser before the restraining ropes have been freed.

"Rupert Fothergill was an outstanding example of a breed of men who just got on with doing an honest constructive job, accepting as out of their control the manoeuvring and manipulating of power hungry politicians that have plagued mankind for centuries.  He was unfettered by academic superiors from the seat of higher learning.  He had many unpleasant tasks to carry out, such as the shooting of wounded and trouble making elephants, lions and buffalos.  Someone had to do these tasks...Many of the problems Rupert had to solve were caused by the policies of big companies 'developing' the country.  There was a strange lack of general understanding of wildlife, and its rightful place in a community."   K. Meadows (1996) : Rupert Fothergill; Bridging a Conservation Era.

One of the newly formed, ever diminishing, islands was dubbed "starvation island" and became one of the most difficult and dangerous locations of Operation Noah.  Almost 5000 acres in extent, it was too vast to accomplish a successful game drive and yet it held  200 buffalos, 11 rhinos, 4 elephants and 11 lions as well as countless other species.  Less than a half mile from shore, the elephants and lions were eventually chased off into the water and they swam to safety, with a little "herding" from the boats, but the rhinos and the rest had to be captured and removed.  Meadows describes in his book the risks that the rangers took to capture the starving animals:  "A few buffalos had been removed before the starvation crisis reached its peak.  Rupert's team...removed five adults.  Then they ran out of drugs for the darting equipment and there was no response from Salisbury as to when new supplies would be arriving.  So Rupert went after the buffalos with the Land Rover.  In the gloom of the dust pall, amidst the snorting, lumbering, desperate animals, they looked for targets.  As the younger animals slowed and dropped behind, the men would race from the vehicle and, bare handed, through force of numbers and in desperation at the plight of the game, wrestle the buffalo to the ground.  Then the creature would be trussed up and carried to the raft.  More often than not the bellows of the calves would bring angry mothers charging back and a free-for-all would ensue."

The team load a buck onto the capture boat 

Rupert checks the health of a rescued N'yala female buck before releasing it.

Kariba Dam in 1956

Eventually more than 6,000 animals were rescued during the years of Operation Noah - nearly 5,000 by Fothergill's team - including 1,866 impala, 585 warthog, 23 elephant and 6 scaly ant-eaters.  Fothergill and his colleagues went on to help establish the Southern Rhodesia Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management as one of the best conservation agencies in the world. 

Graham Serretta

London December 2015


Tim Abbott


Kirsten Drysdale