In 1907, my grandfather Charlie Payne travelled to Genoa to take up a job as a stenographer (shorthand clerk) with the American Express Company. During his time in this Italian maritime and financial centre he kept a diary which provides a commentary on his daily life and experiences and the attitudes of an Edwardian Englishman abroad.
The following is an atmospheric diary entry describing Charlie’s late-night wanderings around Genoa in 1907, after an evening out with work colleagues.
“Spent the evening with Wearmouth and Vista at the Giardino and remained chatting with Vista in the Puerto Rico until past midnight then he went home but I, still feeling very sleepless, decided to remain out and have a look at Genoa during the night.
I remained in the Piazza Corvetto until the trams stopped (1 a.m.) and then wended my way to the sea along Via Corsica. It was a moonlit night and very silent, very few people being about. I remained for about ½ hour gazing out at sea at the City and Monte Facie and at the Lanterna whose light lit up the whole place every alternate minute. There is something very impressive gazing down on a City in the “sma’ wee hours”, especially such a one as Genoa.
I then walked along by the sea for ½ hour without meeting a soul and the only sounds to be heard were the moaning of the sea and the echo of my own footsteps. I was very glad when at one of the gates I was greeted by a sentry with “Buona Serra Signor”. It was now 2-30 a.m. and I was in the roughest part of the City. I began to wish I was not alone. But I met with no untoward adventure. Three or four gangs of drunken sailors singing and shouting and of course various other inevitable shady characters of the night – but the police here are in twos and armed with swords and revolvers and besides Genoa is on the whole a very law-abiding place. So on I went – not feeling a bit tired – but interested in everything I saw. As in London the cabs were still running – but one by one they fell away.
At 3 o’clock I found myself near the Stazione Principe, so decided to see what was doing there. There were a good number of poor people waiting for the cheap trains – sleeping on the seats. One little group especially caught my eye. On the seat was the wife fast asleep with her husband dozing – near by, on a pile of clothing made up in a bundle was a little girl about 12 fast asleep with a little dog in her arms, while playing round about was a little boy about 5 – wide awake. They had all their belongings with them done up in various bundles and underneath the seat was a canary in a cage. I sat on a seat just by the grand statue of Christopher Columbus, smoking and having a rest, for I had walked quite 4 miles, until about 3.30 a.m. When the woman awoke and aroused the others – they gathered up their bundles, dog, canary and all and I watched them disappear in the station. Off to England, I supposed.
There were several such groups. There were also other groups I saw – groups of poor, starving, homeless men, women and children asleep on every possible place where they could lie unmolested till the morning. On the pedestals of the various statues, in doorways and arches and seats. The police do not interfere with them for there are too many and no other place for them to go.
Leaving the station I walked down the Via Balbi, passed the Royal Palace into the Piazza Nunziata (where the American Express Company Office is), passed the Hotel Victoria where I spent my first night here. What a busy scene I ran into here, for it is the Covent Garden of Genoa. Mule-carts loaded with greenstuff, peaches, plums, pears, apples, tomatoes, beans etc etc. Labourers drinking wine and hot coffee – women too – working as hard as the men at unloading the carts and fixing up the stalls, mules and donkeys braying and various other noises. I watched them all for a long time and then took my way up some dirty side streets, through some beautiful gardens and so out on to the Circorvallazione where I took a seat and had a slight doze till about 4-30. I was roused by one of the night watch, banging his stick at every street corner as is the custom here. The first faint streak of dawn broke over the sea, the air was fresh, so I got up and walked on watching the sun gradually come up out of the sea.
It was rather a cloudy dawn otherwise I should have gone up into the hills to watch it. It got rapidly light until about 5 o’clock when the Electric Lights went out, also the Lanterna, birds started chirping, various alarm clocks went off and sleepy workmen made their way along. I felt sleepy too, so made my way home where I arrived at 6 o’clock and not all the noises of waking Genoa could keep me awake.”