Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Graham Reid: Godfather you couldn't refuse

This may seem unusual - especially as I was born in Scotland - but it is true: my godfather was Italian.

And I say that hoping never to be troubled again by pesky creditors or door-to-door religious groups.

When I was born, my parents, who weren't especially religious, had me baptised and asked their good friend Dominic Valente - who we always called Uncle Dom - to be my godfather. I guess he was made an offer he couldn't refuse.

So here I am with an Italian godfather. Does that make me a made man?

Among other business interests, Uncle Dom had a cafe-cum-icecream parlour on Edinburgh's Princes St until the late 50s.

I am told he was well known and much respected. There is certainly a seat on the opposite side of the street donated by local businessmen in his honour.

My mum and dad loved him for his flamboyance and generosity, and his wife Aunty Meg for all kinds of reasons, not the least her ability to punctuate sentences with unintentional profanity and occasional lapses into hilariously inept attempts at sophistication.

"Was you really?" was one of her more famous clangers ... and I have edited out the profanity.

Stories about Uncle Dom were legion in our family, like the time he put signs up in a factory he owned which read: "If you are reading this you aren't working hard enough."

He didn't like to take time out from work, and his idea of exercise was to walk to the cinema next door and have a cigarette while watching a movie, as you could do in those days.

When my dad suggested this would kill him, Uncle Dom's reply was: "Maybe, but I'll be the richest man in the cemetery."

Dad later said he probably was.

Recently I met my two sisters in Singapore and for some reason - all that distance and time from the Scotland of our childhood - Uncle Dom came up and we swapped stories.

Like how - and we wondered why - he had bought the Shah of Iran's car which was bullet-proof and could hold an armed bodyguard in the boot.

And how he and a friend had some money-laundering scheme which involved boxes of bills to be smuggled to the States, which one of his cronies hid in an attic where they were eaten by mice.

And how he never did anything to a car but put petrol in it and would sell it after a year, believing that no one cared about the condition or cleanliness of a car, only the model.

There was a dark side to Uncle Dom which was seldom spoken about, but I remember my father being enraged by something he did to his employees who threatened to go on strike if he didn't pay them more. He said he would beat them to it and he would go on strike himself.

He shut out the workers until they came begging to have their jobs back.

Then there was the famous story: one day as a prank someone hung a pair of women's panties in the back window of his car parked outside his home.

He saw them, told Aunty Meg to pack their bags and that very day they left the house, abandoned the car and never went back. He never knew or cared about what happened to the car.

We exchanged these funny and slightly odd stories about my godfather that day in Singapore. It was as if a handbrake had been pulled on our lives as we remembered Uncle Dom and Aunty Meg, and an Edinburgh which has long since passed into our memories.

A week later I was remembering them as I sat in Malone's Irish pub in Brisbane killing time before I flew home.

I scribbled these notes beneath an old clock and a sign which read: "Time is a great storyteller."

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