Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

03 October 2009

Capo di Tutti Polizia di Castelnuovo di Garfagnana?

Mounted on a wall across the piazza of Castelnuovo a fat, street-stained, bronze cherub gazes benignly over the shoppers. Ideally, to photograph him, I should have the camera on the tripod but that’s impossible with the amount of passing traffic so I walk out to where the pedestrians end and the traffic begins and as I raise the camera a small blue Alfa-Romeo with ‘Polizia’ on its side stops beside me, blocking the traffic. I lower the camera and look at the driver, a young policeman who gives me a knowing half smile as, from the passenger’s seat, a stout officer emerges. He is gorgeous; a cockerel in blue with scarlet trim adorned by shiny buttons, medal ribbons and embroidered badges. In one hand he carries a pair of white kid gloves which he slaps across the palm of the other as he approaches.

‘Buon giorno’, I greet him brightly and wanting to get in first. ‘Parle Inglese? No parlo bene Italia…’

‘No parlo Inglese.’ he shakes his head, but he extends a hand to me and vigorously pumps mine. There ensues a bizarre exchange in my execrable Italian and a mutual waving of hands.

I point at the statue and wave my camera: ‘Cherubini. Statua. I photograph…

‘Si - bella, bella.’

He wants to know where I am from.

‘La Nuova Zelanda?’ he muses, his perfectly trimmed eyebrows raised in slight surprise: then he nods knowledgeably. I get the impression he has no idea where New Zealand is.

Not English: non Inglesi,’ I say pointing to myself, ‘In la Nuova Zelanda per multo anni, many years. Da Londra a la Nuova Zelanda in 1960…

I’m conscious that my word endings are all over the show but he seems to understand, even though I have do 1960 in the air with a finger.

He is so splendid that I feel I should throw a question back at him. Pointing at him I say, ‘Capo di tutti polizia di Castelnuovo di Garfagnana?’ (Which I think may come out as ‘Are you the chief of police..?’).
His chest expands a little more, the shoulders are squarer, he confirms that he is, indeed, the head man. I take a step back and bow my head in deference whereupon he raises me from my humble position by shoving his hand in mine yet again and shaking madly.

Meanwhile the traffic is held up in a line that stretches across the square and around the walls of the castle and I can see cars all the way up the hill in the other direction. Not a horn has been sounded. He is either oblivious to the traffic or enjoying his power for he continues the conversation to ask where I am staying. I manage to get across that my wife (mi moglie) and I are staying with ‘la sorella di mi moglie’ (the sister of my wife - I can’t do ‘sister-in-law’ in Italian) at Barga.

He wants to know where in Barga.


‘Ah, si, Gragnana.’ He asks with whom.

‘Signor e signora Testa.’ At ‘Testa’ he assumes they are Italian.

‘No - Inglesi, da Londra,’ and I throw in ‘Cockfosters… Barnet’ just for the hell of it.

‘Gragnana … Cockfesters … Barrrrnet.’ Again his nods importantly as if all three locations were within his manor.

Some of the vehicles having now turned off their engines, and the crowd is becoming restless as if the arrest is long overdue, but he shakes my hand for the last time, beams broadly, wishes me ‘Buona fortuna, signor Don’, climbs into the Alfa, wiggles a finger in a circle in the air and points ahead like a cavalry officer, ‘Andiamo’, upon which they advance.

I return to the side of the square to appraising stares: who is this straniero that he has so much influence with the capo di tutti polizia di Castelnuovo di Garfagnana?

From ‘Antipasto’
random samplings from various writings made over a few years of visits to a ‘New Zealander’s Italy



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By Don Donovan

About Me

My photo

Don Donovan: Biography

I was born on 20 January 1933, nine days before Hitler came to power in Germany, I grew up in south London. Although evacuated during the phoney war and the quieter times I lived in and out of air raid shelters during the blitz and experienced both V1 and V2 attacks on London. Left grammar school in 1948 aged 15 substantially undereducated. I wanted to go to art school but because of family ‘poverty’ joined a commercial art studio in the West End. I was, thereafter, variously a messenger boy, commercial artist and typographer. I was in the Royal Air Force from 1951 to 1953 when the only useful thing I did was to take part in King George VI’s funeral parade.

In 1955 I married Patricia O’Donnell, a RADA graduate, at that time playing opposite Derek Nimmo, they were juvenile leads in a touring repertory company. He went on to great success because he had a funny voice.

We came to New Zealand in 1960 where I worked in advertising. At length I became managing director of one of the companies of whose holding company (the largest domestic advertising complex in New Zealand) I was also a proprietor and shareholder. I left the industry in 1990 when my company was bought out by American interests. My timing was brilliant, at that point my first book had been published and the next was on its way.

We have two daughters and four grand-children.

Now, apart from writing, I function as a self-educated grumpy old man.

Books & Writings

‘New Zealand Odyssey’, with Euan Sarginson, Heinemann-Reed, 1989.

‘One Man’s Heart Attack’, New House, 1990. (A special edition of this book was purchased by CIBA-Geigy for distribution to NZ doctors).

‘Open 7 Days’, Random Century, October 1991.

‘The Good Old Kiwi Pub’ by Saint Publishing in 1995 followed by:
‘New Zealand House & Cottage’ in 1997. (Saint Publishing have also published calendars for the years 1994 to 2004 using my watercolour illustrations).

‘The Wastings’, my first novel was published in July 1999 by Hazard Press. Although an international subject it had very limited distribution, only in New Zealand, and the rights have reverted to me. (Colin Dexter read 'The Wastings' and wrote to me: 'I enjoyed and admired "The Wastings"... a beautifully written work... a splendid debut in crime fiction... More please!'.)

Also the texts of photographic books:
‘Colourful New Zealand’
‘New Zealand in Colour’
‘Top of the South’
‘Above Auckland’
‘Hauraki Gulf Destinations’
‘Bay of Plenty’
and a compilation of photographs and quotations titled ‘Anzac Memories’ 2004 all published by New Holland.

My written and illustrated book, ‘Country Churches of New Zealand’ was published in October 2002 by New Holland, who also published ‘Rural New Zealand’ 2004 (photographs and text), and a series of four humorous books of photographs and quotations in 2004 and 2005 titled ‘Woolly Wisdom’, ‘Chewing the Cud’, ‘Fowl Play’, and ‘Pig Tales’. My most recent book was published in August 2006 by New Holland, titled ‘Political Animals’.

Over the years I have written for NZ Herald, Heritage Magazine, Next Magazine and various local and overseas travel and general interest media.