‘This reissue coincides with the seventieth anniversary of the Italian Armistice – in short, the surrender of Italy to the Allied Forces on 8 September 1943 and the beginning of the long, uncertain and torturous path towards the total liberation of Italy and Europe from Fascism. It coincides also with Captain Stuart Hood’s escape on 9 September from one of the 72 P.O.W camps in Italy – the P.G.49, based in the village of Fontanellato di Parma. Over four hundred officers, captured in the African desert, left the converted orphanage in Fontanellato – the Italian camp commander, who aided the escape, was sent to a concentration camp in Germany.
The armistice was followed by a mass-escape of prisoners-of-war. Some historians describe it as ‘the greatest mass-escape in history.’ Of a total population of some 80,000 prisoners-of-war in Italian hands, approximately 50,000 had the chance to leave their camps. They came from a variety of nationalities and backgrounds. Only one in four of those who emerged from the camps would escape recapture… To a large extent the peasant population supported and sustained the floating population of escapees and guerrilla fighters. This was a crucial alliance which benefited both parties but which had many risks attached to it. Captain Edward Mumford and Captain Stuart Hood decided to embark together on a long walk that took them over the Emilian Apennines into Tuscany. They always relied on this alliance for their survival. Along the way they encountered partisan and guerrilla fighters. At times they turned into such fighters themselves…The story of escape and survival told in PEBBLES FROM MY SKULL is not an anthropological description of peasant life in the strict sense of the term. It is not a chronological account of the adventures of an escapee turned (at times) guerrilla fighter, although it has occasional elements of same. No diaries were kept and therefore the recollections could not be cross-referenced. No interviews were carried out and so the data could not be compared or verified…
Stuart Hood made several attempts to write a book about his time in Italy. All attempts, in his view, failed. Finally, and following a lengthy course of psychoanalysis, the key existential question became apparent: ‘Why did it take me from the 8 September 1943 to 15 August 1944 to cross the line, reassume my identity, step back out of limbo?’ The search for answers allowed him to reassess meaningfully his time as an escapee, to understand better the nature of the experience he went through and the complexities – methodological and philosophical – of writing a piece of autobiographical work. Thus in the words of the Hutchinson editors, ‘His book is no blood-and-thunder record of adventure. It is contemplative reflection.’
Stuart Hood died in January 2011. The media studies academic Brian Winston wrote a fine obituary for him in the Guardian, which in turn spurred this felt tribute from a former colleague, Peter Lewis, who refers to ‘the attractive mystery that was Stuart Hood.’ Any assessment of Hood’s career outline would suggest that he was a man who contained multitudes. Born in Scotland in 1915, he enlisted in the British Army in 1940. After the tumultuous events remembered in Pebbles From My Skull he joined the BBC, becoming head of the World Service and eventually Controller of TV Programmes. He authored novels and books about mass media, and was also a distinguished translator of European literature. This 2002 interview with Hood by Stefan Howald will tell you much about a man of truly plenary consciousness.
The subject of the Italian Resistance, meanwhile, remains alive to historical inquiry, if prone still to controversy inside and out of Italy, since it cannot be surgically detached from an assessment of Mussolini and Italian Fascism, and the elements of the story that testify most clearly to the qualities of the human spirit have also, here and there, been elevated to the status of myth. A tangle of thorns, then, perhaps. But if you come newly to this history, or simply wish for a refresher, an interesting place to start is the recent BBC Radio 4 documentary ‘The Italian Freedom Trail’, presented by Edward Stourton. You can listen on BBC iPlayer here.