GUIDO PORCIANI, FISH FRYER, COMMUNITY ACTIVIST, SOCIAL HISTORIAN
Born: Dumbarton, March 13, 1931
Died: Vale of Leven, September 13, 2019
Guido Porciani, fish fryer in the old Italian immigrant tradition, mature university student, and ‘Son of the Rock’ has died. He was aged 88.
His grandfather, Alfredo Porciani, settled in Dumbarton in 1905 and established a business as a fish fryer. His son Peter and wife followed in 1907 and continued with the well-known family business. Peter sold fish and chips around Dumbarton from a horse drawn cart and the family later graduated to shops in Poindfauld Terrace, College Street (The Vennel) and Hawthornhill Road in Castlehill.
Renata, his mother was the youngest daughter of the Zambonini clan who had settled in Lanarkshire and like so many Scots/Italians came from the Barga area of Tuscany. Guido was the first born of five children, Rafaello (Ralph), Gina, Maria and Carla. They grew up in a traditional extended Italian family with his cousins, the Dimanna family.
His childhood was not entirely happy. Just after Italy entered the war Guido came home from the cinema one evening with his mother and brother to find his father and grandfather being taken away to be interned on the Isle of Man. Additionally, his mother, now classified as an enemy alien, was forced to leave Dumbarton as this was a restricted military zone.
An anecdote from this time concerned Guido and his younger brother Ralph. They set about having a great a time often ignoring calls from their ‘Nonna’ who could only speak Italian. In fact one day after calling for them to come home – “vieni su” – for hours, a neighbour suddenly appeared grabbed them both and said “right you two, vieni su right the noo“. Guido often joked that by the end of the war half the Vennel could speak Italian.
However, it was the actions of his head teacher, Mr McSherry, that left a lasting impression on the young Guido – apparently Mr McSherry called the whole school community to assembly asking all of the Italian children to be kept in a class separately. During assembly he issued a stark warning: “these are our children, they have done nothing wrong and we need to look after them”.
He attended both St Patrick’s Primary and Secondary schools and was an outstanding scholar in line to be the dux of the school when the unfortunate early death of his father curtailed his education at age 16. His mother had been left to bring up five children and also manage the family business. One day Guido appeared home at lunchtime declaring that he wasn’t going back to school. Not for the first time in his life he made a tremendous sacrifice and gave up his education to help bring up his own siblings.
Guido was an accomplished accordion player. A family anecdote from the early 1950s concerns Guido and his brother, who appeared together at a St Patrick’s Boys Guild talent show in the Burgh Hall. Unfortunately, Guido started in the wrong key and both brothers started shouting in Italian and fighting with each other. The audience burst out laughing as they thought it was a comedy act, and both brothers were asked to come back again and perform their act.
Passionate about opera and a keen member of Dumbarton operatic society, Guido often performed in many of their productions. He loved to tell the story about the time he and a few friends from Dumbarton hitchhiked to Milan to hear their old neighbour, David Ward, now a famous opera singer, sing at the Scala in Milan. Davey was amazed to see them when they surprised him at the stage door on opening night and proceeded to take them to celebratory parties all over Milan.
Another memorable night at the opera was when Guido accompanied Charlie Casci, owner of a café in Dumbarton, to hear the great Italian opera singer, Gigli, when he performed in Glasgow. Charlie was an old Italian exile, whom many considered the quietest man on earth. He so seldom spoke a word that his customers believed he had no English. Charlie became so impassioned though by what was happening on stage that he stood up and broke into song during the performance.
A favourite story involves his friend, Alastair Wright, as a bet they tried to hitch hike to Paris in just two days. Stopping off at a roadside café, when some shady looking characters came in and started eyeing up their back packs …and their wallets. A large, Russian-looking Englishman helpfully advised them to get out of the place quickly as the group was plotting to rob them – and they did so smartly by a rear window. That man turned out to be none other than the film star, Peter Ustinov, to whom Guido and Alastair were forever grateful.
Guido completed his National Service and served in the Intelligence Corps and in later life proudly wore a blazer with the regimental badge on it.
He married local girl Monica MacLean, in 1960 and together they went on to have six children. For most of their married life they ran the Fish and Chip shop in Castlehill, in the West end of Dumbarton, where the entire community benefited from his commitment to the local area.
Guido encouraged youth football in Dumbarton, selling tickets for the Sons Lottery at their old Boghead ground, and he was instrumental in setting up the amateur Sunday Football League and in doing so the Porciani Cup, which he sponsored for about 20 years. Guido’s son, Mark said: “That shop was a shining example of what happens when you build a housing estate without proper amenities. His shop was a community hub”.
At the request of the community Guido’s good work was recognised by Dumbarton Town Council when the shop closed in 1990 and a civic reception was given in his honour. That civic reception was a night to remember for the Porcianis, who have had many family gatherings and parties during the near 30 years of his retirement.
The Catholic faith played a large and important part in Guido’s life. For over five decades he was a minister of welcome at St Patrick’s in Dumbarton and a representative on the Archdiocesan Committee. He was also an ecumenist who was a member of Churches Together.
Son Mark said: “Thanks to Dad we are very good at repairing hymn books. The church was struggling to afford new books in early 2000s, so Dad would bring the damaged ones home and repair them.”
He contributed to the wider community of Dumbarton playing an active role in many local committees. He was Chairman of Willox Park Old People’s Committee for many years and helped to establish Ben View in Strathleven Place as a community resource.
However, more significantly he was a leading member of the ‘Common Cause’, a campaign group that fought to save Dumbarton Common being given over as a site for a new Sheriff Court. This landmark legal win to save the Dumbarton Common from development was described in the Glasgow Herald at the time as “David beats council Goliath as judge rules in favour of preserving Dumbarton Common”.
Guido’s education at the university of life had never satisfied him though, and retirement gave him the opportunity to realise his life-long dream to study at a real university, the University of Strathclyde. He chose Italian and Scottish History and made a lasting impression on his lecturers gaining a BA in Social Sciences.
Guido’s ill health in later life never held him back. To help with his mental faculty, he taught himself to read music. Mark said: “In the first year or two of his illness Dad lost himself in books. His last trip to Glasgow involved going to Saint Paul’s bookshop to buy a large print bible. He read it daily until recently.”
Guido Porciani, who died peacefully at Balquidder nursing home in Alexandria, is survived by his wife, Monica and children, Monica, Ralph, Rhona, Clare, Nicola and Mark; and thirteen grandchildren.