When Glasgow Music City Tours began our guest blog slot, one of Scotland’s very best feature writers, the award winning Peter Ross, graciously allowed us to post some of his writing about Glasgow. A six time winner at the Scottish Press Awards, Peter was recently shortlisted for the Orwell Prize 2015.
We’d like to share again Luigi Corvi, a wonderful portrait from Peter’s brilliant collection Daunderlust: Dispatches from Unreported Scotland. This piece has a particular relevance for Glasgow Music City Tours, as we’ll be sure to point out Luigi’s chippy, The Val D’Oro, on our Merchant City Music guided tour, which takes in the Merchant City, Barrowland Ballroom, and other points east. Our thanks also to Robert Davidson of Sandstone Press, for allowing us to use this essay. We heartily recommend Daunderlust and it’s available to buy here. It’s a fantastic read,it’s a fantastic listen, as an audiobook read by the great Robbie Coltrane. Over to Peter…
There’s a guy works down the chip shop you’d swear was Pavarotti. His name, in fact, is Luigi Corvi. He is 53 years old, weighs 25 stone, and runs Val D’Oro, an old-fashioned chippy at Glasgow Cross. A red neon sign in the window proclaims Val D’Oro “Home of the Great Glasgow Fish Tea”, but it has, arguably, a greater claim to fame. Corvi is an accomplished tenor and loves to sing. Regular customers have grown used to their black pudding suppers being served to the strains of Nessun Dorma.
“A lot of people come in and ask for a song,” says Corvi. “And they get a song. There are some very rowdy Celtic fans from Ireland. When they are over for games, they come in here and I sing them Meeting Of The Waters.”
By reputation, Val D’Oro is Glasgow’s oldest chippy, located since 1875 on the vague boundary where town centre blurs into east end. Sited between a pub and a hairdresser’s, saloon and salon, its gold and red frontage locates it aesthetically in the mid-20th century.
On the exterior wall above the entrance is a large work by the artist David Adam, Corvi’s brother-in-law, depicting Christ being crucified. It was put there in honour of the Pope’s visit. Corvi is in the picture, holding a fish supper, and so is his most regular customer, Mary Paterson, who is in her nineties and has been eating at Val D’Oro for at least seventy years. It is very much a Glaswegian crucifixion. Christ, leaning out from the cross, is being offered a restorative swig of Irn-Bru.
Inside, the wood and Formica tables and booths date back to 1950. The mirrored tiles on the pillars are a little chipped. The floor, which was apparently laid by Mario Lanza’s cousin, “old Mr Cocozza”, has seen better days. “You don’t think it got like this by accident, do you?” says Corvi. “Fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty years of neglect. We had to work hard to get it looking like this.”
In fact, he is proud of Val D’Oro’s authenticity, and so he should be. This is a real Glaswegian place. He is considering having the paint removed from the walls to expose, at the back of the seating area, the initials and love hearts carved into the wood by generations of “winchin’ couples”. It would be a sort of Glasgow Lascaux.
The Corvi family have owned Val D’Oro since 1938, before which it was called The Swiss Restaurant and belonged to the Beltramis, a name that still rings out in the city thanks to Joe Beltrami’s career as a criminal defence lawyer. Corvi is proud of the long association with Val D’Oro, and points his kin out among the many photographs on the walls. “That’s my Uncle Guido on the day he came back from the war. That’s my father’s cousin Pierino who met his girl here in the shop. And that’s Frank Sinatra, a member of everyone’s family.”
Corvi, known to familiars as Gee-gee, is wearing a yellow polo shirt and white apron. So neatly does he slot into the space between counter and shelves that Kath, a friendly middle-aged woman who is helping out this Friday lunchtime, struggles to squeeze by on her way to the serve customers. His gold bracelet rattles on the silver counter-top as he talks, especially when he slaps down his palm to emphasise points. He is vehement and verbose.
My first question is about his forthcoming debut single, a spoof of the Go Compare adverts. His reply lasts 28 minutes, and takes in topics including Catholicism, prejudice against fat people, Robert Burns, Scottish independence, Islamic terrorism, Roman theology, Victorian architecture (“How can you not think of God when you look at the Forth Bridge?”) and – inevitably – the price of fish.
He also gives me a song, the first of a few I’ll hear over the next hours. Corvi performs part of Gaetana Donizetti’s 1832 opera L’elisir d’amore. As he sings, he closes his eyes, a thumb and finger pinched together, his left hand moving gently through air heavy with hot oil. All the while, the business of the shop continues, the sounds of customers ordering and being served mingling with that of the love song. The total effect is that of a bathetic duet.
“Adina, credimi, te ne scongiuro,” sings Corvi.
“Small fish supper, please,” a customer says to Kath.
“Non puoi sposarlo … te ne assicuro.”
“Would you like salt and vinegar?”
“Aspetta ancora … un giorno solo …”
“There’s your fish. Your haggis is just coming.”
“ … un breve giorno … io so perch.”
“And ten Mayfair please, hen.”
Corvi, who is unmarried, is passionate about opera. His mother, Anna-Maria, played it constantly in the house when her three children were growing up. She is still glamorous at 78, going by the photographs Corvi has on his phone, and seems to have always been an extrovert. She was a Communist in Italy but moved from Salerno to Scotland after the war. In Glasgow, she and Corvi’s late father, Peter, were introduced by a matchmaker called Mr Valenti.
Young Luigi would play in the shop as a child. By the time he was twelve he was working here every weekend without expectation of pay. It seems to have been a close, strict family upbringing; he didn’t spend a single night away from his parents until he was 21. Work was the priority, but it wasn’t a narrow life. The family home in King’s Park was full of books. As a child, Corvi read Dante’s Divine Comedy and Gibbon’s Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire. The Broons annual seems not to have been on the agenda.
It was a cultured life, but pragmatic, too. It’s surely impossible to run a chippy in that particular part of Glasgow without being conversant with the realities of existence. Corvi’s grandfather, after whom he is named, responded to a gangster demanding protection money with a threat of his own – a brandished axe-handle. Peter Corvi used a vinegar bottle to see off a hoodlum who considered himself entitled to a free fish supper. Luigi Corvi, too, is no pushover. He once sat upon two neds who were threatening his staff, holding them immobile till the police arrived. That incident might be worthy of an opera itself – perhaps La Chaviata.
At one point while I’m there, a young man with short brown hair and a blue hooded tracksuit comes into Val D’Oro. He seems to be on edge, keeps looking out the window, and makes no attempt to order food.
“Awright, big man?” he says to Corvi in that weirdly camp nasal voice peculiar to Glasgow’s fighting classes. He’s ducked in here, he admits, to elude his pursuers. “Just wee boys. Fourteen, fifteen year auld. But when there’s three o’ them and they’ve goat blades, whit can ye dae?”
Corvi grants him sanctuary. After five minutes he goes on his way. Corvi returns to telling me about the time he saw La Bohme in Torre del Lago.
He trained as a singer for a time at the RSAMD and later studied opera in Italy under the tutelage of the Italian tenor Carlo Bergonzi. Returning to Glasgow, he was shocked to find his father had lost a great deal of weight. It was cancer. Peter Corvi died in 1992. His portrait takes pride of place in Val D’Oro. Beneath it is the epitaph – “A life’s work”.
Luigi had prospects back then. He’d been invited to audition for Covent Garden, but couldn’t attend as his father was dying. After the death, he felt a responsibility to keep the family business going, to swap craft for graft. It wasn’t a chore, it was a duty. It was the way things were. So he more or less gave up all thoughts of a professional career as a singer. Arias behind the fryer – that was going to be as far as it went.
Then, quite recently, one of his impromptu performances was heard by the songwriting and production duo, Iain and David Sim. The plan now is to make an album and try to get a record deal. Corvi’s profile is rising. He has been giving concerts, and appears as himself in the Scottish film, Donkeys. He does not seem especially ambitious, but would love to sing with Susan Boyle, whose voice he considers “primeval”.
His own voice is quite something. The jars of beetroot and pickled onions fairly rattle when he gives Lohengrin laldy. More moving, though, is when he translates Stefano Donaudy’s Vaghissima sembianza into English, keen I appreciate the words. Suddenly, he begins to cry.
“Sorry,” he says, wiping the tears with his apron. “You must think I’m some sort of nut. These songs are so beautiful that talking about them is more difficult than actually singing them.”
It’s rare in life that you meet someone as openly emotional as Luigi Corvi. He sits there behind the counter, a half-pizza visible through the glass glowing like the setting sun, and it’s clear that for him song is solace. There’s joy in his face when he performs that just isn’t there at other times. I want to ask him a hundred things. Is he lonely? What does it feel like inside when he sings? But first there’s a customer with an important question of her own. “Huv ye no’ goat nae fish, naw?”
Later, at home, I can smell Val D’Oro on my clothes. But what truly lingers is the sound of the chip shop owner’s voice and the glimpse he gave of his soul.