IT IS CHILLY in Florence when we get off the fast train up from Rome. The calories from the rushed breakfast, the café latte in the dining car as the sere landscape whizzed by, are fast wearing off as our taxi crosses the river and winds through the narrow lanes of the old San Frediano district of artisan workshops.
In Via Camaldoli, we find a plain two-storey shopfront that bears the nameplate Associazione Culturale Arte e Gastronomia Orientale. Since 1983, the association has provided cooking classes in English and Italian, teaching locals the finer points of Italian and Asian cooking.
The door is opened by a woman of nearly seventy-seven with the fine features of a great beauty, the hair now grey, recognisable from the photographs of a bygone era in a far-off land of sweeping rivers, layers of blue mountains and paddy fields. She is wearing an ankle-length tight woollen skirt in a tartan pattern, with a blue cashmere top.
‘It's tartan in your honour,' June Rose Bellamy, also known as Yadana Nat Mai, says with a huge smile. ‘I like to dress in Burmese style but you've got
to face it, it's cold here!' It's obviously warm, but also quite oriental in effect, a winter version of the figure-hugging sarong and blouse of South-East Asia.
We walk in, past drawings of horses – the passion of her father, an Australian bookmaker – and Asian artefacts; past framed formal portraits in black-and-white and sepia of Asian people in lavish formal dress, and new colour photos of a village aid project in Burma; and past a big table set for lunch, with an enticing orange flan heavy with a luscious-looking sauce waiting on a floral dish in the middle.
We sit in a sofa and armchair under the portraits. But Bellamy is constantly breaking off to disappear into the kitchen. Eventually we follow, into a large space of grey marble chopping surfaces, hanging pots and pans, and a huge stainless-steel cooking range, and settle around the kitchen table.
‘Have you tasted really good Tuscan new oil?' Bellamy asks. ‘This one comes from the house of a friend of mine, and I would say it's this year's very best.' Slices of bread are brought toasted on a metal grid over a gas burner – ‘You never get a toaster that gives you a taste of the flame' – and we dip into a dish of very light green oil.
It tastes light, a little grassy. ‘It comes from higher up in the hills, and it's made by a fanatic. He even removes the stone from the olive: it is made from just the pulp, and his home growth is of only one type of olive. To be doing it properly you should be tasting without the bread, just off a spoon, but I won't put you through that. When I tasted it, I almost lost a friend, because I said that it wasn't olive-y. It's very good, but I think it's got something to do with removing the stone. Maybe that was in my head. It's very light.'
IN MANDALAY BURMA of the nineteenth century, the scholarly and pious Mindon was made king in 1853 with the help of his warrior brother Kanaung Min, to start last-minute reforms to stave off the encroaching European powers, as the legendary King Mongkut was doing in neighbouring Siam. But in 1866 Kanaung Min was killed in a bloody takeover attempt by Mindon's own sons. The Prince of Limbin, a son of Kanaung Min, was smuggled to safety.
By 1885, as British steamboats packed with soldiers came up the Irrawaddy to storm the vast Mandalay fort-palace, depose the last king and exile him to India, the Limbin prince had grown up and become the figurehead of a rebellious confederacy of Shan princes, who turned from fighting the Burmese to opposing the British. In 1887, the prince was forced to surrender when the Shans did a deal with the British, and he too was exiled.
One of his daughters, Princess Ma Lat – June Rose Bellamy's mother – was born in Calcutta in 1894, and later attended high school in Allahabad, mixing in high society. She met the German crown prince, the future Kaiser Wilhelm, who thought her the most striking woman he encountered on his Asian tour. She was betrothed to the young ruler of Sikkim, but he was poisoned eight days before their wedding. Further attempts to arrange a marriage were abandoned. Small and exquisite, with a will of steel, the princess was a free spirit whom nobody liked to counter.
A NEW OIL is produced. ‘This I find a typically good oil: it comes from this area, a little high; it has more body,' Bellamy says. ‘The previous one was super-delicate; you tend to get lost. You couldn't possibly cook with it. Even if you used it in a salad or something like that, it would get lost in the food. To me, this is Tuscany. It's not for sale; they only make enough for the house, and they give a bottle to friends; it's very smooth, a nice artichoke taste.' It is indeed very flavoursome, without the sharpness that catches the back of the throat with most olive oils.
As British guns crushed Burmese independence, Herbert Bellamy, born in 1878 to English migrants, was growing up in Victoria. He ranged across the goldfields as far as Kalgoorlie, making and losing money, augmenting his funds from wins in professional sprint races and organising boxing bouts. He tried running sheep but couldn't stand the smell of them, and concentrated instead on his racehorses. After excursions to London and France, Bellamy became a fixture on an Asian circuit between Bombay, Calcutta and Batavia (Jakarta), as both breeder and bookmaker.
One day he was chatting with the Sultan of Johore in Malaya, a friend with a common interest in dog fighting. ‘Y'know, Bellamy, you should go to Burma,' said the sultan. ‘It's an interesting country. Maybe you could do something about horses there.' Bellamy went, fell in love with the country and settled at the Rangoon racecourse.
After World War I, the Limbin prince was allowed to return to Burma and his extensive family settled in Rangoon. They were anachronisms in a booming new state of mines, rice exports, railways and the famous steamboats of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company. Ma Lat attended the races and went to place a bet, where she met the expat Australian: the attraction was instant.
Maurice Collis, a colonial judge and author, wrote in his 1938 book Trials in Burma of receiving a call from Ma Lat in 1928. ‘She sat on the sofa, a beautiful woman, in a blue silk skirt and a jacket of white lawn, her complexion corn-coloured, her eyes large and brilliant, and with exquisite hands.' She asked him to wed her and Bellamy.
The marriage took place on 18 October at 4.48 pm, a time fixed as auspicious by an astrologer. ‘She was dressed reminiscent of the court of Mandalay in a royal hta-mein of oyster-coloured silk set with silver diamante; her hair, in the loose tail style, was charged with orchids and there were pearls winding at her throat and breast. She came forward slowly, waving a white fan, with a look of dignity and emotion on her face. Mr Bellamy followed in a morning coat. The ceremony of civil marriage is exceedingly bald, for it consists of hardly more than the taking of oaths. When some documents are signed it is all over. On this occasion its abruptness seemed almost rude. I declared them married and took Ma Lat's hand. The occasion seemed to be strange and disturbing. Had the rape of Mandalay ended in this?'
BELLAMY BRINGS ANOTHER dish of dark brown paste, made by her pupils. ‘Now this is 110 per cent Florentine, Tuscan,' she says. ‘It's made from chicken livers. Traditionally it should be made from the spleen, but you try to get an American tourist to stand there and get blood out of the spleen. So we do it with the liver. This is country food, what you serve before the meal. There is not a single part of the animal which is not used.' She brings out a bottle of Il Principe pinot nero, from a vineyard named after Machiavelli.
June Rose was born in 1932, and given the name Yadana Nat Mai (Goddess of the Nine Jewels) as well as her English one. She began an idyllic childhood between the two cultures of her parents. ‘Mummy was still very much within the laws of what was her due, what was her right, as royalty,' she said. ‘At home we spoke Burmese – not the Burmese that ordinary Burmese speak, but court Burmese. I grew up speaking that, and English, and Hindi. I lived on one side very Buddhist. We never wore our shoes upstairs. The food for the monks was prepared first thing every morning. When it came the time for the festivals, my father would disappear hunting. From his side, we had Christmas trees, we had Easter bunnies; I rode, and I shot. What Buddhist shoots?'
June Rose was very close to her father, who set up bamboo hurdles for her in the yard, told her yarns about his time in the Australian bush and read her Henry Lawson's poems. ‘I can tell you everything about Kalgoorlie, the Southern Cross; I can tell you about the half-bald cockatoo in the pub in whose cup people would pour beer, and when the parrot was sloshed he'd say: "Give me another feather and I'll fly."'
In February 1942, when June Rose was nine, the idyll ended. Japanese bombers raided Rangoon as the prelude to occupation, narrowly missing the Bellamy house, and the family were evacuated to India. They settled in Allahabad, the sleepy North Indian city at the junction of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, where the religious gathering of the Kumbh Mela, the largest human assembly in the world, occurs every twelve years.
The city was also home to the Nehru family. An aunt, one of the Limbin prince's other daughters, had married an Indian maharajah allied with Jawaharlal Nehru's independence struggle and who was with him in the Allahabad jail. June Rose went along when her aunt visited. ‘My uncle was in one cell, and there was water on the floor with the fan blowing on the water to keep cool. Four doors down was Nehru,' she recalls. ‘When I saw the film Gandhi I had to see it again. The first time I cried all the way through.'
June Rose was sent to a convent school in Kalimpong at eleven, where Herbert Bellamy's influence was her downfall. A nun who clearly looked down on mixed-race children was giving a geography lesson about Australia, and sarcastically asked June Rose if she'd left anything off the map on the blackboard. June Rose put a dot in the centre. ‘Baragarawindy,' she told the class, ‘is dream country; it is the land of opposites, the rivers flow inland instead of out, the leaves grow upwards instead of down, the snakes have feathers and the crows fly backwards to keep the dust out of their eyes.' She was expelled.
At fourteen, she returned with her parents to a wrecked and bombed Rangoon. Her father went into semi-retirement in the British-built hill station of Maymyo, outside Mandalay, where teak and brick houses in a vaguely Tudor style sit amid lawns and beds of roses and sweet peas. Bellamy ran a few horses, disappeared to his hunting lodge in the forests and collected rare orchids. The shrinking British community looked down on him as a bookie and colonial; they and the Burmese sniffed at mixed-race families; but both communities had to open their doors because of Ma Lat's royal lineage. ‘On one hand that put me in a privileged position but at the same time it raised my gall, because I was no better than any other Anglo-Burman,' June Rose explains.
She was growing into a noted beauty. The English travel writer Norman Lewis met the Bellamy family at a party in Maymyo, and in his 1955 book, Golden Earth, called Herbert Bellamy ‘a man of genial and confidential manner' and Ma Lat a ‘still handsome' woman with an expression of inner amusement. June Rose ‘allied to the graceful beauty of the Burmese a quite European vivacity'. And practicality: ‘When the family were about to leave, in an elderly and ailing British car, June Rose showed much skill in locating a short in the wiring, and much tomboyish energy in winding the starting handle until the engine fired.'
Winning an essay competition, June Rose was given a three-month tour of the United States as a prize, and flourished on what passed for the social circuit in the fragile yet hopeful fifteen years after Burma's independence, in 1946, when democracy faltered amid repeated insurgencies. She was a contender for a role in the war movie The Purple Plain, as the young Burmese nurse who gives a suicidal pilot (played by Gregory Peck) an interest in life, but says she pulled out during the shooting in Ceylon. ‘It was so Hollywood, it was ridiculous; it was an insult to anything that had to do with Burma,' she said. ‘When the film did come to Burma there was a big hue and cry. Things in the pagoda, things a Buddhist would never do.'
In 1954 she married Mario Postiglione, a young Italian doctor working on malaria prevention with the World Health Organization. Seven months after the birth of the first of their two sons, Mario was kidnapped by Burmese communists. ‘They were all well-educated – former students,' June Rose said. ‘"We have nothing against you or him," they said, "and how is your royal mother and your son?" It happened during the visit of [the Soviet leaders] Khruschev and Bulganin to Burma. "We want the world to know the government has no control of the country. We need the money to buy the arms. Too bad it's your husband." After we got him back, the UN told us to get out of Burma.'
June Rose went with Mario to WHO postings in Damascus, Geneva and Manila. From the Philippines, she was able to fly back to Rangoon to be with her father when he died, in 1963.
NOW COMES THE main course. June Rose moves to the oven and pulls out a large covered dish. Inside is a roll of meat, surrounded by small potatoes roasted a dark golden-brown in a coating of oil and pan juices. ‘Rabbit – isn't he gorgeous?' she says. ‘This is very typical of Tuscany. This is another one of those dishes that make country food interesting, because a little has to go a long way. It's actually a very small rabbit, but he's been pounded flat to make him double his size, and inside you have pancake, the liver minced up and fried with onions. So from three eggs and one rabbit you can feed eight to ten people.' From a bench top, she produces the greens, a circular flan of shredded zucchini. We set to, with topped-up glasses of Il Principe.
IN ITALY, JUNE Rose and Mario divorced, and she was raising their two boys, Michael and Maurice, when she learned that Ma Lat was gravely ill after a stroke. By then, Burma had become isolated after the army chief, General Ne Win, seized power in 1962 and stepped up the ongoing wars against the many domestic insurgents.
‘I couldn't get a visa, so I sent Ne Win a telegram – I'd known him for years; I was a very good friend of his wife, Katie; we'd always sort of kept in touch,' she said. ‘So I cabled him: "Mummy critical. Rome embassy incapable of giving me a visa. Please help." The embassy called and said I didn't even have to go to them: they'd meet me at the airport. But in the meantime I got a cable saying mother had died. So I didn't go back. I wrote and thanked him. I would have done anything to see my mother, but to go and collect her ashes...
‘A year later he came to Europe. And we met. I thanked him for
what he'd done. I discovered that Katie had died. And that was how our connection started. He asked what I was doing here. I mentioned my children, my divorce. He said I should go back to Burma. To do what? This thing went backwards and forwards, and on another trip he proposed. I hadn't been back to Burma; all this happened here.' She went to Rangoon in 1978, and they were married. ‘It was not one of those lavish things.'
June Rose is distracted, edgy as she talks. She looks for the small bottle of beer she has been drinking instead of wine. She gets up and clears the plates, clattering noisily in the sink.
IN THE LATE 1970s, Ne Win and his military regime were losing international respectability. Earlier, the anti-communist general had been useful to the West, and his isolationist economic policies and authoritarianism not so unusual. Gough Whitlam had even brought him to Canberra on an official visit in 1974.
Now the dance with Deng Xiaoping's China had begun. The rest of South-East Asia was starting to pull ahead. Ne Win's superstition and his fascination with lessons from Burma's, blood-soaked history were becoming obsessive.
But he was still an attractive man, recalls Pamela Gutman, a Sydney scholar of Burma who finished her doctorate on the cultural history of Burma's Arakan state about that time. She presented her visa and an introductory letter at Ne Win's gate, after being studied by a periscope that appeared over the wall and swivelled in her direction. A dinner followed, with Ne Win serving game he'd just shot up in Shan state, along with a bottle of sweet German wine – a taste he'd evidently developed on his annual trips to spas and physicians in Germany and Austria. The conversation was desultory, with the leader consulting a colonel often about what he should say. Bizarrely, it ended with Ne Win suggesting an Australia-Burma cultural agreement. The Australian ambassador was excited. ‘What sort of scotch does he drink? I'll send a case in.'
Ne Win thought marriage to June Rose would be advantageous. ‘All the locals would say it was a good thing because she had royal blood, and legitimised his regime,' Gutman said. June Rose agrees. ‘I think – and people say it, which is why I can say it – I was a sort of lollipop for the people,' she says. ‘Whatever average people say about me or my Anglo half, the family name is still very important in Burma, the royalty, the Limbin.'
In her mind, June Rose says, was the idea of doing some good for the country. But she admits failure, though she won't talk about any of the conversations or issues she had with Ne Win. She suggests that he was barely in control of his regime by that point.
‘Had I been able to do anything, had it served a purpose, had something been able to be done – but I realise I saw too many things,' she says. ‘He was being taken for a ride by his people. We're not talking about manipulation, but being put in a position where you don't know everything. You think you know everything, but a dictatorship in a country like Burma, as long as it is, with all the different tribes – each command is a watertight compartment.'
Ne Win never felt he was out of the loop. ‘Oh, they weren't that stupid. Neither was the media, which needed a scapegoat. He was always the éminence gris. He was always the one who was manipulating everybody. It was too convenient,' she said.
‘But all you have to think is that when he died [in 2002, after being sidelined by his army peers in the wake of the 1988 uprising], he died alone, abandoned, ignored. And something that would be impossible for a normal Buddhist or a Burmese to conceive: he was buried the same day without a friendly soul by the graveside. After all that time? What were they hiding? Why did they have to get him out of the way as fast as possible? To cover up things. They did what the British did – do you know my grandfather's grave didn't have a name on it? He was to be forgotten.'
The marriage ended after just five months. June Rose won't go into the cause of the final rupture. Gutman says the rumour is that Ne Win was entertaining one of his wartime Japanese mentors, who was by then working for a trading company, when June Rose mentioned the worsening state of Burma's economy. June Rose laughs at another popular rumour, that Ne Win suspected she was a western spy.
She does confirm that it ended when Ne Win threw an ashtray at her. ‘It was one of those things that happened. Rage. Anger. I know why, but on the other hand I don't. It's something that is too questionable. The fact remains that yes, there was a physical attack, but even that is not simple,' she says. ‘Okay, so he did fling the bloody ashtray. I can't deny it, because there were servants and obviously it is the servants who are talking today...There was an ashtray, but it didn't hit me between the eyes and I'm still alive. But it's not the ashtray. It is the last drop in the glass, the last straw.'
June Rose left the next day, seen off by Ne Win's daughter, Sanda (now jailed for corruption by Ne Win's successors), and a guard of honour as she flew out in what was then Burma's only passenger plane certified for international routes. Word of the marriage breakdown had not spread. Ne Win had gone up country. She felt lucky to get out.
'I LEFT BURMA with a definite feeling of failure,' June Rose says now. ‘Because I had failed my people. Because they did put their trust in me when I arrived. And this was one of the things that was not liked. But I would rather I left as a failure than to be connected with the ruling people. Those who had trusted in me, those who believed in me can say she left, but she left rather than not be able to do anything. In Italian, they say un peccato di orgoglio; in English, a sin of pride. Because I thought I could do something which others had not done. And that's a very bad sin.'
June Rose has written an engaging essay about her family and upbringing, but says she won't write about her time with the dictator. ‘To say something, to write a book, one would have to have a very good knowledge of Burmese history, culture, and a super-excellent knowledge of the construction of a military dictatorship,' she said. ‘You can't put all that in a book. You'd bore people to death.'
Gutman says that there was talk among diplomats of the time that June Rose had indeed written, or was about to write, a book titled ‘One Hundred Days with Ne Win' but was persuaded not to publish by a sizable settlement with Rangoon. In Florence there is comfort, but no sign of wealth. Her shopfront school of Burmese and Italian cooking, with her apartment upstairs, provides a modest living and is gaining a reputation on the self-education tourism circuit. Her charitable work, through Rangoon-based doctors, is putting young Burmese students through medical school and helping a village hit by last year's Cyclone Nargis.
Her younger son, Maurice, died in a motor accident some years ago; but his son, Alex, twenty-five, is now close to her, as is her older son, Michael. Two years ago, she and Alex went to Burma and found the grave of her grandfather, the Limbin prince, in a monastery. At 5 am, when the earth's energy is said to be at its peak, they paid homage by serving the morning meal to the ten abbots and 120 monks. Alex, who had never been to Burma and until then seemed completely Italian, said he felt at home. ‘I didn't feel I was visiting,' he told her. ‘Everything we do at your home in Florence, people are doing all around us here.'
June Rose says she still tries to lead a Buddhist life. ‘But the other day we went to a fun fair, and I was still able to topple off, without my glasses, a barrel at the shooting range.'
We eat the orange flan. It is soft and creamy, with a heavy flavour like curaçao liqueur.
Suddenly we realise it is mid-afternoon. We leave the half-world of Burma, pioneering Australia and Cold War diplomacy that the lunch has conjured up, and step into the subdued light of wintry Tuscany. June Rose farewells us, beaming as she did on our arrival.