GIONNI Di Gravio sticks to where he knows.
For lunch, he chooses Vincent’s at the Coliseum, a cafe in a historic building standing defiantly against the march of time and the rumble of traffic along Maitland Road in Mayfield.
“This is where I come from,” he says of the suburb he’s lived in for all of his 55 years. “It’s my terra.”
He may not have travelled far for his lunch of a vegetarian burger and an espresso, but Di Gravio has been on quite a journey through his life, from rock musician to the University of Newcastle’s archivist.
Through his work, Di Gravio has helped us better understand our region’s past. Yet he is still learning about his own family’s history.
And while he delves into the archives to uncover and assemble pieces of the Hunter’s character, for a time Gionni Di Gravio had an integral part of his own identity erased.
CHANCE placed Gionni Di Gravio in Mayfield.
His father Vittorio emigrated from Italy in 1955, and his mother, Berenice, in 1961.
According to his son, Vittorio’s decision to emigrate came about when he saw a few queues of people. He asked one lot what they were lining up for. To go to Australia, he was told. So Vittorio decided to join that line.
“He comes here,” his son says, “and then it’s a series of random events.”
Vittorio Di Gravio was planning to move to Melbourne from Sydney, but that seemed too far. So he came to Newcastle, and ended up in Mayfield. He hopped on a bus to begin his new job at Rylands wire works, “but he got off at the wrong stop - it’s the BHP”. He stayed at the steelworks for his entire working life.
At least, that’s how Gionni Di Gravio thinks his family history goes.
“It makes me a bit guilty,” Di Gravio says, when explaining there’s still a lot to research.
“I should put a bit more work into my own family. I know a lot about everyone else’s family, but not a lot about my own.”
One thing Gionni Di Gravio is sure of is that he was born in March 1963. As a small child, he stood on the threshold between two cultures and languages.
“Italian kids get pushed to the front door pretty early, so we had to be translators when we were barely understanding any sort of language, so God knows how I explained things to my parents,” he recalls.
“We grew up, as a family, kind of isolated. I didn’t know my grandparents at all. They were still in Italy. It was just me and my [younger] sister, and my parents.”
If the boy’s Italian heritage felt distant, it was made more so when he started school.
“When I was in kindergarten, my parents had taught me how to write my name as Gionni di Gravio,” he says.
“And I remember a nun just crossed out my name. She said, ‘That’s wrong’. I remember like it was yesterday. She rubbed out ‘Gionni’ and wrote ‘John’ instead... ‘What’s that? Is that me now?’
“And that’s what I became. John di Gravio’.”
Many years later, he reverted to Gionni, “because that’s my name”. Not that he’s angry or resentful about all those years of being “John”.
“It’s what Australians do to simplify things,” he shrugs. “I still have people who have troubles with ‘Gionni’. I say, ‘It’s John’ …No big deal.”
As a young student, Di Gravio wasn’t hooked by history – “Dr Who probably would’ve been the nearest I got to an interest in history” – but music grabbed him. He was sent off to learn piano, initially with the Salvation Army musicians, after he and his father had heard their brass band playing and Vittorio got chatting to the bandmaster.
After a few weeks, when asked how the lessons were going, Gionni replied, “I’m not learning anything about piano, I’m learning about Jesus.” So a change of denomination and piano teachers was arranged; he was off to the nuns for lessons.
Di Gravio particularly enjoyed playing Beethoven. Much of the inspiration came from reading Peanuts comics; the character of Schroeder was always playing Beethoven’s music.
But in 1976, Beethoven was replaced by The Beatles, the minute Di Gravio heard the Fab Four on the radio: “I said, ‘Who the hell is this?!’ ‘Oh, that’s The Beatles’ . . . So I converted.
“All that excitement you would take maybe half an hour to get to in Beethoven you had in three minutes with The Beatles.”
Around the same time, he discovered the brash British punk band, The Sex Pistols, so “I had these two big musical things collide, and they shaped my life, I guess.”
At high school, Di Gravio imagined his future as an “Egyptologist astronomer musician”. Those first two aspirations were fuelled by the books he was reading, especially Erich von Daniken’s bestseller, Chariots of the Gods, which considered the possibility of visiting alien astronauts advising ancient civilisations.
Disappointingly, Di Gravio was told the job market for Egyptologist astronomer musicians was somewhat limited in Newcastle. So he did what so many other young Novocastrians, and his father, had done: he walked through the gates at BHP.
He trained as a metallurgist, but his focus was increasingly on music.
In the early 1980s, Di Gravio played guitar in a punk band, The Mansons.
He then co-founded Hipslingers with a couple of workmates. The band’s brass and guitar riff-driven music built a following beyond Newcastle.
For a time, Di Gravio tried to balance work and playing in the band, but the scales tipped to music. In 1987, he left steady employment for the joys and uncertainties of rock and roll.
“It was a great way to spend your 20s, working but also creating music,” he reflects.
Yet giving his all to music took something away: “I was a horrible person, because I was guided by the music. I used to see music as an absolute passion, and if I thought someone was being slack, I’d just go crazy . . . There was no room for Christmas, no room for birthdays, no room for anybody except the music.”
While Hipslingers toured and released a string of self-funded records, it was tough going financially.
As a side project, they formed an Elvis Presley covers band – “we were hopeless Elvis impersonators” – to help fund their original music. But by the early 1990s, Di Gravio had to make a hard decision.
“If you’re going to become a nine-to-five musician, this was the crunch time,” he explains. “That wasn’t me. I’d rather make my money doing something else.
“It was good doing it, but I felt to myself that I really needed that day job. I love a day job. That’s where libraries started to come back into the world.”
Di Gravio had always loved reading, especially “anything about really crazy, nutty, religious, magical ideas. Music. I loved learning about beliefs. Anything people believed in.”
So being surrounded by books suited him when Di Gravio was offered casual work at Lake Macquarie City Council’s libraries. From there, he went to the university library, helping transfer the catalogue to an electronic system.
When a job came up in the archives section, cataloguing the historic papers of local coal giant J & A Brown, he grabbed it.
“That’s when I found my heart’s desire, exactly what I wanted to do,” he says. “I learnt about the original source records of the region, and for all the wonderful connections that were there.”
To bring the past into the present, Di Gravio usually places what he finds on the internet – “What I learn, I share.”
One of the key online projects he’s used as a sharing tool has been Hunter Living Histories. Di Gravio hopes this project takes people out of the “bubble” of thinking of the Hunter’s history as only a couple of centuries old: “It’s coming to terms with the 50,000 years of human expression, and giving people a handle on how to look after it, how to document it, digitise it, and make it available in the most creative ways possible.
“The evidence of human expression may be an engraving site out at Wollombi or it might be some NBN footage that was filmed in the 1960s. Anything. It doesn’t matter what format humans have come up with to record themselves, we want to get a handle on that.”
The sharing of archives, he believes, helps people connect with their past, and with each other.
“You’re putting peoples’ lives together again,” Di Gravio argues. “For Aboriginal people, whose lives have been torn up, along with the land, every single bit of information is like a mosaic. And the more they put it together, the bigger the smiles start to be.”
The title of Hunter Living Histories, and the material it contains, demonstrates how the past continues to shape us: “History is a living thing, as far as I’m concerned. So the sorts of things that we might think of as dead, things that are in the past, those things still haunt us, if we haven’t dealt with them properly. They’re unfinished business that has to be dealt with. Until that happens, the dead can’t rest, and the living can’t have any peace.
“Without a knowledge of the past, how can you negotiate the future with any confidence?”
Gionni Di Gravio’s own future may involve music once more. He dreams of performing again and still writes songs. He occasionally listens to his old records but finds it painful, as “you’re always tortured by, ‘I should’ve done better’”.
He is also busy at home. He and his wife, Catherine, who he met in 1984 at the Blast Furnace – the nightclub, not the BHP facility – have two sons in early adulthood.
Yet Di Gravio’s future will also focus on unearthing more of the past, as well as helping train and foster the next generation of archivists.
Yet in this age when more and more writing seems ephemeral, as it is written in emails and online posts, what will be left for future generations?
Gionni Di Gravio is confident there will always be a need for archivists.
Human expression will still be saved, rather than wiped out, by new technology.
But the key, he says, is to do as the ancient civilisations did: copy and share.
“Sharing is about the only recipe we have for making sure things survive,” he says. “If we don’t, it just dies.”