The underwater polymath

Racing cyclist, jazz musician, author and photographer Leo Zanelli has lived at Holcroft Court in Fitzrovia for 15 years. He was born in 1930 near Kings Cross, to Italian parents (his father was a chef, his mother a waitress).

Man holding book in room full of publications.

Leo Zanelli has published around 30 books, on varied subjects, the first of which was one of the Teach Yourself titles: Underwater Swimming.

His early childhood was spent at the Angel Islington. In 1939 his family moved into Soho when his father bought the lease on 21 Romilly Street “It was the beginning of the war and my father was immediately interned as an enemy alien and sent to the Isle of Man because he was Italian.

“During the war I slept in the basement and despite being a sound sleeper I used to get woken up by the floor shaking from bombs exploding nearby. An uncle who was an ambulance driver once knocked on the door and said, ‘Is everyone alright?’ A bomb has just fallen over the road!

My mum did bed and breakfasts in the house. My uncle Peter was a band leader and he brought a lot of showbusiness people in.

“Towards the end of the war my mother turned the ground floor into a vegetarian restaurant called ‘Jill-in-the-Green’. I think it was the second vegetarian restaurant in London. We cooked things like nut cutlets but it wasn’t a commercial success and when my father got out of the internment camp, my mother asked him if he’d like to work there.

He was a big carnivore so he said, ‘Cooking nuts all day — you must be nuts’ and went off and got another job, but when the restaurant finally closed he took it over and it became The Tosca, an Italian restaurant which served meat dishes.”

Man cycling alongside motorcycle.

Leo Zanelli was a founder member of the British League of Racing Cyclists.

Leo attended Notre Dame school in Leicester Square. On leaving, his first job was in catering, at the Albany Club on Saville Row. As a young man his passions were jazz, football and cycling. “I was a founder member of the British League of Racing Cyclists. In those days mass cycle riding on public roads was illegal. Time trials were allowed but we used to find clandestine ways of arranging, meeting up and cycling as a group on the road. We always had to be one step ahead of the police. It was like the illegal rave scene of the late 1980’s.”

Leo played with several modern jazz groups and had alto sax lessons from the well known saxophonist and bandleader Harry Hayes. “My hero was Stan Getz but I couldn’t afford a tenor sax,” he explained.

At school English was his strongest subject so he decided to try his hand at journalism. “I did consider returning to education to study Law or English but a lot of journalists used to come into my father’s restaurant and one of them said to me, if you want to be a journalist the worst thing you can do is study English at university. So I just started freelancing which turned out to be good advice certainly in those days.” One of his earliest jobs was with the publisher Collins in Covent Garden as a book editor.

In 1950 Leo went to the USA for one year with Collins to further his career. “I always had plenty of work, my accent was a novelty and an asset.” In America he also took photographs for the New York Mirror. Since then Leo has never, ever, been without a camera in his possession.

He returned to London in 1951, and worked as a writer/photographer through the fifties, during which time he also developed a passion for scuba diving. Leo went on to become National Diving Officer of the British Sub Aqua Club, where he trained the first Metropolitan Police diving unit. He helped found the Sub-aqua Association (becoming Chairman), has the First Class Diver certificate and is a qualified scuba instructor.

Leo has published around 30 books, on varied subjects, the first of which was one of the Teach Yourself titles: Sub Aqua Swimming. He has also been the editor of several magazines and part-works, including the best-selling Golden Homes, which helped the publisher, Marshall Cavendish, to get into the Guinness Book of Records as the ‘most profitable company in Britain’. “But this wasn’t reflected in my salary!” He joined Central Press Features, now part of the Daily Mail group, Fleet Street, in 1976, and over the next 20 years had work published in over 200 newspapers.

“At one time I was writing six different columns a week in addition to my usual work. For 17 years I was ‘Adam the Gardener’ in the Sunday Express.” Leo has also been writing about wine since the 50s, and is a member of the Circle of Wine Writers. In 1971 he wrote Home Winemaking from A to Z. He is a founder and honorary life member of the London Press Club and has honorary life membership of the National Union of Journalists.

He has been a prolific author and written books on many subjects. Titles include – Beer and Wine Making Illustrated Dictionary; British Sub-Aqua Club Diving Manual; Sub Aqua Swimming; All you can build in the garden; Central Heating, Plumbing, Electricity; Shipwrecks Around the World – a Divers Guide; Rock Gardens & Pools.

Recently he qualified as a City of London Guide and then as a Clerkenwell & Islington guide. His main topics are City Highlights and Freemasons in the City, although Leo’s most popular guided walk is through Fitzrovia and Soho.

For many years Leo has been interested in Freemasonry and apart from being editor of “The Square”, the Freemasons magazine, for 15 years he has written many articles on the subject. Leo was initiated into the Italia Lodge – the only Italian-speaking Freemasonic Lodge in the English Constitution. He later joined the British Sub-Aqua Lodge. Leo is also a member of the “Oddfellows” a national fraternal friendly society whose local branch is called Duchess of Kent Lodge. They regularly meet at Warren Street.

Recently Leo was interviewed for the Channel 4 documentary “The Queens Big Night Out” about VE Day in 1945 when the future Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret slipped out of Buckingham Palace to join the public celebrations in secret. He spoke about some of the racy and colourful events that happened on that evening.

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