THE heroes of last week's piece about British prisoners of war in Italy trekking hundreds of miles to meet the advancing Allies, I now learn, are to return to that country next month to thank the contadini who gave them hospitality.

More than half a century after a war in which Britain and Italy fought each other for four years, they will reaffirm their gratitude for the grave risks taken by these peasant farmers who afforded them succour in defiance of the Nazis.

Mr Ian English, of Preston under Scar in Wensleydale, and Mr Dominick Graham, of East Rounton, Northallerton, both of whom have written books about their youthful adventures in the months after Italy quit the war, will be among those making the journey.

So too will Mr Jim Bourne, of Uplands Court, Hummersknott, Darlington, who hid when his prison camp in Bologna was taken over by the Germans when the 1943 armistice was signed, and Mr Richard Frost, of Middleton Tyas, Richmond, who fought in Italy with a South African armoured division.

Many of these old soldiers now have great-grandchildren and so, of course, do the mainly poor country people who gave them food, shelter, clothes and directions. How appropriate, then, that their thanks is being expressed in a way that will give the famously family-conscious Italians much pleasure - by paying for extra education for their descendants.

The Monte San Martino Trust is an organisation set up in 1990 by the former PoWs to provide bursaries, typically of £1,000, to enable the young Italians to come to Britain to study English. Our four pilgrims will join many more of their old comrades at the inauguration of what the trust hopes will be an annual commemorative walk in the Abruzzi along a key part of that mountainous route to freedom.

Sponsored walkers from Britain, the continent, the US, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa will cover the 65 miles from Sulmona (70 miles east of Rome) to Castel di Sangro in four days from May 17. Among them will be a Territorial Army contingent representing Mr English's regiment, the Durham Light Infantry.

The trust's eponymous San Martino is not the village mentioned last week in the same breath as Solferino, the better-known twin venue of the 40,000-casualty battle in 1859 which was Henri Dunant's inspiration for the Red Cross. This San Martino is north-west of Sulmona, in the shadow of the massive Gran Sasso mountain range where Mr English struggled waist-deep through snow in November 1943.

Summary execution by the Nazis or deportation to concentration camps could be the fate of Italians caught aiding escaped Allied prisoners of war. That almost everyone in the Italian countryside encountered by Mr English, Mr Graham and Mr Bourne was prepared to defy those sanctions brutally enforced by their erstwhile co-members of the Fascist axis amply justifies Winston Churchill's tribute to the contadini: theirs, he said, was "a great gesture to humanity".

l Mr English (tel 01969 623966) and, also from our neck of the woods, organiser of the commemorative walk, Mr Roger Stanton, of 5 Tansy Road, Harrogate (01423 508667), will be pleased to respond to potential sponsors.

l Last week's piece omitted to say that Mr Graham became a major and later professor of military history at a Canadian university.

AT 70 she's still living up to her "blonde bombshell" soubriquet, is teaching tap dancing at Weston Super Mare, choreographs local shows in that Bristol Channel seaside resort - and is still able to do the splits with the best of them.

She is Yvonne Matthews as was (now Mrs Hess), of the stage-struck Catterick Garrison family of 11 children whose most incalcitrant member was the 19-year-old June who fell out with the commandant's wife just before the curtain went up on the garrison's pantomime not long after the war.

As recalled in the piece on March 2 about the panto's musical director, the late Lt Col Jimmy Yule, June returned to the principal's role at the Cary theatre only after the personal intervention of Gen Cary himself.

Yvonne, I hear from her brother, Mr Ian Matthews, of Stanley Terrace, Aiskew, Bedale, made her own appearances in Catterick shows half a century ago the springboard for a successful career as a singer and dancer who appeared in panto and cabaret all over the country.

News, too, of her sister, Nicky, also a stalwart of those Catterick shows. As well as becoming a professional dancer, she worked up a speciality act as a contortionist. Nicky, now Mrs McDonald, lives near Swanage, Dorset.

All four Matthews girls married into the Royal Signals and four of their brothers, including Ian, served in the Gloucestershire Regiment. Sadly, June died suddenly of meningitis at 21 and three of the seven boys also died young.

Mr Matthews, who emulated his father by becoming a warrant officer, was himself an entertainer and tells me new generations of the family have followed that tradition which was started by his mother - the indomitable Bertha, wardrobe mistress and seamstress for the Catterick shows and hostess of innumerable first and last-night parties at her home in Le Cateau lines.

He wonders, incidentally, if anyone has news of Gen Cary's daughter Jill, who shared her father's fascination with show business and often appeared at "his" theatre at the garrison. She trained to become a ballet dancer but was increasingly drawn to the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd.

THE army also figures in the life of another North Yorkshire member of the entertainment industry, if the rumbustious literary scene of the 18th century can be put under that heading. A reminder of this comes in a new biography of Laurence Sterne, the satirist who wrote much of Tristram Shandy while vicar of Coxwold.

Laurence Sterne, A Life by Ian Campbell Ross (doubtless already on the groaning bookshelves at Sterne's roadside home outside the village near Thirsk which as Shandy Hall is maintained as a shrine to his memory), tells us that the bawdy cleric had an early life every bit as unsettled as those of many married-quarters children at Catterick.

He was born at Clonmel in Ireland and until the age of ten moved from barracks to barracks as his father, a hard-up infantry ensign, was posted around that country and England; Sterne senior, a grandson of an archbishop of York, had slipped down the ladder because he was the younger son of a younger son in an era when middle-class parents gave relentless priority to the first-born male.

Although young Laurence did make it to Cambridge, paid for by a generous cousin, he graduated with tuberculosis and the minimal prospects which, then as now, go with the job of country parson. The next 20 years earned him a reputation for excellent sermons and for marital infidelity which drove his wife literally insane and to believe she was the Queen of Bohemia. He also did a bit of political journalism from his vicarage at Sutton on Forest, York.

Then in 1759 he published A Political Romance, which poured satirical scorn on the running of what was transparently his own see. The Archbishop of York was livid and sent men to the printers to seize and burn all 500 copies. Yet it was the same archibishop who, after Sterne was lionised by literary London a year later for his next book, was "so delighted with The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy that he read them once every six weeks".

At first, no-one seemed to mind the bawdiness in the adventures of "my Uncle Toby" (he whose favourite air, remember from my tale last year about the BBC World Service signature tune, was Lillibulero), his servant Cpl Trim, and Tristram's father, Walter Shandy of Shandy Hall. Offence was taken, notwithstanding the archibishop's tolerance, only when it became known that the author was a clergyman.

The subsequent outcry included Oliver Goldsmith's strong criticism of Sterne in an essay titled The Absurd Taste for Obscene amd Pert Novels. And from then on, in the "all publicity is good publicity" tradition that endures into the age of Madonna, Sterne began to freewheel into the list of seminal greats of English literature.

In its scholarly way, the new biography is itself going to ruffle some feathers. Not least, I suspect, at Shandy Hall, where the journal The Shandean, founded in the late 1980s and edited by Prof Peter De Voogd, will be required reading because it often comes up with new insights into Sterne's life.

Ian Campbell Ross, whose book is published by Oxford University Press at £25, may or may not include The Shandean when he "delicately suggests" - says the reviewer I read - that too much Sterne scholarship seemed incestuous.

I shall have to pop along to Shandy Hall to ask what they think my reviewer meant when he added tartly: "Not that this would have bothered Sterne."