Monthly Archives: January 2018

The Memory Thief

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter

 Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

T.S. Eliot, East Coker (1940)

Happy New Year! 2018 marks the third year of A London Family, and I now  have almost thirty chapters devoted to my genealogical quest – well over 100,000 words, and certainly more than enough for a full-length book. Nevertheless, I intend to continue with my project until this summer, ending with the discovery of the Ur-Skeltons in the Yorkshire Dales, and a surprise piece of information which highlights some of the issues involved in following a patrilinear family history.

There are, however, still plenty of exciting tales to come before then: including the third and final part of the story of the life and times of Herbert Sleath, as well as sea voyages to exotic destinations, and the requisite untimely deaths in which such adventures often ended. But as the demands of the festive season are currently impinging rather disproportionately upon my free time, I have decided to revisit the catalyst that reawakened my interest in family history: namely the discovery of the previously unseen photograph of my teenage father and his friends (including my future uncle) in Coker Wood in 1944.

I initially wrote about this event in 2007 – two years after first visiting the Somerset village  of East Coker with my mother (and with a copy of the photograph in my bag). Ten years ago I was studying part-time for an MA in creative writing, and wanted to incorporate the story into a fictional piece of work. This was part of a larger project on the Freudian idea of ‘the uncanny‘ in literature, a concept which, although notoriously dificult to define, had begun to intrigue me. Around that time I also became aware of   the close connection between photography and ‘the uncanny’, a topic explored obliquely by Roland Barthes in his book Camera Lucida, and which I discussed in an earlier post (see Those Ghostly Traces).

This story set within the tale which follows is one that readers may remember from my first blog posts. In those two chapters (see In my Beginning is my End and East Coker), I expanded the narrative of the original text, adding the background details and information required by the factual nature of the posts. But for those who have not yet read the initial chapters, or who are happy to take a return journey to Eliot’s village of open fields and deep lanes (albeit on a slightly circuitous route), then this creative offering is for you.

THE MEMORY THIEF (2007)

The rain fell relentlessly over the Bodensee. It spat down onto the bare heads of the children who played on the upper deck of the ferry while their parents watched from the fuggy warmth of the restaurant. It drove away the last of the tourists buying coffee and ices on the oleander-lined promenade. It splattered onto the shiny metal roofs of the vehicles on the car deck, washing away the dust of the Autobahn and the sins of carbon monoxide emissions.

I huddled in my parka on the bench at the back of the ferry and watched the harbour slip behind us as we nudged out into the open water with a renegade hoot. The lake hissed and roiled, the metres sliding between us and the German Zoll. Soon those metres would add up to the kilometres that would propel us into another country entirely. That was where home was now. For better or worse I had settled in a small town on the Swiss side of the lake. A place of two seasons: foggy or sunny; a place where the snow seldom fell, and bananas and palms slept uneasily throughout the long, dark winter, encased in hessian sacking.

We were heading for the foggy season. The lakeside cafés would soon be pulling in their outdoor furniture, and the ubiquitous window-box geraniums would be replaced with pumpkins – later, festive pine cone wreaths. Then I would make this journey again in reverse, laden down with cheese and chocolate and handmade candles from the Christmas markets. But in between those two trips was a whole semester of teaching and marking and lesson preparation, while the endless rhythm of shopping and cooking and cleaning hummed away in the background like a badly-tuned radio which was impossible to turn off. I tried instead to think of the positive things about the cold season: meals by the log fire with friends; the Italian marroni sellers in the old town; the scarlet leaves on the Japanese maple at the top of the lane; the winter clothes in boxes in the attic just waiting to be rediscovered.

My thoughts were interrupted by a woman walking past on unsteady legs who stopped to ask for directions to the toilets. I pointed her down to the lower deck, and she stumbled wordlessly towards the metal stairs, her sparse hennaed hair fluffing up around her face in the wind. A purple-nosed man in a sludge-green boiled wool jacket caught my eye and looked away. Something cold and hard settled low on my stomach. Ach, ja, I heard someone say. Self-important lips smacked shut. A low, rumbling laugh. A belch and the sound of a beer glass cracking onto a Formica tabletop. I looked over the railing down at the water. This grey, foam-flecked lake would be my substitute sea for the next few months. But seagulls would never chase the ferries on twisting wings, their rackety calls splicing the air; and seals would never lurk underneath the shifting waves, their worried old man’s heads bobbing up sporadically above the waterline.

As we headed out across the Bodensee, the rain became heavier, and I reluctantly picked up my bag and entered the restaurant. Orders of bratwurst and potato salad and Weizenbier were being carried aloft by the serving staff, and I ducked into the first available seat at the table near the door. In the centre of the table a round of pretzels hung on a wooden tree, looking like a game of hoopla on a fairground stall. I looped off the topmost one and bit into it. A large crystal of salt dissolved against my tongue, and I immediately called out to a passing waiter and ordered a beer.

The man sitting opposite me put down his Frankfurter Allgemein with an attention-seeking rustle and raised his head. Sweat beaded his forehead and trickled down craggy tributaries to the twin dams of his bushy eyebrows. He looked similar to the actor who played the retired Black Forest detective in the TV series I often watched on Monday nights. But then he extended his right hand across the table top, and I knew as soon as he clasped his four fingers around my five that he was someone else entirely.

Dr Killian Fuchs. Professor für Psychologie in die Rorschacher Hochschule. Und sie sind Frau Skelton – die Engländerin die auch bei uns arbeitet?

Ja, das stimmt. Aber bin keine Engländerin, komm’ aus Schottland.

Ah, ha. Scotland. One of my favourite places. He leant forward, his words piercing the damp air with his stale, peppermint-sweet breath. Have you just come from there?

Sort of.

I’m sorry. I don’t mean to pry. I have also been in my home town – Duisburg. Do you know it?

I shook my head.

Perhaps you are feeling homesick, like me. But it will pass, as it always does.

I felt a tap on my shoulder and looked up. Fahrkarten, bitte. The ticket collector in his peaked cap stood beside us. I reached for the inside pocket of my jacket for my travel documents and pulled out the plastic wallet that contained my passport, identity card, travel pass and remaining euros.

A very good idea, Dr Fuchs said, once the conductor was satisfied with validity of our travel cards. He pointed to the zip-lock wallet. If you fell overboard, the authorities would be able to quickly identify you.

I smiled perfunctorily and busied myself fiddling with my documents, slipping them one by one back into the wallet. As I did so, a photograph fell onto the table, picture side up. Before I could catch it, Dr Fuchs splayed out his good hand and grasped the photo as it slid towards the edge of the table.

May I have a look? It seems to be hand coloured – a technique I’m particularly interested in for various reasons.

It is hand coloured – by my father, actually. But I don’t think there was much technique to it. He was just a boy when he did it.

Dr Fuchs reached for a pair of heavy-looking reading glasses on a chain around his neck. He pushed them up over his nose and peered down at the photo, angling it into the light. Eventually he turned it over and read the faint pencilled inscription on the back: Expedition to Coker Wood, Whit-Monday, 1944.

Is your father in this photograph?

Yes. He’s the one on the right. A friend of his took it. I just found out recently.

So your father told you about the photograph?

No. My mother and I found it some years after he died. All we knew was that he’d been evacuated to Somerset from London during the Blitz. He spent most of the war there, living on a farm.

Dr Fuchs handed me back the photograph and fumbled in the top pocket of his tweed jacket. He drew out an outsize handkerchief and rubbed at his forehead. Sorry, my dear. A touch of the flu, I shouldn’t wonder. It always gets me this time of the year. I see you have almost finished your beer. Would you care to join me in a hot drink?’

As we sipped at our Ovalmaltines, Dr Fuchs explained that as a child he too had gone to stay with his grandparents in the German countryside towards the end of the war. He had very few memories of that time, apart from those he had later constructed for himself from the photographs taken by visiting relatives. It was this subject to which he was returning for his final work: the link between family memories and photography. It was to be his lasting contribution to the field, after having retired from teaching. In several weeks he would join his youngest daughter in New Zealand’s Bay Of Islands, where he hoped to buy a small house which overlooked the ocean.

But now I’d very much like to hear more about your photograph.

There isn’t really a story, I’m afraid.

Dr Fuchs leaned over and patted me on the arm. I will be the judge of that. But please, will you excuse me for one moment. He tapped the side of his nose. I have to pay a visit.

When he returned, his jacket was buttoned up tightly, revealing what looked like the bulge of a tobacco tin or a packet of cigarettes in his inside left pocket. The stairs to the lower deck had obviously overexerted him and he squeezed back into his seat, face flushed, hands trembling slightly.

I explained what I knew of the photograph, but as I talked Dr Fuchs seemed slightly distracted, raising his right hand to his heart, as if assuring himself it was continuing to beat. At one point I stopped and asked if he was feeling alright – I thought I could hear a faint mechanical whirring noise – but he just batted away my concerns and urged me to continue.

And this is more or less the story I told him.

When I was a child I used to beg my father to tell me about the time he’d spent as a young evacuee in the English West country. Eventually he would relent and tell me about collecting newts in jam jars, about raiding birds’ nests for eggs, about hunting for shrapnel in the lanes. As I grew up, he added other tales to his repertoire: the dances in the village hall, drinking scrumpy straight from the farmer’s barrel, shooting rabbits. For some reason I never thought to ask him the name of this wonderful village. To me it was a mythical place of perpetual summer, where hollyhocks and sunflowers towered high above the inhabitants, and children were free to run through woods and fields and lanes. When later I asked my father where this village was, he told me it was near Yeovil. Such an alien-looking name must surely have been that magical place of his boyhood!

After my father died, my mother found some photographs of him hidden in an old leather wallet he had once used. One of the photographs had been taken in Somerset, in the village I assumed to be Yeovil. It wasn’t until I inspected the back of the photograph that I discovered it had been taken in a place called Coker Wood. The name ‘Coker’ niggled at me for days before I thought to check it on the internet. (You have to remember, this was in the late nineties). It was there I came across the Eliot poem, East Coker – part of the Four Quartets – and decided that one day I had to make the pilgrimage.

I waited until this summer so I could travel down by train from Scotland with my mother. It was the day the bombs went off in London: the seventh of July. We had chosen that weekend as it was the local celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the end of the war, and the East Coker on-line newsletter promised a day of special events ‘commemorating VE and VJ Day’.

East Coker Commemorations

It was a hot day, and as news filtered through about the London bombings the staff at each station became increasingly vigilant. In the end we were unable to leave our suitcases anywhere to break up our journey, and did not stop to look round Bristol as we’d intended. From Yeovil we caught a local bus to East Coker, travelling the way the first evacuees would have come on September 1st, 1939. At the outskirts of Yeovil – to my mind, an unprepossesing market town – a wrought iron signpost (of the kind seldom seen nowadays) pointed us in the direction of East Coker. The bus veered off down a narrow lane which seemed to sink deeper into the surrounding land the further we travelled along it. Snake-like roots of ancient hedgerows protruded from the sandy soil, while above us the canopy shut out most of the late afternoon sun. Then we rounded an unexpected corner and came into the centre of the village: a village that looked as if it should not – could not – belong in the twenty-first century.

From those first impressions (the patriotic red, white and blue bunting strung up across the road between the thatched cottages; the alms houses by the church; the hayricks in the fields) to later, more concrete information (so this is the farm where Dad once lived; this is the hall where he went dancing; this is the church he was forced to attend), we gradually learnt about the modern-day village and its shadowy wartime predecessor. Walking across the damp fields at dusk towards the warm light of the pub on that first evening, it was almost possible to imagine that the past might still exist in some ghostly form alongside the present. And in the heat of the following day, on a sunken footpath which led from the farm through the woods to the old priory, I lay down, head to the cool soil, and heard the drum of distant hooves and the click of mid-summer insects. For those few seconds it felt as if the earth was struggling to gather up the momentum to move backwards, to reveal something to me – until the shouts of children in the playing fields broke through the thick afternoon air.

East Coker -Path

Later that day we finally met Alan Cornelius – the old man who had taken the photograph in the woods on Whitsun Monday over sixty years previously. He was manning one of the stalls in the village hall WW2 exhibition, and his table was a jumble of WW2 paraphernalia: old ration books, bits of home guard uniform, various pieces of ammunition. One part of his collection was dedicated to the story of the relationship between the local children and the evacuees – and amongst the letters and photos we saw our own photograph mounted in a crude wooden frame. And it was then we learnt the story of that day out in the woods. A moment of late childhood, hanging high and free above the dark shadow of the war, but caught like a dragonfly in ether for the dissection of future generations.

The ferry was now negotiating the narrow entrance to the harbour on the Swiss side of the lake. I was anxious not to miss my connecting train home, and made my excuses to Dr Fuchs as I gathered my possessions around me. For a moment he sat completely still, eyes blinking in the bright glare of a sudden shaft of sunlight which broke through the clouds. Then he stood up and left the table with little more than a nod and handshake. It was only then I noticed he had no luggage of his own – save for a small leather shoulder bag.

The last time I saw him was at the Swiss Zoll. I turned to give him a wave but he’d been stopped by one of the customs’ officers and was showing him the contents of his bag. A flash of something metallic caught my eye but I could not afford to dawdle – the local train was already in the port railway station and my husband would be waiting for me at the other end.

*

Since then two more summers have passed, and I have yet to return to East Coker, despite my original intentions. It is almost as if I dare not build further on the foundations of the flimsy house of my memory. Who knows which stone might send the whole edifice tumbling down? And even the lost image of my father’s grinning face – forever framed in Alan Cornelius’ father’s Kodak Brownie – has become almost impossible to recall.

Coker Wood 1944 (3)

In Eliot’s Village

I went to Eliot’s village and stood, quite still,

In a hollow, earthy lane,

Like you might have done

Over sixty years ago now,

When Eliot’s Quartets were fresh and new

And yet to be dissected.

 

The hall, the house, the pub all stand

the woods, the stiles, the awkward paths.

I know you never wanted to return

So I went in your place.

And found a sadder-sweetness there

Amongst the mid-summer haying.

 

Happy New Year! The Incidental Genealogist, January 2018

 

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