It may indeed be questioned whether we have any memories at all from our childhood: memories relating to our childhood may be all that we possess. Our childhood memories show us our earliest years not as they were but as they appeared at the later periods when the memories were aroused. In these periods of arousal, the childhood memories did not, as people are accustomed to say, emerge; they were formed at that time. And a number of motives, with no concern for historical accuracy, had a part in forming them, as well as in the selection of the memories themselves.
Sigmund Freud, Screen Memories (1899)SCREEN MEMORIES: A Video Essay on SMULTRONSTÄLLET / WILD STRAWBERRIES from Catherine Grant on Vimeo.
The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud coined the term screen memories to describe childhood memories which have been distorted by later experiences, in particular around the time of adolescence. In his 1899 text of the same name, he gives the case history of a 38 year old professional man whose childhood memories fall into three categories. First, there are those which his parents or other relatives have described and which he no longer knows if genuine or not – something most of us can relate to. Then there are the ones he can remember because they involved an important event, such as an accident, and which have not been related in great detail by another person (possibly because no one else was present). Finally, there are those which have been fixed in his mind in almost cinematic clarity, but seem to have no bearing on actual experience and no focal point to them. It is this third group that Freud regards as screen memories – in other words, those reminiscences which are a cover or screen for important events of a later date that have been repressed. He points out that this is not to say that the screen memories are themselves completely false, only that in their vivid detail they represent a stronger, later memory.
Of course, this being Freud, the case study he describes focuses on how the patient’s childhood memory of picking yellow flowers for a young girl in the Alps was a symbol for a later longing for a teenage cousin. The first memory had become a screen for the second one (which was of a sexual nature). While the analysis makes for interesting reading, Freud himself later believed that it was not always possible to apply this concept to all childhood memories which appeared to belong to that category. In addition, it was later discovered that the patient in the case study was in actual fact a fabrication and the screen memory described was one Freud himself had experienced.
The idea of screen memories is certainly an interesting one, although difficult to prove or disprove. But like most people I certainly have memories of events that happened to me in childhood which others recall in different ways, or not at all. In my own case, however, I think that some of my earliest memories eventually became mixed up with films I’d seen or books I’d read. Thus, for several years I believed I’d lived in an industrial city at the turn of the 19th century as I appeared to have very clear images of soot-stained brick walls and dark canals, as well as playing in cobbled car-free streets in an apron-covered dress and tackety boots. Later, like many teenagers I went through a phase where I believed in re-incarnation, and thus assumed I might have once been a Victorian child. I scoured every book in our local public library on the subject, leaving me even more confused and sometimes more than a little scared. Eventually I came to the conclusion that all the 19th century-based children’s literature (both classic and contemporary) which I’d devoured had imprinted itself upon my memory in such a way that I believed I’d had the experiences myself.
These false memories were, I believe, not so much screen memories as ones which stemmed from the times when we went visit our two sets of grandparents in Edinburgh and London. In the sixties and seventies, inner city buildings were still blackened with soot from coal fires, and many remnants of the industrial revolution were still visibly present in most town and cityscapes. Because I grew up in a modern suburban development built around a country village, I had little experience of urban environments. This meant that visits to grimy tenements in Edinburgh or trips down the river Thames to Greenwich, passing darkened factories and warehouses, were full of wonder for me, overlapping in my mind with the Victorian and Edwardian tales I’d so eagerly devoured as a child. Books such as Joan Aiken’s Midnight is a Place (1974) or Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies (1863) filled my head with strange images that threatened to spill into my dreams and colour my real life experiences. (The fact that they were also televised in the 70s may have also fed into my imagination).
N.B. Although The Water Babies was recommended by my own parents (who had read it themselves in childhood), it would seem as if some of the themes in the book which are related to race and identity would be rightfully viewed as rather contentious by today’s standards.
When family historians are in the enviable position of being able to ask older relatives about their childhood memories, there is a tendency to want to soak up all the details with which their stories are furnished and to pass them on to future generations. But just sometimes it appears impossible to reconcile such reminiscences with the time, and the age of the child. My father, for example, remembers his maternal grandmother as being an old lady in black who sat on a chair in the corner of the room. Yet, he was two when she died and it seems strange to think that he could have recollections of his Somerset-born grandmother, Harriet Stops, the old widow who’d presided over the family home in Brixton for more than thirty years. Even my aunt wrote once to say: I don’t remember Harriet very well but I thought she died before Bob was born, in my mind I can’t see him around and he was a great, fat lump of a baby!
Harriet Stops in her 70s
Setting aside what this comment may unwittingly show about the relationship of my father and his older sister, I’d like to think that he actually did remember his dour-looking grandmother, as this very act of remembrance creates a connective chain of memories that link forward to myself. As Roland Barthes points out at the very start of Camera Lucida: One day, quite some time ago, I happened on a photograph of Napoleon’s youngest brother, Jerome, taken in 1852. And I realized then, with an amazement I have not been able to lessen since: “I am looking at eyes that looked at the Emperor.” Sometimes I would mention this amazement, but since no one seemed to share it, nor even to understand it (life consists of these little touches of solitude), I forgot about it.
This was the same feeling I experienced when my aunt recognised my great-grandfather (who also died in 1930) from her parents’ wedding photograph in 1924. When she wrote to say that she knew it was her grandfather Arthur right away, then it suddenly hit me that my aunt had in fact known James’ Skelton’s second youngest son! This was an old man who possibly still had memories of his Yorkshire-born father: the one who was the first Skelton from the family to head to London and seek his fortune, thus creating the South London branch of the Wensleydale Skeltons. Although poverty meant that Arthur died relatively young (at age 70) and my aunt was only five at the time, his younger brother Sidney (after whom my grandfather was named) lived into his 80s, surviving until the 1940s. Thus there are still descendants out there who possibly would have been privy to tales of their grandfather’s childhood in Kennington with the elderly James and his much younger wife, Mary Ann Hawkins.
Grandad Arthur (1859-1930) is on the far left of the wedding group
However, tracing down living relatives with whom you have not had a prior connection is not as easy as it sounds. I’d always imagined that most would be eager to meet up and share their knowledge, but despite my best efforts I have not had much luck in this area – unless the relative in question was already involved in researching the family history.
This has luckily happened in the case of some of Arthur junior’s grandchildren (my grandfather’s older brother) who have furnished me with photographs and memories of Arthur’s children (their parents), and were a real impetus to continuing my research after a twenty-year hiatus. I have also been fortunate to make contact with a descendant of William Hawkins Skelton, the illegitimate first son Mary Ann had shortly prior to meeting my great-great grandfather. William was brought up in the Skelton-Hawkins household with the other five children they couple had together between 1850 and 1862 (see Black Sheep and Blackfriars) and may not even have known that his father was not actually James Skelton as he took both his parents’ names.
William Hawkins Skelton’s sons: Arthur William and Frederick James c1890s
But while the personal aspect to memory is what makes childhood recollections so fascinating, I believe it is also the very thing that makes them fallible. There are always cases where one family member swears that an event did not take place – or that the memory is not a true one. As the writer Hilary Mantel pointed out in an article about autobiography entitled ‘Father Figured’: Disagreement in accounts of family events is often due to ‘point of view’ – which, as every storyteller knows, is vital to what is reported. Because you recall things differently from your sibling, it doesn’t mean either of you are wrong. She went on to say: Freud with his passion for archaeology, influenced the way we think of memories, we imagine we have to dig for then. My instinct is that this is not true. In our brains, past and present co-exist; they occupy, as it were, adjoining rooms, but there are some rooms we never enter.
When discussing my aunt’s childhood with her on a visit to Somerset last summer (see Return to East Coker) I noticed that her current recollections of events did not always fit with previous ones from over a decade earlier. Thus I came to the conclusion that anything she repeated in which the same details overlapped must have been a strong and reliable memory – which certainly presents a case for showing patience when elderly relatives repeat the same stories again.
What I also realised on that visit to my aunt was that family photographs, although an excellent starting point for stimulating memories and putting names to faces, could occasionally actually be counter-productive. Relatives who looked similar (even across generations) were sometimes liable to be confused. And while the images were able to provoke strong reactions and awaken associated memories, they could at times constrict memory due to the focus on the single frozen moment when the photograph was taken. As Barthes points out near the end of Camera Lucida: The Photograph does not call up the past (nothing Proustian in a photograph). The effect it produces upon me is not to restore what has been abolished (by time, by distance) but to attest that what I see has indeed existed. He further adds that: The Photograph does not necessarily say what is no longer, but only and for certain what has been. This distinction is decisive. In front of a photograph, our consciousness does not necessarily take the nostalgic path of memory . . .
But what of screen memories (if they do indeed exist) or the other types of unreliable recollection of which I mentioned earlier? Sometimes I have this terrible fear that by the end of my life I may be babbling all sorts of nonsense. Not out of madness (although that may be a possibility), but by confusing everything I’ve seen, read or experienced over hopefully a long lifetime. Once on a visit to my then 90 year-old Scottish great-aunt whose middle name I bear, my husband asked her about her wartime service with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (or WAAFS). Were you in the war, too? my aunt retorted brightly. My mother gently pointed out to her that my husband had not been born until years after the war ended, but yet to me it did not seem such a strange thing for her to ask. Not because she was losing her faculties in any way, but because I sensed that for her time had taken on an elastic quality more in keeping with actual memory than in the way the clocks worked (the past and present co-existing).
I myself find it strange that things I consider as relatively recent events are consigned to history as far as most of my students are concerned. Born at the turn of the century they regard anything in the old century to be very much in the past. This has enabled me to be aware of how previous generations might have also felt, in particular those born a hundred years before myself. They would have been middle-aged in the 1920s and may have had to put up with the ‘bright, young things’ bemoaning the Victorian values with which they grew up or their struggle with new technology.
One thing I have become intrigued by during the last few years of my research is the tale of the mysterious ‘Rose’ (said to be my grandfather’s younger sister) as well as that of the foundling ‘Nell’ (said to be my grandfather’s niece). Hardly any records exist which can corroborate my aunt’s stories of these two women, who are both still just within living memory. My aunt once wrote to me about her father’s siblings and described his sister Rose so: Rose was the baby of the family and she suddenly started visiting us when Bob and I were very small, bringing us expensive presents. Bob had a tricycle once, I had a china-faced doll. Before we got too used to these presents, she died quite young, it was said from blood poisoning. She was scratched by a rusty nail in a packet of cigarettes – they said!
Eileen and Bob Skelton at the age when visited by Rose
However, my grandfather’s sister Rose (christened Rosina) was much older than my grandfather – who was actually the ‘baby of the family’ – and as I later found out (after wasting many weeks looking for her death in the 1930s) went on to live a long life, dying in north London in 1968, just around the corner from the flat in Whetstone which I rented in 1985, shortly after arriving in London (see A Rose in Holly Park). As Rose Ryall (née Skelton) had a large number of her own children over the years, it is very doubtful that she was the Rose to which my aunt alluded.
I first heard about Rose more than 30 years ago now, when my father (Bob) was still alive. Luckily that meant he was able to verify that someone like Rose had indeed existed, and described her as always very glamorous, wearing fur coats, perfume and bright lipstick when she came to visit, bearing her expensive presents for them. However, the whole thing does sound slightly odd – especially the Agatha Christie-type ending with the ominous They said! But I’ve come to believe that Rose was possibly just a family friend or a relative from the other side of the family. Maybe even a step-sister of my grandfather. But why she would dote on these two children in particular does not seem to make sense.
As both my aunt and father remembered Rose (or the woman said to be her), then I am confident that such a person did exist. In addition, I have often been surprised at how much information my aunt did recall which I was initially sceptical about, but that turned out to be true. For example, my aunt first wrote to tell me of the two brothers my grandfather lost in the First World War, where he himself served in the cavalry (see Portrait of my Grandfather as a Soldier). However, the two young men – whom my aunt said were named Ginger and Peter – did not appear to exist in the records.
Later I realised that Ginger was actually a nickname for red-haired James Francis, the boy named after his paternal and maternal grandfathers respectively, who left behind a widow and baby when he died in 1917. Peter took a little longer to find and it was not until the publication of another census that I discovered him to be my grandfather’s step-brother. Surprisingly my aunt had no knowledge of the fact that her father had lost both his mother and baby brother in the summer of 1895, when he was just three. And neither was she aware that a few months later he was being brought up by a new stepmother and living alongside a collection of step-siblings, one of whom was Peter Pushman.
Nell is the other mysterious woman in my grandfather’s history. She was said to be a foundling who arrived one day on the doorstep of Arthur Skelton junior’s household in Elm Road, Thornton Heath (Arthur was my grandfather’s older brother). On her wedding in 1935 to a local boy, also living in Elm Road, called Alfred Cosstick, she gives her name as Nellie Major and her age as 21, yet the details about her father remain blank. My aunt can still remember Nell as the oldest girl in the household – which was shared with Arthur’s five children, including Peter Sidney below, alongside Ginger’s widow and daughter (see The Two Arthurs).
Nell’s future husband, Alfred Cosstick, with Peter Sidney Skelton* c1930
*Peter was most likely named after Arthur Skelton junior’s step-brother (Peter) and his youngest brother, my grandfather (Sidney), proving that the brothers were close, having been through the Great War together (although Peter did not survive).
Would such a busy household have added another one had there had not been some kind of familial connection? This reminds me of a family in our neighbourhood when I was growing up. One of the youngest of the six children was said to be adopted, but he looked so like the rest of the family that it seemed obvious that he was actually their half-brother! So my own theory about Nell is that someone in the family was responsible for her existence, and that was why Arthur Skelton junior felt obliged to take her in.
Arthur Skelton Junior c1930s
In her eloquent memoir Giving up the Ghost, Hilary Mantel describes the relationship between memory and family secrets thus: I know, too, that once a family has acquired a habit of secrecy, memories begin to distort, because its members confabulate to cover the gaps in the facts; you have to make some sort of sense of what’s going on around you, so you cobble together a narrative as best you can. You add to it, and reason about it, and the distortions breed distortions.
Whether the true stories of Nell and Rose have become distorted over the years – intentionally or not – they remain the most enigmatic of female family figures for me. Perhaps because both their involvement with my own family ended abruptly. Rose with her strange death; Nell by quarrelling with my grandfather. When I visited my aunt last year, she finally remembered what the fall-out in the 1940s had been about. Apparently, my grandparents had stored some furniture from their bombed-out house in Norwood with Alf and Nell, who lived nearby. Later my grandfather discovered they had been using the furniture in their own household (a pragmatic-sounding decision, I thought) and this led to then cutting off contact for the rest of their lives. It seems a sad and petty story, and I’m sure there must be something more to it. But possibly emotions were heightened during the stresses and deprivations of the war, and fragile relationships were pushed to breaking point.
In every family there are at least one or two figures whose backgrounds are shrouded in mystery and whose tales remain untold. While records may not always offer up much in the way of enlightenment in these cases (although occasionally they can indeed help to solve such mysteries), childhood memories can in fact be a way to bring into focus those aspects that were deemed to be important at the time. These are often things that transcend the logic of adults and the facts of the record keeper, and which can cut through the years in their simplicity and honesty.
As Hilary Mantel states so succinctly in Giving up the Ghost: Still, I think people can remember: a face, a perfume: one true thing or two.
The Incidental Genealogist, March 2020