This is the second in my blogs on what I’ve called artefacts of time, history written in small, ordinary things that are otherwise overlooked. I’ve described them as objects left behind when a person dies which carry the weight of someone’s life in an unexpected way. I call them fragments which speak directly to the lives of the people who owned them, like the objects you might find in any archaeological dig.
This all brings me to my uncle Ian Hamish Innes Sim. The artefact I have from him is an ashtray in the shape of an elephant’s foot. It’s made of dark brown wood with a vertical black grain and with a lighter brown variation down one side. It’s effectively, if simply carved, slanting inwards towards the base of the foot and out again for the toes, with pieces of bone for the elephant’s toenails. The ashtray itself is at the top and there are little notches where you can rest your cigarette. It’s young man’s first purchase, something you could describe as ugly and hopefully it wasn’t very expensive. It was bought during a time when most people smoked, as a novelty to bring home to the family. It’s from Ceylon as it was called then, a tourist piece, not unlike many other modern souvenirs that sit in people’s living rooms around the world.
My uncle has a distinction no other member of my mother’s family has. He is the only one for whom I have a photograph. There’s no date on it but it can’t be much earlier than 1939 when he was seventeen. My uncle joined the merchant marine as an apprentice motor mechanic sometime around that date. The photograph is a head and shoulders shot, showing him in his uniform, jacket, snowy white shirt, tie and peaked cap with his merchant marine cap badge. He has jug ears, prominent darkly-coloured arched eyebrows, deep set eyes, a long nose with the faint curve of the cheekbones either side, and a cupid bow mouth. It’s a nice looking face and when you strip away the cap, it’s a boy’s face, very young. What’s most striking is the look of deep sadness in his eyes. Was that to do with the past or the future? Was there sadness in his upbringing or did he have a premonition of his fate?
My uncle was just nineteen years of age when his ship, the unescorted British motor merchant Oakbank, was torpedoed by the German U-boat U-507 on 27 December 1942 about 200 miles north-northeast of Fortaleza in Brazil. According to the website uboat.net, 24 crew members and 3 gunners were lost. The others were picked up by passing ships while 2 crew managed to reach shore on a raft. The captain and my uncle were taken prisoner on board U-507. They then lost their lives on 13 Jan 1943 when U-507 was sunk by a depth charge from a US Catalina aircraft. There were no survivors.
My uncle’s name is recorded in the Tower Hill Memorial in London for members of the merchant marine who have no known grave and where he is, his certificate tells me, remembered with honour. He sleeps somewhere in the South Atlantic with the men who in life were his enemies but who are all now permanently connected to him death. His death was shock from which my grandmother never recovered.
The final artefact I have is a gift from my uncle to my mother. It’s Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of English Verse, a gift edition with a blue leather cover with a gold impression of Pan playing his pipes on the front, blue marbled end papers and gold edging on the pages. The spine is just as ornate, with the title Golden Treasury of Songs and Lyrics and a Corinthian column also printed in gold. The dedication is simply ‘To my sister Mary, Christmas, 1939, Ian.’ Perhaps he was already apprenticed to the merchant marine by then and that was how he could afford what must have been a reasonably expensive gift. My uncle’s writing is very similar in style to my mother’s. Maybe it’s all to do with the way people were taught to write in the 1930s.
The anthology is filled with small poems my mother cut from the newspapers: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘How do I love thee,’ lyrics from Keats, Shelley’s, ‘Lovely lyric of regret,’ Rarely, rarely, comest thou, Spirit of Delight!’ Looked at on its own, the book speaks to my mother’s deep love of reading which she got from her mother and which she in turn passed on to me, something her brother also recognised in her.
These are all small things but they speak to a family’s personal history of the world for a half a century, ending in the conflicts of World War 2 by which time that world had been changed forever.