Margaret Innes

New Worlds: Reading, Wriitng and the Imagination

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Death in War: Artefacts of Time 2

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, 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.


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Artefacts of time: The Green Hare

In my hand is a small green china hare, the sole material legacy from my grandmother. It crouches in my palm, its ears curved over the mound of its back, so skilfully made that despite its colour, it could pass for the living creature itself. You can imagine it sniffing the air, tense with the possibility of danger. Turn it over and there are marks on the base that date it from 1914, the year World War One broke out. There is a stamp Royal Worcestershire England surrounded by a lengthy number too small for me to read without a magnifying glass. Cyphers to show the year my grandmother bought this fragile piece, when she was in her twenties with what little spare money she would have had from her small wages as a nurse. Something quietly beautiful, maybe hungered for, bought perhaps because it did look so much like something alive.

Gently, I close my hand over it, feeling its shape, the coolness of the china, just as I imagined my grandmother would have done when she’d first taken hold of it. Claiming it as a gift to herself, of her right to be here in the first place, to take some pleasure from life, saying to herself, I am, I am.

The green hare is what I call an artefact of time, a small, ordinary object left behind when a person dies which carries the weight of their life in an unexpected way. They are fragments that speak directly to the lives of the people who owned them, like the objects you might discover in any archaeological dig.

Another of these is a small brass dish from China, polished so often the pattern has almost worn away. It’s now is so abstract and faded, I hardly know how to describe it, an odd collection of off-centre squares collected together. Turn the dish over and the word CHINA is just visible. It still has the ancient blue of the cleaning solvent Brasso embedded in the A. It was brought home by my grandfather, James Innes Sim. He was from Ellon in Aberdeenshire, going to sea as an apprentice when he was fourteen sometime in the 1890s and becoming a marine engineer in the merchant navy. This little dish was bought somewhere while he was on shore leave, in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Nanjing or Canton, any of the many ports up and down the immense Chinese coastline, at any time from 1895 to 1939. My grandfather sailed to almost everywhere on earth and back again throughout his working life, often talking about what he’d seen when he was home. He must have seen the history of the world during the fifty years of his working life.

A second item is a Victorian electroplated nickel teapot with an elegantly curved handle, a neatly ribbed body and a lid where multiple decorations are topped with an oval piece of ebony. My grandfather used to keep his tobacco inside it, meaning it was unfit for any other use, especially making tea.  My grandfather met my grandmother when, as a former nurse, she was working as a stewardess on the Union-Castle Line, sailing to Cape Town in South Africa when he was working in the engine room. He was often away and I imagine him on his time at home, sitting with my grandmother at the kitchen table once their children were in bed, opening the teapot and taking out his tobacco to fill his pipe. Then sitting over tea and a smoke, talking to his wife about the journey he’d just completed, where he’d been, what he’d seen.

I have a third item relating to him, a cameo necklace he brought back from Greece and gave to my mother when she was fifteen, three heads in a filigree setting on a long chain. As I write, it sits, carefully cleaned, in my jewellery box. My grandfather remembered his family, even if he wasn’t there with them, and in the Depression, a time of great scarcity, he provided a home and sufficient money for his small family to live and his children to be educated.

When World War 2 ended my grandfather was awarded the 1939-1945 Star, given for service throughout the conflict. The records show he collected his ribbon but not his medal. I have neither of those things. Perhaps the object that most speaks to him is a plain watch with a black leather wristband which was kept for many years in a small cardboard box, its corners held in place with metal studs. The box was embossed with the maker’s name, so worn away it’s now unreadable. All I can make out is Jewellers, 56 Cheapside, London, EC 2. According to my mother, my grandfather was fascinated by watches, he liked to take them apart and then put them back together. This watch was the last one he had before he died in 1957. He was an individual who looked at how things were made up, whether it was the machinery he worked with, watches as a hobby, or the world he encountered in his work. The watch disappeared sometime in the last ten years of my mother’s life but I still remember it clearly, just as I remember him, the only one of my grandparents I ever knew. He spent his last years living with us before dying in a home for ill sailors at the age of 69, following my grandmother by a little less than a decade. I was only four but I remember him affectionately sitting up in bed in the backroom, doing his pools.

All these memories and fragments of people’s lives are reimagined through the medium of a few small objects that might otherwise be so easily overlooked.




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The Yew Tree, Part 2: Stepping into Eternity – West Highgate Cemetery

More on my grandmother & her remarkable life.

When I started writing about my grandmother, Carmen Palmer, I realised needed to know something of the world she was born into so unprotected, as a foundling in England in 1890. I had to have some understanding of the place she was being offered in that world, the limitations placed on her or perhaps even some of the opportunities that might have opened out for her, classless as she was in a class-riven society. To my surprise, I found the best insight into that world in West Highgate Cemetery in London in the spring of 2014, almost seventy years after my grandmother’s death.

West Highgate Cemetery stands on the hill high above London and the Thames, close to Hampstead Heath. When the cemetery was founded near the village of Highgate in the 1830’s, the Thames reeked in summer from sewerage and waste, a smell that only grew worse as the years passed. The better-off built their houses in the leafier suburbs far away from the stench and buried their dead where the air was fresher as well. Up at Highgate cemetery the vistas across London were like a view into infinity. Over the years, a necropolis for the wealthy was built on this seventeen acres of ground, consisting of chapels, catacombs and vaults often intended for the exclusive use of. One, a photograph of which is also on the cemetery’s website, reads: The Family Vault of John and Elizabeth Owen, The Ferns, Upper Clapton. Upper Clapton must have been a good address to have. It was obviously something the Owens thought worth saying even in death. Then there is the Egyptian Avenue, the Circle of Lebanon, and from the millionaire, Julius Beer, an astonishing mausoleum built for his daughter who died at the age of eight. Devastated, he gave her a tomb befitting who she was, his daughter, showing her as a praying child being lifted into heaven by an angel. However magnificent this building was, all I wanted to do was to leave it as soon as I could and step back into the sunshine, where I could hear the birds sing and smell the freshness in the air. Nothing caught the terrible intensity of his heartbreak like its marble walls. All of Beer’s wealth had proved useless against death.

We were visiting the cemetery, not to seek out my grandmother’s grave – she lies elsewhere – but as sightseers, visiting Julius Beer’s mausoleum as a part of an organised tour. West Highgate was abandoned by the mid-twentieth century and the natural world has been taking it back ever since. Our guided tour took us uphill through winding paths where the headstones, tombs and funerary monuments were overgrown with ivy. The paths themselves were overhung with well-grown trees while undergrowth crowded over the grave sites. In some places the trees had broken up the ground, their roots encircling the graves in a tight grip. Everything around us was green and lush in the late spring, peaceful on a sunny day. The catacombs were empty resting places, bees might nest in them perhaps or butterflies flitter from the shadows into the light. However fascinating the cemetery was, there was something pleasing about seeing the trees and shrubs re-take this place, providing shelter for living creatures and in the middle of the city, turning it into an almost wild place.

Why build this strange theme park for death to begin with? All kinds of Victorian beliefs and hopes meet here. The almost universal belief in the afterlife, the fervent hope of heaven and the real and abiding terror of hell. I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. Words that were imprinted into every churchgoers mind from childhood onwards. For the vast majority of people they would have gone unquestioned. Provided the deceased had lived a good Christian life, the devout belief was that on the Day of Judgement the dead would rise bodily intact from these vaults and be transfigured to take their place in bliss with the elect. To live sinfully was to be thrown down into Hell and burn eternally with the damned. But Victorian society was also a place where a person might think to put their place of residence on their tomb. Then everyone would know that before they’d stepped into eternity, they’d also had good standing in the material world.

Looking back, I’ve come to realise that the West Highgate necropolis is a mirror of the world my grandmother, Carmen was born into. One where a person’s every action and thought might be judged. Where who someone was mattered much more than what kind of person they were. In this place, wealth, hierarchy, status and respectability were all laying a claim to best that death and life had to offer. As a foundling, Carmen had to make her way through this world with the rigidities of its class structure, its inequalities of wages and chances, with only herself to rely on. I am sure that weight could be difficult for her to carry sometimes. Amid the ruined tombs, it was possible to see that weight as something powerful and real in the mind.

On that sunny spring day, the overgrown paths had a tranquillity far removed from any apocalyptic visions of the Last Judgement. One of the last things we saw during the tour was the Grove of Lebanon. It’s reached through the Egyptian Avenue, which has an entrance flanked by massive obelisks and fat pseudo-Egyptian columns. The avenue itself is lined with tombs which are now empty. Above is an ancient Cedar of Lebanon in a large circular plot, its roots bound by the tombs beneath. It was planted before the cemetery came into being, on the grounds of Ashurst House which was demolished in the 1830s. For all the dead who were once brought here in the hope of a new life hereafter, this tree, which predates them, is still here. It’s still living and still growing. The natural world can continue to grow and regenerate, whatever happens to us.



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Don Draper: American Faust.

As a break from family history (just until next time), thoughts at the end of Season Six of Mad Men, also about family.

In the episode In Care Of at the end of season six of Mad Men, Don Draper and the rest of the partners are meeting with Hershey executives. It’s a coup to have them at the agency. They don’t usually advertise, their chocolates are too well known. Don disarms the executives with a pitch that could have come straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. How when he was a boy his father would reward him for work well done by tousling his hair and giving him a Hershey bar. The audience knows this is an absolute fiction even if Hershey doesn’t. Don Draper is really Richard Whitman who lost his mother at birth and was brought up in poverty. His father was a brutal alcoholic killed by a kick from a spooked horse, a death witnessed by Richard when he was ten. Richard became Don when he switched dog tags with his commanding officer in the Korean War after the real Draper was killed in an explosion accidentally caused by Whitman. Don’s past is traumatic and abusive, lacking any true love or tenderness, his present persona a flawed, complex mix of brilliance and unpleasant contradictions built out of a dead man’s stolen identity.

The pitch works, the executive are readying to leave when everything changes. For whatever reason, Don suddenly begins to tell the true story of his childhood. How (after his father died) he was brought up in a brothel and that he used to go through the clothes of one of the prostitute’s customers looking for money. If he found as much as a dollar, the prostitute would buy him a Hershey bar. If this wasn’t enough, he then tells the executives they don’t need an ad campaign. No one knows what to think or say, everyone leaves awkwardly, deeply embarrassed. By this time Don is sinking into alcoholism, his behaviour becoming more erratic, as if he’s in a death spiral. Later in the episode, Don’s partners tell him he has to take leave until he returns to something they can recognise as normal. It’s really a request that he quits.

Thomas Mann’s novel, Dr Faustus, concerns the life of the fictional composer, Adrian Leverkühn. Close to the end of the book Adrian, in a final recitation, tells an assembled group of friends and colleagues how he sold his soul to the devil. “[T]hat already since my twenty-first year I am wedded to Satan and with due knowledge of peril, out of well-considered courage, pride and presumption because I would win glory in this world I made with him a bond and vow, so that all which during the term of four and twenty years I brought forth, and which mankind justly regarded with mistrust, is only with his help come to pass and is divel’s work, infused by the angel of death.” He then goes on to detail the terrible consequences of his damnation to his assembled friends and colleagues. It’s all too much for everyone and one by one they leave, until only a very few loyal friends remain. As D. J. Enright puts it in his poem, It is Poetry,

As Leverkühn began his last address
To the cultivated ladies and gentlemen
There assembled,
They were highly bewildered.

Till one of them cried,
‘Why, it is poetry! One is hearing poetry!’
Thus relieving them all immensely.

But not for long –
As the composer’s friend noted –
Alas, not for long did one think so!
They were hearing about damnation.

It sent the speaker mad.
The listeners it sent home indignant.
They had expected an artistic soirée.

Don Draper’s partners were expecting to close a deal with Hershey. The reality was too much for them as well. Some of them will never forgive him.

When in the opening credits, Don Draper’s office dissolves around him and he begins his slow fall through the images of American advertising to parachute somehow into his office chair, cigarette in hand, he’s Faust selling his soul for the rewards of this world. The one woman he seems to have shown his true self to, who he could speak to, Anne Draper, the real Don Draper’s wife, dies of cancer. He later repudiates his brother who them commits suicide. His success is measured against his growing emptiness, where Megan’s voice disappears into silence while she’s still talking to him or where he curls up at the foot of the door to his apartment when he can’t go any further or starts drinking first thing in the morning. Or when Peggy Olsen calls him a monster when he’s really only trying to protect her.

He’s one of the great characters of American fiction, right at the heart of capitalism and all its works. An ad man who is also its poet, successfully singing its manipulations of emotion, its stories, propaganda and rewards to the public. An insider who is really an outsider, a fraud as Pete Campbell, a quintessential insider, realises. And yet he’s not a fraud. The whole point of capitalism is to consume. (Beautifully illustrated when Betty Draper shakes the entire rubbish of a family picnic off the blanket and onto the grass in the park where they have just been eating, leaving it to litter the ground.) What does it matter who you are as long as you do consume and persuade others to do so as well? There’s just too much hard reality in Don’s background for him to ignore the dislocation between his past and present. He exists in a world of double mirrors where past and present, reality and the fantasy of advertising (which he does so well), his addictive womanising and drinking, are forever conflicting with each other, leaving him nothing solid to hold onto, not even the money he earns.

At the end of the episode In Care Of, Don takes his children to the house where he grew up to show it to them. The brothel is now a ruined shell of itself, isolated amid other derelict buildings. When he says this, Sally, his daughter, who’s already caught him having sex with his next door neighbour’s wife, looks up at him, shaken. Her questioning look asks, who are you, what are you? A question the character, if she existed in reality, would probably be asking herself for the rest of her life.




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Threads of a life story: 2 – Antecedents

The Yew Tree in the Churchyard – an unwritten novel.

For my grandmother, Carmen Palmer (1890? – 1948) whose grave is unmarked.

Writing this, I am picking up at the place where I left off in my last blog, with W.B. Yeats poem, The Circus Animals’ Desertion:

Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

The heart is not just the only place to find my grandmother, it’s the kindest as well. If the following seems bleak, my apologies to my readers.

As far as I know, The Yew Tree in the Churchyard is the title of a novel my grandmother imagined but never wrote. It’s all part of her enigma which is real, not manufactured. She was a foundling, starting in the world without parents or protection. There are no actual records but it’s believed she was born somewhere in England around about 1890. She never seems to have given any precise date or place either to her husband or her two children, my mother and uncle. Probably she didn’t know herself. She may have gone into an institution, whatever they were like back then, not very good places to be. I was told she was later adopted by a Canon Lambert and his wife in Stevenage. According to the archives in Lambeth Palace, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s London residence, there was a Canon Frederick Fox Lambert in the Hertfordshire District. He was, according to Hertfordshire District archives, connected to Turnford School less than twenty miles from Stevenage. My mother was born, or so her birth certificate says, in Welwyn Garden City, also just fifteen miles away. Perhaps this area in England really was where my grandmother was brought up. The present town of Turnford sits close to the Lee Valley Park, 10,000 acres of green lungs for London including marshland. Perhaps back then it was a wilder place full of living creatures and thickets of flowers and trees.

Where my grandmother is concerned, legends abound, facts are few. What information I do have comes from my mother who was herself uncertain about it. Her father was a doctor perhaps, her mother Italian maybe. According to my mother she was dark haired, dark complexioned. None of that is reflected in either my brother or myself. She was a registered nurse. Perhaps, like the Campbells in Jane Austen’s Emma who raised Jane Fairfax to be a governess, the Fox Lamberts had given her the means of respectable subsistence hereafter. She had no family to fall back on, certainly no money. I looked over Canon Fox Lambert’s biography sent to me by the very helpful archivist at Lambeth Palace. He is described as a gentleman from Stockwell, Surrey and a graduate of Corpus Christi College, Oxford. A more different background to my grandmother, born on the outer edge of society and without any family or security, could hardly be imagined.

My grandmother nursed in World War 1 and gave the impression – quote my mother – of nursing in Belgium, something I have yet to verify. She did have a friend who was a nurse, one who often came to visit when my mother was small, from the 1920s into the early 30s. Thereby hangs a sad story. The friend, for whom I have no name, left with my grandmother a christening mug as a gift. She then committed suicide, not that unusual for women who had nursed throughout World War 1 and seen terrible things. Her family came to ask for the mug back but my grandmother told them she didn’t have it. It had been a final parting gift from one friend to another and she didn’t intend to give it up. That christening mug, ornate silver, decorated with bunches of grapes around the fine lip and standing plump on four delicate silver feet, now sits in my brother’s house.

She met my grandfather, a ship’s engineer, after the war when working for the Union Castle Line, travelling from London to Cape Town as a combined nurse/ stewardess. She loved Cape Town. Back then it must have been rich in its multi-racial vibrancy before the terrible destructions of Apartheid, with Table Mountain serving as a stunning backdrop. A warm place with pale gold beaches, aquamarine seas and space to breathe. A place to step out of herself, somewhere she could relax whatever constraints her life might have placed on her feelings, her sense of self by her background.

Once married, my grandmother settled to life in the Essex village of Rayleigh where she had her two children, Mary & Ian. After the children had been born, she apparently won the Daily Mail short story competition in 1928 but, so my mother said, refused to supply them with a photograph of herself. She didn’t want to be seen. She wanted to be unknown.

So the rest of the handful of facts I have of my grandmother’s life are these. She loved to read. She loved Mary Webb’s novels, especially Precious Bane. She didn’t like to read about families. She did not understand, my mother said, how families worked. Her husband was often away. She was distant and did not eat with her children. She was not loving. You would have to say that as a child, she’d never received any love herself. I think the reason she loved Precious Bane is because in the novel, a child marked as a disfigured outsider and threatened by the community grows to find love and happiness. She was a dreamer. She might have been an unloving mother but she made sure her children were educated.  She’d been associated with a canon of the church and his family but never went to church herself.

The unwritten novel, The Yew Tree in the Churchyard, did exist as an idea because my mother knew about it. The scenario was simple: a record of everything the tree might have witnessed from the time of the Saxons to the present. I searched for a novel of this name in case somehow it was a book she’d read and appropriated for herself but no such title is listed. Yew trees were often planted in English churchyards and some of them are very ancient, 1000 or more years old. Images show them as gnarled, planted protectively close to the church building.  I wondered if her association with a church family had anything to do with her choice. She spoke of its possibilities to my mother, catching my mother’s imagination enough for her to speak of it to me decades later. My mother even once asked if I would like to write it but I said no, I wouldn’t know where to start. But I can imagine my grandmother dreaming of events stretching over that time frame, filling them with characters and actions, perhaps before she went to sleep at night on the many occasions her husband away was at sea and she was raising her children alone.

My grandmother’s end was tragic. Her son Ian died in the war when his ship was torpedoed by the enemy in 1943. She had seemed an unloving mother but she did not recover from the shock. Her mind slipped away and my mother had to come home from being in the air force to look after her. She hid herself from people, refused to talk to anyone and showed signs of dementia even though she was at best in her mid-fifties. She died in Rochford Hospital on the 3rd of March 1948. The doctors were so puzzled by her death, they ordered an autopsy which only supplied the very broad diagnosis of ‘atrophy of the brain’. We still don’t know what actually happened to her. Her grave is unmarked. That was what she wanted.

My grandmother made such a powerful impression on my mother that even in her old age, she would speak of her as someone intimidating and unknowable. My father grew up in the same village as my mother and knew my grandmother. I once asked him about her, on the one occasion we ever spoke to each other about such things. She had a quality, he said, an intelligence that made her someone out of the ordinary. He admired her. She gave my mother her love of reading and now I have that gift. My mother’s belief in education came from my grandmother. The fact that I went to university and have a degree, went on to work in a professional occupation with a decent wage, is her heritage. Whenever I write, it’s down to her. It’s quite an achievement for someone who came into the world with nothing and was probably not expected to do very much with her life, was probably not even expected to have much of a mind. She had one with the power of imagination, to see and create different worlds, to look past the restrictions imposed by her antecedents, leaving behind that very same quality in her children and her grandchildren. She must have had great personal strength.

In putting her into one of my letters to the universe (as a friend of mine calls my blogs), I’m revealing her in a way she would have rejected. She is past that fear now and my belief is that all she should feel in being known is pride for everything she achieved against such odds.






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Threads of a life story: 1 – In peril on the sea

For my grandfather & my uncle

Robert Lowell’s poem The Quaker Graveyard at Nantucket begins with this:

A brackish reach of shoal off Madaket –
The sea was still breaking violently and night
Had steamed into our North Atlantic Fleet,
When the drowned sailor clutched the drag-net. Light
Flashed from his matted head and marble feet,
He grappled at the net
With the coiled, hurdling muscles of his thighs:
The corpse was bloodless, a botch of reds and whites,
Its open, staring eyes
Were lustreless dead-lights
Or cabin-windows on a stranded hulk
Heavy with sand.

I’ve started this blog with these lines thinking of both my grandfather and my uncle in peril on the sea. Both served in the British merchant marine during World War II which, like today’s wars, was a time of peril if ever there was one. But this is also for those other times when as well as the threat of an enemy, they must have endured storms and gale force winds, when they would have wondered if their ships would be swallowed up by the sea and they would never come home again. In the end my grandfather made that journey back but not my uncle; he became one of those who Lowell writes of here, where the sea became their grave.

I also chose this poem because the North Atlantic is important to this story. I visited that ocean once, going to Newfoundland where the sea was sea-weed brown and the water icy cold. Off this coast, the Titanic’s 1500 souls were lost. The tropical blue-green seas of the Pacific Ocean that roll against our beaches in Australia are sometimes placid and sometimes roar with massive, spectacular waves, but they don’t have that sense of cold and relentless fury the North Atlantic seems to have.

The sea was my grandfather, James Innes Sim’s place of work. He was a marine engineer for almost fifty years. In that labour, he travelled across the world and knew all the seas and their moods intimately. He was from Ellon, in Aberdeenshire, and had gone to sea at the age of fourteen which would have been about 1901. I’ve no idea what shipping line he started with as an apprentice or where he joined up, perhaps Aberdeen just down the road. I can only guess he learned his skills by doing every job in the engine rooms from the least to the most skilled. For many years he worked for P&O. He met my grandmother on board ship to Cape Town when she was a registered nurse employed by the shipping line. It would have been 1919. My grandmother visited Cape Town more than once. She loved the city and its surrounds; it was vibrant, beautiful and unlike anywhere else she’d been, a perfect place for a courtship. Neither of them were very young. My grandmother would have been about 29; my grandfather 32.

Once married, my grandmother settled down to domestic life in the small Essex town of Rayleigh where she had two children, my mother and my uncle Ian. Like his father, Ian also joined the merchant marine. We have a single photograph of him in his uniform and cap, very young and smiling. That’s all there is left of his life. He died in the war in 1943 when his ship was torpedoed. He would have been twenty and his body, like those of the others on board, was never recovered. As for James, his boat was also shot out from underneath him when he was making the North Atlantic crossing with the merchant fleet. As well as the threat of its unforgiving weather and the freezing temperatures, the chances of being sunk by a German U-boat were very high. The crossing saw many deaths, seamen, civilians, children often, and military people as well. My grandfather spent several days in an open boat with the other survivors before they were rescued. Once he had been, he went back to work.

At that time, he still had a wife and a daughter to support. My grandmother, either from the grief at losing her son or an unknown underlying illness or most likely both, died in 1948. My grandfather was at sea and came home too late for her funeral. Not long afterwards, he and my mother went up to Ellon to visit his family There were few of them left; they’d been touched by war as well, both the first and second. He and my mother came back to Essex where my mother married my father, someone she’d known all her life. They went to live in London; my grandfather went back to the sea.

James spent his last years with us, sleeping in the back bedroom of our house in Ruislip, after my father had left his marriage when I was four years old. By then he was ill. He spent most of the day in bed, sometimes doing his pools. He liked his porridge with salt; he was a Scotsman. I was very young but I can remember his face and I know I liked him. He died in his late sixties, partly from a lifetime‘s hard work but also as a result of his exposure during the days he spent in an open boat in the north Atlantic. He was my mother’s last immediate relative: the war had taken every member of her family which is another reason for saying, as the song sung by Edwin Starr goes, War/ What is it good for?/ Absolutely nothing.

When the war ended my grandfather was awarded the 1939-1945 Star, given for continuous service throughout the conflict. The records show he collected his ribbon but not his medal. The main things I have in the house to remind me of him are an old pewter teapot in which he used to keep his tobacco, a cameo necklace he brought home for my mother when she was fifteen and a brass frog ashtray hinged at the back legs so you can open and close it.

So of these few details, who is the man at the heart of it? According to my mother, my grandfather was fascinated by watches. I remember for many years we had in a box so old the maker’s label had worn away, a plain watch with a black leather wristband, the last watch my grandfather had had before he died. He was someone who worked hard, acquired knowledge and a skill and supported his family; who travelled the world and knew a great deal about it. An ordinary man whose life was anything but wasted. He brought home gifts and was brave enough – like many others – to go to sea in a ship when it was in great danger of being sunk. Probably he looked death in the face many times during those six years of the war, as so many people did, and knew it in his heart when he lost his son and his wife. He was a man with a mind, an individual who looked at how things were made up, whether it was the machinery he worked with, watches as a hobby, or the world he encountered in his work. He lives on as someone I remember with affection.

I started this blog with an extract from a poem about the sea, its moods and what it can take from us, such as my uncle’s life far too soon. I’ve finished up with beginnings of a life story, not a biography, not a strict list of facts but a meditation on the past and the people who lived there. Where do I start, is question most writers ask themselves too often for it to be funny. I’ve started in the heart, the place where you always have to start in this business, sorting out what matters and what doesn’t. Beautifully crafted by the last verse in W. B. Yeats’ The Circus Animals’ Desertion.

Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

This is true for us all when we decide to examine our pasts and see what they’re made of. Just as I’ve tried to do here and will try again next time, writing about the first writer in my family, the registered nurse, the woman my grandfather married. All in the hope of getting to the heart of lives which, however remarkable, outside of fiction so often go unnoticed.


Death, Chopin and the butterfly. Etude Opus 25 no. 9.

Gary Larson & José Saramago’s differing takes on what happens when Death takes time off.  (Warning- spoilers)

In Gary Larson’s animated short film Death takes a holiday, Death decides he needs a break. From memory, since I can’t find the cartoon on YouTube, he hangs up his scythe, swaps his black robe for a floral one, pats his bony dog goodbye, gets into a taxi and heads off to visit somewhere that might even be Waikiki. As you might expect in a Larson cartoon, terrible things happen while Death is out and about enjoying himself. He goes for a stroll along the beach and behind him, a huge wave rolls up and carries away the innocent sunbakers. Wherever he is on his holiday, he leaves calamity behind him before returning home, presumably to get on with the more mundane task of carrying people away in their everyday lives. Larson’s cartoons aren’t called The Far Side for nothing: from Frankenstein cows to hunters hunted and abducted by aliens he turns everything on its head as bizarrely and sharply as he can. Death sunning his bony self at a holiday spot creates disaster. What else would happen?

José Saramago’s take is a bit different. In his novel Death Interrupted, each nation has its own dedicated figure of death and in this case, she’s a woman. Inexplicably on the stroke of midnight one day, in an unnamed landlocked nation, people stop dying, even if they’re injured, old or ill. At first everyone celebrates but as time passes chaos ensues. Religious leaders fear the loss of their moral authority. What can the Resurrection possibly mean if nobody dies in the first place? The undertakers’ guild is mortified to realise they may be reduced to burying pets to stay in business. (Death for the animals is another classification.) Then someone discovers that if you cross the border into the neighbouring country, death will take its natural course. Soon people begin to cross in droves, taking their dying with them. Almost immediately the maphia (as Saramago spells it) is running a racket to get you across in whatever way you want. Unsurprisingly, the neighbouring nation objects and troops are stationed on the border to keep the invading populace within bounds. The unnamed state is caught between the maphia and the threat of war with its neighbour.

Then death (as Saramago always spells her name, with a lower case d.) decides it’s time to get back to work but with a difference. From now on every person will be notified of their impending demise by receiving a violet coloured letter a week beforehand. This will give them the time, so death believes, to get their affairs in order and meditate on the meaning of life & death in a calm way. Of course, the exact opposite occurs. Everyone lives in terror of finding a violet coloured letter in their mailbox. Once they do, people settle scores, spend their inheritance or become debauched.

Another glitch occurs; death has been trying to advise a cello player that his time is up but every time she sends out her message, it reappears on her desk untouched and unread. She decides to go and see him in the hope of finding out why. An unseen presence in his apartment, she enters his music room. “Death caressed the strings of the cello, softly ran her fingers over the keys of the piano, but only she could have heard the sound of the instruments, a long, grave moan followed by a brief bird-like trill, both inaudible to human ears, but clear and precise to someone who had long ago learned to interpret the meaning of sighs.” While she is there, the cellist wakes up and goes to the kitchen where he drinks a glass of water; death wonders what it’s like to be thirsty. He goes back to bed and to sleep again. His dog, who had been sleeping on the bed, curls up on the carpet; death is watching him from the sofa. “Much later, the dog got up from the carpet and jumped up onto the sofa. For the first time in her life, death knew what it felt like to have a dog on her lap.”

You might ask, why use the words ’for the first time in her life” when talking about death or how an unseen presence could have a lap? But Saramago gives her a character and humanises her. She follows the cellist to his orchestra where he declares to his fellow musicians that his portrait is summed up in the 58 seconds of Chopin’s Etude Opus 25 no. 9. She remakes herself as a living woman and listens to him play in the orchestra. Finally she speaks to him, they take a taxi ride together. Finally they become lovers.

Saramago might be saying that our lives are as brief as the butterfly fluttering happily in the sun, as the 58 seconds of the etude by Chopin with that name. Death Interrupted was published in its original Portuguese in 2005 and released in English in 2008. Saramago died in 2010 at the age of 88. He was writing until the end of his life. I wonder if in his early 80’s Saramago, meditating on death and how much of his life might still be left to him, thought to create a portrait of death that could give comfort. A whimsical hope that death might only be a lover in whose arms you can simply fall asleep. In the final sentences of the book it is death who gently goes to sleep in the arms of her lover. The final words of the book are: “The following day, no one died.” These are the same words with which the book began, although now their context is completely different.

Both fictions are satire, their premises off-the-wall. Larson has a black edge, intensifying reality. Saramago ends with a fantasy you can lose yourself in if you want to. It’s up to us all how we deal with the inevitable, hopefully with compassion to both ourselves and to others. Maybe by listening to Chopin.