Margaret Innes

New Worlds: Reading, Writing and the Imagination

Artefacts of Time

1     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.

 

2     Death in War

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.

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