Part 1 In Peril on the Seas
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.
Part 2 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.
3 West Highgate Cemetery
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.