History (part 2)

(Reader, today I write on my phone from a holiday establishment and am operating via a 3G signal – this may not end well!)

What tangled webs we weave when first we practise to deceive… Walter Scott 

Lay down one lie – even a necessary one – and other lies then become impossible to avoid. To a lesser or greater degree we have all experienced this: as children perhaps when we’ve been caught out stealing the cookies from the cookie jar, as adults who have promised the delivery of a piece of work (without beginning to know where to start it: I’d back myself to be smart enough to find out!) But to lay down one lie about who you are fundamentally means that you will be committed, with those people, to living that lie forever… and to do that with those who you are most intimate with means you must never be otherwise, never be who you really are. And you must close off doors, and pathways and never go back. And so it was with Ilsa.

The book that Magda took to get translated was a work of extraordinary diligence from her parents. Walter, her father – front to back in the book – spoke of his time in Germany, and gave just a hint of his experience of being in the regiment that liberated Bergen Belsen, an experience so traumatic he never shared it openly again. He witnessed such horrific sights that this taciturn, rocklike man locked it down in a place so far within him that he could not quite resolve the deep, unerring sadness that often fell upon him. In passing, within the exercise book, he mentioned his wife – not Ilsa – but the first one he would leave to marry her. But the deal was that he could open his heart this once, tell his story and then each would know how bad it was for the other and then they’d reach a pact that meant they would never need to speak of it again. This suited Wally, it meant he could survive. The law of unforeseen  consequences been what it is, it also meant Ilsa only had to explain herself only once.

Rest assured if you lived in mainland Europe during the Second World War it was bad for everyone. And so it must have been for Ilsa.

She wrote her story back to front in the book in Gothic German script that was borderline unfathomable much like the woman herself. The translator called and said, “Words just don’t translate… or I can’t make it out.” Truths that shaped her throughout her life…

Ilsa wrote that she had been married and her husband, like most men, had joined the army. Together they’d had a child Barbel, a girl. Her husband was sent to the front where he sadly died. Soon after, she wrote,  so too did Barbel. Aged 4.  Her soul Ilsa said, had died. Then, her entire family had been wiped out. By a bomb.  Sisters, mother, father, all. She was alone. In the world, the only one left.

She had, she said, been in Dresden during the horrific bombing campaign surviving on her wits. Sometimes starving; going for days and days without food. Seen bodies charred and black, witnessing children eating rats to survive. Then, as the war ended, and Hitler killed himself, she became, like thousands of other people, displaced.

What this meant was that she could leave, find a place of refuge. In the midst of this she met Wally but she also, according to her testimony flew half way across Europe with two German airmen who flew to Prague before realising they were flying towards the Russians so flew back to Bergen Belsen figuring they’d be safer with the British. That was, of course, where she met Wally.

This then, offered some explanation as to why Ilsa was so difficult, why she was angry, explosive, challenging. Why she could turn on her kids as though they were somehow responsible for the world’s ills. The siblings felt, at last, that even though her words had come from the grave, they were finally able to make sense of the woman who had dominated their lives. Who wouldn’t be a bit mad if such tragedy had befallen them?

Such tragedy befell many – it has to be said – and they didn’t turn into raging, unhinged dervishes… but still it was a framework to understand it all, a way to move on.

And also, they reasoned, after the war she was a German living in England. Jeered at for asking for red cabbage in the green grocer (“We feed that to animals here, love.”) and snubbed by some she encountered she built an external, perpetually cheerful persona – on the outside – to survive. And that just wasn’t sustainable on the inside.

So as Magda, Steph and Fred reflected they came, they thought, to understand the ways of their mother better. Displaced, hurt, in emotional pain it made sense that she only came alive when she went to Germany or when they celebrated Easter or Christmas German style. And who wouldn’t be traumatised by having lost a husband or a child? By having your entire family wiped out?

And then the letter arrived.

It was 2005, or thereabouts. It was written by a woman called Elis. She was not German but Slovakian and the partner of Christine.  Elis wrote, ‘Forgive us for contacting you in this way but we are looking for Ilsa Cole (born Ilsa Knauer) and according to the records this was her last known address. I write on behalf of her niece Ingrid and her sister Maide. We would appreciate a reply if you can help. Thank you.’

Elis signed the letter on behalf of the family and explained that Christine was Ingrid’s daughter, a great niece of Ilsa.

At first the siblings wondered if it was some kind of hoax? A mistake?

Still reeling from the revelations of the exercise book they wondered how a Family who had been wiped out could possibly be living still – where?

They looked.  In what had been East Germany…

So, the siblings wrote back…and another letter came, explaining their was a big family…in Germany, desperate to meet them.

To be continued/…

History (part 1)


And so, I have over time avoided tackling this story because it is complicated (as all the best stories are…) It concerns the layering of multiple stories and notions of truth – which is essentially life – because what is truth – what does it look like, feel like, breathe like? Do we recognise it if we fall over it in the street?  Do our paradigms shift to embrace it?  Or are we so perpetually caught up in our own sliver of the stuff and the re-telling of it that we can’t always conceive that another, altogether truer truth exists elsewhere?

It is strange because sometimes truth shouts at you, even explains itself in detail and yet somehow we refuse to see it.  Recently, we were so desperate for someone to fulfill a role for us that even though she was telling us that how she would deliver that role was not as we expect we were so caught up in the needing of someone (anyone) that we carried on regardless and employed her.  So when it all went horribly wrong we half tried to convince ourselves that it was a surprise when it wasn’t: the clues were there right from the start.

Then there is the opposite issue, when someone lies so convincingly that you have no clue as to who they truly are and are subsequently shocked to the core when you discover that they are a bad person or a good person who does bad things.

Then there are those who fall somewhere between who give you a tantalising glimpse into their world and yet somehow never fully reveal who they are for fear perhaps or because there is pain or shame or a worry so deep that they cannot ever be who they truly are.  And so it was with Ilsa Cole.

It is hard to know where the story begins because the seeds were sown perhaps in character or socialisation, so I will begin from the end. And work backwards.

I only met Ilsa once. The memory is vivid for me.  She was short, a little overweight by then and she was old.  She wore a cardigan, firmly fastened, and on the edge of the lapel were safety pins.  She still took in work as a seamstress.

There were other features that were hard to unsee: the nicotine stain in her slightly bouffant hair, for example and I will never forget the appalling racism she displayed about an individual next door.  And yet, for all that, and her slightly comic German accent Ilsa was utterly compelling.  Not because she told the truth, or spoke with authority on the world but because she was charismatic, out-going, alive.  She was also my partner’s mother.

The end of the story then and where I choose to begin is at her death.  Ilsa had 3 children.  For the purposes of this story we’ll call them Fred, Steph and Magda.  And as Steph and Magda waited for her to die in the hospital a kind of release for them happened.

Ilsa was dominant, powerful and potent.  Magda had chosen to stay away for years: a sort of poisonous miasma descended as she’d neared her mother’s house and so, over the years she had withdrawn to survive.  This was a survival at its most basic.  As the eldest child,  Ilsa had reserved some of her worst for Magda.  She told of tales of beatings, and being locked away.  But Magda did not have it within her to take this quietly and so there had been running battles through the growing up years: about space, about freedom, about choices – about Ilsa trying to control the edges of it all and perhaps control what could be controlled. Ilsa was happy to tell people what a terrible, woebegone, despicable child Magda was – which was a systematic and frankly wrong-headed campaign to assassinate her daughter’s personality.  When Ilsa died a neighbour said that she knew what was really going on.  The result for Magda was a commitment to changing the world, a championing of the under dog.

The second sister, Steph, had an equally difficult if different experience of her mother.  Being of a different sort of personality, she at once presented a different kind of challenge to Ilsa.  Steph wasn’t argumentative in the same way as her sister, and grew finding ways to entertain or please in response to the barrage of attacks that Ilsa focused on her. As time rolled out, Steph grew to be the kindest, most decent of people who puts others first, often at terrific cost to herself.

And Fred?  Well, he withdrew – moved into himself, shut down because to do otherwise was to be destroyed.  In some ways: because he spent less time analysing the results of his relationship with his mother he was somewhat less aware of the damage it had done often saying there was nothing wrong, or that they had had a perfectly normal childhood thank you very much.

They had not.

So, for what’s it’s worth, the childhood they did have was dotted with love: Christmas, trips to Germany, birthdays alongside the daily grind of unmitigated misery.  So, when Ilsa died a sort of breathing easy took hold, a deep breath of (and it matters not how old you are) ‘well at least that won’t happen again.’  Being generous, both Steph and Magda reached an agreement with Fred that he could take their parents’ house as his own – a tiny amount of offset payment was exchanged.  And so, Fred took up residence in their family home.

The sisters arrived to help pack Ilsa’s stuff up, to give Fred a chance to make the house his own.  And what stuff she had – as if she’d gathered things to weigh her down to this specific reality in this specific place.  They found money in places they never believed possible: tiny pots of cash squirreled away ‘just in case.’  And they found pile upon pile of things she’d never thrown away – gifts for sewing jobs she’d done: bottles of wine from 20 years before, boxes of chocolates so out of date they’d developed a discolouration like a second  skin.   Most significantly of all they found an old notebook.  From front to back they found pages written in their father’s hand. It was seemingly the story of how he’d got to where he was when he met Ilsa.  From back to front in the book, Ilsa had written her story too – all in gothic German script.

So Magda took the book hopeful that a translation would finally offer them some insight into their mother’s life because they’d heard only strange snippets of what might have been during and after the war…two airmen escorting Ilsa half way across Europe, by all accounts and other tales that seemed fanciful.

Then, one day, out of the blue, a letter arrived. A handwritten letter addressed to Ilsa.

Curious, Fred opened it up.

And that’s where the story took another turn

To be continued…/




Between a Rock and a Hard Place


I sometimes wonder what lies it is we tell ourselves in order to live?  What fictions we manage around the core of who we are and what we allow others to believe about us that enables us to get from one day to the next.  Most of us, I imagine, strive to be as truthful as possible, and yet some create around themselves a fiction that is so elaborate that we might never see who they really are.  Perhaps we all have been guilty of a little white lie that slips into the stories we tell about ourselves?  About some kind of re-imagining of sporting triumph or dispute where we become the hero of the story when perhaps in truth our part was somewhat smaller?  Perhaps there is a vaguest on your CV that allows for the interpretation of more skill than we possess – the suggestion that we are more experienced/capable/able than perhaps is entirely fact based (as an aside I find it amusing when people write on applications things like, “I’ve been involved in this business almost 4 years!” Almost?)

What if the fiction you wove around yourself was altogether more sinister? The sociopathic serial killer Ted Bundy for example who was said to be charismatic and good looking had absolutely no difficulty convincing women to help him before he kidnapped them and did unspeakable things.  He acted as a police officer, someone from the fire department or wore a false cast and he was so convincing women willingly did as he asked.  His real intent was not signaled for all to see (even though we are certain we would spot someone like this from a mile away, that is not necessarily the case.) He also worked as a call-taker for the Samaritans and was allegedly good at it.  He killed at least 30 women.

Others hide for reasons that make them who they are.  Billy Tipton, the jazz musician, lived most of his adult life as a man even though he was assigned female at birth.  He bound his breasts and used padding to appear male, and, reputedly, did not tell all the women in his life of his assigned birth gender.  He explained the binding and the padding as the result of a car accident and the women who shared his life accepted that. Phranc sang of Billy and I remember listening to this song as a young woman and feeling sad on Billy’s behalf (as well as a bit surprised by his wives) but my view is that Billy lived the life he needed to live and the lie wasn’t a lie but the truth he felt inside.

Others are forced into living a lie because of things that happen to them that require them to become part of a witness protection scheme where they are given a new identity, and moved to a different part of the country.   The are few if any financial benefits to doing this – contrary to what the press might suggest – beyond the expense of the move, the new identity and maybe perhaps some initial ‘pocket money’ or a reward for evidence if this has been made available by someone like Crimestoppers.  In fact, it is psychologically  challenging to become someone else, and never return to your old life and many people choose to live ‘low’ and at the other end of the country rather than disappear completely.

Occasionally, child murderers are offered a similar change and many go on to have what might be considered ‘normal’ lives.  Mary Bell is one such individual.  She killed two boys when she was 10 and, having served a long sentence, was released into the world as a ‘new’ person.  Having done a terrible thing, and having been ‘rehabilitated’ – the new identify was considered as a way to protect Mary.  But she lost who she was in the process and – whether there is empathy for on a human level or not – she was without personal resource to survive initially outside of the institutions that had housed her for so long.  To counter this, she associated with criminals and even went shoplifting to try to get back to where she had been, inside…and she says that she is overwhelmed by guilt about what she did, and is forever dislocated.

I suppose what this adds up to is that not everyone is who we think they are.  That what they present to us is not the sum of who they are but a perception that we trust based on our interactions with them.  But we might be wrong: who we think of as decent, kind might be harbouring a secret or something else that they cannot share for reasons outside of their control or for some other less savoury purpose. Some part of these people must have either died or being killed.  How many people live a lie?

I was thinking about this notion of different kinds of death – about the disappearance of who you were, or the lost ties or the lies that separate you inevitably from those who know the truth – because of an article I read on the website Cornwall live. It told in detail of 11 bodies washed up on the Cornish coast in the last 50 years who have never been identified.  You can read it here.  In the article, details are given that might have at some point identified who the people were.  They are tiny little pen portraits of people’s lives.  Some of the details made me sad: the man who wore a wedding band with, presumably his (or his father’s?) name inscribed along with the one he loved. The make of a shirt. The place he – or someone who once loved him – bought his underwear.  Who were these people and why did no one claim them?  In 2013 there were approximately 1000 unidentified bodies in the UK – found in various places.  Why did these people slip through the net?  How did their stories get untethered from the meta-narrative of life?  What lies did they tell to separate themselves out?  Or did they just slip quietly out of touch for no identifiable reason at all?  What other truths did they find? Why did no one care enough about them to look?  Or are there families still on the search for loved ones who they hold dear to their heart who have gone or who lie in a mortuary or unmarked grave in a place they’ll never think to look? You can find details of some of these people’s lives here.

The business of being human is complex.  I try to keep it simple, stupid and yet I know that sometimes I am taken aback by how little someone knows me, or how somehow, in sharing details of myself, they have not fully heard who I am or understood what I meant.  The other week I had a strained moment with a colleague – it was fleeting and I am certain that neither of us thought much of it beyond that moment.  Another colleague witnessed this and on that observation decided that we must not like each other much and would need to mend our relationship.  I found this astonishing and yet therein lies the rub: who you are is not always just about who you think you are, but also about what other people think about you.  They can be wrong of course, but you can too. What lies do we tell ourselves, in order to live?







I do not like being duplicitous.   A state of being double: both here and what I am, whilst aware that soon I will be not quite there and not quite what I am.  There is nothing I can do about this, it is the way things have to be, but every time I agree to something enthusiastically in the moment when I am being who I am,  I live with the thought that soon my promises might not be possible to deliver in the way we’ve all assumed and, in truth, a bit of me dies.  But I cannot be other than I am otherwise I might alert those around me that things will be changing and make those changes visible.  And it must not be made visible.  I must lie by omission.  I find this soul destroying and stressful.  Perhaps this is the same for everyone?

If we lie a little, or perhaps are not quite positioned to tell the whole truth – does this erode our self? Does it change who we are?

When people meet me they often say, “you’re so calm.”  This is a compliment.  But it is also something I have cultivated to buy me time, to not give my lack of knowledge or understanding away to those around me.   They also say I am funny.  I do have good comic timing (and a slightly riotous brain that will not always behave itself.)  I puzzle the possibility that I am both of these things: calm and funny, but also that they are cloaks I have created to hide the person who is neither of these things.  But perhaps we are what we are and the antithesis too – the shadow side?

I think the combination of calm and funny is generally considered a good thing and I really am these things although when you are neither – an off day perhaps – people ask, “Are you okay?”

And if you are not okay because you are holding a secret I think this becomes a matter of stress.  You do not need to wrap it up in bandages to give it form though.  I think of it as waves of pain across the stomach region.  Animals can die of stress.  And stress has a physical dimension if left unchecked that can lead to symptoms that affect your body and your thoughts.  Cortisol is released in massive quantities when you’re stressed and it speeds up your brain and slows down your body.   The stress I’m under is not a threat to life: in fact it’s essentially very exciting BUT stress can be totally traumatic and debilitating.

I’ve got no stories to tell today – just these observations here.  If you have to transition from one place to another and that requires some level of secrecy because of structures or protocols, however well intentioned it starts to feel like a physical pain.

And if you try to live and breathe authenticity, that is inevitably compromised.  It’s not serious.  It’s not life-threatening BUT it makes you feel a bit not yourself.

And if you are in this place it troubles your integrity.

I do need to get a grip though. Really!

Let’s get some perspective on this.

Imagine if you had a real secret to keep, something that you could never tell the world because to do so would make the world slip into nothingness, into another place and certain death?  Imagine if you were living in a society that would want to kill you if they knew who you really were.  Many people have to live like this and don’t have to imagine it: people live in daily fear for their lives.  Many people have secrets that would kill them if they spoke them out loud.  This week figures have been released that indicate around 1 in 4 people world wide believe that gay people should be charged with criminal offences just for being gay.  45% of respondents in 15 African countries felt this way.  Even in the UK, what might be considered a liberal country, 17% of those questioned felt that same-sex couples should be charged just for being in these relationships.  For some gay people in the world, to come out is to sign your own death warrant.

People lived submerged ‘untergetaucht’ in Nazi Germany, living as non-Jews throughout the war years – living underground and changing their identities to avoid detection.  For example, about 1500 Jews survived in Berlin in this way helped by underground movements or through sheer tenacity.  Their lives were not always lived well – women particularly were beaten, attacked, raped.  And yet some lived to tell the tale.  And many others sacrificed something to help save them.  There are people now who are living untergetaucht in all countries: migrants who have slipped through or people who hold secrets that could kill them, their beliefs, their truths.

There is much about truth and lies in the news at the moment.  About what is fake and what is real. About what is acceptable and what is unacceptable.  About who knew what and what we knew.

I knew about Jimmy Saville: I never met him, but I knew.  Every woman I have ever known knew ‘about’ him.

I imagine people knew (and did not say) about Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and Max Stafford Clark.  I imagine that many people know in most business places in most walks of life of men (and some women) who have behaved the way these men have behaved.   I have reported incidents of men not behaving well at work because I believe that to know and not to do is not to know. And then you are part of the problem too.

So, to go full circle – where I am at is, in the hierarchy of telling lies, a necessary temporary stay on not telling the truth that I must live with for (hopefully) under a month or (worse case scenario) a couple of months and it is not such a big deal. And it will be a good truth when it emerges so I can live with myself even if it doesn’t sit easy.

I do not know how people who have lived bad things like sexually predatory behaviour or harassment live with their duplicity – but as Vicky Featherstone says  We. All. Knew. So it is time to do something about it.

I make no excuse for these men but I think truth is often elusive for ourselves.  Walt Whitman nailed it for me:

“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes”?

Because what Whitman knew, and what we all know, whether we say it out loud or not is that we are all flawed, that we are often contradictory or confused.

But this will never excuse hurting another living soul in any circumstances…never.

Tell the truth as often as you can.  I do.