History (part 3)

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It wasn’t a hoax.   The letter Elis wrote did come from Ilsa’s family.

Magda, Steph and Fred were at a loss initially about what to do.  What do you do when you discover that who you thought you were for all of time was troubled first by a diary and its two distinct entries, written 40 years previously and then, still reeling from that, a letter written by someone you’d never met and who promised a different truth from life and a country you’d visited as a child (without ever visiting those who existed within the letter…) What did you do when the truth you’d lived and been fed was a lie?

It was a confusing time.

More letters were exchanged.   Then more.

Eventually plans were made for Magda, Steph and Fred to visit Germany.  It was a time of great nervousness – what if they were not who they said they were?  What if this family was not family? There was history, of course, there was a history of lying.

They each prepared themselves for the visit in different ways.  It wasn’t as if they hadn’t been to Germany many times – to visit some friends of Ilsa, a couple who the children had called Oma Plenk and Uncle Gustav.  Not real family, but close.  Every year, they had all poured into the VW Beetle and traveled across the continent.  Isla and Wally both smoked, so the children suffered in the back of the car, but still their visits to Germany when Ilsa was most happy held lovely memories for them.  But this was different.  Finally, they would meet real blood relatives, people they had never knew existed.

Later Magda described the shock of walking into a party thrown for them with 50+ faces looking back at them, all faces that looked like one or other of either her, Steph or Fred.  They had been a tight-knit unit of three and now, here they were, belonging to this enormous clan.  How had this happened?  How had all these people existed on the planet belonging to them but with no pathway?  There were stories here, lives that existed, had pain and joy that they would never know closely or intimately but suddenly they had an opportunity to share their lives going forward.

If, like me, you have always been grounded by a large and marauding family it is hard to imagine how these first meetings felt for Magda, Steph and Fred.  But I know that the change in each of them was palpable.  They suddenly became connected to the world in a way that they had never been before.  Each was shocked by looking at relatives and seeing their faces reflected back: of belonging, of having history, of coming from somewhere, of being suddenly rooted.

The real story did not come out quickly and there were a number of back and forth visits that happened in the following years. Magda was particularly drawn to Maide, her mother’s older sister (who Magda looked exactly like; there was no debate about their shared genetic history, it was there for all to see.)  Maide was very sad about Ilsa’s death and always lived in hope that they would be re-connected.  Once, she said, they had been close.

There was another, much younger sister who did not share the enthusiasm of Maide and her girls to meet with Ilsa’s children.  She felt that Ilsa’s leaving had had a catastrophic impact on her mother, and her mother’s health and if memory serves me, she had struggled with mental health problem, precisely because of her daughter’s ongoing absence, her total disappearance, her loss.  At the time of Magda, Steph and Fred’s arrival in Germany, their grandfather had been gone fewer than 20 years but their grandmother had died early and sad.

To set the context of how this was able to happen, it is important to understand how things were after the Second World War when East and West Germany were divided and where the whole became two halves.  West Germany grew prosperous and generally socially liberal, whilst East Germany was under communist rule.  There was even a physical barrier, the Berlin Wall and that didn’t fall until 1989 and wasn’t removed until 1992.  This is in living memory, and those who lived in the East had a certain mentality imposed on them that was hard to shift even when the wall was removed.  In any case, with the lack of communication between the East and West it was easy for Ilsa and her young family to visit the West without any fear at all that she would ever see her family or be found out.

Ilsa’s family grew up in Meiningen which was a town in the East.  Father, Mother and three girls, Ilsa and Maide close in age, and then the younger sister some time later.  Their father worked for the railways as a station master, their mother was a seamstress, a job of work that the girls were also likely – at some point – to undertake.  This was not a future that much excited Ilsa, according to her older sister, but it was what it was.

Their father was enthusiastic about the National Socialist Party.  Indeed, it was said that he was one of the first members.  It is easy with the weight of history to condemn this man, but when Hitler was driving his policies forward he spoke to the heart of what people wanted, he made what people considered sense (we all know how dangerous this can be…)

As a station master I have often speculated about whether Magda’s grandfather was in fact fully aware of people being shipped in large quantities across the country during the war to destinies that he knew where not places of promise, but it is hard to say.  But all such journeys were recorded, meticulously, by those who were working on the railways, and so I assume he must have.

Magda, Steph and Fred had perhaps thought that they were on the other side: the side of the good guy. They had to re-calibrate who they thought they were.

Eventually, they shared the diary with Maide and she told them how the story within it was actually the story of a girl down the road from where they lived and not Ilsa’s story at all.  She had never been married.  She had never had a child.  Maide said Ilsa was just the kind of girl who wanted to escape, who felt that there was more out there for her than seamstressing and a nice German boy. (Oh the irony that she ended up with a silent, older man – not remotely exciting in the end – taking in sewing to make ends meet.)

It was all, therefore, a lie.  No one had died.  Her family continued without her, struggling to understand why she left and did not return.  She had not married, and had no children before meeting Wally.  She just wanted a different kind of life to the one on offer.

And that was what she got.

Not glamourous, not particularly unique, just an ordinary kind of life that operated in a void because Ilsa had chosen to walk away and never turn back. No wonder she was angry. No wonder her kids could never get it right. No wonder a profound sadness permeated all their lives.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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)

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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

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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?

 

 

 

 

Duplicity

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bodies

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I have been thinking of dead bodies. There is something strange about this given lots of big – and good – things are going on at work, but the optician says that I might have high blood pressure.  I swim miles, walk often, eat well, am not overweight and have never had high blood pressure in my life.  It might be just that I have wiggly eye veins, apparently. Some people do.  But I am willing to concede that work has been stressful, unrelenting and I have had one too many pints of Ale lately.  I am British – Ale drinking is part of my heritage and culture that stems from not having clean water in days gone by but perhaps I’ll drink fewer pints?  I checked on drinkaware and it would seem that in fact I am not drinking over the recommended number of units in the week most weeks but still: perhaps I need to change my behaviour now that I am the wrong side – the right side in my view – of 50.  So I will concede that I have had to take a look at my own mortality.  The fact is we don’t have a dead body now,  but we will have one soon.  We may never see  one, or we may see many according to our work, religious beliefs or opportunity/misfortune  Either way: we will be one as sure as eggs is eggs.

When I was working in Buxton in the early 90s a couple of things happened that really made me wonder if the world was out to get me.  This neurosis did not last long but it did remind me how life can conspire with you or against you.  I’d been promised a rise in salary on the basis of demonstrating that I could do the job.  I did the job well but the man who made this promise had to retire because his wife died suddenly and the devastation meant he could no longer work.

I was considering this, and what I should do about it, whilst finally passing my driving test on the 7th attempt: I am resilient, I am a Weeble: I wobble BUT I do not fall down.  A colleague lent me her car to get to one of the other sites that we worked on.  Her dog, a border collie, was in the back.  I went to a meeting, and when I came back to the car it was on fire.  Flames engulfed it on all sides.  I ran towards it and the crowds that had gathered pulled me back.  The dog would already be dead they said. I would be too if I went too close.  By this stage the flames kicked our ten feet or more.  Was it my fault?  Apparently not: it was a fault in the wiring of this vehicle and oftentimes this happened.  Ironically the car was a Fuego.  I came to work the next day and faced my colleague.  She was incredibly forgiving and did not blame me.  I  blamed myself though but carried on never taking any time off or given myself time to think or reflect.

A week later a group of children that I was working with were playing in a wooded area just near the school and found a dead body.  He had been a local homeless guy but for some inexplicable reason he had chosen to take his trousers off before lying down in a copse in winter and so these kids not only saw a dead body but a semi-naked dead body of a late middle aged man.  They were interviewed by the police and though somewhat shocked and shaken up, they were, like me, not permanently damaged by their experience.

How had the universe delivered these three punches in a matter of weeks?  Because the universe does this every week this kind of thing: cars catch fire, accidents happen, wives and husbands die and homeless people do not survive the streets and very occasionally you stand in the middle of that maelstrom and for a second or perhaps longer you think, “This is my fault.  This is happening because of me!” because it seems to be about you until you realise that you are nowhere near that powerful or important and that life just is and just goes on.  A year later I left and the position I vacated was advertised two grades higher.  I took some pleasure in that but not much.

-o0o-

We got the call to go to JayJay’s house.  We arrived and she had just died.  According to her wishes she was lying on her back on the floor of her bedroom in her small flat and her friends were gathered to say goodbye.   She was dressed in red, and she looked as though she was asleep. I was there fraudulently with my partner but I too was invited in. We sat around and spoke of her, and then retreated into silence.  JayJay had died of cancer and although she seemed old to me at the time, she was a similar age to the one I am now.  The room was in semi-darkness and not able to stare at her body for long (not knowing her really and yet been part of this intimate group did not sit easy with me), I looked around her room.  She was a very neat person and her jumpers and clothes were all ordered by colour and neatly folded: bold colours predominantly primary in nature.

The gathered friends were a collection of dynamic folk, radicals who meant to change the world: individuals who used Ecover before it was fashionable to do so, people who wanted equality for all groups and who were willing to take to the streets to get it, activist of different kinds.  I am not a flag-waver.  I felt like I was there on false pretences.  I was just a young kid who wanted to change the world person by person. Nonetheless, I felt privileged to spend time with JayJay minutes after she’d left this mortal plane.

-o0o-

I was working on a housing estate at the top of Ripponden Road in Oldham.  The wind whipped round and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they shoved people up there so that they could be out of sight and out of mind.  It was several degrees colder than the centre of town and it was unforgiving when it rained or blew as it seemed to most days.  It was bleak.  I forget the project: I believe it was a summer scheme of some description but I’d managed with the key workers to gather a bundle of relatively young lads who we considered the right age and cohort to benefit from the work that we were doing.

So, we worked super hard to really capture their imagination in a drama project.  Foolishly I said to these kids what would motivate them?  A cup, they said. Where in God’s name was I going to get a cup from in Oldham on a Thursday with the showback of their work a few days away? I was just puzzling over this as I was getting in the car when a couple of the bigger lads came up to me.

“Eh are you really getting us a cup?” one asked.

“I am,” I said.

“That’s good.”

I smiled.

“What kind of cup is it?”

There was a pause.

“You’ll have to wait and see,” I said.

We were standing companionably together in the car park with houses looming over us. The younger of the two boys looked up at them.

“Did’y hear about what happened in there?” he said.

I hadn’t.

“A friend of ours broke in: probably for some fags or something. Can you see how the bathroom window is broke?  He did that.”

I nodded and that was enough of a sign for him to continue.

“He climbed in through the window and instead falling into the bath he found he was standing on an old duvet.”

He’d got me now, and he knew it.

“He thought, that’s weird. Because it wasn’t like the duvet was just on it’s own.  It was darkish in the bathroom but he realised that the duvet was solid.  So he pulled it up.  Under that was an eiderdown.  He thought, you know, maybe there’s some treasure in here, something worth hiding.  So he pulled up the eiderdown and then there were some old towels so he pulled them up too.  Under that was a sheet.”

I raised my eyebrows partly in anticipation… “And….”

He kept quiet.  Looked up.  “There was a mummified woman.”

“No way!” I said

“Yes way, miss!” He laughed.  “He hadn’t killed her or anything but the fella who lived there was a bit of piss-head so when his missus died he just shoved her in the bath and covered her over and then he just sort of forgot about her.  Can you believe it?”

“What that he forgot about her?”

“Well all of it really, miss… it’s all a tale innit?  No one’s talking about anything else round here at the minute.”

I looked up.  And I knew because of the kind of lad he was that he wasn’t pulling my leg.  I wondered what it was like to grow up in a place where people forget about the dead wife they’ve stored in a bath.

“Bet your mate got out of there pretty quick,” I said.

“Practically shat himself,” he said, matter of factly.

The next day, he and his mates did their performance and – having wracked my brain – I awarded the story-telling young man a Nike Cap (it was the best I could manage at short notice – not a cup but a cap!)  He loved it! Never took it off his head. I’d see him round town wearing it.

A few years later I went up past that housing estate and they’d knocked it down and sold the land to a developer who built private and expensive properties that he advertised as having ‘views of hills and moorsides.’  And people bought them too.  But when I drove past, all I thought about was that dead woman in the bath, and the lad with the Nike cap who told me the tale.

-o0o-

Never fear I’ll get my blood tested this week.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sole Survivor

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“225,000 will develop dementia this year, that’s one every three minutes.” Alzheimer’s society, UK.

When I was a freelancer, I got to deliver many projects of many different kinds.  One such was working on J2 ward.  My memory tells me this project came through the early days of LIME but this may be a fake memory.  It was a long time ago and I can’t find it on their website.  In any case, along with a film maker I was commissioned to make a documentary/tell the story of the patients on the ward.   I believe there was some kind of publication too.

J2 ward was in Bolton Hospital and it split into two sections – men who were in the early stages of dementia on the one hand, and on the other those whose disease had progressed more significantly.   I had done a lot of work by that stage with older people so the chats with those who were at the forgetful stage were largely anecdotal chats and reminiscence.  I haven’t met a person yet who doesn’t have an interesting story to tell (although some people don’t believe this of themselves.  Even ordinary lives are unique, even ordinary lives are nuanced, experience love and pain, gain and loss, ups and downs: that is how life works.  And if you tell stories back sometimes people say, “that sounds good” – as if you’re telling them someone else’s life instead of their own.)

Karen, the ward sister, was a very energetic, passionate woman who wanted to change the public perception of this most crippling of diseases.  After the first meeting, Karen gave considerable thought to what was possible.  In the meantime, I tried to find a film maker.   Often – in those days anyway – these things went like this: I knew someone who knew someone and they were recruited.  In this case, I knew someone – the poet Liz Kirby – who told me about her sister, Jane Kirby and how she had recently started to work as a film maker.  I met Jane, and we got on straight away.

Jane had also recently been diagnosed with breast cancer.  For some reason, and I was never really close to Jane so couldn’t give her thought processes, she made three decisions about this that were very costly.  Firstly, she had ignored a lump for much longer than made good sense, secondly when she did finally go into the hospital system she had such an horrific experience with a consultant she did not go back or follow his advice for months and months, and thirdly, she took the view that there must be a natural cure out there that was kinder than what was on offer to her.

The first meeting with the hospital was really full of energy and fun though, and both Jane and I were really excited about the practical possibilities of the project.  Karen had a list of patients that she felt could really tell the story of who these men were as well as who they’d been, and she was pretty certain that all the wives of these patients would be willing to talk to us too.

So, in our film, Great Lives we explored the lives of four men closely, all in the later stages of their dementia.  These were the Territorial Army Captain, the Footballer, the Fisherman and the Boxer.

We set up the camera for the families to bring in whatever photographs or memorabilia from their man’s life, and then we chatted to them.  Jane’s great skill was in inter-cutting poignant moments of them as they were and then shots of how they had been in the past with voice-overs and poetry.  Other stories also appeared but these were less developed.

The Territorial Army Captain has been a giant of a man.  When I met him he was reduced to a thin, head-dipping patient and then, later, only able to sit in a sling suspended from the ceiling.  His wife shared photographs of them camping in the south of France, he was throwing his head back laughing.  Then in his uniform and an extraordinary overhead shot of a military maneuver that he was commanding.  In each case, and his in particular, it was hard to credit that this was the same man.  By the time I met him, he did not speak at all though he occasionally made a noise not dissimilar to a baby.  One time, his wife visited with his grandson who was, perhaps, 4 years old.  “It is important that he meets his grandfather,” she said, “I wouldn’t have chosen for him to meet like this, but it is what it is.”  She had such dignity.  He’d worked in insurance very successfully, and having just retired, things started to go wrong.  They made a joke of it: he left his bike at a shop, put things back in the wrong place.  She knew it wasn’t a joke when, one day, he went into the kitchen and he couldn’t remember where the cups were.  They’d been in the same cupboard for 25 years.

The footballer had played for Bolton and England.  He was a defender.  When he was sold to Tottenham Hotspur, he’d been the most expensive defender ever to that date.  His wife said, “We were like the Beckhams – our pictures were always in the paper!”  And you could see that they must have cut a very handsome couple, because they were still attractive then in their 80s.  He said a few things, but nothing about what he’d achieved more just asking for cake and a cup of tea.  “He can’t remember it,” she said, sadly.  “They think it might have something to do with heading the big heavy leather ball,” she smiled, but not in a happy way, “and that’s what he did: day after day.  It was like a cannon ball when wet. Imagine that – hitting your head against a solid object dozens of times a day for years. No wonder he’s like this. But he provided us with a good life, he did and we enjoyed it.”

The wife of the fisherman was initially embarrassed by her husband who, somewhat younger than the others, in his early 60s,  swore like a trooper.  “It’s all the language he’s got left.  They say that cursing is the last thing that goes – so whilst it’s not the filth you’d want to come out of his mouth, at least I get to hear him, because one day he’ll be silent and there will be nothing.  Nothing at all.”  She shared with us a video of him fishing – this wasn’t run of the mill stuff.  It was competition level and he was very good.  He may even have been a national champion. In the videos he is laughing and waving as he hauls in another amazing catch. She’s there too, with a headscarf on and looking for all the world like Marilyn Monroe.  “We lived our lives,” she said, “We really did.  We went off here, there and everywhere and whilst it’s sad – this catastrophic stroke – I often lie in bed at night and wonder if we should have done something differently?  Yes, we could have lost weight.  Yes, we could have ate and drank a bit less.  But we loved it and we were in love – I didn’t want this of course, what’s happened to him now – but I couldn’t ask for more.”

The final man who featured in the video was a boxer.  His partner unrolled posters of his bouts: he and his brothers were street fighters who’d taken up the more disciplined version of the sport.  “They definitely fought too much; they needed to make a living.  You’d think that you earn a lot on the under card of some of these fights, but you don’t.  You earn a tiny percentage of the purse.  And so he fought and fought and fought.  And he shouldn’t have done.”  I looked at him – a man with dark curly hair and sparkling eyes.  I could see his charm.  “He lived hard,” she said, “He lived a hard life: a jobbing professional boxer at night and a labourer by day. But he survived. Just about.  I don’t doubt his lifestyle didn’t help him in the end – but he was so poor, and he did what he had to do.”

Jane spent weeks on the video, finishing it.  She worked way harder on it then I did and for many more hours than she was paid for.  I’d ring up and say that we really needed to get finished soon and she’d say, “yes, yes we do.”  She was finding it hard to find a studio to do the final cut.  And then she did, and the finished product arrived. And, thanks to Jane, it was brilliant, moving without being soppy and powerful too.  The commissioner and the families were delighted.  We launched it, and an audience came, and the families took home a version.

It’s gone now and I don’t have a copy.  Disappeared.  It was on Vimeo for a while but the link doesn’t work any more.  It’s  a metaphor that I don’t want to over do – because each of those men are dead too, gone – the way of all things I suppose.

About six months later I heard that Jane had died.  I believe she was 32.  She took her chance with nature’s cures and they didn’t work.  Perhaps sometimes they do?

So I am the sole-survivor I suppose and the memory of those amazing men on that ward, and the brilliant Jane lies within me and it remains vivid in me as if they lived just yesterday.