Nameless Souls on Sepia

This was a piece I wrote a few years back. I was lucky enough to have its included in a lovely Anthology titled ‘More Voices on the Verandah’ which was the final in a series of works by Anglo-Indians and those of Anglo-Indian descent. The Anthology is available still and is edited by Lionel Lumb

They were just nameless souls on sepia, staring out seemingly into space:  a peer into a time long since past and now, not often remembered with any degree of regularity. With its jagged edges, it was evident that part of the photograph had been torn away, why is a mystery. Someone in the family, though I cannot recall who, had once mentioned that there had been a rift within the family back in the days when they used to gather at the beautiful hill station of Mussoorie, when escaping the harrowing heat of the city. That was as much as was known. There was no accompanying documentation and nothing written down to suggest who the people in the picture may have been. That they were ancestors seemed a little more than likely. The photograph depicted a wedding scene. Three people remained in the frame. Two seated and one standing or rather two standing but as one had been unceremoniously decapitated he could not be counted. He could have been anyone. The bride wore a lavish wedding gown of lace with what appeared to be a full layered veil laid lightly and carefully, so as not to interfere with her elegant upswept hair which was so fashionable in the early 1900s. Seated beside her was an older man with a head of thick snow white wavy hair, and sporting a long white beard: a little like Santa Claus in a suit. Beneath the hairy façade was a man not unlike my father. In fact, but for the beard it could have been my father sitting beside the bride.  It was the eyes that gave it away. They were the same eyes that had watched over me all my life. Only my father’s eyes had seen different things to those of the apparently stoic figure of the man pictured here. Their worlds were far apart but their narrative of origin was one and the same.

Aunty Paddy had been a gifted and animated storyteller who had a penchant for making colourless characters come to life. She would captivate us with stories of heroes, heroines and travellers tales. “Children….are you listening carefully?” would be our queue to gather round to hear how our ancestors had sailed across oceans in search of fame and fortune. The story told so eloquently and consistently by Aunty Paddy, revealed that long ago when great vessels with billowing sails ruled the waves, travelling the trade routes carrying spices, silks and other luxury commodities, and when George III was King; two or possibly three brothers had set sail from bonny Scotland for the far off and exotic land of India. One of them or maybe all of them had been seduced by what the East had to offer, fallen madly in love with and married an Indian princess, and lived out his days happily ever after in India. This was perhaps a rather romanticised account but this was how the story had been told and retold. One brother had perhaps been a doctor, one a sea captain and the third, if indeed there was a third could have been anything Paddy decided him to be. Such is the power of the narrator. The stories were most likely a mixture of myth and reality but to us as children they were fact rather than fiction, impressing upon our imagination that we were indelibly connected to this mysterious and mystical other world, where gods were more than one, and princes were one and many; a world that had captured the hearts and souls of our forefathers and that was forever in our blood.

Shared experiences, cultures, customs and habits all go some way to forging our identities. What we are told as children often stays with us as adults. However, there are other commonalities that can engender an inherent sense of identity and belonging, such as the idea of shared stories and myths. There is no hard definition of myth. Myth is sometimes seen as being synonymous with fantasy and fairy stories, and little to do with fact. The notion of myth often conjures up images of superheroes and superhuman beings that create an idealised view of where we come from, therefore adding to our sense of worth. To us, these pioneers were real life superheroes; they represented the true to life fodder of fairy tales and fiction, that filled our minds with the machinations of an ‘Other’ world. 

Linking myth to the narrative form is relevant, especially when considering Anglo-Indian narratives of origin because their change in circumstances, and the transitions they underwent in adapting to a colonial and a post colonial era both in Indian and in British society is shrouded with princesses both real and imagined. Of particular interest is what has become known as the princess myth which seems to circulate in many Anglo-Indian families. The myth suggests the presence of a noble ancestral connection and more specifically an Indian princess. What is of importance is why this myth has been created and the reason why some families lay claim to a princess in their midst.

Aunty Paddy’s version of events is echoed in a letter dated 19th December 2004 written by Marjorie Williams to her niece;

     …thank you so much for sending me a copy of the family tree…It’s very interesting that so many Howatsons lived in India. Where does the Scottish side come in? I suppose Thomas Howatson who was originally married to (an Indian Princess)? So I heard. My story was that two brothers, Thomas and George set sail from Scotland – one a doctor and the other a sailor or captain of a ship. I can’t tell you where I got this story from – maybe Paddy…

The letter demonstrates firstly, that we find our narratives of origin appealing at any age. Marjorie Williams was 81 when she wrote the letter. She is unable to remember where she got the story from, ‘…maybe Paddy’ she asserts. Paddy was her elder sister who had died some years earlier and who it is purported knew more about the history of the family than anyone else. When Paddy past away, so too did much of the family narrative.

In addition the letter typifies the element of the ‘Indian princess’ myth that circulates in many Anglo-Indian families. Marjorie Williams is Anglo-Indian. Her father was Hugh William Howatson born in Calcutta, India, in 1886, habitually resident in India until about 1900 when he was sent to Britain to finish his education and later to follow a successful career in medicine. It was in Scotland that he met, fell in love with and married his own princess. His princess was Annie. It was close to one hundred years earlier, when Hugh William’s great grandfather Thomas Howatson had set sail for India. What Thomas would have thought of the Britain that his great grandson Hugh returned to can only be guessed at. It is known that following an irregular marriage in Glasgow, Hugh and Annie journeyed to India and travelled about with their young family for a few years, only to return permanently to Britain later. The reasons for their movements between these two great lands, is unknown. The Diaspora to other lands following partition and independence is well documented but what of those who returned to the fatherland beforehand. What are their stories? Our sense of ‘self’ is governed by what is going on the world and is in a constant state of flux. 

It is only by telling our stories and passing them on to our children that we can preserve the memories and myths of past lives. Many stories are passed down between one generation and another, while other stories remain untold and are lost forever. So next time, when you are gathered cosily around the dining table after a sumptuous Sunday lunch as is quite common among families, laughing at the crazy antics of dad’s schooldays,  finding out about grandma’s culinary gifts or hearing of an aunt’s penchant for telling tales, take note and listen very carefully to the snippets and anecdotes of your elders for these are your stories, your narratives of origin: savour every word and share!

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Memoirs ~ Kelvin Grove

The best days of your life or not?

How often have you heard adults say that your school days are the best days of your life. I am sure that Tom Brown in the novel of the same name would argue against that assumption. Looking back I can honestly say that at times I enjoyed school, and at others I hated it. School for me was just something that you had to go to. There was no choice, it was compulsory or so that is what we believed. Things were very different in the 1970’s. For a start, few parents dropped the kids of at school; there just wasn’t any need to do so; children made their own way, either with brothers and sisters or with friends or both. Parents didn’t group in the playground, cluttering the place up with pushchairs and toddlers, clucking around like broody hens. You were trusted and expected to take yourselves to school, and trusted to get yourself back home again from a very young age. Parents just didn’t have the same fear factor that faces modern parents, well, at least not to the same degree. Parents didn’t have to get that involved with the school apart from making an appearance at Parent’s Evening every now and then. Once you were at school the teachers were in charge of you. That’s how it was. If you did wrong at school, the teachers would punish you as they saw fit; maybe with a smack or a shout or if you were a boy, you could get sent to the Head Teacher for the cane. I can recall taking the register up to the Head Mistress’s office as that was where they went once the register had been called. It was not unusual to see a queue of boys waiting to be given the cane.

My school days began as a rising five at Kelvin Grove Junior School in Kirkdale, South East London. It wasn’t reputed as a particularly good school but it could have been worse and it could certainly have been better. Would have passed an Ofsted inspection these days? Highly unlikely! Maureen, my eldest sister had started her school career at St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Primary School. One lunch time she refused to eat an apple so the Nuns locked her in a cupboard, in the dark. I have never been locked away in a dark cupboard. For a five year old it must have been terrifying. If that was done to a child today it would be considered child abuse. Mummy took her away from St Joseph’s immediately, and found an available place at Kelvin Grove, which is how we all got to go there.  Perhaps that early trauma in Maureen’s life left an unseen scar. 

We used to walk to school form Hillcrest Road, down through Well’s Park to the other side, where we came out at the top of Taylor’s Lane and then into Well’s Park Road. At the top end of Taylor’s Lane there was a tiny house. In fact I think even now it was the tiniest house I have ever seen. It stood adjacent to the park’s entrance. Rumour had it that a witch lived in the house. Everyone knew it. It was common knowledge; therein lived the Witch of Taylor’s Lane in her witch’s hovel.  Many children used to shout out “witch” as they ran past screaming. Everyone was terrified of her in case she cast an evil spell on them or cast them a look with her evil eye.  Now, when I heard about the Witch I simply believed what I was told. Why should anyone lie about the presence of a witch? Far be it for me to argue with a fact that had been established as true by those who professed to know more about these things then the likes of me. Why question the fact? She must have been called a witch for some reason or at least that’s what I thought at the time. These days I question everything, and have no time for witch hunts or witch-finder generals of which there are still many, all eager to fill the post

One day when still very young, I was walking by and I actually caught a glimpse of the  so-called Witch of Taylor’s Lane.  The Witch was very short, tiny in fact with hair like thistledown. It was surprisingly neat and tidy hair for a witch or so I thought at the time.  My image of Witches at the time was based very much in Grimm’s Brothers fairytales.  Her skin was crepe like and wrinkled as one would expect to see on one so old. It was said that she was a hundred years old, maybe even as much as a hundred and two. She did n’t look as scary as I had expected. Witches were supposed to look scary or so I thought. In fact she did n’t look scary at all. It was n’t until much later that I realised that the Witch was no witch at all.  She was just a tiny frail old lady living in a tiny cottage alone, probably lonely, and persecuted. Why someone had decided on some day at some time to call her a witch is unknown to me. Children can be so cruel! The old lady’s life was one of persecution and taunts by so-called innocents. She must have lived in constant fear! Some children would dare others to knock on her door,  and then run away. Others would be more brazen and even wait for her to answer the door before calling her names. There were others who would throw eggs at her house. I look back and curse myself for never having stopped what I saw. The old lady cruelly dubbed  thew Witch of Taylor’s Lane must have died a long time ago but there are many adults out there who must know that they did a terrible thing. I can only hope they are sorry for what they did. Me, I am sorry for what I did n’t do.We remember things at the strangest of times. Until now I had forgotten about that poor old lady. 

Going back to the subject of school, we would walk along Well’s Park Road until we got to the school gates on the Well’s Park side. I have many memories of playing in Well’s Park with my sisters and friends, and over the years it doesn’t seemed to have changed that much, not to look at anyway.  We were never worried about walking through the Park, never concerned that there might be some danger lurking behind the bushes in dark spaces; either because there wasn’t any danger or because we didn’t think about things like that which is more likely. Of course we were always told not to talk to strangers, and to go straight to school or straight home and not to dawdle; we were always told there was safety in numbers. Evidently, parents had similar fears to those felt by parents today, and yet, they still gave us room to grow and be independent. I have often asked myself why I have been so over-protective of my own children. Have times really changed so much that we dare not let our children out of our sight for fear that something terrible should befall them. Where and when did we learn to be so fearful?

My first teacher was Mrs Redgrave who appeared to me to be tall but then I was only four and a half so I expect all grown ups looked tall to me back then. Mrs Redgrave had silver shiny wavy hair that was neat and tidy, which she wore close to the nape of her neck. Mrs Redgrave had small piercing blue eyes that seemed to see right through you and know what you were thinking.  She was a teacher who demanded respect even from such young children. One of my earliest memories of starting school was sitting down in my classroom and wetting myself. It was possibly my first day at school. The boy next to me who I remember only too well for all manner of reasons raised his hand to seek attention from the teacher, “Please Miss, she’s wet herself” pointing at me. There were laughter and giggles all around.  I can hear it now echoing down through the corridors of time.  I don’t think I was told off as I believe that Mrs Redgrave quite liked me but I was escorted to the staff room and given some dry knickers to change into. I am not sure if I cried or not?  There was a good chance that I did as I was able to turn on the tears if the need arose even though I was only four. If I did cry, I have erased it from my memory. Either that or I didn’t cry. It was in this class that I made friends with Angela Ham. Angela was a pretty girl with big soft brown eyes and long black curled lashes. Angela Ham became my first best friend at school. It wasn’t until I was a lot older that I discovered Angela was black or maybe mixed race but then so was I mixed race being Anglo-Indian on my dad’s side, something I did not really know until much later in life. The same was true of my friends Angela and Charmaine. Angela’s roots lay in Jamaica and Charmaine’s in the West Indies. Of course they had always been the same colour, nothing had changed but what did change was that when I was a fair bit older my attention was drawn to it: not by anything they had done or that I had done but by politicians, people who should have known better. When I was growing up our friends were neither black, white or mixed race or anything else, they were just our friends. It didn’t matter the colour of our skin back then, and as small children we didn’t notice that there was any difference.  

 The only other incident that sticks in my mind is when after PE we were all changing back into our own clothes and Debbie who was to be another of my best friends was putting on her pink crocheted cardigan. While stretching up and out her arm into the sleeve, she knocked over a vase that was standing on the window sill. It fell and smashed in pieces on the floor. It was an accident but she still got smacked by the teacher for being careless. I think it was that incident in those first few days in school that encouraged me to be a good girl, at least for most of the time. Today my husband and daughter refer to me as a goody two shoes when I mention that I was well behaved at school. However, there were times later on when my halo slipped, and I became a survivor in a jungle, that jungle being school.  

From Mrs Redgrave’s class I found myself being taught by Mrs Riley who although she had an Irish name was not Irish. She too had silver hair but tinged with blue which she wore short. Mrs Riley had a rich mellow voice with an accent which was neither English nor Indian but which I am now certain to have been a mixture of the two. I feel fairly sure that she was Anglo-Indian which is where my own heritage lies on my paternal side. Of course I will never find out if I am right unless someone who remembers or someone who knew her is able to tell me if I am. Mrs Riley also seemed to quite like me, and never said a cross word to me. My time in her class passed without incident or at least without any that sticks in my mind, although one other thing has suddenly sprung to mind. The infants finished at a quarter past three while the juniors finished a little later. For those of us who had older siblings in the school we had to wait in the infant school hall until we were collected by our older brothers and sisters. During that time we would be read a story which was quite enjoyable as we were at an age where being read to was still very much a pleasure. On this particular occasion the teacher reading was Miss Marion. Miss Marion was I felt very pretty and fair. She wore long suade boots and short skirts as was the trend at that time. One afternoon my sisters were late collecting me from the hall. They got into so much trouble and were told off by Miss Marion in no uncertain terms. They were never late fetching me again. They were only little girls themselves but back then if you were older you were expected to take responsibility for your younger brothers and sisters.

Those were my years spent in the infants, next came the juniors.

In class two I was still best friends with Debbie who had superceded Angela Ham in that role. I had been devastated for a short while when Angela left the school but soon replaced her with Debbie who proved to be a great best friend. Children can be quite fickle. Debbie was a brilliant swimmer if my memory serves me right, and had beautiful long nails which I envied, as even at that young age I was a nail biter of the highest degree, and could bite my nails right down to the quick. Debbie also had pierced ears, something else I wished I had but did n’t.  Although to be fair I don’t ever remember making that wish known to my parents. It was while in class two that we moved out of Hillcrest Road and into Kent House Lane in Beckenham. We were no longer the Howatsons of Hillcrest. We were now the Kids of Kent House.

It was in class two that I met another but equally lovely Angela and beautiful Charmaine who were to become good friends throughout my school years. The class teacher was Miss Marcham who made a tremendous impact on me as a young girl. Miss Marcham was an attractive woman with short wavy bordering on curly reddish brown hair most likely auburn. Her voice was clear and crisp as fresh morning air in Spring. She had a nice figure, wore nice clothes and was engaged to Mr Shelbrook who was Maureen’s teacher, I think the first one that she had a crush on. Mrs Shelbrook like most teachers seemed to have favourites ,and we, all us girls in the class vied for that position. I don’t think girls are any different today at that age. It’s just so unfair on those children that don’t ever feel that they are among the favoured few. Me, I was one of the lucky ones and often felt I was up there with the best of them. Miss Marcham, later  to be Mrs Shelbrook was one of my favourite teachers of all time, and yet I can’t actually remember why this was so. Although later on in the school she was relegated to position of most unfavourite teacher, explanation to follow later.

It was also while in class two that I went down with tortecollis for a few weeks. At the time tortecollis sounded to my ears like a tortoise in the stomach which is what I told my horror stricken friends who believed every word as did I, and sympathised accordingly with oohs and ahhs. I had to stay off school for a few weeks to recover as it was very painful, and almost impossible for me to move my neck. I had a wonderful time staying at home being pampered, and nursed better by mummy. I eventually recovered from the tortoise in my stomach and returned to the jungle that was Kelvin Grove Primary School.

The junior years were as far as I was aware not unlike the junior years of anyone else but they were my junior years, and this is how I saw them looking back now as an adult. Class four followed class two and was taught by Mr Anderson. Mr Anderson was my first male teacher. He was middle aged I think, and bald on top with grey wispy hair to the sides. He wore casually smart trousers and corduroy jackets in dark greens and browns with checked shirts and a tie. He wore a hearing aid and dentures. The hearing aid was visible but the dentures were not and were only noticed when they fell from his mouth one time as he was shouting at the class. The class naturally laughed at the teacher’s expense and probable humiliation. That would teach him for shouting at us. He seemed to be always shouting and had little control over the class and yet he wasn’t a mean teacher at all. He was just a man doing the best job that he could to the best of his ability. We were a noisy class after all, that needed someone who could control us better or more correctly someone who could handle the boys more effectively for it would be true to say that the girls were pretty well behaved most of the time, and the boys or at least a few of them were as badly behaved as they came.  I am sure a few would be the fodder for her majesty’s prison system later on.  And so, I continued to move from one class to another, from one year to the next.

© Liola Lee 2010

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Home is where the heart is…

Concrete, granite, stoney grey,

outside the window, any day.

Terracotta, red-brick box,

blazing, brazoned bolts and locks.

Attached together, detached alone,

standing strong, stone to stone.

Hearths and hearts, cills and souls,

turning time takes its toll.

Home is where the heart is best,

where we lay our heads to rest

Home is where we feel at peace

home is where the hearts at ease.

Homes, housing, houses, homes,

to some castles, to others tombs:

Families living, families dead,

home is where the heart is led.

© Liola Lee 2007

Could it be forever…

According to my darling daughter I am one of Life’s happy hoarders. I have accumulated a great deal of ‘stuff’ shall we say over a good many years. The problem is that I find it very hard, almost impossible to let go of some, if not a lot of this stuff that has become a part of me. I am pretty certain that this is inherent in my make-up, and that I am in fact genetically disposed to this condition for want of a better word, though I am sure there are many levels of hoarding, and it is only by degree that it can become a problem for some people. My parents were the same, and my sisters also seem to share this tendency to gather all manner of gubbins. The words that come to mind are ‘…it may come in handy one day’; or ‘…I may need it one day’; or ‘…aw this has sentimental value’.  Also, I have to confess to having all manner of items that I have never used or worn which I have bought on a whim only to realise later ‘…what on Earth was I thinking?’, in addition to those items of clothing that I will wear again when I drop a few pounds. I have birthday cards, Christmas cards, Valentine’s cards, and anniversary cards stored in what I refer to as my treasure chest which in reality is a big white plastic box. Not only have I saved mine but I have also saved cards for my children, telling them that they will be grateful one day. Naturally, numerous drawings, letters and school reports have been preserved as any good modern Mum would do, would n’t she? Or maybe I am a little weird, and just perhaps a tadge too sentimental. I have a huge Cd collection as well as a large suitcase full of my old LPs and singles which I just cannot bring myself to sell or throw out, and somewhere in the garage, there is a record player but just now I cannot see it for other stuff that is in the way. I have the first record I ever bought. I was just ten or eleven at the time. It was David Cassidy’s Could it be forever with a B side of a song called Cherish . To many it may just be a couple of songs which I can now download on Spotify. To me though, this small seven inch vinyl disc conjures up childhood memories, and is a small part of the soundtrack that is my life. In every room there are piles of books, and  magazines which at some stage I may manage to read. Many times I determine to declutter to create more space and equilibrium. I roll up my sleeves to wrestle with this mammoth task only to find a few hours on, I am reminiscing over old times and happy memories, and just maybe I will delay the declutter for another day.  These things that I have gathered have made me laugh, made me cry and are part of the archives. So maybe I am not really a hoarder but rather a caretaker of cherished times and memories, and just maybe in the future these things for what they are worth will show and tell the stories that are mine and make someone smile. If like me they love family history and ancestral tales then just maybe I will have made someone’s day!

(Please note that this is just  an image of the picture sleeve. I am not sure who captured the image for the sleeve photograph. I did try to Google it but without success. If anyone knows the Photographer please send details so that I can give credit correctly).

© Liola Lee 2018

Rainy Days are not so bad…

Umbrellas are up and the rain has been pouring relentlessly on this saturated Sunday in September 2018. It is a far cry from the sizzling sunshine, and soaring temperatures of a few weeks ago; when  Summer was scorching my lily white skin, and attempting to transform me into something akin to a sun-ripened human tomato (…think red, think  burnt, think a ‘is that sore? sort of scenario). Fast forward to now, and we have returned to the oh so familiar territory of wind, rain and wellies. What is this obsession we have with the weather here in ‘old Blighty’? I mean it is nearly always, more often than not the general topic of conversation we have between ourselves and anyone else we care to stop and chat to whether we know them or not, pun most certainly intended. That said, we have enjoyed a spectacular Summer season with day after day of rocketing temperatures. The last time I recall such a hot, dry sunny spell without flying off to some distant shores was back in the Summer of 1976 when we officially had a drought  declared no less. There was even a Drought Act passed in Parliament that year, and a Minister for Drought duly appointed just to demonstrate  the seriousness of the situation.  Hot weather is great on the most part but when the heat becomes extreme, things can become heated or more to the point overheated. In 1976, there were standpipes in the street where people carrying buckets were having to queue for water. I am sure there are many of the Baby Boomer generation that recall this only too well. I remember Second hand bath water only too well, as water was such a cherished commodity for that short and sticky period of time, ‘ew’ I hear some of you younger ones cry but that was the way it was. You did what you had to do without question and without wingeing.  So today, many of us will have bemoaned the return of the rain but without the rain we would not enjoy the sunshine half as much! Rainy days are not so bad…but we do like a bit of Sunshine too!

© Liola Lee 2018