Friday, 24 February 2012

The two Dorothys

One day in 1959 a young mother, left alone in England with her children while her husband was helping test H-bombs in the South Pacific, picked up a book on a railway station bookstall somewhere in Norfolk.

My mother Dorothy was never a great reader, certainly not a fan of profound texts. She liked “true stories” of nurses or medical pioneers, having been an SRN in the Midlands before her marriage. So why she was initially drawn to this particular book I'll never know, since she died in 1988. Perhaps the cover notes were particularly persuasive:

"Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

That lost poetry of childhood which Wordsworth laments is recaptured in Dorothea Rutherford's book. Through the eyes of the little girl Liesbeth, the author shows that it need not be true that “the things which I have seen I now can see no more”.

This is the autobiographical story of an enchanting child on the threshold of life. The time is the turn of the century, the place Reval, the chief city of Estonia, where the author was born and brought up. In this setting we relive the early years of a little girl, with her day-to-day joys and tragedies, big and small. Immune from sentimentality, The Threshold displays an astonishing intensity of memory and an exquisite delicacy of selection – glory in a snowflake or a sunbeam, terror in a shadow or a sound, eternity enfolded in the vivid, passing moment."

So she bought it, and began a love affair with it that has lasted ever since. What was this influential text? Only my favourite book.

Why did this book appeal to her? What follows is only an educated guess, piecing together my own childhood memories, and conversations I had with her in later years.

In about 1950 my father, being in the RAF, was sent to Hamburg in northern Germany, as part of that country's post-war recovery. For my mother, with two very small children, this was probably the most interesting, even exciting, time of her young life - a service wife with a large house, a gardener, and an exotic German nanny for Susan and Christopher. They would attend Kindergarten, freeing Dorothy's time to indulge herself. There were holidays at Scharbeutz on the Baltic coast, staying in the impressive Kurhaus. I have a postcard in front of me now, reminding me of the wonderfully deep, soft, Ostsee sand, the curious basket-work beach shelters - a cross between an arbour seat and a beach hut. Below is the card Dorothy sent to my grandmother in Tamworth, noting that this particular stretch of beach was "for allied personnel only - see the flag flying" atop the hotel.

My mother's postcard

Another view of the Kurhaus from the air
And I am also reminded of the sadness of the German 'episode', when my grandfather died and, for whatever reason, Dorothy couldn't travel home for his funeral - a hurt that became a deep resentment towards my father that she carried all her life.

But she also carried with her The Threshold and allowed me to read and reread it, till now it belongs to me. And I feel I'm the only one who really appreciates its magic (that is, of course, until I discovered Christine!) When I read the book now it seems the memories of the two Dorothys overlap, and as I was growing up they also merged with my own experiences of childhood and death.

Christine tried tracking copies around the world that were for sale, and found only forty or fifty. I think there is an excellent reason for this apparent scarcity - all those who already own this volume treasure it too much to ever bear parting with it whilst they are still living. In 2012 our online discussion brought another Christopher into the story - not my "little" brother, but Dorothea's grandson... The Threshold binds us all together, and the whole world should read it.

Ah, look! Spring is here!

They battled through roller-coaster temperatures and a thick blanket of snow. But now they're here!

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Some more family history for the benefit of my children

Two of my step-daughters, both middle-aged, have not spoken to each other for several years. The cause of the rift was a misunderstanding over someone's Christmas present. There are 2 miles and an abyss of self-indulgent misery between them.

The broken family is not a new phenomenon, of course. My mother was not my father's first wife, and I was not his first child: in South Africa I have a seventy year old sister. This is not recent or surprising news since I was told about her when quite young. But for years she was just a never-ageing child in a photograph, and she had no significance in my life.

Following my father's death in 1995 she visited this country and met our brother. Why didn't I go to meet her as well? I can't remember now – she was still this kind of “invented” person to me, I suppose – someone who'd had no influence on me, and for whom I had no curiosity, let alone sisterly feelings. Nevertheless my brother saw to it that addresses were exchanged, and every Christmas since then we have sent each other seasonal greetings. This Christmas she added a phone number and an email address. Why? Perhaps it was because she had reached the landmark age of 70, and had wanted to reach out to me one more time. I emailed her an image of my family at a recent wedding. She responded with a fictitious “newspaper” concocted for her by her husband to mark that landmark birthday.

So now I know more about this sister – her schooldays, her marriage, her interests – but not the real woman. I will no doubt exchange more messages and information. But I'm not sure that I'll ever be moved to physically mend this particular break in our family – and there have been many other breaks. I feel separated from her existence by more than miles. And perhaps I am a little afraid that, if we finally met face to face and did not take to each other, we would both experience just another emotional wound from our absent and absentee father.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Fish out of water?

The pool in which I swim is small, but the water is not so cold that I'm unable to bask a little. I admit that, after signing off on By Metes & Boundes at the end of 2010, I was feeling a little washed up. But I'm happy to report that the years spent researching it are beginning to pay off, albeit not financially! Last December Edward Martin, archaeological officer for Suffolk County Council, came to the neighbouring village of Wetherden to talk about Haughley Castle, whose site is currently being cleared and historically re-assessed. I felt my face redden slightly when one of the slides in his illustrated talk turned out to be the plan of that site in 1554 that I'd constructed for By Metes & Boundes, properly cited and analysed for the benefit of the audience!

Haughley 1554

I've also begun to be invited to give talks to local history groups – three so far, and two booked – on my work about Tudor Haughley. Uploading the text of By Metes & Boundes onto an academic website has resulted in dozens of Google hits from around the world by Early Modern historians. Unfortunately, having come out of the historical closet, however parochial, means I get asked to involve myself in a variety of projects on which I'm unqualified to speak. People now try to flatter me into saying yes to their demands, but I must try and regain some of my former control. Thrashing about in all directions will only splash the water out of my comfy pool, and I could end up floundering in the shallows! This increased activity resulted in my life becoming a bit more fragmented than usual, hence the large hiatus in my blog posts.