Beginnings

A little over four years ago I mentioned to a few people, including family, that I was about to start a blog that documented the life of my paternal grandfather.  My sister-in-law, to whom an interest in ancestry has come more recently, observed in her characteristically direct way that no-one would want to read about a dead relative.  After I’d got over the hurt, I thought about what she’d said.  It’s true that there are thousands of people writing about ancestors unknown to anyone other than their descendants.  I follow a few such blogs and the ones I find most interesting are those that infuse some of the writer’s personality into the mix.  I also love blogs that are rich in photographs.  I expect that’s because I have so few images of my ancestor and revel in those of others.  But it’s also for the fact that one can interpret so much about a person and the times in which they lived from a photo.

The trajectory of my blog has meandered through the vague to the specific to the off-topic and finally to its true mission: to tell a story about two people who never met each other.  If the writing has matured over the period, I can thank the two-and-a-half years of study towards a Master of Arts in Non-fiction Writing, which I completed at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) in June 2016.

I saw the UTS program as a perfect platform for ‘testing’ my writings about Harry and, in time, about myself.  From the first essay I developed for a Memory and Life Writing course – which provided material for the posts, 1963 and Renewal – to the last 7,500 words of my major project, I’ve consciously tried to ease myself away from over-embellishing to a place where the narrative ‘shows but doesn’t tell’.

There comes a time in a project of this magnitude where one asks what the point is to it all?  Is it leading to anything?  To a book maybe?  And if so, what form should that book take?  And how would it start?

Last year I began to contemplate the larger work that might flow from this blog, using the penultimate project of my program as a springboard.  In the way that many writers to, I agonised over a beginning.  I knew that my blog’s opening chapter – a jigsaw puzzle – would fall far short of the mark; rereading it now, I cringe to think that I may have captured a readership with such amateur guff.

The opening paragraphs of my university assignment were about a one-off offer extended to expatriate South Africans to vote in the first multiracial elections in 1994.  Despite that I’d lived abroad for 13 years and had since become an Australian citizen, I was able to exercise a vote for the central government and any provincial government in the country.  I tried to draw a parallel between the pull of country and bonds that can never be broken, for me and Harry, a Brit who never gave up his citizenship.  On reflection, I’m not sure that it worked; even if I still have feelings for the place, after 35 settled years in Australia, I can’t claim to own an expat angst about separation.  It’s also a theme that has been done to death.

One of my UTS tutors, the splendid Debra Adelaide, remarked that all beginnings are provisional.  She also warned against spending another 20 years researching my subject – yes, I have been on Harry’s case for roughly that length of time – and gave me a deadline of December 2016 to finish a first draft of my manuscript.  Without the emotional investment in this blog and a need to complete it, I may have achieved that target.  I’ve set a new one of April 2017.

Getting back to beginnings, of the books I’ve read in the last year or so, a few have impressed me with their openers.

‘I have known Paul Keating for 40 years.  I was first introduced to him in the non-members bar of the old Parliament House when he was a hungry young backbencher in the Whitlam Opposition in 1975, and I suppose I was a hungry young journalist working for an ABC program called This Day Tonight.  I met him again the day he became Gough Whitlam’s youngest and last ministerial appointment, three weeks before the Dismissal.  He already had the swagger and an eye for a good suit, and he had future leader written all over him.’[1]

Kerry O’Brien’s introduction to Paul Keating[2] has the immediate effect of the reader wanting more.

‘If you had met my father you would never, not for an instant, have thought he was an assassin.’[3]

In her memoir about coming to terms with her father’s wartime deeds and her own sense of self, Magda Szubanski drew me in with a single line.

‘I was four years old when my father came back to kidnap me.’[4]

Likewise Mark Matousek’s unsparing account of growing up in Los Angeles had the same effect.

As a literary device, dramatic revelations about family secrets are excellent at bringing the reader along for the ride.  John Lanchester’s memoir of growing up in post-colonial countries and England begins thus:

‘Julia Immaculata Gunnigan was born on 5 December 1920 at Lurgan, Killarney, in the county of Mayo in the West of Ireland.  That might sound like fairly straightforward information, but for reasons which will become clear it isn’t, at least not to me.  Julia’s true name and birthday were things I found out only after she died.  If there was a special typeface for things my mother didn’t tell me, the next hundred-odd pages of this book would be almost entirely in that face.’[5]

These authors have had the fortune of knowing their subjects and some, like O’Brien, conducted lengthy interviews with them.  I don’t have that luxury.  Harry’s other surviving grandchildren know as little about our grandfather as I do.  And even if those who knew him as a father were available to quiz now, at best their recall would be coloured by their child-minds’ reinterpretation.   For Harry’s story I’ve had to rely on a combination of oral history, Holmesian-style detective work, the odd photo and a dash of imagination.  And as my story assumes a greater proportion in the narrative, the need to rely solely on recreating his has become less pressing.

But I still need a beginning.  And what better way to start than with an act of recklessness.

[1]              Kerry O’Brien Keating Allen & Unwin Sydney 2015, pvii.

[2]              Treasurer in the Hawke government from 1983 – 1991, and Prime Minister of Australia from 1991 – 1996.

[3]              Magda Szubanski Reckoning Text Publishing Melbourne 2015 p1.

[4]              Mark Matousek The boy he left behind Piatkus London 2000 p1.

[5]              John Lanchester Family romance Faber and Faber London 2007 p25.

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Random encounters

I grew up and spent my early adulthood in Cape Town.  In my late twenties, I moved to Sydney with my husband and have lived in that city ever since.

While my personal jury is still out on how much control we have over our lives, there have been a few occasions that have given me cause to wonder whether things which are beyond our control may happen for a reason.

On a visit back to Cape Town in the late 1990s I met up with a school friend who had married a distant cousin of mine.  Marion was compiling the family tree and asked if I could fill in a few blanks for her.  Sure, especially if it related to my parents, siblings and their families.  Even aunts, uncles and cousins, all this was a subject well known to me.  And being good at dates, I could even proclaim years of birth, marriage and death with as  much confidence as the official certificates on which these dates were inscribed.  I might add at this point that I won the history prize at high school.

As Marion unfurled my family tree, I saw a myriad of names under “Descendants of ? Saltman”, most of whom I did not recognise.   Were all these people really connected to me?  It was almost overwhelming to think that I had such a large family, although not beyond the realm of possibility.   After all, my grandmother had been one of twelve siblings, so multiplying out from this number meant that X number of children and their children….no, numbers have never been my strong suit, but I’m sure you understand where I am going with this.

I searched for familiar names and eventually found “Harry, born in Sheffield about 1873”.   Aha, a name I recognised.  Harris.

I knew that he had been born in Sheffield because my father had told me.  But I also knew how old he was when he died and 1873 did not compute as his birth date.

But if it didn’t, how would I find out what did?

A Jigsaw puzzle

Harris is a bit like one of those thousand piece puzzles.

I had a few easy pieces to begin with, the four corners and a few straight edged side pieces.  These were facts passed on by Harris’ son: a place of birth, emigration, an occupation, marriage and children, an illness and age at death.

I even had a few centre pieces – anecdotes – which gave me a clue about his character, behaviour and temperament.

But there are many pieces still missing and all those who knew him have long since moved on, their memories of those all-important centre pieces of the puzzle locked up forever.

And it is mostly these centre pieces that I want to unravel because they will begin to tell me more about the kind of person he was.

I have a hunch – possibly another centre piece – that Harris had had humble beginnings, but had risen above them to prosper in adulthood.

There also seemed to be a bit of the wanderlust in him and a sense of adventure – more potential centre pieces.  These characteristics were manifest in his son who, in turn, passed them on to his own children.

My search for Harris is also about finding out more about myself.  Because he was not just anyone who had lived before I was born.

Harris was my grandfather.