popping poppy copyright Cherry Potts 2011

For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.

Strange Meeting, Wilfred Owen

For the past week we have been asked to remember:

Remember, Remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder Treason and Plot;

and to remember the fallen of the great war.
So what is memory, what is memorable, and what is remembrance?
As a dyed-in-the-wool pacifist I take exception to the brutality underlying the demand to remember Guy Fawkes; the burning in effigy of anyone is deeply suspect and whilst the anti-catholic fervor of these celebrations is largely forgotten these days there are pockets where it is enacted with determination (Lewes springs to mind.)
For most people Guy Fawkes’ Night is an excuse for pyrotechnics, and for the first time in a very long time, it seems to have been limited to the actual night and the day before.

Now,  I like fireworks, despite having one drop on me when I was stewarding a display once, fortunately a good thick coat was ruined but that was all; but what is it we are asked to remember?
That some people felt strongly enough about a protestant led government they were prepared to attempt to violently disrupt it? The barbaric (to us) brutality with which the would be perpetrators were executed? Yet another magnificent failure? The family loyalty that prompted one of the conspirators to warn his cousin and thus betray the whole team to torture and death?  It’s a pretty bleak story, 400 years old, and but for the publicity machine of the time would have been long forgotten.  But there are still places where Catholic and Protestant hate each other enough to want to blow each other up, places where brutal regimes inflict horrific death on those that don’t agree with them, yet we forget, ignore, dismiss all of this as though it were commonplace; and celebrate a four century old nine-day-wonder every year, around bonfires, with shrieking and banging and cascading explosions lighting up the sky, baked potatoes and toffee apples.
The war to end war:
What a contrast, one week to the next.
I wonder what it was like for traumatised soldiers to experience Guy Fawkes night?  Did they cower and hide and wail like our cats do as the barrage of rockets explode all round them?
Remembrance Sunday, and 11th of the 11th have been hard to ignore this week, the media have been in full swing, and I’ve listened to some interesting radio programmes about the history of Remembrance, from the first unveiling of the cenotaph (empty tomb) in 1919, the burial of the unknown warrior at Westminster Abbey in 1920, the resurgence of a 2 minute silence on the 11th as well as on the nearest Sunday since the 1990’s… and a neatly put explanation of how the death of a soldier in war is now exceptional, unusual, noteworthy; compared to the decimation of an entire generation 90 plus years ago.
I also listened to a programme about the Forester’s House at Ors, where Wilfred Owen sheltered as his wrote his last letter home, a vivid account of cooking potatoes for around 30 soldiers crammed into a basement. The house is now an art installation with Owen’s poems and that last letter projected, broadcast in English (Kenneth Brannagh bringing a magnificent warmth to the readings) and French, and embedded throughout.

I was force-fed Owen’s poetry as part of my education, and it put me off a bit, I found his restraint unappealing, I was with Siegfried Sassoon, raging in protest: it’s time to go back and review that.

On Holiday in Belgium a few years back I turned down the opportunity to visit the war graves, feeling that I knew enough, didn’t need my nose rubbing in it, would find it distressing; I think this Owen memorial would be worth a visit, and if I was there, I might also go to the Menin gate. I’m not sure, I come back to that Stalin quote, about when it is a single individual, known to you, it means more than all the thousands; too many to comprehend, to encompass. But one of the special things about the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is the effort that went (and still goes) into finding the story of the individual behind every one of the graves, and the names where there is no grave. Their website is a marvel of vignettes.  No one in my immediate family died in either world war (a statistic that surprises me) but tracing family history back, I found a few distant relatives, and I was truly impressed with just how much information had been garnered for some records.
Flicking through TV channels we stumbled across the Royal British Legion’s ninetieth anniversary service at the Royal Albert Hall.  I watched to the end, hypnotised by how regimented it was, men in busbies and cheesecutter caps, swaying involuntarily having been stood stock still for at least an hour, with thousands of poppy petals drifting like bloody snow to lie at their feet, on their shoulders, on their headgear.  I found myself wondering how many poppy petals, and thinking not enough; the petals to represent the dead of two world wars would fill that space, and reminded of the Beatles song A Day in the Life (Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall); and thinking about who we should remember: combatants yes, on both sides, and ambulance crews, and nurses, and fire crews, and civilians and those shot for ‘cowardice’…  and thinking, but what is this for?
Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.
Those who lose track of what and why we are remembering, ditto.
It is my intention this evening (energy permitting) to go to the ‘sing around’ at a local pub, and at some point to sing. A and I have been talking about what we might sing. It being Remembrance Sunday has influenced our repertoire, so we will be singing some of the following, depending on how many slots we get and whether someone else has the same idea: Only Remembered (John Tams, used in War Horse), No Man’s Land (Eric Bogle), I want to go home (Oh what a lovely War), and Down by the Riverside.(traditional spiritual) anda version of Three Ravens an ancient song picked up by Thomas Ravenscroft in the 1611.
The reasoning being that they are all wonderful tunes, poignant words, and are in keeping with the original intentions of Remembrance day, apart from the Ravens, which is my own personal take on what war is all about.
I willingly remember the dead of world wars and believe to forget would be dreadful, but I have no intention of celebrating war or military might.
And memory?
Every time I listen to, or sing, No Man’s Land I remember as a child when visiting relatives, dropping in on an old lady who lived nearby, and the faded photograph of a young man in uniform, which she reached down from the mantelpiece and put into my hand. 

My man, she said, and cried.

I expect she told me his name, I expect she told me how he died, if she knew.  I don’t remember; but I remember that photograph. He would have been dead sixty years when we met.
Evey time we walk round the local cemetery we read aloud the names of the dead, in among them the individual war graves scattered among the ivy and wild flowers, and the inscriptions, in particular one that stands out from the prescribed text:

I who loved you most, miss you most.

Copyright Cherry Potts 2011

Roaming Round Romsey

I’ve been trying to create a montage of the glorious stone cats of Romsey Abbey, but no matter what  I do with it, I can only get half of them into the featured image at the top of the page, so here they are in their full glory.
11 carved stone cat faces

The Romsey Abbey Cat's Line Up Copyright Cherry Potts 2011

They leave me wondering whether the stone mason(s) working on the Abbey really liked cats, or definitely thought they were creatures of the devil, to have so many gargoyles look feline.  I fear the latter, but they are a formidable line up of humourous grotesques… I probably missed some higher up the building.

Romsey Abbey Copyright Cherry Potts 2011

So, what are we doing in Romsey? 

A and I always promise ourselves Fridays for pleasure: seaside or a walk or a garden if it’s fine, exhibition or historic building if not.  We have only been intermittently successful this spring/summer owing to illness, and other more pressing priorities.  It was several weeks ago that we managed this trip; I was still not up to a walk, it was blisteringly hot and I was desperate to get out of the house.

Romsey has been on my list for a while, I’ve always vaguely known that the Abbey was worth a look, and we discovered that A had ancestors there, which gave it further interest in a general sort of way.
In terms of a day out, it’s just about at our limit: two hours travel each way just about justified by what’s at the end of the journey.  Getting there was surprisingly easy by train and the station is an easy walk from the centre (unlike a lot of places!).

Romsey Library copyright Cherry Potts 2011

We discovered that Romsey is actually rather charming, and like its Abbey, has neither been ruined by neglect nor by over restoration.  On our way from the station we passed the library, housed in a pleasing red brick Arts & Crafts style building that had once been a school.  By the time we were in the centre of the town, I was muttering, “I think I could live here, let’s check the politics of the local council… do yo think these houses have much back garden?” Not that we’re planning on moving, it’s just a litmus test; like the occasional National Trust property we walk into and say, “Throw everyone out, send a carriage for the cats, we’re taking possession.” (Lindisfarne Castle and Hill House, Helensburgh; take a bow).

The two main streets are lined with attractive old buildings  and the corn exchange has been preserved as a bank.  On a sunny late May lunchtime, the streets were peaceful but anything but deserted, with a few market stalls operating, and the inhabitants extraordinarily friendly.  We got into conversation in shops, restaurants and on the street with all sorts without any initiative on our part.
There is a proper sweet shop, so I got myself a fix of aniseed balls.  (I love aniseed sweets. Twist for the sharp swift sugary rush, balls for slow release consideration – plus they always escape into the bottom of my bag and, being pretty much indestructible, can be a happy surprise weeks later). 
There are a lot of café/ tea shop/ pubs/ restaurants, though none stood out as the-place-to-eat.  The place we chose was disappointing in that it looked interesting and wasn’t, the dish I picked with care, for not mentioning cheese, arrived smothered in it; and A’s raspberry juice was actually some kind of cordial and so strong we had to water it down with half my Sicilian lemonade to make it drinkable; my own fault for not asking, and A’s for not complaining, but still, poor selling technique and service on their part.  If we went back I’d go for one of the purveyors of sandwiches and baked potatoes.
The other thing Romsey has in spades is charity shops, and pretty high quality too. I got a good haul of books and we also found several elements of costume for the opera; and they let us leave our purchases behind the till to pick up on our way home.
Garden with arch of roses

King John's Hunting Lodge, the garden. Copyright Cherry Potts 2011

 Probably the oldest building in the town (apart from the Abbey) is known at King John’s Hunting Lodge.  That guy must have been a prodigious hunter, his lodges litter the south of the country.  Romsey has documentary evidence that there really was a KJHL in the town, but archeology has proved that this isn’t it. Name not withstanding, it’s an interesting building, well interpreted, friendly staff, and it has a knucklebone floor (which I’d always imagined was a term for decorative flint work or something, but no, it’s actual cow knuckle bones ) and medieval graffiti, and satisfying windows that used to be doors, and windows that are now cupboards and so on, and a very pretty garden.

The museum next door (included in entry, more charming staff) is fairly typical how-life-used-to-be lived, but has two stand out exhibits, a recording on wax cylinder of local celebrity Florence Nightingale, sounding like Celia Johnson on speed having just been goosed; and a recreation of the hunting and fishing and general hardware shop that used to be here, complete with mannikin of the erstwhile owner which talked if you pinged the brass ‘attention’ bell.  The gent in question was an enthusiastic inventor of clever garden gadgets, and we had a whale of a time exploring his ideas, and the drawers of the shop which held everything from cheese graters to fishing flies.
The Abbey itself is very fine, preserved without too much intervention from over enthusiastic restorers, as the parish church.  It is mainly Romanesque and reminded me of Winchester cathedral, but lacks the dark, sinister, quality Winchester has, which consequently made it a good deal more attractive.  A number of the nave columns have a single foliage detail on the base as though a leaf has fallen from the more complex decoration at the top.  A nice touch.  The Abbey have a no commercial photography of the interior policy, and while this doesn’t really count as commercial, I’m not using my interior pictures.  There are some brilliant tombstones (I love tombstones, social history, art, intrigue and often humour all in one) from some ancient brasses to florid 18th Century brutes replete with cherubs and urns, but my two favourites were these:
A simple floor slab deeply engraved:
 Here lyeth ye body of Mr Tho
Warren. A learned pious
and faithfull minister of Christ
A solid Nervous assertor
of discriminating grace
and freed will Jan ye 27 1693/4.
Now then, what does that mean? A nervous assertor?  Discriminating grace? Freed will, as opposed to free will?  And why the two year dates? We didn’t move from Julian to Gregorian calendar until Wednesday 2 September 1752 (which was followed by Thursday 14 September 1752) so what’s that about?  Was there some issue about when the new year started, like not on the 1st january?  Surely by the 27th the year was well and truly launched?  Or was the tombstone carved so much later that no one could remember which year he’d died? Bizarre.
I get quite a picture of  Thomas Warren from those few words, probably completely wrong, but it keeps me amused.
The other high point tomb-wise is from 1658, and has a painted half-length  sculpted double portrait of John Sainte Barbe and his wife Grissell (not one of those antique names people like to resurrect, like Lettice, its apparent derivation gets in the way.)
Below the inscription are shown their children, a bundle of 4 cheerful, plump, slightly surprised moppets in red.  At first glance it looks like 2 girls and 2 boys, but the inscription says 4 sons, and given that their mother was only 22 when she died (the same day as her older husband) the implication is that the two youngest hadn’t yet been ‘breeched’.
There is extraordinary poetry on this inscription which is difficult to follow as it has been set out very oddly, it isn’t obvious which line you read after which, and culminates in an anagram on their names:
Be in shares, in Blest Glorie. 
This feels a bit shoehorned in, and I imagine a scholarly friend, perhaps the tutor of the eldest son, doing his best to meet a passing fad for cod mysticism with this rather paltry effort.  I’m saying no more on the poem, you should really go and read it yourself; but it reminded me of the title of an Ellis Peters detective book (not a Cadfael):

A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs.


Title page of Elegy

Title Page of the Elegy

This brings me back to genealogy and A’s ancient ancestors.  This was a bit of a detective work too.

In the ‘broody box’ a metal cash box owned by A’s father, there was among various other family documents a printed Elegy in memory of a Mrs Dunn.
This is Dunn the gentlemans outfitter, though not that specific branch of the family, and rather earlier in the family tree.  Now, because it only mentions the initial of her husband, and her name not at all, it took a while to work out who she was.  The number of children left motherless was a further clue, and we had a death date, and age at death and we assumed she’d died in Trowbridge, Wiltshire.  However, the fact that the Elegy was printed in Portsmouth suggested a Hampshire link.
A bit of research found her first name to be Elizabeth.
Elizabeth married William Dunn in around 1782 and had six children, William Webb, Elizabeth Witt, Anne Parsons, Joseph Stephen, Maria and Benjamin (the family habit of using other family surnames as middle names is a godsend when doing research, the 1st daughter being called Elizabeth Witt really helped.) 
So with Witt as a possible maiden name, we checked out births in Trowbridge and couldn’t find her, so we back tracked to the Hampshire connection.  We eventually found that Elizabeth Witt was born in 1762 and died in June 1790, that she was the daughter of  Stephen Witt who died in Romsey in 1792, and his wife Elizabeth who died in 1804.  Our Elizabeth had a younger brother, Robert, born after the family moved to Trowbridge.
second page of elegy

second page of elegy

Another typical find: Elizabeth’s brother Robert married Mary Dunn, one of the cousins of Elizabeth’s husband William. This happens a lot in the Trowbridge woollen merchants of A’s family tree, the best example of this is a Mr John Cooper, marries a Miss Wilkins, and his father, also John Cooper, for his third wife then marries the youngest sister of his son’s wife.  That seems a bit over the top to me!  But what a great story there is buried in there.  Not bad from a document too coy to mention the actual name of the writer or the deceased.

So that’s why we were in Romsey.
Copyright Cherry Potts 2011

The Imposter

Another Genealogy letter:

My partner’s maternal Grandfather is a bit of an enigma: He vanished, apparently without trace, leaving his wife with three young children.  The children suffered a great deal as a result, their mother took them back to live with her parents, but as the progeny of a broken home, they were shunned by what passed for society, never invited to parties, at best pitied.  His daughter never told my partner much about him, only that she had nightmares about him returning.

Although he appears on the memorial for the Boer War in his wife’s northern home town, where all who served are commemorated, not just those who died; his identity is obscured with initials where everyone else has their full name.

On the wedding certificate the first names and father he gives do not tally with official records, and the date of birth is wrong, although the man he claims as father does live at the address he gives in the west country.

He did not apparently know his wife before his return from the  Boer War in the 1901 and married her within 3 months; in the census for that year the man he claimed to be appears as a tinker in another county. And why would he come to the north where he knew no one, rather than return to the west country where he claimed to have been born?

possible photograph of the missing grandfather

Possible Photograph of the Missing Grandfather

In a family swamped by photographs, there is only one picture which may be him (it may be his brother-in-law) However his first child was given an unmistakable name which proves that he must somehow be related to the family he claims.  There is no record of him serving during WWI.  It is possible he returned to South Africa, but again there is no record to prove it.

Subsequent research shows no evidence that he ever returned to the west country nor the north and has tracked him to a seaside town  hundreds of miles from his children and his potential parents, where the trail once more goes cold in an air raid in 1944.

The shop he worked in and lived above is still a hole in the ground.  But was he there on the night of the raid?

In this ‘letter’ in which I imagine what finally sent him into hiding, I have changed the names.  I’m not sure why, but the uncertainty over his identity makes me want to continue to disguise him.

Park Row

17th February 1913


Although I now know this is not your name, how else can I address you-

I have long believed that you were a bounder, and as you bring Edith and the children more grief with each passing year, I have finally set myself to discover the truth.

I wrote to the man you claim as your father, and he never had a son James.  Moreover the only James Wyatt he knows, a young nephew, was born with a defect and made his living as a tinker in Yorkshire, and is dead.  Mr Wyatt’s only son, John, he has heard nothing from, since he set sail for Capetown in 1898.  He is rumoured dead also.

I shudder to think what secret history has caused you to hide behind the name of another, nor how you came by it.  Are you in fact John Wyatt, and happy to let your father believe you dead; or another man completely?  Are your rank and medals as false as your name?

I beg you, come to me by noon tomorrow with an explanation, or take the enclosed money and go back to the colony from which you came to ruin my daughter’s happiness.  If neither action is forthcoming, I will be taking my suspicions to the authorities.

Better by far that Edith suffer the shame of abandonment, than the discovery that her husband is perhaps a bigamist, perhaps a murderer; but without doubt an impostor.

S. W. Barry

More genealogy letters here The Arsonist’s Demise and One Finger Typing

Copyright Cherry Potts 2010

The Arsonist’s Demise

National Short Story Week is coming to a close, and with it all my good intentions to do some writing in honour of the event.  Having a house full of builders isn’t conducive to creativity, even when they are charming, careful and considerate, which they are.

I did however make it to Spread the Word’s Genre writing day Guilty Pleasures last Saturday. This was enormous fun, and had I not put my notebook down somewhere I no longer recall, I would now be blogging in more detail about the event… it’s probably under a dust sheet somewhere, so the introduction of my new character, Peggy Marsh will have to wait until the builders go and I unearth her.  (and at some point I might blog about the importance of stationery to the writing process – or not!) Peggy resulted from an excellent workshop on Historical Fiction run by Imogen Robertson.  Imogen supplied us with packs of source material – letters, diaries, pictures from a century we were not already researching, and asked us to come up with a character study.  I didn’t read them very carefully, a flick through was enough – Hogarth’s painting of his servants, Mary Granville recommending boiled snails for a cough, a passing reference to Dr Johnson, a snapshot atmosphere from the lighting of one of the paintings and the cacophony outside the musicians window in one of Hogarth’s prints; my own knowledge of Hogarth’s connections with Captain Coram’s Foundling Hospital (a place chock full of stories) … and it worked, but I can’t find it, so that’s for another day.

John Cooper of Bratton

In the spirit of that exercise however, another genealogy letter. This one stems from a memoir written by my partner’s great-great aunt Sarah, about her grandfather, John Cooper, who was a Baptist preacher in the southwest, and for a time kept a school, which ended in disaster.  Sarah was something of a fantasist (her version of the family tree goes in an unbroken line to William the Conqueror, skipping three generations where she  had nothing to rely on) but Cooper was a genuinely fascinating character who married three times and had nineteen children; more happened in his life than he can possibly have deserved, and one of these days, I will write a doorstop sized family saga about him and his prodigious family.

So this ‘letter’ is written by John Cooper after the second time his school has burnt down, and the culprit has been apprehended.  I image him, sitting at the desk where he later wrote sermons, writing and re-writing this letter, aware that he has very little time, but must  get the tone and the wording absolutely right, to mitigate the shock and distress of his message.

The Arsonist’s Demise

To await R- S- Esq., at the Bear Hotel, Devizes.

For his immediate and private attention.

Bratton, Wilts

23rd Sept. 1789

Sir –

I beg you forgive me, I write in haste, being unable to bring you this terrible news in person, and concerned that you receive it away from the public regard.  I wish I need not add to your already grievous woes, but I fear I must.

Sir, your Son is no more.

Being taken before the magistrate and committed to Devizes Prison upon his confefsion, he begged me to visit him in that dreary spot, with which, as his Friend, and ‘In Loco Parentis’, I complied most willingly, and lent him my kerchief against the chill in that place.  To my great horror and regret I find myself the unwitting instrument of his demise.  The child has strangled himself with the self-same kerchief, lent him, so I believed, as a comforter.

Whilst my distrefs cannot be compared to that of a grieving parent, nor to the anguish of the boy himself, believe me Sir, quite overcome at this dreadful turn of events.  Although through your Son’s actions, I and Mr Williams are now quite without resource, and indeed Mr Williams and family without domicile, the child was dear to us both.  I wish we had understood his wretchednefs sooner.

I pray for you and your wife, and for the poor boy’s unhappy Soul.

Yours, Sir, in any service I may do you.

J o. Cooper

more genealogy letters here The Imposter and One Finger Typing

copyright Cherry Potts 2010

One Finger Typing

Family history has a bit of a geeky image, and I won’t pretend it doesn’t have its fair share of anoraks, but it is also a deep and rich mine for good stories.  I first got interested when my partner’s father died and we came across his genealogy research, which infuriated me because it only followed the male line, and had no dates on it.  The family tree was kept in a heavy metal cash box, known in the family as the ‘broody box’, because Tim was very proud of his family, an enthusiasm not shared by his wife Jane.  Also in the box were lots of documents and photographs all carefully annotated, which captured my attention, and I have spent an awful lot of time exploring various family lines, in Both A’s family and mine.  Hers are easier as they had a tendency to use the mother’s maiden name as a middle name, and to have more unusual surnames.  There have been numerous fascinating true stories, and intriguing dead ends that lead us to develop complex fantasies, which I have developed into a series of imagined letters.

This one, One Finger Typing, is absolutely true.

My Grandfather

My Grandfather served in the Royal Artillery in Egypt during the war, and my grandmother got the war office telegram, swiftly followed by a typed letter, this is what I imagine it said:

dearest girl

they may tell you i am dead. im not. i got  roughed up in an accident and ive been out of it for a few days. live but not exactly kicking. don’t worry i will be ok.  borrowed this typewriter from a nurse. sorry for not writing properly but only one finger works. who would think with shells going up all round me id cop it from a loose electric cable. hope they didnt scare you love. hospital here is v good so wont be shipped home worse luck. doc says i was v lucky ken had his head screwed on and knew what to do. i say unlucky ken left the damn thing like that in the first place. nurse wants her typewriter back. ill write when i can.

kisses all round for my girls especially you.


More Genealogy letters here The Arsonist’s Demise and The Imposter

Copyright Cherry Potts 2010