Tuesday, 19 January 2016


In the last years of his life a dear old uncle, usually a cheerful, humorous man, became depressed about one aspect of his life about which he could do nothing: the death of his friends. Scrutinising the deaths section of the ‘Telegraph’ became a daily ritual. Spotting one, he would nod slightly, acknowledging the loss. He would find his address book; perhaps telephone the spouse and offer condolences in his friendly, comforting voice, or – if the spouse had already died, then a soft pencil line might mark the fact that no Christmas card would be sent this year.

There comes a point in life when this begins to happen: attending more funerals than parties, noting more absences than new arrivals and expressing more sympathy on bereavement than on depression. But one little light shines through the gloom: when a death brings together a family which has scattered and lost touch.

I am a serious family history researcher, and have wasted more hours than I care to admit to in searching for lost relatives. They can be almost impossible to track – family historians refer to them as ‘strays’, but the meaning can be far deeper and sadder than this term.

Several years ago I undertook a thankless task, researching a family group with a widespread surname and few records, who had dispersed – some of them across the globe. It became a joke that when I was bored I would turn to this branch and attempt some research, only to sink into apathy at my computer and force myself to do something else. Then a stroke of luck led to a breakthrough and I rediscovered some of my husband’s cousins and an uncle, about whom he had wondered and worried for many years. We were back in touch and rediscovering the delights of shared memories as well as (in my case) making wonderful new friends. There was still someone missing though: the uncle was concerned (as my husband had been) as to the whereabouts of his other niece. She was someone quiet, shy and very private. For several years Christmas cards had not been returned, letters had been unanswered and no-one had heard from her. Since none of us lived anywhere near and internet searches proved fruitless, time moved on and life continued. The uncle died and was mourned, and still we knew nothing of her.

Then the other day a breakthrough came, but not one which any of us would have wanted. The cousin had been found, at home, by council workers. She had died at least three months previously.
In the jumble of one’s thoughts and the words ‘how’ and ‘why’ come the justifications and self-recriminations. ‘We all tried.’ ‘You can’t force a person to write back.’ ‘You can’t always find a person on the internet.’ Then: ‘we should have tried a bit harder’; ‘we should have gone there’. In the many telephone conversations which follow, I seize upon the word ‘depression’ – which somehow hasn’t come up before in the context of this woman. And there, I think, lies the answer. I’m not a psychologist, I have no such knowledge or training, but I have experience and age enough to conclude that this terrible illness can indeed lead to a kind of suicide through apathy and loneliness – not intentional or deliberate, but just as fatal in the end.

My article was not intended to be depressing. This death has had a surprisingly positive effect and one which I hope would please its perpetrator: it has reunited her family. They are back in contact, laughing at old memories and enjoying hearing familiar voices and shared history. She is alive again in their minds, as youthful and vital as she was before tragedy struck. Yes, they are also reliving grudges and dislike of long-dead elders, as we all do, but as we re-assess our younger days and what seem like happy, carefree times, so we re-inject a little of that vitality into today. Or so I hope!

SMCH 1944-2015

Tuesday, 5 January 2016


How can this month NOT be depressing? Everywhere you turn there is something which reduces the already low light a little further: the weather, the news, family problems, health problems… I could go on. Wondering how to make this month’s article more light-hearted, I started to make a list of things which are guaranteed to make me laugh – because laughter is the very best way to feel a little better.

A recent edition of ‘Desert Island Discs’ featured a well-known actress, choosing as one of her eight pieces of ‘music’ for a desert island, that famous clip from ‘Test Match Special’ in which the charismatic commentator Brian Johnston attempts to describe a cricket match whilst smothering his bottled-up laughter. He fails, of course, and becomes incoherent at the microphone. It’s so infectious, and you can hear the muffled sounds of his colleagues, collapsing around him with mirth. I was suffering badly from ‘Post-Christmas-Blues’ when this was playing the other day, but it never fails to make me stop what I’m doing and laugh – and the magic worked again. This clip dates from August 1991 and is now almost twenty five years old, yet retains its ability to entertain – perhaps because the incident was an accident, unplanned and unrehearsed.

My late father’s family was notorious for being able to see ‘the funny side’ of things. A mid-1920s photo shows my grandfather and his two eldest children laughing at something. He throws back his head, regardless of his clergyman’s collar, in an uninhibited moment of enjoyment. The two younger children are uncertain and my grandfather’s sister definitely hasn’t understood, but this only makes the photo more natural. Seeing his relaxed joyful expression of mirth always makes me smile.

In this photo, taken more than sixty five years later, the same two eldest children share humour in their eighties.

Sometimes it is extremely hard to pull back from a sudden reminder of the past, and instead you become overwhelmed by it. January holds difficult memories for me, and the 'Blues' I described above returned to haunt me the other day, for no apparent reason. Here is a little story:

I spent the first day of the New Year, more than thirty years ago, in Epsom Hospital undergoing a series of painful and uncomfortable examinations in which various members of the medical profession attempted to ascertain whether or not my unborn baby was breech (upside-down). No-one could decide. In the end I was carted off to X-Ray in a wheelchair. The hospital seemed strangely quiet – it was a bank holiday, remember, and the corridors and lifts were empty. The hospital porter was chatty, and obviously having a dull day. After the X-Ray had been taken, he and I crammed ourselves inside the little processing room with the nurse, where the three of us glumly viewed the negative hanging in front of us in which a tiny little skeleton sat waiting to be born… the wrong way up. 

The nurse shooed us out of X-Ray, and as we rolled back along the deserted corridors to the ward, the porter said,
‘Reckon you’ll need a Caesarean Section.’
‘What?’ I said, beginning to find the whole day both painful and frightening.
‘That baby’s large,’ he continued, his voice filled with the wisdom of one whom nothing would surprise. ‘And high,’ he added.
He was right, but it was only the beginning of my problems. Back on the ward, various nurses – unhappy that they were the ones having to work on a bank holiday – discussed my case in front of me. It seemed that no surgeon was around to perform the operation, so it would need to take place on the following day.
‘We could let you go into labour,’ one nurse suggested, ‘just so that you know what it’s like and don’t feel cheated out of it.’ I glared at her.
‘Just get this baby out!’ I snarled.
By this time everyone was beginning to wonder where my absent husband was. He had disappeared once the first examinations began, when he realised that he could take advantage of the situation to go and contact Elaine. And that was my biggest problem: Elaine. He re-appeared at visiting time (in those days you couldn’t just come and go the way it works now,) and was annoyed to discover that he would not be able to attend the birth because it would be an operation. I still wonder, to this day, why he felt this.  Because, you see, he was having an affair with Elaine, and planned to leave me after the baby arrived. They had discussed it at length, and this was what they had decided.
The next morning there was a flap on because the hospital needed to get hold of my husband. It seems hard to believe now, but they required his permission to perform the operation. In the marital home the telephone rang and rang. And rang, unanswered. In the end, I made a fuss. I was twenty-seven years old, I told them. I suggested that they might try contacting my parents? In the end someone with enormous common sense must have backed down, because they allowed me to sign the form which permitted them to operate on me and liberate the poor little skeleton still waiting inside me… upside down.
They say it’s the best day of your life when you give birth to your baby and it is placed in your arms. I have to comment that seeing my little son for the first time, feeling his tiny body in my arms, was for me one of the best things ever. But as for the rest of it… These memories are dark ones, followed in subsequent weeks by some of the worst days of my life. But that was then.

And this is now! 

Here we are, in January 2016, in what seems like another life. As I close the door on that particular memory I feel depressed at the revisitation, but in an odd way glad I went there. ‘The past is another country’, said L P Hartley so profoundly, and in my opinion when you make your exit you cross a boundary. You may not return, you may not change anything, you can simply revisit in your mind and then let go – for if you don’t, it will haunt you forever.
I wish all my readers a Happy New Year, good health and strength. If you must make a resolution, I recommend adding as much laughter into your life as you can.

And in case you are feeling a little low and would like to hear the Brian Johnston clip, here it is: Brian Johnston & Jonathan Agnew 1991 - enjoy it!