Time travel – family history, handwriting, and meeting a familiar stranger

Recently I have been spending time in 1950. No, this isn’t some weird Lockdown experiment.  Nor is it one of those popular history programmes on television, where a family pretends to go back in time to another era, where they invariably find that a) everything is much harder work than they are used to, b) the food is boring, bland and monotonous, and c) women have a considerably worse time of it than in the 21st century suburbia they are used to.  My time travel is altogether more personal.

I have blogged before about the cache of family photographs and papers I inherited a while ago.  Most of them relate to the maternal, Dutch side of my family.  But there are just a few items from the paternal side, including, for some unknown reason, my grandfather’s diary from 1950. 

Detail of diary entry for Thursday 30 Paril 1950

This side of the family were Liverpool Welsh, part of the large community of immigrants from Wales which was a significant part of the population in the great port city of Liverpool, in the North West of England, from the middle of the 19th century.  A large proportion of the Liverpool Welsh originated from the island of Anglesey, off North Wales, probably due at least in part to the island’s tradition of fishing and seafaring which would give them plenty of relevant skills for working in the docks.  My grandfather was born on Anglesey into a seafaring family – he was just five years old when his father died when the ship he was skippering went down with all hands in Bardsey Sound in the 1880s.  Although the details I was told by my father are a little hazy, there is documentary evidence that my grandfather was in the Merchant Navy at some point in his life, and also that he was the captain of a tug boat based in Bootle docks.  I wonder how it felt to be able to see Anglesey across the water from the banks of the Mersey?

I never knew either of my paternal grandparents as they died long before I was born.  Neither did I ever meet most of the cast of characters whose names are familiar to me from my father’s stories and from Christmas cards – aunts, uncles, cousins.  But in this diary I get a snapshot of their lives, their preoccupations, their daily activities and their holidays, and little details such as my grandfather’s birthday presents (socks, a muffler and a neck tie).  Several weeks of the diary are devoted to the business of getting electricity installed in the house, and frustration with Mr Jones, the electrician (presumably another member of the Liverpool Welsh community), who doesn’t turn up when he’s supposed to, and goes off for days at a time to work on other houses, leaving the place a mess and the job half done.  It seems some things don’t change!

From my grandfather’s diary, I learn a lot of things I either didn’t know, or wasn’t sure about.  One of my uncles is a coal merchant, and he and his wife and young son are obviously going up in the world as they are the proud new owners of a motorcar, a pre-war Rover 10.  This same uncle upgrades his coal lorry, only to have an accident when his shiny new purchase collides with a tram cart on Derby Road, in the docks area, and has to be ignominiously towed back to the coal yard for repairs.  One of my aunts, disabled by polio as a child and still living at home aged 43, goes on holiday to London and while there marries her pen-friend (a precursor of internet dating?).  This event warrants only a couple of lines, and none of the family seems to have attended.  Did she elope?  It’s a possibility, but there is an intriguing sentence a month earlier, when the pen-friend is staying with them in Liverpool: “hoping for the best.”

There are some things which seem inconsistent to me.  His world seems very small – every day consists of shopping and housework for my grandmother, a walk for my grandfather, various uncles, aunts and cousins visiting every day to do things like help carry the shopping home, scrub the doorstep or bring round the evening paper, taking it in turns to keep them company in the evenings.  More than half of each day’s entry is pretty much a verbatim repeat of the previous day, and his life seems a far cry from the active 71-year-olds I know these days.  But the family also travel extensively – I know from photographs that my grandmother visited London on holiday in 1948, and according to the diary in 1950 various family members have vacations in North Wales, the Isle of Man, and London (in the latter case, lodging with other members of the Welsh diaspora).  They have a daytrip to see the Flower Show at Ruthin in North Wales (my grandmother’s home town).  My father at this time is living in the South West, and my other uncle is at college near Sheffield, with placements all over England and even Ireland.

Extract from diary

My grandfather’s spelling is positively Shakespearian at times, often phonetic, with a level of literacy which suggests he was not educated beyond elementary school.  However, he reads the newspaper every day (including newspapers sent by relatives in other parts of the UK), and engaging with the written word through keeping a diary is obviously important to him.  There are hints too that it is my grandfather who deals with the business correspondence for the uncle with the coal yard.

I find the nature of his Welsh identity enigmatic, too.  For example, I know from my father that my grandfather was a first language Welsh speaker, but he chose to write his diary – that most personal document – in English.  Where he does use Welsh, for example in place names, his spelling is every bit as erratic as it is in English!  As with so many in the Liverpool Welsh community of the time, much of the family’s social life is based around Welsh-language churches and chapels, although by his own account my grandfather attends less than the rest of the family – he prefers to listen to Sunday morning services in Welsh, from chapels in Wales, on the radio.

Each day’s entry starts with a report on the weather: “Very nice morning nice and clear not too cold, wind South West light” or “rather dull at first then rained hard, stoped [sic] some sunshine then more heavy showers and more sunshine. Wind about South West by South.”  Along with occasional references to going to sign for his Seamen’s Pension, it’s the only clue to his years aboard ship, where the state of the weather – and the wind in particular – would have been of utmost importance.

I have written about the personal nature of handwriting, which gives an immediacy and intimacy that cannot be replicated by the typed or printed word.  Through this diary I have spent time with someone who is at once both familiar and a stranger.  I know of him, but almost everything I knew before reading this was mediated through my father, who was a fairly unreliable narrator.  I never knew my grandfather – but although I never met him in person, I have here in my hand a book which he held, every day of the year.  I have his words, written with a fountain pen, the quality of his handwriting reflecting his state of health on any given day.  I can see where he has gone back and added in an afterthought, or corrected a mistake in the day’s chronology.  This man is responsible for a quarter of my genes, and this is the first time I have had any physical contact with him.  When I turn the pages, I am touching his fingerprints.  This is the closest I will ever get to him.

The last full entry in the diary is for Boxing Day, Tuesday 26 December 1950. He writes:

“In the afternoon R and B came up for us all to go to there [sic] house for a party, but owing to the coughing and spitting I stayed at home.  I hope that they will have a good time there.”

The following day he writes only “Nice day” – not even a weather report.  Within a fortnight, just a few days before his 72nd birthday, he is dead.

Front of diary - 'Letts Desk Diary 1950'

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Spirit of the sea – art, music and glass

There are few sounds more magical than the sound of the sea. Whether it’s the slow, breathing cadence of the beach at Aldeburgh, with the North Sea washing the pebbles up and down the shoreline with each wave of the swell, or the thunder of the storm waves hitting the breakwater at the Cob in Lyme Regis, sending a plume of white into the air, I find the sound of the sea compelling. Sadly I am rarely successful at taking photographs of the sea – in the time it takes for my eye to see the image, by brain to send instructions to my finger to press the shutter release, and the camera to respond, the scene has moved on, and the moment is lost. Writing about the sea is hard too, with words often feeling too solid to convey something so mercurial and transient.

Paintings can be more successful at evoking the sea – I am especially admiring of Maggi Hambling’s sea paintings (there’s a video here where she speaks about ‘painting the sound of the sea’, with images from her exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge in 2010). Music can do it too, and for me the most moving examples are by Benjamin Britten (his Four Sea Interludes from the opera Peter Grimes) and his teacher Frank Bridge (his symphonic poem The Sea). Britten lived and worked in Aldeburgh, on Suffolk’s North Sea coast, and when I walk on the quiet beach there the soundrack in my head is his first sea interlude (On The Beach: Dawn).

My love of the sea is not sentimental. I was brought up on or near it, and I know all too well how its moods can change, and the destruction and death it can cause. It’s not all blue, bathing beaches and bobbing boats. The sea demands respect, and takes revenge on those who trifle with it. It’s also merciless to those who are in the wrong place at the wrong time, those who have to make their living on it and risk their lives doing so. For me, the heroes of the sea are the volunteer lifeboat crews who set to sea in the worst of conditions in order to rescue those for whom they are the last resort. Yes, the sea is beautiful, but it is also powerful and cannot be tamed by humankind.

The British coastline is shaped by that power. Breakwaters and sea defences notwithstanding, the sea has created – and continues to create – a dynamic coast. Erosion and encroachment by the sea (to stick with the North Sea examples, think of Happisburgh which is being ‘lost’ to the sea at a sometimes dramatic rate) is balanced by the creative forces of deposition (for example the giant and ever-growing shingle bank of Orford Ness).

There has been much concern, and rightly so, about the amount of plastic debris being washed up on our coastlines, and the effect of this on wildlife and the marine ecosystem. But there is something else which is regularly washed up on our beaches, which to my mind is a great example of the power of the sea at work to create something beautiful from the cast-offs of our past. I think of it as a kind of recycling, the forces of nature reworking the mundane into unintended gems. I’m talking about sea glass.

Sea glass is formed when pieces of waste glass are abraded by being tumbled in the sea for extended periods of time (sometimes decades or centuries), their sharp edges eventually ground down into a frosted smoothness and pleasing pebble shapes. I have collected sea glass for some years, and there is a vast network of collectors around the world – Instagram is a good place to see their finds.

Sea glass can be found on beaches anywhere – as with any beachcombing, the best pickings are often to be found at the first low tide after a storm, when all manner of interesting things can be washed up. Some parts of the UK coastline, however, seem to yield more glass than others – I have found a lot in the North West, and also some on beaches in North Devon and East Anglia. I hear that the North East of England is a favourite location for collectors, due to the presence of several bottle works in the 19th and 20th centuries – the largest in the country was at Seaham – which dumped their waste glass into the North Sea. I have included a few photographs from my collection, most of which I display in a large glass vase, although the best way to see sea glass and the way it plays with light and colour is to handle it. The blue pendant is a gift from my partner, who found this unusual aqua-coloured and very large piece of sea glass at Lynmouth in North Devon (other people’s partners give them gemstones. Mine gives me sea glass. I am very lucky!).

Sea glass pendant

Most sea glass is a magical pale aqua colour, but some is white, a lot is green, and other rare colours include amber, blue, orange and (most prized of all) red. As most sea glass originated as glass bottles, the abundance of any colour depends on how common the bottles were – blue, for example, started life as medicine or poison bottles, while amber bottles held spirits. Glass bottle tops are sometimes found too, as are the glass marbles which formed the stoppers of early carbonated drinks. Keen collectors have researched the origins of sea glass, which is in itself a social history and archaeology of glass. Occasionally I am lured into researching a piece – for example the reinforced glass incorporating rusting metal wire grids which occur on Crosby beach on Merseyside, which are part of the debris from buildings destroyed in WWII air raids on the city of Liverpool which was dumped there. Mostly, though, I collect it because I am enchanted by what the sea has made from our thoughtless waste. The power that destroys coastlines and wrecks ships has formed something which, in its colour and ever changing reaction to light, is a kind of echo of itself. Have nothing in your homes, said William Morris famously, that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. Sea glass, I believe, is the most beautiful thing in my home.

I am committed to making this blog freely available, and not putting material behind a paywall. As a writer, I am doing what I love – but I still have to make a living. If you have enjoyed this post, and if you are able to do so, perhaps you would consider supporting my work by making a small contribution via the Buy Me A Coffee button. Thank you!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

Liverpool – impressions

I’ve recently moved to Liverpool – quite a change from rural Somerset!  I had been visiting regularly for a while, so I realised that my Honda CR-V, while perfect for yomping across Exmoor and tackling fords was possibly not the idea vehicle for parallel parking in the city.  So I test drove a range of ‘normal’ cars, which all felt like driving a go-cart by comparison, eventually settling on a middle-aged VW Golf.  Moving to the city has increased my car insurance by roughly 60%.  Cars up here seem to be much newer, much more likely to have chrome and tinted windows, and there is a conspicuous absence of mud…I am going to have to get used to the idea of spending money at the car wash if I’m not to be horribly conspicuous in my road-grimed car…

Today the sun was shining and I could justify playing hookey and going into the city centre.  Public transport here is the best in England outside of London, but I am driving most of the time at the moment as it’s a great way to familiarise myself with the geography of the city.  Today I parked near the Anglican cathedral, and walked down Duke Street to Liverpool One, passing the great gate or paifan of China Town on the way.  It’s the largest outside of China, as befitting the oldest Chinese community in Europe.  Nelson Street is garlanded with red lanterns in preparation for Chinese New Year this weekend.

Next stop was the Tate, on Albert Dock, where I wanted to look at the Tracey Emin/William Blake exhibition.   The red brick of the older buildings in the dock area glowed warmly in the winter sunshine, and despite being off season there were still tourists from all over the world – in a few minutes I’d identified Korean, Japanese, French, Spanish and German being spoken.  I love the cosmopolitan vibe in this city!

I had some Christmas gift vouchers to spend, so from the Tate I walked the short distance to Liverpool One and indulged in a little retail therapy.  Midweek in January is an excellent time to shop – lots of sales, but relatively few shoppers.  It’s fair to say that am not an enthusiastic shopper, but it’s a much more pleasant experience when it’s peaceful.  To celebrate having successfully tracked down all three items on my list, I carried on up the hill to Bold Street in search of lunch.  Bold Street is a hub of ethnic restaurants and quirky shops.  To be honest, I generally feel a bit old and un-hipster when I go there, especially at today’s trendy lunch venue: Leaf.  I’ve been there for tea before, but not for lunch.  I opted for Moroccan chicken sandwich with broccoli soup on the side, and it was not disappointing – full of flavour and fresh ingredients.  A nice touch is the tap water (I was being stingy).  It comes with a tang of fresh mint, dispensed from a giant glass jar with a tap, which is on the bar so you can help yourself to refills.

Twenty minutes’ walk took me back to where I’d left the car, and I drove home in the sunshine, feeling glad to be in such a beautiful and vibrant city.  There is so much more to explore: the range of world-class museums and galleries, the library (to research my father’s family who came here from Wales in the late 19th century), and the constantly changing panorama of the River Mersey.