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Reading family histories: Vikram Seth’s Two Lives

When Natalie Pithers interviewed me for Twice Removed, she asked the question, that she asks to most of her interviewees, what do you say to someone who thinks that their family history is not interesting?

I’ve recently finished reading Vikram Seth’s auto/biography, history, family history Two Lives and I think he answers this question beautifully there:

‘Behind every door on every ordinary street, in every hut in every ordinary village on this middling planet of a trivial star, such riches are to be found.’

Family histories are ordinary, but only as ordinary as life itself. The conditions that have enabled this ‘middling planet’ to successfully sustain life are inherently extraordinary.

Seth’s account of his uncle’s and aunt’s lives are framed through Seth’s relationship with them. For him, this is a necessary vantage point, but he acknowledges this perspective might be ‘sometimes distorted, sometimes overexplicit’. Seth takes his reader on his journey of discovery, unravelling his personal relationship with his uncle and aunt while sharing a traumatic history that stretches across the globe.

Two Lives is an account of the lives of Seth’s uncle, Shanti Seth, and aunt, Henny Caro, lived through the twentieth century across India, Germany, and the UK. Shanti Seth moved from India to Germany in the 1930s to train as a dentist. Henny Caro was born in Berlin and her Jewish family were subject to the persecution of the Nazi regime. All of Henny’s family are murdered, except for one brother who had moved to South America. Shanti had lodged with Henny’s family in Berlin; later, after the Second World War, both are living in London and they marry.

Vikram Seth’s framing of this narrative from his own unconscious naivety staying with relatives who seem elderly to a young man, enables the gentle unfolding of an impossibly difficult narrative that starts and ends in the mundanity of London’s suburbia.

The history is pieced together by Seth through independent research, interviews with his uncle, a trunk of letters that he found that belonged to Henny, and his own memories. It is explicitly a history told from the perspective of a personal relationship. Family histories are embodied narratives; Seth channels Henny and Shanti’s story through his experiences and it is a more resonant and nuanced telling for that honesty.

The ‘riches’ that Vikram Seth uncovers through his investigations into the lives of Henny and Shanti Seth is the revelation of the complexity of human character. And written from the first decade of the twenty-first century, Seth’s family history is witness to the astonishingly awful events that were experienced by so many families in the twentieth century.

Reference: Vikram Seth, Two Lives (London: Abacus, 2006)

It’s taken a while, but I’m PhDone!

It’s been a funny year, I think, grasping at the greatest understatement I can find as I start my first blog post in nine months.

A few days ago a box arrived in the post. This is the box in which I will put my thesis and a copy of Lines And Ladders, so that they can be deposited in the university library. I opened the parcel today as post has a 72 hour quarantine period these days.

I spent most of 2020 writing my thesis. I started with a plan; I would cocoon myself in work for the first three months of the year, submit the thesis some time in April, whatever state it was in (remembering the adage about there only being two types of thesis: the finished ones and the perfect ones), and then viva in the summer. But, you know this story, as I emerged back into the world from the hermit stage of writing, we were all ordered to stay inside.

For me, this was time to redraft, to improve, to slowly wend my way through the comments from my supervisors. Delaying in the hope that my viva might take place in person. Playing a board game in a public space, critical to my practice-research, seemed suddenly desperately improbable and all the more necessary because it was beyond reach.

It turned out delaying until we could have three people from different households in the same room was not feasible. The mismanagement of the situation in the UK meaning it simply wasn’t safe throughout the Autumn and Winter of 2020.

I had my viva online in December. I passed without corrections and I still don’t quite believe it.

It wasn’t as bad as I had feared. My shambling attempt in the mock two weeks earlier prompted me to practise. Fundamental for a practice-research PhD, you might think, but I realised that for the last year I had avoided talking about my thesis, because so much of my brain power was being expended writing it. When people asked about it, I deflected.  

For the two weeks between the mock and the real thing everyone I spoke to heard all about my research. Anyone local helped me by questioning and listening as we walked or ran together. Friends and family further afield quizzed me over video link – and I realised just what phenomenal interviewers they all were. Another year, I might have talked more about my research at conferences and suchlike, but speaking research out loud is a different skill to the writing that I had spent the last year developing. The drilling that started in the mock and continued for the next two weeks made me articulate more succinctly.

The thoughtful consideration and kindness of the examiners, Frances Babbage and Jerome de Groot, made the viva a challenge to be relished. Their engaged, informed and enthusiastic questioning encouraged me to speak with confidence about my research. From the opening awkward conversation between Frances and I about the apples in the fruit bowl behind me, while we waited for Jerome who got locked out of the meeting, to the closing opportunity to add something that was missed, the examination was respectful and friendly.

Part of me is sad to have finished the PhD, I’d expected to drag it out for a few months with corrections. I like being a student. But on the other hand – woo hoo! It’s done!!!

The thesis and game board in their box ready for the library.

Lines And Ladders Performance Diary 25: Dedicated to contemplated feasting

I’ve borrowed the title of this post from my grandfather, Cyril William (Nick) Nichol’s journal.

Playing Lines And Ladders was a way of always telling stories spontaneously. I have found it hard to consider the stories of my grandparents as family history. These stories are too personal to me to share in writing or on the stage. I am lucky; I knew all of my grandparents into adulthood and my Granny Paddy continues to help me with my research. Their lives are close to mine in a way that their predecessors are not. Lines And Ladders is a personal exchange of stories; it is easier to talk about people I know to people I can see.

My grandfather Nick was a pilot in Bomber Command. On the 22nd March 1944, his plane was shot at and the Wireless Operator, Arthur Elliott, was killed. Nick managed to land the plane and the rest of the crew survived. Two evaded capture, but my grandfather and three others became prisoners of war. He didn’t talk much about his experiences to me, but he did keep a journal.

It is filled with lists of food that he dreamed of eating. He wrote ‘At Luchenwalde time was heavy and passed slowly so that many officers began to collect recipes, menus and lists of places to stay and places to eat. Many hours were lightened by chatter about good food and pleasant places to stay when we were living more than two hundred in a single storey barrack approximately ninety feet by thirty five feet, on three tier bunks with not enough blankets issued to go round’. Living on rations of mint tea, soup, potatoes, rye bread, a small amount margarine and sugar every third day, evidently recording imaginary feasts was a distraction.

The journal is an international culinary celebration, with recipes for food and drinks from around the world, and recommended places to eat from Bassenthwaite to New York. Four pages are dedicated to German recipes, including a Mohkuchen Poppy Cake, Nürnberger Lebkuchen and Berlin Pancakes. There’s a list of sandwiches that I guess are influenced by his American friends: peanut butter with lettuce and mayonnaise; peanut butter with bacon;  or peanut butter and raspberry jam.

The war did not end on VE Day. I wonder how my great-grandparents must have felt seventy-five years ago? I presume relief that their children might return to Cumberland, but there must have still been great uncertainty.

My grandfather did return. He was thin and malnourished, but he came home. Three months after VE Day, his sister, Connie Nichol, died of malaria. She was nursing in Nigeria at the time and is buried in Lagos.

The war was fought for peace and freedom from oppression. Its conclusion meant that the ‘contemplated feasting’ could take place all over Europe and across the world. My grandparents spent their lives looking outwards and were holidaying across the world by the time that I knew them.

I don’t think my grandfather did much cooking after the war – so I don’t know if he tried out these meticulously copied recipes. Most are so full of fat and sugar, I don’t think I could stomach them, but I do plan to try making the pepper nuts (for which there are two different recipes). These featured in a wonderful, moving play that we saw at Derby Playhouse last year – Pepper & Honeyabout the relationship between a Croatian woman living in the UK and her grandmother.

75 years after the day that peace was declared in Europe, I won’t be flying bunting or dressing in red, white and blue. I’ll be taking time to remember the man I was lucky enough to know and his sister who didn’t come home.

When I raise a drink to my Granpa – perhaps from his extensive and lethal looking list of ‘Punches and Cocktails’ – I’ll remember that his measures were always generous.

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My grandparents, Paddy and Nick, after he had returned, with thanks to my Granny Paddy for sharing this photograph and my Granpa’s journal.

Lines And Ladders Performance Diary 24: My thesis is performance

I should be writing my thesis. Whatever else I am doing, I should be writing my thesis. This is a constant pin pricking my conscience. It’s a long time since I have posted to this performance diary, because I have been concentrating on the thesis. Channelling my ideas in the more formal tone of academic writing.

A thing that I need to remember is that Lines And Ladders is the thesis. The written element of my thesis will be shorter than most, by about 30,000 words, because this practice is the thesis. This public exchange of personal stories enabled through play is the nub of my research. It is an exploration of the principles and methods that guide family historians. Each game is the same and each game is different; each time it is a chapter of my thesis.

By playing a game, participants are a part of the research. They contribute to the thesis not as focus group studies, but as active players who steer the chapter. At Family Tree Live, I played with James Halstead, who at the start stated that he hoped he would land on a particular prompt, but did not reveal which space this was. As the game progressed he mentioned this again, saying it was now looking unlikely. Doing this he built my suspense and shifted the control of the game’s narrative. I was intrigued. The game ended. James won. And as a prize was able to select one more story to tell … perhaps one that we had missed … This new rule, invented to fit this particular game, may well be introduced into future play, but it was only introduced that day because of the way that James had increased the intrigue.

In another game on the same day, I played with Elizabeth Lloyd and her daughter Natalie Pithers. In this game Elizabeth raced ahead. Her dice throws propelling her towards an early win, whilst Natalie and I trailed behind. This led to a game of two halves. In the first part Elizabeth had more opportunities to tell stories, but once she had won it became Natalie’s turn.

At Family Tree Live there were many organisations and companies who would help you to document your family history. Three that stood out were Twiggli.com who will help you to create a bright and colourful poster of your family tree, recordalife.com who will interview you then turn it into a book and CD, and familyquilt.net who provide an online platform where you can curate your family history to share with your chosen audience. Lines And Ladders is something different. Lines And Ladders is not a way of recording family histories, but it is a way of sharing them. It’s about making time to tell your stories and about being interested in other people’s stories.

In this blog about Family Tree Live, Janet Few points out the importance of making time for the interests of others. Having spent more than 30 hours playing Lines And Ladders in 2018 and 2019, I can verify it’s well worth listening to other people’s family histories because everyone has gems to share.

And sometimes, this will help you with your own research. One player told a story of an ancestor who had changed their name. As she told the story aloud, she raised a question for herself. Had this man’s step-father died, before the son changed his name to his biological father’s name? A new avenue to follow prompted by the conversation.

And James’ story? The one that I had to wait for? Prompted by ‘You find something that you cannot share’, this was a cautionary tale to take care when talking about family histories to those involved. Events that may be common knowledge in one branch of the family may be unknown to another.

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Natalie Pithers, Elizabeth Lloyd and I play Lines And Ladders at Family Tree Live last April.

Lines And Ladders Performance Diary 23: Endgame

This blog post discusses the film Avengers: Endgame; there is no risk of spoilers, as I haven’t seen it yet…

I’ve tried explaining transtextuality here before and I don’t think that it was terribly successful. I love this concept but my enthusiasm for it can get too tangled up in jargon.

At the moment I am grappling with my methodology. This is the bit of the thesis where I have to explain why I have done my research in the way that I have done it. This is the bit where I have to explain why I have chosen transtextuality as a theory, when there are so many other possible options.

Saying, because I’m besotted with it and I don’t understand why you aren’t too, simply doesn’t cut it. I need to be able to explain why I am slightly obsessed.

As this is happening, all around me are discussions of the recently released Avengers: Endgame. This film that promises to bring to a close the multiple storylines generated across more than ten years and twenty films.

A part of the pleasure in watching these films is recognising their interrelationships. Spotting a central character from one film as a bit part in another. Recognising how actions in one film might impact another. Questioning how characters are changed from their comic book originals. This is a franchise wearing its transtextuality on the outside.

This is the fourth Avengers film; the rest of the films focus on individual characters and mostly take their titles from a central protagonist. How many people watching Endgame will have watched only the four Avengers films? Not many I would guess. Does this thread of four Avengers films act as back bone to the rest of the franchise? Or are they more like icing on a cake, the whole thing will hold together fine without them, but they sweeten the experience? Would someone watching Endgame without having seen any of the rest of the films be entertained or simply lost? Understanding how the films function in relation to one another is what transtextuality can help us to do.

I lost track of the films years ago, probably as a result of the demise of Blockbuster films. Once I had missed a few, it suddenly seemed like a lot to keep up with.  If I watch Endgame now, it will be in the light of just seven of the earlier films. This will be a very different experience to a cinema-goer who has watched every film on release and different again to the dedicated fan who has watched every film multiple times.

So I might try and watch a few more Avengers films before watching Endgame or it might be the next film that I watch. Either way, I’ll be watching for elements I recognise from other Marvel films, from other films in the superhero genre, I’ll be looking out with sadness for Stan Lee’s final Avengers cameo, and I’ll be wondering how much it shares with its strangest transtextual relation, Samuel Beckett’s play of the same name. I have a feeling that any closure offered by Avengers: Endgame will be about as final as that offered by Beckett. In Marvel’s case it will only hold firm until the next opportunity is seized; these films are part of an ongoing transtextual narrative. This cycle is ending. The next one will come round soon enough.IMG_3133