A Poem Of Reference

I was on a deserted promontory, looking out to sea, and some words from Tomas Tranströmer’s long poem, Baltics, came to me:

I looked at the sky and at the earth and straight ahead

and since then I’ve been writing a long letter to the dead

on a typewriter with no ribbon just a horizon line

so the words knock in vain and nothing sticks.

There a few things in this poem that I can relate to. For instance, speaking of his grandmother:

I remember her. I would press close to her

and at the moment of death (the moment of crossing?) she sent out a


so that I-a five year old-understood what happened

half an hour before they rang.

The same thing happened to me with my grandmother, although I was eighteen years old at the time, feeling the presentiment at two o’clock in the morning. We got the call around eight o’clock when her son, my uncle, found her, dead in bed as he took her usual morning brew in to her.  We were later told that she had died at around two.

The poem continues:

Her I remember. But on the next brown photo

the unknown man-

dated by his clothes to the middle of last century.

A man around thirty: the vigorous eyebrows,

the face looking straight into my eyes

and whispering: ‘here I am’.

But who ‘I’ am

there’s no one any more who remembers. No one.

Among my family history material I have many such photographs, frustrating, maddening, unidentifiable. Of people who exist now only as anonymous phantoms, suggesting a link, offering connections, but withholding their secret confirmation for eternity.

And there is one final connection. The poet ends by speaking of the old Jewish cemetery in Prague:

where the dead live more packed than they were in life, the stones

packed packed.

So much love encircled! The tiles with their lichen-script in an unknown


are the stones in the ghetto cemetery of the archipelago folk, the stones

raised and tumbled.-

The hovel is lit up

with all those who were driven by a certain wave, by a certain wind

right out here to their fates.

I discovered Tranströmer’s poem a number of years after I had visited that cemetery, speaking of it in my own poem Prague, Late November, which has featured on this blog. It begins:

A crystal cold

falls sharp

upon the city of towers,

upon the Jewish remnants

of an age-old struggle

keeling and succumbing

in the dawn and the dusk.

Hurdling prostrate beggars

we bridge the rolling river,

crawling for solace

to our procured holes,

tasting the cuisine

with the blood and the dust.

How did I end up in that cemetery on a freezing, cold November day? My wife took the kids to school one wet, Monday morning. When she got back she said to me: “Guess what? When I passed the travel agents on the way back I saw something advertised in the window. So I went in-and we are going to Prague next month.”

From then on, whenever she offered to do the school run, I would say “No-I will take the kids. We can’t afford for you to take them!”

D-Day And The Lost Stories Of Two Grandfathers

Today, as I am sure you will be aware, is the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. I intend to watch the many programmes commemorating the event today, my thoughts no doubt turning to my two Grandfathers who took part in history’s largest ever land invasion. I know next to nothing of their own, personal D-Day stories. I know very little of their time during the war full stop. Like so many, it appears that they didn’t speak too much about it. And by the time my own curiosity had grown, it was too late.

One of them died of cancer before I was born, the other died when I was twenty years old,  at a time when I had yet to fully develop my great interest in history, and in particular my own family history.

I do wish I had asked. Either them, or other older relatives who may have known more.

imageThis was my Grandfather James Brown, short sleeves, back right. He was a Gunner in the Royal Artillery.

In the months leading up to D-Day, all leave had been cancelled with plans and preparations being made, and troops undergoing training, as everybody knew that the Normandy invasion was imminent. Definitely coming, it was just a matter of when.

However, on the 28th of April James’ wife gave birth to twins-a boy and a girl. That girl was my mother. James was briefly allowed home to see his two new children, along with his wife and other son, before having to return again to his unit.

That is as much as I know of his involvement in this historic event. He would return home once the war had ended, but die from cancer in 1951, those twins being only seven years old. I never met him, but I have always wondered. My son is named after him.


This is my other Grandfather, Fred Murray. He was a Sapper in the Royal Engineers.

The only reference I ever heard about him and D-Day was from my Dad, who told me once that his Dad was ‘one of the last out of Dunkirk, and one of the first over on D-Day.’ 

At Dunkirk he was trying to salvage what equipment he could as the great evacuation was taking place. While he was on that beach, back home his first child was being born-my father, with no-one at the time knowing the danger that he was in.

There is the story too about how, when he finally made it back, while he was sat in a local pub in Collyhurst, Manchester, having a pint, a local cobbler took his boots away to  repair for free. They were in a sorry state, his toes poking out of the end, after the many days marching he had done to get to the Dunkirk beach in the retreat.

But in regard to Normandy, in 1944, I don’t know exactly what his role was, but as a Royal Engineer it could be that he was involved in the building of the temporary Mulberry harbours.

I have war records. I have lists of dates and countries. But the personal stuff, the human stuff, will probably be forever lost.

I wish I had asked.

I will watch as many of the commemorative programmes that I can today, with both of these men on my mind and in my heart.

The Healer with the Age Complex

A few days ago it was the twenty fourth anniversary of the passing of a great aunt of mine. She died the day after her 90th birthday. The year I left high school.

It was only when I began to do my family history that I realised that she was the only person I had known, personally, who had been born in the 1800’s.

And she would have been mortified that I knew.

It was only just 19th Century-1899. But 1899 is still 1899.  She would also be mortified at how many times I am repeating it.

See she had a hang up about age. Maybe that’s  a generational thing, from a time when there was a specific social etiquette that everybody adhered to.


She was the only member of her large family who managed to escape the dark skies of Manchester, trading it for the bright lights of London, where she lived for all of the time I knew her.

She was apparently a well known spiritual healer. The fact was certainly well known in our family. On the sporadic occasions that she would come to visit us up north, my younger, nervy brother would suddenly disappear with his football. I wonder if she ever thought it suspicious that our own little Braveheart would always have a match about to start whenever she walked through the door?

When my Dad was having problems with his back, she gave him a card that had a painting upon it of her spirit guide, with the instruction to keep it in his back pocket and his aunt (God forbid I almost said elderly aunt) would send him absent healing. The story goes that he did as instructed, and walked into the kitchen where our family German Shepherd dog roused himself from his habitual slumber and started to growl at him.

But everybody growled at my Dad. My Mum’s hackles were constantly up. The next morning he came downstairs to tell my Mum ” Guess what-that card worked!”

“Really?” my Mum said, all wide eyed wonder, her thoughts immediately turning to her ironing pile.

“Yes-I’ve got bleedin’ piles.”

But don’t think I am mocking this, far from it. There were many testimonies from people of all walks of life who claimed to have been  helped by her, some of whom had exhausted all avenues of treatment.

The age thing reared it’s sensitive head when a journalist arranged to meet with her, and called around to her flat in Richmond. He was from a Spiritualist newspaper that had often featured articles over the years about people who had received healing from her. Now they wanted to do a feature article on her, photograph, brief biography, the works. It was all going swimmingly until, in the act of collating his information, he asked how old she was. She slung him out of the flat, with a withering ” A gentleman does not ask a lady her age!” If he had dared ask again he would no doubt have been in need of a good healer himself.

As she reached her mid-seventies (I know-I’m sorry!) she was still very independent and travelled the world. Then, out of the blue it all came crashing down. She was knocked down by an off duty police officer, speeding and over the alcohol limit. By all accounts the doctors could not believe that she survived. I do not remember the full list of injuries, which were extensive, but there was mention of a fractured skull and a punctured lung. But somehow she did survive, enduring a long stay in hospital.

Family would visit her there, and unknown to them the nurses were monitoring how much water she was drinking. That canny woman would pass the jug around, asking her visitors to water the plants.

She refused to prosecute the driver.  She refused to give a witness statement.  The police came to the hospital several times, trying to persuade her to press charges, but she adamantly refused. Was this because she was a spiritual woman,  showing forgiveness and thereby demonstrating the faith and belief system that underpinned her whole life?  Was she leaving judgement to God?

No-the reason she would not prosecute was because her age would be read out in court.

Really. The driver got off.

A few years after this I went down to London with my Mum to stay with her for a few days. Braveheart stayed at home. Quite wisely too, seeing as though she told us that her friends would come and see her when it was their anniversary or birthday. Of course she meant dear departed friends. My mum whispered to me that  next time she would get her to check her calender first before arranging to visit.

It was sad to see this once independent lady now confined to her flat, moving with a struggle from room to room with the help of a walking frame. She once said “If it wasn’t for my beliefs…..,” her voice trailing off. I knew exactly what her intention would have been. She used to say that our bodies were just overcoats that we took off when we died.

She wanted to leave the cloakroom.

These memories re-surfaced as her anniversary passed-the date where she achieved the release that she craved.

I am not a Spiritualist, but I do believe there is a spiritual element to our lives, and my own particular journey is a response to that. My great aunt would encourage me to think and consider things, she would send me relevant books up with her brother, my grandfather, when he would return from staying with her. Some of them were signed to her by authors that she knew personally, under which she would sign them to me. ‘To dear Andrew, please continue to investigate.’

I wouldn’t say that I investigated, but in the long run it gave me an open mind and a way of regarding the world in a non-judgemental way.

We all have people that have pointed the way for us in our lives, who have influenced us along the way, and it is important to acknowledge them. Whether we regard our path as a spiritual path, a faith journey, or a purely secular route, we all have people who have had a significant influence on our life journey. We  honour these people by the way we live our lives.

For all of us are just passing on the torch to those who follow us, handing on the baton and hoping that we have run a good race.

I still have a copy of an article, from that same Spiritualist newspaper, which reports on the death of my great aunt, and of the life that she led. It mentions her family life in Manchester, and her spiritual life lived out in London.

It doesn’t mention her age.