My husband, Mr T. shuffled off this mortal coil two and a half years ago. I can’t work out who was more annoyed – me or him. Don’t get me wrong, he didn’t ask to go, and I’m sure it was as much of a surprise to him as it was to me. Nevertheless, off he popped, without as much as a “thanks for the memories”. He didn’t wash his plate up either.
Widowed at 40 with 2 virtually grown up children, I had 2 choices. Either I could eat the entire contents of the Bournville chocolate factory in Birmingham, put on my widow’s weeds and abandon myself to loneliness and certain insanity until it was my turn to roll up at St Peter’s Gates, or I could live a life, of sorts.
I found myself single, solvent and harbouring a morbid preoccupation with death – that it could happen to me at any time. I also developed itchy feet. After a visit to the Doctor who assured me that the Athlete’s Foot could be cured with some cream, I realised that my feet were in fact itching to get out of this crazy world that I found myself in. I wanted to run. Fast. And far away. Well, as far as I could get without having Social Services knocking on my door, accusing me of child neglect.
On Wednesday I booked my plane ticket. On Saturday I flew to Florence, Italy. I did remember to tell my children and a couple of friends before I went…
It’s seven years since Richard died. I can’t believe it’s been so long. Every day of those seven years has been in mourning whilst living. There’s been some fabulous times. Times that probably wouldn’t have happened had I not seen at first hand how fragile and short life can be and been the recipient of my husband’s fiscal generosity, which enabled me to travel to places I otherwise wouldn’t have visited.
I was watching Peaky Blinders last night when I was struck by a discussion between Aunt Polly and Tommy Shelby (usually I’m just there for Cilian Murphy’s cheekbones). Aunt Polly was saved in the nick of time from the gallows, with the noose literally around her neck:
“I was dead in that noose. But then I was saved. So everything from now on is extra. But what I didn’t realise is that when you’re dead already, you’re free”.
There’s something to be said for staring death in the face. For watching it take effect. I don’t really talk about it, mainly because I’m not usually in such a contemplative state of mind and also because it’s not what people want to talk about. But we should talk about death. Because, well, that’s life.
When Richard died, he took a part of me with him that has never come back and that will never come back and that’s ok. I can say after seven years that it’s ok.
I stared death in the face like Aunt Polly. I watched life drain away and shiny eyes become dull. It took about one minute. Life into death. Maybe even less time.
Of course, it takes time for everything to shut down, which is why the wonderful paramedics picked up electrical signals in his body. It was just him shutting down. Moving into the next phase. Death doesn’t happen instantly. We might think they’re dead. And they might look dead. But inside, processes take time to stop. More like a steam train coming to a standstill than a light going off.
That minute. We never talk about it. I was reminded of it recently when trying to describe honestly the event to a friend of mine. It was strange to retrieve those events from the place in my memories where they had been carefully folded away, as is the requisite to “moving on”. I was surprised how easily I was able to transport myself back to that minute. Yet…
I was watching myself. It wasn’t a PTSD moment of actual transplantation back into my previous existence. It was more of an observation. I was able to really scan dispassionately around the event. I stared into my husband’s features. His gentle features. His grey eyes, that had so often winked at me from behind the bar when he thought no one was watching. His skin. Lips looking for all the world as though he had taken some cyanide, bluish. But as always with Richard, it was his eyes.
Eyes are wet. That’s what makes them shiny. Like fish on the ice in Tescos. Shiny eyes are good, chefs will tell you. A sign of freshness.
If I’d have kept Richard on ice, would his eyes have stayed wet?
As it happens, he was on a bed, it just wasn’t of the ice variety.
He looked at me. Like in a film. But I don’t know if there was any consciousness behind the look or if my face just happened to be in the right place. I like to think he saw me tell him I loved him. I like to think it’s the last thing he heard. I suspect it was more likely to be my frantic: “Richard! Richard! Fucking wake up! Fuck! Breathe! Fuck! Where’s the fucking phone? Your fucking phone is dead! Shit where’s my phone? Richard! Richard can you hear me? Oh fuck. Shit you’re too heavy I can’t fucking move you!”
Funny how you never see that in films….
He was making funny noises. No, not the usual funny noises that raise the duvet to the ceiling. The throaty groans of the death rattle. It’s when liquid begins to settle in the lungs and the person can’t cough them up. Actually, that was what initially woke me up. I thought he was snoring. He was apt to snoring, particularly after a red wine or 4… which we’d both had that night, having enjoyed the company of some friends and the pub quiz attendees.
Sadly he wasn’t snoring.
So that was that really. But the time that remains with me is that minute. That transition from existence to …
So profound. So…. matter of fact. Within the urgency of the moment it was just us two. Like when we realised we loved each other and shouldn’t. Like when we made our marriage vows.
And in that dying he gave me freedom. Everything since his death has been extra. A bonus time until my time.
And this is where Aunt Polly comes in.
Because when you’ve watched death take your soulmate away, well, there’s nothing else to be scared of. You’ve faced your worst nightmare. And you survived.
And I do feel a kind of freedom. Richard’s death has given me a devil may care attitude that I never had before. I used to worry about consequences, about what people might think of me. And then when he died, I stopped caring (so much). After all, what’s the worst that could happen?
So I started to do stuff that I’d longed to do but lacked the courage. I bought a decrepit old house right in the heart of the city, with an old lace factory attached to it, damp, and the occasional eau de corps from the ex-rats in the cellar.
I went on crazy dates with unsuitable men and lived to tell (or not!) the tales.
I drove by myself around France for 3 weeks, and then recently around Ireland for a week. I flew to Poland. I flew to Italy. I flew to the States. I discovered I love and need solitude.
I lived a millionaire lifestyle… and left after 18 months when I decided it wasn’t me… later to become a lowly paid care worker in the community. And it made me happy and fulfilled for the first time in years. And I still do it.
I travelled to places I’d only read about in Enid Blyton stories.
I cut all my hair off and dyed it blonde.
I found out I’m quite a good photographer.
I went to Glastonbury.
I got a tattoo.
I’m a gypsy.
After seven years, it’s ok. I’m single. By choice. Because I’m not really single at all. I’m still married. It’s just that he died. That’s all.
“Ireland was actually producing sufficient food, wool and flax, to feed and clothe not nine but eighteen millions of people, yet a ship sailing into an Irish port during the famine years with a cargo of grain was sure to meet six ships sailing out with a similar cargo.”
Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger; Ireland 1845-1849
My family are survivors. On both sides, we managed to either survive or flee from the destruction of the potato crop between 1845 and 1851, the sole means of sustenance for the poor in Ireland.
How could it be that a nation not 20 miles away from mainland Britain, could be decimated within 3 years, losing approximately 2 million of its people through starvation, disease or emigration?
It seems inconceivable that the catastrophe happened on the doorstep of the world’s richest nation at this time, yet it was the result of a complex set of circumstances both political and economic, which had very little to do with the potato and everything to do with ignorance and bigotry.
3,251,907 quarters of corn 480,827 swine
257,257 sheep 186,483 oxen
Ref: Cormac O’Grada: “Ireland before and after the Famine”
So there we are. There was no famine. Only the failure of a crop that the poorest had been forced to rely on as the only food they could afford to grow to feed themselves. Whatever your politics, the situation must be seen as one of the biggest failures of a government to address the needs of its people.
At school, I was taught the very stark fact that in 1945 there was a potato famine in Ireland and lots of people died. As I grew older and learned more about my own family history, I came to realise that we were somehow caught up in this “famine” although I didn’t really know how.
I knew my family came from Roscommon and Mayo, and I learnt that both counties were devastated during the potato failure. So I’m currently tootling around the mid and west counties of Ireland, doing some solo delving into the local history and trying to work out the link between events here and my being born English.
To begin with, I had no idea of the fact that throughout the “famine”, Ireland was actually still producing a large variety of crops and produce such as dairy and meat. The problem was that this was what was known as “cash crops”, for export only.
The potato, which fed the nation, failed.
It would snowball into the greatest social disaster of 19th century Europe.
And what of my own family’s involvement?
The McCarthys were itinerant Travellers in Roscommon. Very little documentary evidence exists other than baptism records in Dysart, County Roscommon however some of them survived the hunger (my existence being testimony to this fact).
Little is known of Irish Traveller history during the time of the Hunger. Indeed, it was thought until recently that Travellers were simply Irish famine survivors who took to the road to search for food and work and simply continued that way of life. We now know that they reach as far back as 17th century Cromwellian Ireland and have a DNA pattern distinct from the settled Irish population.
I guess being travellers meant they had possession of knowledge and the means to adapt and move with the change in circumstances. They would have been used to living in adverse conditions with scarce resources, having the ability to turn their hand to many different trades in order to feed their families. If they were lucky, they could have earned 8d per day breaking stones to build roads as part of the “relief works”, a kind of early public assistance scheme.
Their tendency to keep themselves to themselves would also help to reduce the chance of picking up the deadly typhus or other infectious diseases. Large family networks would enable them to pick up news about conditions in neighbouring counties with a view to moving on if needs be. Whatever the reasons for their survival, the McCarthys were able to get through the worst of it and remain in Ireland until more recent times favoured economic migration to the English West Midlands in which I was born.
Another side of my family, the Clarkes from County Mayo, did not fair so well. Such was their plight that 3 cousins, from which I am descended, left the family in Crossmolina, where there were around 100 cases of Typhus and where starvation reduced the population from 12,000 in 1841 to 7000 in 1851.
I found my 3x grandfather Thomas Clarke on an 1851 census in a barn in Trysull, Staffordshire, England with his 2 cousins, Michael and John. Their ages ranged from 17 to 19 and they travelled around 200 miles to get from home to that barn. Most of this was across bogland and harsh terrain, in inclement weather and with empty stomachs.
They had first travelled to County Cavan, then down to Dublin to catch a paddle steamer across to Liverpool, where they would have worked their way down to the Midlands, eventually ending up in the Black Country area of Wolverhampton, and the metalwork industry.
The England and Wales census of 1851 finds them living in a barn, separate from other farm workers and employees who lived together in a large farmhouse. They would have been comfortable enough, used to living without a kitchen and the usual amenities. They would have spoken Irish, as 80% of people in Crossmolina did at that time and so communication with their fellow workers would have been difficult. None of the other inhabitants were from Ireland.
By the census of 1861, the cousins had split and my ancestor had moved to Walsall, right in the heart of an Irish immigrant population. There is no mention of family members from the old country coming over to join them, and they never went back home to live. It’s hard to imagine what happened to the rest of the family. There are no burial records in Crossmolina. One can only presume that they, along with hundreds of thousands of other people, perished in the disaster.
The McCarthys and the Clarkes met in the traditional metal working industries of the Black Country in the West Midlands. They had endured hardships beyond imagination. They had left behind them families and loved ones to seek a better life. They had left behind their travelling heritage, customs and way of life. They ended up in the grimy urban back to back squalor of a heavily industrialised part of England.
They became me. And for this and their determination to survive, I thank them
I knew I was home the moment my little car drove me from Strokestown in County Roscommon to the wild lands of North West County Mayo. It was the smell.
Smell is extremely important to me. I’ve spoken before about the wild garlic of Northern French hedgerows and the assault of chemical perfumery in the duty free shops at airports. I also get olfactory hallucinations- I smell scents that aren’t there- as one of my symptoms of manic depression. My nose provides cues for safety, danger and remembrances of things past.
The north west of Roscommon was turned over from potato fields in the 1840’s to the more prosperous pasture land for dairy herds. This was another reason for the eviction of masses of people who emigrated either to Canada, the USA or Britain.
I drove 2 hours from the Strokestown Famine Museum up to Crossmolina. I chose the minor roads in order to take in the beauty of the countryside.
The north west pastures of Roscommon suddenly become the wilderness of County Mayo. And the smell. It was a rich smell of soil, stirred up by a recent rainfall and warmed by the sun. A heady, heavy scent of earth, grass and wild flower bloom. Of cows and manure and mould. A smell I wanted to lie down in and sleep forever. And of course it made me think of Mr T.
Seven years have passed since I laid my beautiful husband in the ground. He will now be a part of the land of Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire. An English man from birth to death. To this day I miss burrowing my nose into his warm, musky armpits whenever I felt anxious in the night. It was my safe place.
And I wondered how many people lay underneath the land on which I was walking. Those who fell foul of the hunger, those who weren’t lucky enough to be able to get away. And I wondered if their bones were adding to the thick, rich, dark dank odour of the Irish peat, reminding me that I too, one day, will be a part of this land. Because it was at that point that I decided I need to complete the family circle. One day I will come home.
There is no doubt that, travelling alone across this land of my fathers, my connection to the land was cemented. I felt the spirit of my forefathers and their strength and determination to survive. The pull that I have always felt, to return to the motherland was not satiated. Rather, it became stronger as I drove from townland to townland, each recorded in church parish records, with details of my ancestors.
Nothing remains of their homelands. No cabin nor caravan. Just beautiful, rich land. And it’s difficult to imagine the vast numbers of people who lived and died in these counties.
River Suck, Ballyforan
Ballyforan border with County Galway
Ballycroy National Park, County Mayo
In 1841 the population of Mayo was 388,847, by 1851 it had fallen to 274,830; the number of homes in the county had fallen from 70,542 to 49,073 in the same period. Within 10 years the numbers of families halved.
The same happened in Roscommon. West Roscommon lost approximately 60% of its population in ten years, between 1841 and 1851. East Roscommon experienced less of a population decline however and I wonder whether this explains why the McCarthy’s were able to continue living in the area until the mid 20th century. It is clear however that the Clarkes were caught up heavily in the Great Hunger diaspora. I have only details of the three Clarke cousins surviving the famine. I have no records of what happened to the rest of the family. I fear the worst.
If you go to West Ireland, go in June. And leave the car behind, and preferably any friends and relatives. Go in June and go alone. Fully embrace the sounds and smells of a land virtually unchanged since pre-medieval times. A land rich saturated with colour and perfume, beauty and the most awful tragedy. A sublime land of glorious landscape and pitiful sorrow. A land from which I defy anybody to emerge unmoved and unchanged. A land I’m proud to call my motherland.
As a child, Ireland was our guilty family secret. To be fair, the 1970’s wasn’t a great time to be a celtic tiger in mainland Britain, due chiefly to the exploits of the Irish Republican Army, blowing up civilians in my hometown of Birmingham and other English cities.
This and the ever present stereotype of the drunken thick, lazy paddy was enough to drive any first generation English family underground. The family name was changed, the Irish relatives were shunned and our heritage was buried. I couldn’t do much about the ginger hair…
My Granny Kate however, couldn’t quite keep her mouth shut. And I’m very, very nosy.
I always knew there was something “different” about her family. And being a fully paid up member of children’s literature, I fantasised that she must have been descended from an Irish King, complete with a treasure trove and a whole county to rule over (she always mentioned some weird places called Roscommon and Mayo like anyone in Britain had ever heard of such nonsense).
Thanks mainly to Ancestry.co.uk and the publication of Irish parish records, I have been able to discover the family secret…
We are Irish Travellers.
So. Not only did I have what is commonly viewed as the worst accent in the British Isles (Brummie), with ginger hair and a rather “common” set of relatives from the most dubious part of town, but I’m also a gypsy! Since Cher likes to put us amongst tramps and thieves, it’s not hard to imagine why my family decided to “bury” such revelations, become settled and start learning all the words to the National Anthem. I was even given a monarch’s name! (Albeit a German one but whatever…)
Somehow I always knew.
My gran used to sing a strange song about being in a caravan. And she played the spoons. Seriously though, the family worked traditionally with metal, my great grandfather shod horses during WW1 (Irish people did fight for King and Country although some people refuse to believe this). And they were unbelievably poor. I mean, the poorest of the poor. Yet they managed somehow to keep out of the workhouses, instead, living together as family units in one room, fixing stuff.
Ancestry.co.uk has enabled me to confirm that my dna is 96%, Irish, although distinct from the settled Irish population. So there we have it. That, plus the 4% Eastern European (Russian Roma), about puts the rather appropriate tin lid on it…
I’ve always been a wanderer. And a lover of camping. And I’m a dab hand at mending things…
So naturally, I needed to go back to Ireland. To find out where my family came from. And what made them end up in a Victorian slum in the heart of the West Midlands.
…It’s been a while. Over a year, in fact. This doesn’t mean that I’ve been sitting at home ironing (I guess some people sit when they iron but not me). I’ve been to Las Vegas, Red Rock, New Orleans, Lisbon, Glastonbury, Brighton. But it’s been a while since I’ve travelled alone. So today, I’m off to Krakow, Poland.
To get to Krakow I have to first run the gauntlet of duty free at East Midlands Airport. And perfume.
I don’t smell. What I mean is, I don’t smell of anything with a brand name attached to it. I don’t wear perfume. No one ever bought me any – and I guess that’s where most women’s first experience of perfume comes from – the Anais Anais in the white bottle with a pretty flower as a birthday or Christmas gift. However, no one ever bought me any perfume. Maybe I just wasn’t seen as “girly” enough. My daughters both wear perfume. And my grandmother distinctly smelt of eau de something from Avon. But for me, it’s always been soap and water. And an unperfumed deoderant. Obviously.
I have a very strong sense of smell. I am short sighted and ever so slightly deaf in both ears. However I can smell the change in seasons, the sadness in people’s hearts and my hamster’s cage before I even get in the house.
So walking through Duty Free to get to the Escape Lounge at the airport is an assault. Particularly at 04.30. And it’s hideous.
Why do people want to smell of these vile, chemical concoctions? None of them smell pleasing. None of them smell of sheets that have been dried in the wind on a summer’s day, or freshly mown grass, or a frosty morning. They are sweet, sickly and over ripe. And that’s just the aftershave…
For a child growing up in the 80’s, Poland seemed a strange place. Western propaganda had done its thing. I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I would one day visit. Or that I would ever actually want to. Poland seemed to me, to be a drab and dangerous place. Cold, hungry, with men with strange names (Lech Walesa was continually on the news).
A place where the Government made you do strange things on pommel horses, suspended rings and with ribbons; bending your body into all kinds of awkward shapes to perform for the Olympics. A place where no-one smiled. And all of this was before I read 1984 and Animal Farm, which just compounded my prejudice.
Eastern Europe seemed remote and unfriendly. A place to fear.A place that had its finger on the nuclear button with its warheads pointing straight for West Bromwich (my place of birth). The 4 minute warning was imminent. I’d read “When the Wind Blows” and watched “Threads”. And I’d eaten enough over cooked cabbage to know why Eastern Europeans always looked so miserable on our tvs. (As a child the vegetables for Christmas lunch were put on to cook when the turkey went in the oven). I joined CND and campaigned to ban the bomb. (I am still a member and unfortunately I am still campaigning).
So today is my firstvisit to Eastern Europe. And I can’t wait.
Ten years or so ago, I began teaching English to speakers of other languages. My very first students were a Polish couple who worked in a local factory and wanted to improve their conversation skills. I charged very little for the lessons as they were almost guinea pigs for my fledgling teaching business. I was also very nervous. Would we have anything in common? Did I have to avoid the word “communism” (As if it would come up in everyday conversation anyway!) Would they shout at me if they didn’t understand me? Would they make me perform triple backflips whilst explaining the past tense? Yes, I actually was that naive about Eastern Europeans.
Needless to say, I’d needn’t have feared. Theresa and Bolo were a wonderful couple of students. They were so kind. And very quickly we discovered that hey? Guess what? We laughed at the same things! We shared the same interests – our children, travel, food. We had the same worries in life. We are the same.
I’ve met many Polish people since Theresa and Bolo. And many Eastern Europeans. Most of them have been too young to remember Lech Walesa and the struggle for democracy, however some have expressed regret at the fall of Communism. All however, have been in the UK. Today, I travel to Poland to finally meet people in their own country. This time, I will be the tourist, the visitor, the one with the language barrier. And I finally get to find out if they eat anything else other than cabbage (I rather suspect they do…)
I have a love/hate relationship with flying. I love the sense of adventure I feel when I climb onboard the plane, bound for destinations that my ancestors only dreamed of, full of promise and excitement. I love the feeling of escape as I walk through the Departure Gates, leaving behind all thoughts of work and home, alone to self indulge and gorge on the unknown; new places to seek, new foods to taste, new languages to misunderstand,new history and art, new smells. I love the little indulgences. Time is irrelevant. When else would a glass of wine with a bacon butty seem reasonable at 05.00? I love the camaraderie of being with other passengers, this merry band of pilgrims on our way to pastures new (except the screaming kids. And the drunks. And anyone who tries to make conversation with me).
But boy, do I fear flying. Well, it’s not flying that I fear. It’s crashing and dying.
Yes, yes, I know that statistically, flying is the safest form of travel. Yes, yes, Mr Richard Branson, I know that I have more chance of dying in a road accident on the way to the airport than actually on board the flight itself. And yes, yes, I have made vague attempts to understand the technicalities of flight, thermal dynamics, jet engines and wingy things that move.
But I still just don’t get it. My brain cannot rationalise how such a big, heavy, metal box full of people can stay in the sky.
So my travel plans are always a mixture of fear and excitement. And a few days before my plans come to fruition, my stomach begins its downward spiral of dread, preparation for doom (the will is in the box under my bed, girls) and self reproach for putting myself in yet another state of panic. For me, flying is like playing Russian Roulette. Yet how else can I fulfil my travel dreams in such a short time?
My first thought when planning a new journey is: “Will I have to fly?” And if yes, then for how long? So far, Australia, New Zealand and South East Asia have not made it onto my fuckit list. Not because they have little to offer me – on the contrary – I would love to visit. No, it is the thought of spending 12+ hours suspended in mid air that puts me off buying a round the world flight ticket. If I could sail then I would. If I could walk, then I would. Maybe train?
Last year I flew to Reykjavik, Seattle, Las Vegas, Dallas, New Orleans, Washington and back to London in the space of 10 days. I fervently thought that such plane hopping would cure me of my fears. After all,Americans use planes like buses apparently. Alas, no. This morning, on board my flight to Krakow, the kindly flight attendant provided me with a paper bag in which to vomit. And no, I hadn’t drunk wine at 05.00…
…as though it had been administrative buildings, or maybe a factory. The truth of course, is that it was both. An organisation whose principle purpose was the extraction of labour and then the extermination of people who were “surplus to requirements” and who seemingly posed a threat to the regime.
I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about visiting the Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau. As mentioned in previous posts, twentieth century history was sadly lacking in my education and all I knew of the Holocaust was what I’d read in Anne Frank’s diary as a child and from programmes I’d listened to on the radio. It all seemed such a long time ago. Would my visit provoke wailing and gnashing of teeth or was I just too divorced from the events that happened, to feel anything?
I arrived on a bitter cold January morning. Minus 17 degrees celsius. My first thought was for the inmates of the camp and how on earth any of them managed to survive the extremes of temperature. Clearly most of them didn’t. To begin with, many people weren’t even registered upon arrival. The elderly, infirm, pregnant and children were gassed straight away which is why it’s difficult to ascertain exact numbers of victims. Exposure, starvation and disease killed those who weren’t murdered. Of an approximate 1 million prisoners, only 7,000 were liberated by the Soviet Army on January 27th, 1945.
Of all the facts that I had learnt about Auschwitz before coming to visit, the one thing that I couldn’t comprehend was just how it was logistically possible to kill so many people. Coming to visit answered the query for me. Auschwitz-Birkenau and the other components of the concentration camp relied on other methods of killing than just the gas chambers.
Many victims existed with such little food (approximately 1400 calories) and worked in such physically demanding jobs for 11 hours per day,that starvation and exhaustion killed them. And this was a deliberate part of the “Final Solution”, not a mere consequence of unseen events. Not everyone was destined to go to the gas chambers.
Wandering round both camps, it was impossible to process what exactly had happened here all those years ago. The buildings looked so regular. So institutional. The documentation in the exhibitions looked so efficient. Everything was devoid of emotion. So matter of fact. And I think that’s how it was arranged, and how it was executed. There was a “problem”. It needed a solution.
There was nothing to suggest any sense of humanity. This was not built as a place to live. This was a place whose purpose was to dispose of an unwanted problem in as efficient a manner as possible. Identities were removed along with souls. And if money could be made out of the labour of those lost souls before they met their miserable demise, then all the better.
There was a war on, after all.
Trying to rationalise this train of thought is impossible for anyone who has any sense of humanity and greater people than I have debated and will continue to debate how it could happen. All I know is that I felt such sorrow at the seeming “ordinariness” of the place. The displays of human hair, suitcases, crockery, shoes, spectacles and prayer shawls made me feel wretched. Possibly because such atrocities continue to happen in the world; it seems we have learned little since the Nazi genocides.