On Tuesday last week I got a call from my sister telling me that my grandfather had died. My grandfather, or Grand-père, had lived at my parents’ home, the hospice in Canterbury, the hospital in Margate, and a nursing home in Whitstable in the past month. He died in the nursing home, comforted by one of the staff members, not choking and coughing horrendously as he had been for the past month, unable to swallow anything. The coughing had been painful to watch. Instead, he fell asleep and slowly stopped breathing.
Only two days before, I’d gone to see him with my sister and mum. He wanted to know where his watch was. Mum said she would bring it to him the next day, but never managed to give it to him – she had it in her bag on the day he died.
As I was leaving, I said,
“Okay Grand-père, I’ll see you in two weeks,” even though I knew it was actually three weeks; I wanted it to be a shorter frame of time to give me a greater chance of seeing him again before he died, even though I knew it would be longer. I said bye, and gave him a kiss, and then I went outside and thought, I don’t think I’m going to see you again. I think I just said bye for the last time.
When I went to see him, he didn’t look like him at first. His mouth hung open. I could see his teeth. They were pretty brown, but still all his own – a grand feat at 91. They weren’t always brown: I remember about 20 years ago, saying to him, “Grand-père, your teeth are so white!”
Surprising he had his own teeth. Also surprising he had his own life for such a long time too considering he smoked most of his life and drank whisky for much of the remainder of it.
And when he was younger, he was stung by a stonefish (twice?) which should have killed him, he was poisoned by cyanide which should have killed him, and he had stomach cancer which also could have killed him in his seventies. Instead, he got the all clear two weeks after his wife, Grand-mère, died suddenly from a ruptured aorta, just a few days before their 50th wedding anniversary.
He always said that had he known she was going to die, he would never have had the cancer treatment. In fact, if you ever asked him how he was, his ongoing “joke” response was:
Grand-père was a French Mauritian who moved to England during the 1960s, and took his family with him – a wife, three sons, a daughter, a mother, a mother-in-law and a brother-in-law.
In Mauritius, he jumped a year ahead at school, became a civil servant, working alongside the prime minister Seewoosagur Ramgoolam travelling around the world, studying in London, negotiating with other countries. He negotiated with Japan over the waters they could fish in, and helped kick off the fish canning industry. He even received letters form the Bank of England right up into his old age.
He also played the harmonica, taught me latin (Amo amas, I met a lass, Amas amat, I laid her flat – that’s the clean version) and also had a great voice, sometimes singing for audiences, his own favourite singer being Tino Rossi.
When I was at uni, I did a journalism course and decided to interview him for an article. I didn’t get a great mark for it, but I thought I’d share it in this blog post to document some of the history of this man…
I’m sweating. Not just from running around, searching for the right adaptor lead for the old tape recorder I am about to use in my interview. But sweating also because it’s 9 o’clock in the morning, after a late night. Not too late, but late enough to have been bitten by a couple of dogs, if you get my drift.
My Mum hastens me along. I’m already meant to be interviewing my 86 year old grandfather, Roger Allier, or Grand-père as I know him, born on the 6th March 1921 in Mauritius. He’s an early riser, and an early drinker at that, which is probably why he’s better with hangovers than I am – he can’t remember them. Soon he won’t remember much of anything else either, which is why I have to catch him early on this morning – my only opportunity for an interview. You see, it’s not a case of a hair-of-the-dog or two for him; he plucks the beast bald, throwing it sugar free biscuits to keep it from whining. Grand-père’s a diabetic alcoholic, you see.
He doesn’t know he’s about to be interviewed. My Mum knows better than to tell him too much time beforehand about such things. He would have been having a nervous breakdown by now, wondering about what I was going to ask him. Does he ponder on such menial things because his whole life he has had to think about much bigger things? I find out once I’ve managed to replace the tape recorder lead and begin the interview.
I’m sitting opposite his empty chair whilst he makes a whisky in his annex at the back of my parents’ house. They built it for him when Grand-mère, my grandmother Henrietta Allier, died at the slightly unripe age of 72. It’s great. A humble bed-sit which has a small bathroom, complete with toilet, sink and shower, and a living room come kitchen come bedroom. What more could he want? The house he used to live in probably, where he thought he would spend his old age laughing with his wife, had she not died suddenly three days before their golden wedding anniversary. That’s not to say that he doesn’t enjoy life now.
“You want one?” Grand-père asks me as he shuffles back to his chair, motioning towards the large bottle of whisky. It’s ten o’clock in the morning. I kind of laugh, unsure if he’s joking, before declining the offer. I notice he has two other large bottles behind the open one. He says he got them all for Christmas. I got him some colourful socks. Grandfathers always appreciate socks.
I wonder what he would have appreciated when he was younger, during his life in Mauritius before he moved to England. I want to know why the small black and white photo on the wall above his chair, of him and my grandmother in their early twenties, expressionless, holds more colour than his life now.
“I started as a clerk, a junior clerk,” he tells me, about his job in Mauritius. “I was able to climb up all the ladders…In the end I finished as one of the top civil servants.”
The top of his shiny head faces me as he looks at the floor, while speaking softly in his French Mauritian accent, his slow hand conducting the speed of his words. I begin to understand how successful this old man was. He learnt shorthand, and was a judge’s clerk before working his way up into the government in Mauritius, mixing with the most important people in the world.
He starts to tell me why he left Mauritius which involves the Prime Minister. I interrupt. Did he know the Prime Minister of Mauritius? He seems surprised that I ask.
“Oh yes! The Prime Minister was Dr Ramgoolam.” Lunches with Dr Ramgoolam and other members of the government and their wives were common events, but a certain lunch caused the final push for Grand-père towards England. “The Prime Minister Ramgoolam talked to my own wife after a few drinks, and he was telling her apparently his plans to take me with him on a voyage to the United States of America where I had been before.” My grandmother went mad when they got home. “Rita said, “If you do that again, we are finished. I’m not going to look after the children again!” So the only thing I could do at that time was to leave.”
At this point I look at the photo of the young pair. It’s strange to think that they ever argued. An old couple who had stayed together for so many years – I would assume that their relationship was harmonious, painless…tiffless. I was too young when Grand-mère died to have seen another side. He had travelled to America with the prime minister previously for six months – a long time for anyone to deal with, especially as Grand-mère had four children to look after, a leg operation to contend with, and a Christmas without him.
The other reason my grandfather left was because he was certain that Mauritius was about to get its independence. “I was thinking mainly of the children, of their future.”
These children, now near retirement, are Roger, 61, Gilbert, 59, Yves, 56, and Floriane, my mother, 53. “As long as the English were the owners of the place, there was an English governor, responsible directly to the secretary of state here, but Mauritius was getting independence.”
The independence of Mauritius was a positive thing. But when one dominating group leaves, another takes over bringing much change, and in this case it was Indians. I ask if this was because there were a lot of them. Again Grand-père is surprised. “Yes! Two thirds of the population!” Mauritius also consisted of Chinese, Africans and the French descendents, like Grand-père, not to mention the English and Dutch. In fact, the island is so multi-racial, it is difficult to define someone with pure Mauritian blood.
“Mauritius was very close to the island of Réunion – you know that? And Réunion was a French colony…while we, Mauritius, we were different. We had lots of Indians.” It is Réunion which his father Alcé Allier came from, while his mother Athalie Loulié came from Mauritius, and her parents from France. “So in that way I was French, came from French people: Allier and Loulié,” he says. I’ve come to learn that many grandparents love to reel off stories about their past. Some reel off the same stories repetitively. Some can only remember parts of their stories. The latter is true for my grandfather.
I’ve heard so many stories about his life in previous years from him and others, and I want to hear them again. But when I ask questions such as, “Have you ever been back to Mauritius?” or “What was the most memorable moment for you in your job?”, the replies are, “I think I’ve been, I can’t remember,” and “When Rita was still here we talked about quite a few things like that because meeting people and…but I can’t remember any of it now.” I’m still able to get quite a lot of information, yet later he worries that he’s been of no use to me. I wonder if I should get him a bottle of whisky to show how much he’s helped. I think again; this copper coloured liquid isn’t exactly oiling his synapses.
But his weakening memory doesn’t stop him from telling me about a certain occasion I’ve heard mentioned before and wish to hear about fully. His meeting with Haile Selassie. As it turns out, there’s more to it then just a handshake as I’d originally thought. At first I think it’s another dead end as I ask, “Was there anyone in particular you quite liked?” “Not in particular, most of them were very friendly.” Maybe he doesn’t speak of Selassie because he doesn’t think the event is as important as I do (I’m interested in reggae and its history), or maybe because he just doesn’t remember meeting him or didn’t like him that much, or maybe I wasn’t direct enough. I soon fix that. “You met Haile Selassie didn’t you?” “That’s when I went to Ethiopia. He was alright to me.” Another question about Ethiopia to which he answers, “To me it seemed like a big country being wasted. I mean, there were so many things that could be done.” Then he’s off, talking about the international meeting there. “But an amusing thing and I always remember, that there were 10 or 12 of us going in there of different nationalities…so they had to take quite a lot of precautions.” These precautions were because of the fear that Selassie would be assassinated. So they all had to enter in the same vehicle, surrounded by guards, and then Selassie was meant to arrive slightly later. But Grand-père wanted a cigarette. “So I went downstairs quietly, and then I heard somebody laughing beside me and it was Haile Selassie. He had left his guards…We talked and then we went in together, and they were all laughing. Yeah he was supposed to be protected, because one of our lot could have shot him!” My grandfather laughs and looks at the ground. I laugh too, wondering what else I was to find out.
When he eventually moved to England, he had a convoy of people to take with him, all to live in a large flat in Battersea in 1962. And so life sprinted on, as does the interview. We talk about his leisurely life shooting game, and his part as an acting sergeant major in World War II, where he momentarily comes to life, hollering the orders he used to shout when loading and shooting six-inch guns, how he studied at Cambridge, at the London School of Economics, and the many countries he visited, from his forefather arriving on a ship called Le Tigre which sank leaving him stranded in Mauritius, to descendants sailing on a boat to England.
My final question:
“Did you ever meet the British Prime Minister?” and he can’t remember. Luckily, my mother can. She finds a photocopy of a newspaper cutting from the front page of the Washington Post on the day of Ethiopia’s independence. It shows him meeting Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home. My grandfather on the front page. I’ll be careful the next time I sign someone off as just an old person. You never know what great things they’ve achieved.
Portugal – that’s where I was a week ago. I went to the Algarve. The evenings looked like this:
Nearby the villa we stayed at there was a small town called Alcantarilha, and in this town is a 16th century church – the Capela dos Ossos or the Bone Chapel, as you’ll see by its original decor inside:
Over 1000 bones are stored in this chapel, which was built over a graveyard. Like many bone chapels throughout Portugal, as opposed to being a gory sight, it was actually built for the honest purpose of protecting the remains of the dead. Which is why inside, Jesus watches over the bones.
Portugal isn’t the only country to have relocated various graveyard bones. From my last post about my family tree of deceased people, to this post with its church of relocated bones…to a tree with relocated graves. Do you know who this man is?
It’s Thomas Hardy, the famous writer of such stories as Jude the Obscure, Far from the Madding Crowd, and Under the Greenwood Tree. St Pancras station, London, began construction in 1863, and there was a slight problem with the development: St Pancras Old Church, said to have Norman links and to be the oldest surviving church in London, had a graveyard full of aristocrats and prominent figures such as immigrants like the refugees from the French Revolution, that encroached on the development of the station and later developments. So it was decided that the graveyard should be relocated.
Around the same time as the construction of the station, Thomas Hardy was a student of architecture. He was appointed as the overseer of the exhumation – a sensitive affair considering the nature of the job, and one which he would write about much later, having spent so much of his time managing the movement. The 7,000 bodies were to be placed in a mass grave just north of the graveyard. And the gravestones?
This is known as the Thomas Hardy tree, an ash tree which was planted around the same time as the reinterment of the bodies, later to grow up amongst the headstones. I haven’t actually visited it yet. Maybe I’ll go on Halloween. And to Highgate cemetery.
I’ve visited many cemeteries in my life, due to the two trips I went on visiting First World War memorials and graveyards in France and Belgium. One sticks in my mind in Belgium – the Langemark cemetery, a German cemetery.
During WWI, the Germans buried their dead just as their enemies did, in makeshift graves that became permanent. Here are a couple of original German graves at the preserved trenches of Sanctuary Wood in Belgium:
After WWI, the defeated Germans were made to exhume the bodies of their soldiers in the graveyards in this area of Belgium, and rebury them in fewer graveyards. After WWII, the Germans had to exhume the bodies again from these cemeteries and reinter them again into fewer cemeteries, for the sake of an easy upkeep in a foreign land. Langemark, at the time known as Langemarck-North was one of just three “collecting” cemeteries. It was filled with the bodies from 18 other cemeteries. They were reburied in mass graves, multiple names listed like below.
There are over 44,000 bodies in this one cemetery.
Everyone I know who I visited this cemetery with on both tours was especially affected by the bleakness here. Aside of the many gravestones, there are three mass graves here, one of which is known as the Comrades’ grave, containing 24,917 servicemen. Worth noting is the small monument at the entrance; inside, this building lists the names of the soldiers’s bodies that were unable to be identified but known to be buried at Langemark.
3,000 of the bodies in one area of the cemetery are those of Kriegsfreiwilliger, which means war volunteer. These soldiers were young, inexperienced German men who made up 15% of the war vounteers who died at the Battle of Langemarck during October and November 1914, as part of the First Battle of Ypres. It was at the hands of highly trained French infantry and British riflemen. It is now known as Kindermord bei Ypern in German, or the Massacre of the Innocents in English.
At one end of the cemetery stands four figures, the bronze statues of a group of mourning men, created by Professor Emil Krieger from Munich. It was taken from a famous print of a group of German soldiers from the Reserve-Infantry-Regiment 238 mourning at a graveside in 1918. Two days later the man on the second from the right was killed.
When you first enter the cemetery, it’s what you immediately see. These four silhouetted figures. And even once you’ve worked out that they aren’t in fact real people, you can’t help but let your gaze return to them, always there in the background, watching over.