Commentary on Old Age

I heard a story recently from someone I know who told me that their father was adopted during the Second World War. In fact, he wasn’t even adopted, but sold illegally. I thought I’d write about that, but instead I’ve been a bit distracted, and can’t seem to think about writing.

I had a call on Tuesday from my sister. She said that my granddad fell over in the night, and now he couldn’t get up, had no power in his legs. He was barely speaking. Since Tuesday, he’s been speaking more, but mainly to ask questions. It turns out he’d had a minor stroke. He thought he was in America on Wednesday, though I think that was because the hurricane was plastered all over the news that probably did that, playing with his mind and that.

The strange, or not so strange, thing is, this man, my granddad Roger Allier, or Grand-pere as we all call him, used to help run a country. He was a French Mauritian civil servant who worked alongside Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam who led Mauritius towards independence in 1968. Grand-pere travelled around the world – studied in England, met multiple politicians, even ended up on the front cover of The Washington Post when he was in America. Back in school, he jumped a year ahead, and later fought in the Second World War, helping defend Mauritius against the Japanese who wanted to destroy the sugar cane plantations. Even ten years ago, he was winning crossword puzzles. And at 91, he still has all his own teeth.

 

Of course, Grand-mere, his wife Rita Allier, had to support him through all this, and he couldn’t have been the person he was without her, as is the case for most successful people; they all need some sort of support be it from a partner or a friend or a parent. Even Hitler had a mother.

So anyway, I’m just making a short piece today as I feel like I need to exorcise my confusion – how can someone, anyone, even the least “successful” person, end up so confused? The thing is mind disorders are scary things. Old age is too. The troubling part about it isn’t his lack of energy, but his confusion in everything – where he is, who everyone is etc.

I started writing this post two days ago, but thought it wouldn’t be right, writing about someone who doesn’t know you’re writing about them, and wouldn’t understand if you explained to them. But this is a personal blog about history. And sometimes we write to work things out. I could go on, but there’s one thing my mind always comes back to:

Old people aren’t the other. People see teenagers as the other – they see them as someone different, but we were still once them. People also see old people as the other – depressed, lonely, ill. But they were once us too, and we will be them one day. They aren’t children to be patronised, or morons to pity. Some of them led countries. Some of them murdered. Some of them fell in love. Some of them had amazing adventures. Feeling sad or guilty for them won’t help them, as I am realising. One day, it will be my parents. One day, it will be me, and for that reason, we can’t feel too upset. Everybody gets old.

Everybody gets old and becomes another person’s history.

 

My Adventures in Ancestry

Meet Thomas Tozer:

He is my great, great uncle on my dad’s side. He was a member of the Territorial Army who fought in the First World War, but died shortly after the Battle of Passchendaele, the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917, at Flanders. My sister and I and a friend visited his grave at Dochy Farm Cemetery, Zonnebeke, (pass the Dochy on the left hand side) when we went on a trip to some First World War battle sites in 2009.

 

He was a childless man who’d managed to survive three years of the notorious war. The thing is, the tour guides couldn’t find out what he died of, so I signed up to Ancestry.co.uk to see if I could find anything else out. Yet, I’ve signed up and haven’t had a chance to look him up yet properly having been sidetracked by many other family members. A quick look and more trickiness; there are loooads of Tomas Tozers, in all different battalions and regiments – East Kent, Medical Corps, Shropshire Light Infantry, West Yorkshire Regiment. Searching further, I discover I’ve spelt his name wrong: Thomas not Tomas. Even spellings make a difference. When I find him, it simply says “Killed in action”. I remember then that the tour guides had given me this information previously, but were confused – the Battle of Passchendaele was over by 6th November. So, how did he die? The problem is, military records don’t always offer all the titbits of information you’re after. Maybe they found him on the 3rd December? Maybe he died later from his wounds? Surely, it wouldn’t say “Killed in action” if that was the reason? This is a miniature quest for me.

Problem is, there are all these miniature quests popping up all over the place, like frogs in a pond. One name leads to another and another.

I’ve been sidetracked with so many other people…like trying to find out what my grandfather on my dad’s side did during the war. He was a member of the East Kent Buffs and spent time in Africa, but he never wanted to talk about it. And because he died when my dad was quite young, we don’t know much about what he did, or what he went through, or even much about his parents and other ancestors.

Other people I want to find out more about, but I’m at a slight dead end with, are those on my mum’s side, even though I already know a lot of juicy information (it’s crazy what our pasts throw up). My mum’s originally from Mauritius, moved over here in the late fifties when she was about five. Her father, Grand-pere, worked alongside the Prime Minister, Sir Seewoogasur Ramgoolam. Her grandfather, Henry Wright, on her mother’s side, my grand-mere’s side, shot her grandmother, his wife – Ita Wright. She survived – shot in the arm – but he didn’t last much longer: he was found dead in his prison cell while serving time. Some say the police killed him, finally seizing their opportunity to rid themselves of this troublesome brute, who once shaved the face of a policemen with the smashed end of a glass bottle. I’d like just one picture of him. Just to put a notorious name to a face. And maybe, just maybe, I could find out who he was before he became this brute. Did he become this unhinged alcoholic due to time served in the First World War trenches? I’m not sure – nobody in my family seems to have much information; will the online records have any more? Who’s to say…

The problem is that I’m not sure if any African/Mauritian records are actually available online. From what I’ve searched for, there aren’t any on Ancestry.co.uk. Other tricky things – if you use other people’s information and trees, there are discrepancies. That messes things up. And finally, a big problem – why did people name their kids after themselves in the old days? It’s a right bugger sorting through hundreds of John Woods, Arthur Woods etc. Slooooows it all down. And so many children too – five in one census, five more in another ten years later! Crazy. That’s ten more families to possibly delve into. I’d like to find out that I’m distantly related to someone I’ve known a while – like my mum, who found out that her and her work colleague, also from Mauritius, are actually distant cousins.

Not everything is so dramatic, but I quite like finding out the smaller elements of information. Where did my partner get his middle name from when his father had a different middle name? I found out and told him:

“It’s your grandfather’s middle name. Your dad had your grandfather’s first name as his middle  name.”

Or how about what my great grandfather, my dad’s grandfather Arthur Wood, did for a living:

At one point he was a motor car cleaner, later, a chauffeur. But then I found out he was some sort of butcher earlier in life. In fact, in the original census, it looks like it says Butcher’s Barman, whatever that is. Maybe I’ve read it wrong? But his father, John Wood? He was a cabman, obviously the old horse and cart style, born in Lincolnshire – the first breakaway from West London on my dad’s side.

And Thomas Wood’s wife, my dad’s grandmother Laura Georgina Bass?

A lady’s maid.

And her father and mother – William and Elizabeth Bass?

Well, they were grocers.

To you, it might be boring. To me, it’s as interesting as finding your favourite song on vinyl in a charity shop that you missed the opportunity to buy years ago.

More to come in part two.