I don’t send Christmas cards. To me it seems like either a thing you do at school, or something you do when you’re a proper grown up. I am neither.
Yet it’s the festive season, and I can’t ignore this big element of Christmas – the thing that most of us take for granted, until perhaps the day we no longer get a single Christmas card. The problem I have is, where do you draw the line? Who are the people who don’t make it onto the card list? I have 165 friends on Facebook, but I know that they’re not all reeeally friends. Maybe I should send out a lovely e-card to Facebook and Twitter friends. It would save trees, though the electricity used would create a momentous amount of CO2 obviously.
A few years ago, I sent cards to prisoners held unlawfully around the world via the Amnesty International scheme. This was probably the last time I sent cards to anybody. If you’re going to send a card, do it with meaning right? Even if you just sign it, “Thinking of you during this difficult time, from …”.
The first official Christmas card was sent as a greeting from Sir Henry Cole, an English civil servant, to his friends and professional peers in 1843. I say “official Christmas card” because even before this, people sent hand made greetings messages to each other. Cole asked his friend John Calcott Horsley to design the card that he would send, depicting what we now see as a very traditional Victorian Christmas scene.
And yet, following this, some of the earliest designs rarely featured such scenes, but rather images of spring signalling the coming season…which seems kind of odd to me.
Obviously, one thing that can’t be ignored is the lucrative nature of the Christmas card industry. According to Hallmark’s statistics, they sold 1.5 billion cards during the Christmas period in 2010, compared to the Valentine’s Day period which saw just (just?) 144 million cards sold. Even the first cards, made by Cole and Horsley, were for business purposes.
Queen Victoria is well known for having celebrated Christmas in the style we celebrate it in today in Britain, and was herself a fan of sending Christmas greetings since the 1840s, like the card below from 1897:
Here are a couple of my favourite World War One Christmas cards which you can find here:
The Germans knew how to make ’em. Speaking of World War I, anybody seen a film called Joyeux Noel about the Christmas truce on 1914 between the French, Scottish and Germans? I only caught the end, but it seemed pretty good.
Reminds me of this song – originally not released as a Christmas tune, but due to the Christmas reference, it soon became one.
Anyway, here are some more cards from throughout the ages…
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.
Today it’s Remembrance Sunday, hence the paper poppies being sold everywhere. The poppy appeal was begun in America in 1920. It began when Moina Michael began wearing a poppy in 1918 as a sign of remembrance after being inspired by the famous poem In Flanders Fields.
The poem was written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, who was a surgeon for the Canadian artillery. He was also in charge of a field hospital during the Second Battle of Ypres, and it was here that he wrote the poem, after his friend L. Alexis Helmer was killed. He wrote the poem quickly, on 3rd May 1915, and initially threw it on the floor. During that time, local papers on the home front would often publish war poems. In Flanders Fields was picked up by someone off the floor who then sent it to the Spectator who refused to print it because it wasn’t patriotic enough. So Punch published it instead.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yo a war cemurs to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
And this is where he wrote it, at the Essex Farm cemetery.
This was at the time a thriving field hospital. Strange to imagine. Beside it lies a cemetery.
Cemeteries often turned up beside field hospitals, as of course, there had to be a place were the bodies were lain. So, if you ever stumble across a war cemetery in France or Belgium, it was probably also once the site of a field hospital.
One of the most iconic headstones of the Essex Farm cemetery is that of rifleman Valentine Strudwick, who was only 15 when he signed up to war. Of course, he lied to the war office, and was able to do so because he was a well-built farm-hand.
If you go to the cemetery now, you’ll see bullet marks on some of the headstones, which is because there was extensive fighting here only 20 odd years later during the Second World War.
John McCrae himself also died at war on January 28th 1918, from pneumonia and meningitis. But his memory lives on.
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.
Prior to last week’s post, I hadn’t posted anything in a while – soz. As the autumn and winter months draw in, I’ll no doubt be posting a lot more. Summer kind of takes hold, and I did have a busy summer, though I haven’t stopped talking about and thinking about history the whole time. Even on my holiday in Portugal – a relaxing, sunny holiday – I wasn’t completely satisfied until we visited the old town of Sitges, home to a castle from the Middle Ages and an archaeological museum.
But now the Autumn has set in. And there’s something about this time of year, that for some reason always takes me back to my insatiable interest in WWI.
It’s a strange thing.
It’s the smell on the air – damp, muddy, fresh smell. It reminds me of visiting the old battlefields, the memorials, the cemeteries, the preserved trenches, especially when I went there three years ago at the end of October. I feel like I need to go back there this time of year every year. It’s a strange calling I have.
Instead, I have to make do with entertaining myself with WWI related stuff. Like War Horse – watched that last weekend. It was interesting. I liked the idea. I’ve never read the book. My main criticism of the film? The filters/lighting of the scenes were a little too strong. But obviously that’s more technical. My favourite part? The charge of the cavalry – that realisation that being an arrogant Brit won’t save you from death, especially when you run into machine guns head on, armed with nothing more than a sword.
Benedict Cumberbatch, as usual excelled at playing a well bred English man in this film, and also in Parade’s End – a strange five part BBC drama. Featuring WWI (again) and suffragettes. Quite interesting, but strange as it jumped forward a lot through time. It would spend ten minutes on one scene – a conversation between two people – then jump forward a year. I reckon the books probably fill in the gaps a bit better, a set of three written by Ford Madox Ford in the twenties. I think I’ll have to read them at some point; there’s something comforting knowing a book was written close to the time of the events it references. It’s interesting to see the difference in perspective between then and now.
I also bought Birdsong on blu-ray, the BBC drama, produced by Working Title. Felt that should definitely have won some awards, but it didn’t. People seemed to love it or hate it when it was on in January and I obviously loved it.
I also have three books on my shelf to read. I started reading The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston last year. It’s Siegfried Sassoon’s autobiography. I mostly got it as I wanted to read about his time in the war and about his time at Craiglockhart War Hospital, and his friendship with Wilfred Owen. So I thought I’d get the full autobiography, learn about life in the English countryside before the war etc.
Turns out that Sassoon completely omitted Owen from the biography, as he was anxious not to show his relationship with him as homosexually intimate – as it wasn’t. Or to give any readers the slightest impression that it was – it was just a friendship. I didn’t even get to that bit, and I was already a bit disappointed; this was also because I kind of got a bit bored with stories about cricket and fox hunting. Not a massive interest in either and pretty much half of it is about those two things so far. But it’s cool – I gave up reading purposely at the point when he decides to sign up to the army, so it won’t be too hard to get back into.
I also have to read a new novel on World War One, though I’m a bit dubious of reading more recent war novels, after the awkward ending of Ben Elton’s The First Casualty. I didn’t like the ending or even really like the main character of that book. Anyway, the new book I have is called My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You. Found this after seeing a link to another fairly new war book, hailed as the new Birdsong. As some reviewers on Amazon disagreed with this, I decided not to get it, but got the My Dear… book instead, as most people gave it five stars.
And as a present to my manager when I left my job as a planner for Viasat History the other week, I got her Strange Meeting by Susan Hill – my favourite war book. Even more than Regeneration by Pat Barker. And as my leaving present? The Faces of World War I: The Tragedy of the Great War in Words and Pictures by Max Arthur – an amazing book with haunting images.
Anyway, this was only meant to be a quick catch up, and I’m waffling on as if this is a review blog. Well, it isn’t. So I’m stopping there.
Separate point – was in a pub in Streatham the other weekend and was struck by this portrait:
The pub was called Earl Ferrers. This was a title not a name. This particular portrait is of Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers…and the last member of the House of Lords to be hanged in this country. He was hanged on 5th May 1760, for shooting an old family steward. I just thought it was a strange painting especially as the noose is too small.