Showing posts with label genealogy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label genealogy. Show all posts

The Last Lancer, Now Published in the USA

 


On 11th July The Last Lancer will be published in the USA and I'm really hoping that the Polish diaspora, many of whom are US based, will get behind it. This is mainly because so many of my Polish friends, here in Scotland, have told me that reading it reminded them of their own fathers and grandfathers, the pre-war childhood and tragic wartime experiences they seldom spoke about. People would tell me how they wished that they had asked their parents about the past, but so often hesitated, and now regretted all those stories left untold. 

These good friends were in my mind as I researched and wrote this book. I did ask my father, thank heavens, although he died much too young, back in 1995. I still miss him. Still wish I could chat to him. Walk with him. Hug him. Nevertheless, he wrote all kinds of vivid and fascinating details down for me. Later, I visited Poland myself, worked there for a year, and managed to piece together even more of the story. 

With my dad in 1950s Yorkshire.

My father, Julian Czerkawski was born in 1926 near Lwow, in Polish Galicia, on his father's large and fairly prosperous estate. He was the son of a Polish lancer - one of the celebrated cavalrymen who inherited the legacy of the famous 'winged hussars'. For hundreds of years, they had made their home in these heavily disputed borderlands. It seemed to me, hearing and reading about it later, as though these were people who were living on the slopes of a volcano. Dormant but rumbling away. 

The Czerkawski family in 1926 -
my grandfather in the centre.

 War devastated the family in ways which are seldom fully understood, here in the UK. Fortunate to   escape with his life, Dad eventually made his way to England as a refugee, an 'alien' as they were   called. Poland might as well have been outer space. His identity papers reveal that under 'next of kin' he had entered a Polish phrase that means 'closest family to nobody.' He was fortunate to meet and marry my Leeds Irish mother. (You can read about her family story in my book called A Proper Person to be Detained.) But an ache remained for the people and places of his childhood, even if he spoke of them only rarely.

In 2022, Putin's war in Ukraine and the sight of refugees passing through Lviv, formerly Lwow, added urgency to my desire to uncover something of what had been lost a generation before.

This book is the result, a book that Neal Ascherson, expert on the history of Poland and Ukraine, has called 'very moving and intensely interesting.'

Sadly, there is a sense in which Poland is still, for most people here in the UK, a 'faraway place with strange sounding names'. But perhaps for that wider Polish diaspora  (20 million people worldwide) especially in the USA, it will fill some achingly large gaps in people's family history. 

I do hope so. 

Meanwhile, I would dearly love to find a US and/or Polish publisher who would be interested in translating and publishing this book in Polish. Enquiries here in the UK have so far failed to elicit any interest. There seems to be an inability to understand the nature of the shifting borders in this part of the world, which results in an equally fixed inability to understand that this is a book about Ukraine too. It is also a book that goes some way towards explaining why Ukrainians fleeing Putin's war received such a warm welcome from Poles. We knew. We understood. We felt for and with them.

Please feel free to contact me for further information about the book.
If you're interested in translation rights, do please contact my publisher Saraband.  

The Winger Hussars by Alan Lees





Here Be Dragons? - Writing About Poland

 


First things first. My Polish historical saga The Amber Heart is free on Amazon Kindle for three days only, from Wednesday 29th - Friday 31st March. If you haven't read it, now's the time! It's available to buy in paperback too, if you prefer to read in that format. 

Given that my new non-fiction book The Last Lancer was published a month ago, the response to it has been quite low key here in the UK. So far, I've done a detailed interview for Emma Cox for her excellent Journeys into Genealogy podcast. You can read my short guest blog about the process, with links to the podcast here. You can listen to the whole podcast from the links at the bottom of that piece  - especially useful if you plan to research your own family history in Central and Eastern Europe. I'll also be doing a session at the Boswell Book Festival in May, alongside a Ukrainian refugee, of which more later.

Perhaps predictably, the most enthusiastic responses have been from my fellow Poles. Two friends brought flowers and chocolates. A lovely Polish writer friend spread the word - and copies of the book. I sent copies to Poland and elsewhere, to the friends and relatives who had helped with my research. Not the easiest process in the world since Brexit. 

Early days, of course. But I suppose it's inevitable that my Polish friends will 'get it' in the way that many of my UK friends perhaps never will, even when they enjoy the book. Or as Polish Leftists more robustly wrote, on Facebook, at the time of the Russian invasion of Ukraine - 'you will never understand us and how the experiences of multiple occupations shaped our societies and how that historical experience is present in our every day conversations and in our system of values.'

I fear that many of my UK friends might find the time and place I've tried to evoke in the Last Lancer just too foreign. Hic sunt dracones. Here be dragons. I had the same problem many years ago, when I first wrote the Amber Heart. 'Loved it, couldn't stop reading it, wept buckets' said potential publishers, among much else that was positive. 'But ... Poland?'

I thought times might have changed and maybe they have. We'll just have to wait and see. Meanwhile, if you've read The Last Lancer or The Amber Heart and enjoyed it - do please leave a review on Amazon or elsewhere, even a short one. Once we've done the hard work, good reviews are our lifeblood. 




An Uncanny Image


Even though words are my business, I find it very hard to describe my feelings when I first saw this small animation of one of the few pictures of my grandfather in existence. 

My dad brought this tiny head and shoulders image with him when, at the end of the war, he ended up in a Polish resettlement camp at Duncombe Park, near Helmsley in Yorkshire.  This is the grandfather I never knew, the person I wanted to know more about, the man I occasionally fantasised might turn up on our doorstep in the Leeds of my childhood. 

He never did, of course. He was long gone by that time, another of Stalin's victims. But one of my reasons for writing The Last Lancer was to try to find out more about him, to get to know this person my father had loved so much. 

Then a friend posted a vivid animated picture of one of her handsome forebears online and thanks to her, I realised that My Heritage would allow me to do the same thing to this image of Wladyslaw Czerkawski.

I uploaded the picture, clicked and waited. 

My grandfather looked out at me and smiled. It is movement, however small, that brings people to life. 

It was the strangest and most spooky feeling. Not in a bad way. I knew that he was a kindly man. Had always known it. He had his flaws and faults, of course, but he was a man whom many people loved and so do I.

My heart still aches when I recollect what happened to him. But I feel a little closer to him now. 

   



Three Cheers for Citizens of Nowhere - and My DNA Agrees.




Citizen of Nowhere.

Back when ex British Prime Minister Teresa May called those of us who objected to Brexit 'Citizens of Nowhere' it struck a chord with many of us who saw it as a compliment rather than the insult she intended. I would still rather be a citizen of nowhere than a citizen of an increasingly xenophobic little island with delusions of empire. But I don't expect everyone to agree with me.

I've always felt that I didn't quite belong anywhere. Or - more accurately - that I belonged almost everywhere. So in Ireland, I felt Irish. In Poland, there seemed to be a significant part of me that responded to Polish culture, art, food, music - something quite viscerally Polish. Working in or visiting Scandinavia I felt at home. But this has, over the years, also made me feel oddly homeless. Or at least completely a-patriotic, if there is such a word. So when Mrs May hurled what she saw as an insult, I think many of us seized on the phrase with a sudden leap of joyful recognition. That's exactly what we are. Citizens of Nowhere.  

Back in the early spring, a friend came along for a glass of wine or two in our garden. She had just had a DNA test from My Heritage (other sites and tests are available). She has a Scottish Italian background and the test had not only confirmed what she already knew, but identified a few other interesting elements to her DNA. 

Reader, I tried it for myself. 

Test Kit

Because I'm in the middle of researching and now deep into writing a new book about my Polish family background, The Last Lancer, I opened an account with My Heritage, and when a 'special offer' popped up on the site, I couldn't resist giving it a try. In due course the neat box arrived complete with the test kit: a couple of glass phials, swabs, an envelope and precise instructions. 

Basically you have to swab your cheeks, put the business ends of the swabs in the phials, seal them and post them. I was a bit surprised to find that the packet was heading for Texas, complete with special customs stickers. My only advice to anyone who is about to send off their test would be to pay a little extra for track and trace. My packet spent weeks in the post.

However, just when I was despairing, I got the message that it had arrived. I could follow its progress through the various testing stages, until last week, the email I'd been waiting for dropped into my inbox: my DNA results were ready. 

I already knew that I'm Irish, Polish and quite likely Scandinavian via my Yorkshire grandfather. If any of those were missing, I'd have been very sceptical. I needn't have worried. There were a few surprises but in fact most of them served to confirm things I had long suspected to be true - and the rest were fascinating. 

The Results

I am: 35.4% Irish, Scottish and Welsh - which in my case almost certainly means Irish. My grandmother Honora was of Irish parentage on both sides, and those parents were Irish as well. I've written about that side of the family in a book called A Proper Person to be Detained

I am 17.5% Eastern European. As the site says 'People of Eastern European descent trace their roots to Russia, Ukraine, Poland, and Hungary. The early Common Era saw the region largely populated by Slavic and Baltic tribes with later Roman, Mongol, and Ottoman invasions.' Not unexpected, given that my father's family, whose surname I still use, were from the Polish part of what is now the Ukraine and - as I've discovered in the course of my research - had been settled there for hundreds of years. 

I am also 17.2% Ashkanazi Jewish, something that I had always suspected but never known for sure. Ashkanazi Jews originally migrated eastwards escaping persecution in Germany and France. They were a close knit group - but perhaps not so close knit as all that. My Polish grandmother's surname was Szapera, and although she came from a Polish Roman Catholic family, my father believed that the family had originated in Hungary. I had long wondered if at least some of those relatives may, at some point in their history, have been Jewish. 

I'm 12.8% Scandinavian. So my big auburn haired grandad Joe, who came from a family of lead miners in Swaledale, almost certainly was, as we suspected, a genuine Viking, a descendent of those early settlers who arrived on our coasts and moved inland, leaving their place names and their DNA behind them and then staying in the Yorkshire Dales until the industrial revolution drove them towards the big cities of the North. 

I'm 7.4% English. As the site explains, that might include people of Celtic descent too, those who were in England before the Anglo Saxons came along. More likely though, is that those Swaledale forebears who had moved to the big cities, married outside that narrow Dales demographic, where, as I discovered when I researched that side of the family some years ago, a single surname cropped up everywhere in a few small communities. A much needed stirring of the gene pool, I reckon. 

There is 1.1% Baltic DNA in there, which might be expected, given the proximity of that region to Poland and the Ukraine.

There is 4.4% North African. I'm intrigued. But of course those Norsemen did a lot of trading with North Africa, and people from North Africa have migrated just about everywhere, over many hundreds of years, so perhaps it's no big surprise after all. It always irritates me that politicians and their complicit media talk about 'economic migration' as though it was somehow criminal. But it's how most of us got where we are today, including those very politicians who deride it. 

Much less surprising is the 2.7% Central Asian, given the close trading and migration connections between Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Oddly enough, my Polish grandfather died in 1942 and is buried at Kenimech near Bukhara on the Silk Road, but that's a sad story for another day.

And finally there's 1.5% Nigerian, which is again hardly surprising with such an ancient culture - and may well be what many people worldwide find in their DNA as well. 

So there you have it, as the chefs say, when presenting the audience with a well cooked dish.

Not only was the test pretty accurate, according to what I already know, but with a few intriguing surprises thrown in. 

It also confirms what I have long suspected. I am a proud citizen of nowhere. 

Or should that be 'of the human race'? 

Oh, and mongrels are the greatest. 








Digging into Family History: My Great Grandmother Anna Brudzewska

 

Over the past few weeks, I've started work on a new book, although I'm still very much at the ferreting about and following bits and pieces of information down the wonderful rabbit holes of family history stage. 

This is something I've been thinking about writing for a very long time - a piece of narrative non-fiction about my Polish grandfather who had what you might call an eventful life. I'll probably tackle it in the same way as I researched and wrote A Proper Person to be Detained. Except that you couldn't get much further from my forebears in that book if you tried.

Anyway, I thought I'd blog a bit about it here - not to pre-empt the book, because I'm still not quite sure where that will take me and it will be about more than just family history. Nevertheless, I'm happy to blog occasionally about the process of researching it and the feelings it inspires. I did quite a lot of research on this topic many years ago, long before the internet, and I have a big box full of paperwork: letters, pictures, notebooks and photocopies from that time. It's invaluable. But now, there's so much more online and I'm only just beginning to realise how much there is still to be discovered. 

Above is a picture of my Polish great grandmother Anna Brudzewska. 

She figures in a wonderful and very detailed Polish genealogy, worked on by one M J Minakowski. Her full name before her marriage into the Czerkawski family was Anna Brudzewska von Brause and she was born circa 1870. Her father was Edward Brudzewski von Brause, born in 1838, and her mother was Zofia Katarzyna (that's my own name - Catherine) Moraczewska. 

Edward is intriguingly described as 'landowner and insurgent'. 

He served in the ranks of the Prussian cavalry and took part in the January uprising against the Austrian authorities. He was exiled to France, as were so many insurrectionary Poles, but when things settled down, he returned to Poland and became a friend of the playwright, painter and poet Stanislaw Wyspianski. For those who know nothing about Polish literature and art, it's a bit like finding out that your great great grandfather was bosom buddies with Ibsen or Chekhov or - since he was a brilliant artist - Renoir or Manet. Edward apparently features in one of Wyspianski's dramas called Liberation. He lived near Krakow at a place called Korabniki where Wyspianski was a frequent visitor.  And here it is. The original house was built in the mid 16th century, oddly enough by a remote relative of a different branch of the family. Edward bought it in the 1880s, so Anna would have been a girl here. 


The Brudzewski Manor House at Korabniki 

When I stopped salivating over such a very beautiful house, I started thinking about my great grandmother, Anna. You look at that slightly prim and proper picture of her - it was included in a book that one of my father's cousins wrote about yet another branch of the family - and what do you see? What would you expect from that firm mouth, that neat hair, that slightly hostile stare and withdrawn expression? Or - as a friend said - somebody who was saying 'Don't tell me how to live my life!'

I find myself browsing through Wyspianski's paintings and wondering if he painted her. 

I'll tell you what you wouldn't quite expect. That she gave birth to my grandfather Wladyslaw in winter, in a sleigh. And that as a widow, she scandalously married her estate manager, much against the wishes of her family, and gave birth to a daughter. 

So there you go. Today, I've been thinking about that a lot. Aren't photographs deceptive? Or, when you dig deeper, informative. Are you intrigued yet? I know I am! 




Happy Birthday to My Lovely Alien Dad

Last year, when my new book A Proper Person to be Detained was published by Saraband, and when I began to do various book events I realised that as many people were asking me questions about my Polish dad and how he came to Britain, as about the Leeds Irish side of the family, which is mostly what the book is about. My refugee father came to Yorkshire at the end of the war, via Monte Cassino, having lost most of his family and almost his own life. There was nowhere to go back to.

In that book, I wrote: 'Dad was an alien. It says so on his papers. I have them still, stored in a box in the room where I write. I've been sifting through them more than once, recently, in the hope of reinstating the Polish nationality I acquired at birth, by blood rather than location, and then lost again. ... * When I was born, dad's status made me half-alien too. Actually, it made me three quarters alien, given that my mother was half Irish. As soon as she married him, my mother acquired her husband's nationality as well as her own. So there we were, aliens by virtue of birth or assimilation in this brave new post-war world. The borders had arbitrarily shifted and my father's home wasn't even in Poland any more.' 

Today would have been dad's 94th birthday. He died in 1995 with my mum following three years later, and I still miss them. Earlier today I took a little posy of garden flowers up to the cemetery outside the village: aquilegia mostly in shades of pink, blue and purple, because we're between seasons now, in that time between spring and early summer, when winter is still capable of putting in the odd appearance, even in May. It was a chilly, blustery day and I was in my winter woollies and padded jacket, but it was a good walk, past sweet scented may blossom, cow parsley, pink campion in the hedgerows and an accompaniment of birdsong all the way. Dad would have approved. He loved the countryside and made me love it too.

It's been a funny old day. We're in lockdown here in Scotland, but the county is in turmoil with - not to mince matters - a regular shitshow of a government at Westminster. I've spent half the day in a rage, and half of it remembering my warm, wise dad. But Dad, who knew a fascist when he saw one, always cautioned that totalitarianism could happen anywhere and at any time if conditions were right. After all, Stalin was responsible for his father's death, while the Nazis saw off most of the rest. Dad was not at all bitter. He had, I think, taken a conscious decision to live his life with love rather than hate. But injustice - that was a different matter. I never once saw him lose his temper at home. He was the most generous and kind hearted of men. But injustice, greed, cruelty and bullying: those were things that he found intolerable.

I've been thinking about him a lot today.

If you want to read the story of my Irish family history, but of so much more - you can buy the paperback of a Proper Person to be Detained from the publisher, Saraband, or download the Kindle version, here.

Dad and his grandson at a very happy time.

* I regained my Polish nationality last year.

Food Parcels and Fags: My Polish Grandmother

Lucja Szapera 
This is a picture of my Polish grandmother. I met her very briefly when she came to spend a couple of weeks with us in Leeds. I can't even remember the exact year when she came, but I think it must have been when we had moved from my grandparents' house in Whitehall Road to a chilly flat in an old vicarage in Bellevue Road, which would place it some time in the late 1950s. You can read about some of this in my recent book, A Proper Person to be Detained, because although that book is about a murder in my family in 1881, I moved the story forward into my own childhood, in an effort to get some perspective on those long ago events.

What I didn't tackle though, was the troubled relationship between my father and his own mother, Lucja.

My middle name is Lucy. I was named for her.

One night last week, I woke up with a start and remembered the food parcels. It may have been because I had just said - not entirely in jest - that in the event of a no-deal Brexit, we might have to ask our son, working in the EU, to send us medicines. Perhaps that had triggered the memory, because I hadn't thought about Lucja's food parcels in more than forty years.

After the war, when my refugee dad was in a resettlement camp in Yorkshire, like so many displaced persons, he hadn't the foggiest idea whether any of his family had survived. For many years, we believed that his father, Wladyslaw, had been sent to Siberia and had died there. As it happened, that wasn't the case, but it took a great deal of research before we found out the true story. He didn't survive. He was never going to come knocking on our door. His tragic story is one for another day, another post. Maybe the book or books I seem to be edging towards writing if I can find a way into them.

Aunty Wanda
But in those post war years, the Red Cross did sterling work in trying to reunite families. Eventually, we found out that dad's beloved Aunty Wanda had survived and was still living in Poland with her husband, artist Karol Kossak, in a spa town called Ciechocinek. I visited them and their daughter Teresa in the  early 1970s, and immediately felt at home with them.

In the late 1950s, we also discovered that Lucja was alive, living in a town called WaƂbrzych in the south west of Poland. She and my father corresponded, and because times were hard in communist Poland, especially for elderly ladies of very limited means, we sent food parcels to her. I remember the shopping, the careful wrapping, my dad filling in endless forms, taking them to the post office with my mother, hoping that the things actually got there, because pilfering at the borders was rife. As were food shortages.

And then Lucja came to visit.


It was not, on the whole, a success. I find myself digging around in my memory, trying to analyse the tensions that I, as a little girl, could only have been dimly aware of. The word that best describes it might be disappointment. I think she was disappointed, had been disappointed and angry for years - angry and unwell and disappointed. She had expected more from the visit. She had expected much more from life. And she had lost everything except her life.

She was, I believe, the child of a wealthy pharmacist, in the prosperous Polish city of Lwow, when she met and married my grandfather. You can see them together in the picture below, possibly taken in the summer of 1929 when my dad would be about three: handsome Wladyslaw, who always reminds me of Maxim in Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca and pretty, plump Lucja in her early 20s, with her summer dress, her pearls and her hat and her little son, Julian, still in his traditional girly baby clothes and haircut.




Spoilt Lucja who got her own way in everything.

She had always expected more from life. The picture at the very top of this post shows her at about the same time or just a little earlier - newly married, well made up, glossy in her fur coat. Uncannily, I recognise myself in her eyes, and her hair. She certainly gave me her hair.

The family were ostensibly Catholic, but the name Szapera suggests a Jewish heritage somewhere along the line. The family also claimed Hungarian forebears. Wladyslaw, who had a reputation for immense charm, must have met her socially in Lwow and swept her off her little feet. He was wealthy too - on paper at least, although not so much in hard cash.

The family were 'szlachta': the old, minor aristocracy. Wladyslaw's mother, Anna Brudzewska, had been from an even more distinguished family. Wladyslaw had inherited the estate from a wealthy uncle and stood to inherit another place in Prszemyslany.  He had a nice house, a ruined mansion, an ice house, the only car in the district, plenty of land, prospects - and a pet monkey. Lucja must have thought that all her dreams were coming true.

They were very young: Lucja was born in 1906, and Wladyslaw in 1904, which made her only twenty when her son was born. I'm sure for a while they were madly in love.

But she was a city girl, and I imagine that she soon found the countryside not at all to her liking. I suspect she didn't like the mud or the flies or the horses or the dogs or the guests that stayed for days on end. Besides, Wladyslaw was not quite as rich as she had believed. He was always thinking up ways of making money: growing mushrooms in the cellars of the old manor house at Dziedzilow that had been burned down in some previous conflict or inventing perpetual motion machines that - of course - didn't work.

She had probably been used to city life and entertainments, nice clothes, a little luxury, and here she was, marooned in the country, and then doubly marooned after my dad was born.

I suspect too that my grandfather found that he had fallen for a pretty face but, like Mr Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, had found himself married to a rather foolish woman. This seems harsh, but my father once confessed, reluctantly, that he had always been much closer to his father and his aunt Wanda than he ever was to his mother. They seemed to have very little in common.


Pre war Lwow.


Nevertheless, my parents went through the complicated and stressful process of inviting Lucja for a visit. From the start, it was clear that she disliked postwar Leeds intensely. When I think about it now, I'm very sorry for her. She could speak no English and my mother no Polish, so communications were difficult. At home, she worked in one of those little kiosks that sell cigarettes and bus and tram tickets. She suffered badly from arthritis and lived with somebody we knew as Aunty Nusia. I think, although I can't be certain, that this was her sister but it may have been a cousin.

She had expected us to be rich. We were very far from that. She missed Nusia. She didn't like the food, she didn't like my mother, I'm not even sure that she liked me very much. She must have been very homesick, even though she didn't like her home much. Children bored her. The fortnight was spent mostly playing cards with assorted patient Leeds relatives, while she smoked cigarettes and grumbled. She went back with more food and more cigarettes, as many as she was allowed to take. The correspondence continued, as did the food parcels and the medicines for her arthritis that my dad managed to acquire. I believe she died in 1971, just before I went to Poland myself, and met my other surviving relatives.

Julian at Dziedzilow.
Many years later, dad told me all about his childhood, but said very little about his difficult relationship with Lucja.  I think it saddened him. He had been a country child, heart and soul, brought up among the trees and flower meadows of this part of Poland, loving dogs and horses, riding almost as soon as he could walk, ski-ing in winter. Reading a great deal.

He adored his father, but at some point in the 1930s, Wladyslaw began an affair with the wife of a local schoolteacher. I think my dad saw this as a betrayal, naturally enough, although he was too young to articulate it properly.

Just on the verge of war, Wladyslaw and Lucja separated, and Lucja took my dad, Julian, back to Lwow. He didn't want to go. I recently found the address among his old papers and looked it up online. The apartments are still there, and seem quite smart. Wladyslaw visited them there as often as he could and as a boy Julian would often travel back to Dziedzilow to spend holidays there. He was always happier in the countryside than in the city. Always happier with his father or with his Aunt Wanda and Uncle Karol and other family members who lived nearby.

Later, more precariously, when the city of Lwow and the house at Dziedzilow were under occupation and his father was in the army and then in a Stalinist prison, Julian would travel back to the village to stay with his beloved nanny. She was a Polish girl married to a Ukrainian so he might have been in extreme danger, but he was never betrayed. Instead, the local Ukrainians sheltered him.

In due course, he would come back to the city with eggs, apples, meat.

More food parcels for Lucja.



A Proper Person to be Detained - a Spooky Postscript.


James Flynn, paviour, seated, fourth from the right.

My new book, A Proper Person to be Detained, is highly factual. Although since it's also a very personal account of a family tragedy and its aftermath, it does contain a certain amount of reflection - and an attempt to bring the story into the twentieth century, at least. However, in the course of all the intensive research involved, something happened to me that spooked me a bit. Even though there's almost certainly a simple, rational explanation. But like not wanting to know how conjuring tricks are done, because then you destroy the magic, I don't want to know.

Here's what happened.

I was in the middle of edits and writes, checking all kinds of dates and relationships to make sure everything hung together properly, and deep into the story of what had happened to poor John Manley, who was murdered in 1881, in Leeds, and what happened afterwards to his surviving sisters - and what became of his eldest sister, my great grandmother Mary, who had eventually married a good man called James Flynn. He was remembered as a kindly, gentle, generous man by those who had known him, and he certainly helped to change for the better the fortunes of at least one member of my family, blighted by terrible events.

It was a very chilly, sunny morning and I was walking through - of all places - Morrison's car park, on my way to the store. The low sun was dazzling me, and the car park was faintly misty as the early frost dissipated. I was preoccupied, thinking about the book, as I was pretty much thinking about the book all the time back then, when I felt a touch on my arm, and raised my head to find myself confronted by a middle aged man. I stepped back off the kerb in surprise, and he very gently assisted me onto the pavement between cars. He called me 'Madam'. He told me, in a quiet, but unmistakably southern Irish voice - a soft, rural voice - that he was very hungry, that he had had no breakfast that morning, and nobody outside the store would help him. The sun was still dazzling my eyes, but he was dressed in working clothes and boots and he looked - as I described it to my husband afterwards - 'dusty'. He was dusty from head to toe. Not dirty, but dusty like a working man is dusty.

And he had a kind face.

I took my purse out and gave him the only note I had in there - a £5 note. If I'd had a tenner, I'd have given him that instead but it was probably enough to get him some breakfast. He shook my hand, and he said 'God bless you, God bless you, madam,' and then he headed off through the car park.

When I turned around to see which way he had gone, there was nobody in sight at all.

It's hard to describe how this meeting affected me - and let's face it, I make things up for a living! I could feel a lump in my throat and tears starting in my eyes. I felt shaken. I had to go and sit down in the cafe to pull myself together. I wanted to tell somebody about the encounter but there was nobody around that I knew, and besides, it would have sounded daft beyond belief, because I'd have said, 'I think I just met my great grandfather.'

But even now, many months later, I still think I did.


A Little Pre-Christmas Ghost Story



Last month, I wrote a short post about my new book: A Proper Person to be Detained. After that, I plunged back into more revisions and time consuming fact checking. A genealogist friend has given me more help than I deserve - bless her - and I don't think I could have undertaken this project without her. The book is the true story of a murder and its aftermath, as well as a complicated tapestry of a part of my own family history, the Irish part, about which - before I embarked on this book - I confess I knew very little.

Now I know a lot more. Sometimes, over the past year, it has struck me that I know rather more than is good for me, because it has turned out to be a harrowing tale. But then every family has a harrowing tale or two, somewhere in its past.

The last couple of months have been taken up by ordering yet more PDF birth and death certificates from the General Register Office (I might as well have mortgaged my house to them when I add up how much I've spent there) and browsing Ancestry, trying to solve mysteries, some of which have remained tantalisingly insoluble to this day. In November and early December, and with the book written and more or less edited, but with questions still remaining, I spent some time surrounded by dozens of bits of paper, trying to piece together the final jigsaw puzzle of fact, error and speculation. The mark of a great editor is not that they try to change your style or rewrite  - it's that they have the knack of asking exactly the right difficult questions! I have a great editor.

One thing you learn very quickly when undertaking research of this kind is just how many of the online details are wrong. You learn to take nothing for granted. People make assumptions based on what they think they know about the past. Once you realise that they have made wrong assumptions about people whose details you know well from memory and acquaintance, you learn to treat a great many other supposed 'facts' with a certain amount of scepticism. Often the simplest explanation will be the true one - but not always. There is as much misinformation as information out there.

But I promised you a little pre-Christmas ghost story, didn't I?

So here it is. When you're writing something as immersive, as personal as this book turned out to be, you become so absorbed in the world you're exploring that it can be hard to escape. And just occasionally, something strange happens, something seems to intrude from that world into your everyday life, rather as though you had conjured it. Just as a few weeks ago, something like this happened to me.

In the picture above, to the right of the man with the beard and the tar barrel, sits my great grandfather, James Flynn, sometimes known as Michael. He's the one with the moustache. He was born in Ballinlough in County Roscommon. One census record says he was born in Liverpool, but as soon as he is allowed to write his own details onto the form, he is very precise about his place of birth, as were the rest of the family, who spoke of his strong Irish accent, and the fact that he had come over to Leeds as a road builder. In fact, he was a paviour, quite a skilled job.

I never knew him, but everyone who had known and loved him described him as a kind and generous man. He had his faults, but he was certainly a good man. I wrote about him, and about the role he played in my great grandmother's life. And as I wrote about him, he became very real indeed to me.

I was, of all places, in a supermarket car park. It was a fine day for once, and the low winter sun was shining full in my eyes and dazzling me as I headed towards the shop, when I felt somebody tugging gently at my arm.
'Madam, madam,' he said, 'Can I trouble you for a moment?' and the soft Irish accent was unmistakable. I peered at him through the halo of light, and a thin, kindly face, smiled at me. Surprised, I had stopped in the roadway, and again very gently, he ushered me onto the pavement. 'I was wondering,' he said. 'If you might be able to give me a little money to buy some breakfast. I really am very hungry, and nobody back there ...' he glanced towards the shop front 'will help me.'
He looked quite hungry. And he looked - well, he looked dusty. Dusty all over. Not dirty or unclean, just muddy. A working man in working boots. 'You see,' he said, as though it explained everything, 'I've come from Ireland.'
'Yes,' I said. 'Yes, I can hear that.'
I gave him a fiver for his breakfast - it was all I had in my purse at the time - and he said 'God bless you, madam, God bless you,' and raised a hand to me and walked off across the car park.

When I looked back, he had gone.

Coincidence, of course. All coincidence, the more prosaic among you will think. And so do I, in a way. But it shook me. I walked into the shop, feeling the tears starting behind my eyes. I kept wanting to tell somebody about it. I did my shopping in a dream and for all kinds of inexplicable reasons felt both sad and happy about the encounter all the way home.




Oven Bottom Cakes. Family Secrets, My Irish Nana and Me


The Irish Famine by George Frederick Watts
I recently spent some time rewriting the blurb for Bird of Passage before a forthcoming free promotion (16th, 17th and 18th August). It's one of the big advantages of Kindle publishing that you can go back and refine something in the light of reviews, reader feedback, or just general intuition. The novel is set in Scotland, but it's probably the most Irish thing I've ever written, with the exception of a sad little story called Civil Rights, first published in the Edinburgh Review some years ago, and scheduled for another airing during the Edinburgh eBook Festival. 

I was born in Leeds, and my nana was Irish. Her name was Honora Flynn. Anne Honora, to be precise, although everyone called her Nora. Her father, James Flynn, was registered in Liverpool although later records mention Ireland as the place of his birth - maybe he was just off the ferry! - in 1856 or thereabouts which means that the migration of the family was probably related to the after effects of the Irish famine. 

Family tradition puts their place of origin as Ballyhaunis in Mayo and Flynn is certainly a Mayo name. By 1887, though, James was living in Leeds. He was a 'paviour' as the records state - which means he built roads. At the age of thirty, he married one Mary Terran or Terens who was a widow with children. His father Timothy was dead by then, but the marriage was witnessed by Charles and Mary Flynn, (his brother and sister?) who couldn't write, so marked their names with an 'X'. My nana, Anne Honora was born the year before their marriage, but it's a fairly safe assumption that she was Mary Terran and James Flynn's child. They went on to have more children, Timothy, Michael and Thomas. 

Later, my nana met my auburn haired grandad, Joe Sunter, in Holbeck, in Leeds, but at some point, she went to Canada looking for work and a new life. She didn't find it and sailed back again, to find that Joe was home from a trip to Singapore with the Merchant Navy. They were married not long after and had five children of whom my mother, Kathleen Irene, was the youngest. 

My grandad's family had been dalesmen - of Norse descent in all probability - from the upper reaches of Swaledale, lead miners turned coal dealers and farriers, and they were staunch Methodists. My nana's family were Irish Catholics and there was always a certain Irish element to my upbringing. I think the Catholic Church is a bit like Hotel California in the song - you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. I went to a small Catholic school, although we weren't what you might call 'red hot' in our religious observance. But when, at the age of 16, I first went to Ireland, working for a family in West Cork, looking after their children for the summer, it felt strangely familiar. 

The extended family, two sisters, with their husbands and assorted children, were renting an apartment in a big, beautiful, tumbledown house. It was a farmhouse but it must once have belonged to some minor Anglo Irish gentry before the 'troubles' changed everything. There was a dusty ballroom, an overgrown fountain in the garden, and a fearsome sow who would come galloping through the undergrowth in pursuit of strangers. The big holiday apartment had once been the servants quarters and the mice partied in the attics all night long. I was one of two nannies, temporary nursemaids, mother's helps, whatever we were. I looked after eighteen month old triplets and three older children by day,but at night, when they were mercifully in bed, the other nanny and myself went dancing in the nearby villages escorted by various local boys. I fell in love, just a little bit, and walked back down the long drive in the moonlight with a good looking boy called Paddy (what else?) who kissed me beneath the damp buddleias. I can never smell that honey scent now without remembering it. 

Later, I worked in Dublin too and everything about that time and place fed into the fiction which would come after. But much as I loved Ireland - much as I still love the place and its people - I didn't realise until years later that the scandal of the Magdalene Laundries and the cruelty of the Industrial Schools was still going on, even while I had been innocently holding hands with Paddy on that moonlit lane. Which is a chilling thought, even now.


Tattie Howkers
Tied up with all that is the story of what happened to my beloved nana, and how we - my elderly aunt and I, because my own mother was dead by that time - came to find out something about Nora which she had kept secret her whole life - which she had taken with her to her grave. Nobody knew, until much later when somebody, ferreting through official records, found it out. Later still, I wondered if that had been why Anne Honora had decided to leave for Canada. Maybe she felt that she had no more to lose. But she had come back and married my grandfather anyway. 

I wrote about it when those most closely concerned with it were dead even my dear aunt, who had been deeply upset by it. I wrote the poem below, Oven Bottom Cakes, before ever I wrote Bird of Passage. But although it's quite different, and Anne Honora's story is nothing like Finn and Kirsty's story - I still feel those little connections and inspirations, nipping away at me like midges on a summer night. For Bird of Passage is a story about secrets and lies, about concealment and shame as well. 

And I think the inspiration for these two quite different pieces of work must come from the same beloved place. 


 OVEN BOTTOM CAKES

My Irish nana made oven bottom cakes
with the last of the dough,
furiously working the elastic on
cold marble, her hair thrust back
like a schoolgirl’s with a clip.
I see her print pinafore and her body
flex as she presses her thumb into
the middle of each cake then
leans across the rag rug to throw
deft flour into the oven to judge
if the temperature is right.

On a February morning in smoky Leeds
in 1910 my nana, a shirt maker,
gave birth to twin girls Gladys and Ethel.
She named no father and they died within days.
Later, she told nobody.
They were erased from our story
as surely as if they had never lived
until years after her death when
some  remote cousin gleefully
excavating the family tree,
sniffed them out and spilt the beans.

Toddling, I would nap with her
in the afternoons and she would
push me out of her bed for
fidgetting, my soft breasted nan.
Did she see in me those
babies she had buried?
My nana baked bread for me.
How she loved to feed me good things,
made oven bottom cakes and we’d
eat them with the best butter
and blackberry jam that
nipped your teeth with seeds.

Catherine Czerkawska.

Magdalenes