Thursday, 23 November 2017

'The Haunting of Borley Rectory'

A few days ago I noticed an Indiegogo fundraising campaign for a film about Borley Rectory.  I was surprised because we have just had one by Ashley Thorpe called Borley Rectory, released by his Carrion Films (yes, very good) in June this year.  I haven’t seen it yet but I know it is receiving very positive publicity, and considerable acclamation at festivals. Thorpe also sought finance via Indiegogo and managed to raise 330% of his original requirement.

The Haunting of Borley Rectory on the other hand is being produced by Steven M Smith, an Essex lad who seems best known for cheaply-made films, mostly horror.  According to his Internet Movie Database (IMDB) page, “He grew up in Wickford, Essex attending Beauchamps Comprehensive school where is (sic) wrote, produced and directed his first film a media project entitled "Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide". It was a cheap-looking horror flick and never (sic) been released. His first film debut (sic) was "Time Of Her Life" and was shown at the Cannes film festival in 2005. He is currently working on several new projects and his wife is expecting their first child. He still lives in Wickford, Essex today.”  This is not inspiring confidence.

Smith’s Indiegogo fundraising goal is a very modest $5,000, which at the time of writing had reached less than a tenth of the required total.  Amusingly, the headings for the explanation of the film’s aims are done in a style reminiscent of the wall writings at Borley.  Presumably he is unaware Thorpe has beaten him to the punch because the page claims:

“This infamous and chilling location in Essex, has fascinated me since childhood. I want to be the first to bring this story of mystery, intrigue and seduction to life on screen in my own unique storyline that will cross timelines … Located in a remote part of Victorian England and isolated from any nearby community [actually Borley is about a mile from Long Melford and less than four miles from Sudbury], Borley Rectory was a Gothic-style mansion with a long history of death, murder and the supernatural.  Though famed as the most haunted house in England, this is a tale that – incredibly – has never before been told on film in its true account.”

Too late to be first I’m afraid, though perhaps Smith considers Thorpe’s effort to be untruthful compared to his own attempts to achieve stringent accuracy as he sees it, even if that involves crossing timelines.  Perhaps he was writing before Thorpe’s effort appeared and just hasn’t got round to updating his pitch.  Despite the impression given on the Indiegogo page, this is not a new project.  Smith posted a call for unpaid actors on Stage 32 (a website for those working in film, television and theatre) job board in 2012, though at that point the title was a simple Borley.

Smith runs Greenway Entertainment, registered in Wickford, but the Borley film, while listed on the Greenway website among dire-sounding horror titles, is being made by Divinity Pictures,

“created to produce unique and powerful stories that have never been told before. The story of Borley is well known by many, and we are committed to telling it as accurately and truthfully as possible, but with a approach (sic) that is budget restrictive” (a euphemism for ultra-cheap).

I don’t think Divinity Pictures has any footprint apart from this reference, and strongly suspect this is not going to be a film on the scale of Thorpe’s labour of love.  The Indiegogo page claims that 80% of the required funding has already been achieved (and further that distribution deals are already in place), despite the small sum so far pledged; the appeal is more to “to support the film and give opportunities for fans to get involved”, a kind gesture by the filmmakers.  Naturally there are a number of perks on offer depending on the size of the donation, none of which at the time of writing had been taken up.  The list of items requiring extra funding makes startling reading:

Extra Lighting.
Stills Photographer.
Gore Effects.
Creature Design.
Creature Make Up.
Location Catering.
Contingency Cashflow.

Gore?  Creature design and make-up?  Some of these items are so basic you wonder what the film will look like if the Indiegogo fundraising fails.  Contingency cashflow for example doesn’t sound like an optional extra.  There may not yet be much money for locations and costumes, but in true Roger Corman style there is a basic poster.

What makes Smith’s film particularly interesting is that, in true exploitation movie fashion, he has taken advantage of two hooks, each attractive to punters but which together he might expect to achieve synergy and thereby do even better box office: Borley and Ed and Lorraine Warren.  Here is what the Indiegogo page says:

“The Haunting Of Borley Rectory is one of the best known Ghost (random cap in original) stories of the United Kingdom. Ed and Lorraine Warren (The Conjuring) visited Borley on many occasions fascinated by the story. Our film will be a fresh and original take on the ghost story.”

The Warrens?  Ye gods.   The page includes part of an interview with the Warrens about Borley, which they claimed to have visited over two dozen times.  It’s a curious interview, with Lorraine doing most of the talking but not really saying much of substance.  She refers to the church but not the rectory, so it is unclear how the Warrens will fit into a film which according to the title involves the rectory (by crossing timelines perhaps).

Despite the lack of enthusiasm by potential backers it’s full steam ahead on pre-production.  The Indiegogo page claims “We are currently in talks with an array of exciting, A-list talent to bring this story to life.”  So far the page lists Smith as writer/producer/director (the film’s Facebook page currently shows Anthony Hickox as director, but then it has a release date of 2016, so presumably is out of date); Jon-Paul Gates as actor/producer; Elizabeth Saint (in real life a paranormal investigator among other things) as actor; and Hans Hernke as actor/executive producer.  The film’s IMDB page has a busy Mark Behar as co-writer/contributing producer/actor/production manager/second unit director (they have a second unit?) and ‘deadly weapons props handler’; Smith himself as actor, and Matthew Fitzthomas Rogers as Lionel Foyster (looking at his photo it is hard to tell them apart). The IMDB page has a different poster: a bloody hand sticking out of the ground in front of a burning Borley Rectory, and a note that filming begins in September, presumably 2017 as the page was last updated in May this year.

I can’t see any exciting A-list talent among that lot but I expect those so far involved will be supplemented by the A-listers when they have been signed up.  Intriguingly, a brochure published for the 2014 Cannes film festival by UK Film lists Smith’s Borley project with Julian Sands and Dan McSherry in the cast.  Presumably Sands, who if not an A-lister is at least someone you’ve heard of, jumped ship when Thorpe’s Borley film came along as he is not now associated with Smith’s version, having acted in Thorpe’s.  McSherry (a University of Cambridge graduate I see) seems to have left as well, and the film is not listed in his IMDB filmography, though he is credited as associate producer on Smith’s Haunted 2: Apparitions, scheduled for release next year.

As far as The Haunting of Borley Rectory is concerned, according to the Indiegogo page there will be filming next year, with a release date of November 2018.  I’ll be keeping an eye on developments, and hoping it is better than it sounds.  I’ll certainly be giving the opportunity to invest a miss.  The reference to the Warrens does not bode well, but they may disappear from the film, partly because Smith might otherwise find himself involved in litigation with Lorraine, and partly because it would be hard to place them at the rectory when they visited Borley decades after its destruction, crossed timelines notwithstanding.  Whatever form it takes, it is doubtful Ashley Thorpe will be losing sleep over the competition, and to be fair I suspect Smith couldn’t care less.

Monday, 20 November 2017

The Tenth Annual Cambridge Festival of Ukrainian Film, November 2017

Dr Rory Finin, director of Cambridge Ukrainian Studies, a centre in the Department of Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge, organised an interestingly diverse programme for the tenth Cambridge Festival of Ukrainian Film on 17-18 November.  The venue was once again the Winstanley lecture theatre at Trinity College where the audience was treated to films old and new.

As Dr Finin said, Friday’s two films were intended, in their different ways, to reflect on the hundredth anniversary of the ‘Russian Revolution’, which he pointed out was not solely Russian nor a single event.  The upheaval in Ukraine added a desire for independence to a mix containing a range of views across the spectrum about what type of political form should emerge from the chaos, creating a complex, shifting situation.

The evening kicked off with the first of two films in the festival directed by Svitlana Shymko:  The Fall of Lenin (2017), a short film dealing with the destruction of Lenin monuments across most of Ukraine – the occupied territories being of course a notable exception.   Shymko made The Medic Leaves Last (2014), shown in the festival two years ago.  The Fall of Lenin was made with financial support from Docudays UA, a distributor specialising in Ukrainian documentaries, the Guardian newspaper and the British Council.

Surprisingly, it opens with a group of serious-looking middle-aged individuals in a library with pictures of Lenin and Marx behind them holding a séance to contact the spirit of Lenin.  They actually do allegedly get through to Vladimir Ilyich (the spectre of communism?), who must have been surprised to find that there is an afterlife, something a reading of Engels’ ‘Natural Science and the Spirit World’ would have suggested to him was most unlikely.  Possessing more of a sense of humour than one suspects he displayed when alive, he claims to have been an angel in life, though not a good one.  When asked, his prognosis for the future of Ukraine is not positive.  The Ouija session gives way to documentary footage of the erection of various Lenin statues in front of restrained crowds, and a montage of destruction of such statues, of varying degrees of aesthetic merit and often already badly defaced, in front of, and sometimes by, jubilant ones.

Particularly striking is a deposed Lenin hanging humiliatingly upside down, perhaps evoking in some thoughts of Mussolini and Clara Petacci hanging from a girder in Milan.  Another with ropes around its neck invites comparisons with Lenin’s comment about Arthur Henderson in Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder.  There is also footage of the destruction of religious symbols by the Bolsheviks, making a link between their iconoclasm and the Ukrainians ridding their country in turn of ‘religious’ symbols in the form of the statues.  Scenes in a foundry show bronze being melted down, a shot lingering on Lenin’s face slowly dissolving.  The result is a bell, and when it is tested it rings beautifully.  The message could not be clearer.

In the final section a hand holds up old postcards of the monuments over the locations, and then takes away the cards to show what replaced them.  The variety of statuary, focusing on Ukrainian history or substituting a fountain, is a contrast to the Lenin monoculture of Soviet times.  What is missing from the film though is a sense of the range of opinions the mass removals must have generated: euphoria certainly for many, but surely regret for others.  The enthusiastic crowd is not representative of the people.  Is there now perhaps an element of ‘buyer’s remorse’ for some who feel the destruction was carried out too quickly, and an important aspect of the country's cultural heritage (not to mention its secular values) lost?  It’s a subject with profound implications for national identity, one that cannot be done justice to in 11 minutes – but then in its way, despite its brevity The Fall of Lenin’s richness does generate much to think about.

Arsenal (1929), directed by Alexander Dovzhenko is a different, sprawling, beast entirely, and Rory spent much of his introduction, as well as most of the festival programme, providing the background to this remarkable film.  I had last seen it at the 2003 Cambridge Film Festival, at the Arts Picturehouse, where there had been a Dovzhenko strand, and my verdict then had been that ‘Arsenal is the product of a filmmaker not in charge of his material’.  I had in mind the difficulty in discerning the narrative and with a visual style that was ‘bolted on, influenced by Eisenstein and Vertov [Arsenal was released the same year as Man with a Movie Camera], rather than an organic expression of the story’, and considered it was ‘trying to cram in too much’.

It was a naive view for which I apologise belatedly to Dovzhenko.  A second viewing shows he was fully in charge of his material.  The film is a suitably monumental treatment of a vast subject, and the programme correctly recommends treating it as a poem in three parts: elegy, ode and epic, noting in support of this approach that Dovzhenko was the ‘progenitor’ of Ukrainian poetic cinema.  At this remove, temporal and geographic, the episodic structure is hard to read for those more used to flowing narrative continuity, hence the need now for signposts, but the artistry is assured.

That is not to say Arsenal is sui generis.  There is a use of types, characters who represent social groupings, which we are familiar with from Eisenstein.  They often verge on, or crash into, caricature, for example the fat gap-toothed German soldier laughing hysterically under the influence of gas.  The only individual with a rounded character, and who stands in for Dovzhenko himself, is battered Tymish, late of the imperial Russian army, who is trying to make sense of the currents sweeping across his native Ukraine.  The crash of the train on which he is travelling – the engineer left behind and the passengers clueless how to operate it – symbolises the state.  Climbing from the wreckage, back in Kiev Tymish has to navigate the tensions between Bolshevism and Ukrainian nationalism.  The ambiguities in the film echo Dovzhenko’s own as a nationalist whose country is as much dominated by Russia as it was in Tsarist times.

How to break the tension between nationalism and socialism firmly controlled from Moscow?  This is where I think I had my biggest problem when I first saw the film.  At the end, Tymish, who has identified with the Bolsheviks, is confronted by nationalist soldiers.  Proclaiming himself a Ukrainian worker, thereby eliding the gap between the two identities, he urges his attackers to shoot, and tears open his shirt in an act of defiant martyrdom.  They fire, but he is impervious to bullets.  The 2017 programme argues of this scene: ‘By the end of Arsenal, Tymish rejects the zero-sum game placing his national identity and social/class identity at odds with one another’, which is spot on: in a sense, by his heroic act Tymish has transcended the difference and can hold both identities simultaneously.  That struck me as a cop-out when I first saw the film: to the Bolsheviks here is a comrade who cannot be killed by nationalists, but represents the inevitability of the revolution; to the nationalists he is a Ukrainian, who will prevail whatever may transpire.

In retrospect it feels like having your cake and eating it, but perhaps a position one could be more confident of in 1929 than in the following decade as the Stalinist grip tightened; even so, it feels as if Dovzhenko is sailing close to the wind.  After the screening I asked Rory about its reception in Moscow, thinking about the political situation and possible disfavour towards showing an alternative view of the standard narrative of the Revolution, as indicated in Eisenstein’s October a year earlier, and highlighting the failure of the Bolshevik Arsenal uprising.  However, Rory pointed out that, despite the failure of the Bolsheviks in overthrowing the nationalist Rada, Arsenal ultimately indicates the failure of Ukrainian nationalism (and the film’s reception in Ukraine itself was generally critical).  One wonders what Dovzhenko would have made of the politics of Euromaidan in his artistic practice.

Saurday’s films dealt with more contemporary, and more intimate, themes.  After another welcome viewing of The Fall of Lenin, we saw an earlier short by Svitlana Shymko, Here Together (2013).  This looks at a mother and daughter living in Portugal, where apparently there are a significant number of Ukrainians.  The mother works as a domestic, but she conducts a rather good church choir.  Her initial idea was to work in Portugal for a year, sending money home, before returning to Ukraine, but she missed her daughter Olesya, who only visited for holidays, and when Olesya decided to study in Portugal, she made the decision to settle there despite feeling the pull of home.  Her daughter is also talented musically, playing the piano to concert standard.  The pair highlight the pros and cons of living abroad: it can bring opportunities not available, or at least harder to find, in one’s home country, but it can also mean only finding work below the level of one’s qualifications and abilities.  The mass migration of workers entails loss of potential, both for the individuals and at a national level in the home country.

The final film of the festival was Dixieland (2015), directed by Roman Bondarchuk, and it was an absolute delight.  It focuses on a children’s jazz band in Kherson, about 280 miles south of Kiev.  The children begin playing at an early age and are very accomplished.  The film follows them as they practice, in a very dilapidated building, and perform in public.  These are children with talent and ambition, led by their mentor, Semen Nikolayevich Ryvkin, a gruff elderly man who is devoted to the project and his charges, and who in turn is clearly adored by them.  You sense that for some, music is a way out of a restricted life with limited prospects, and one lad goes off to boarding school where he can study music.   Even for those less fortunate, playing as a group builds confidence, and the children are shown to be outgoing and well adjusted.  Shots of kites in the sky at the beach symbolise their aspirations.  Young Polina is the star of the show, playing sax and trombone, not afraid to busk on tour and doing very well at it.

The result could have been saccharine, but it is not all about the music, and there is sadness along with the joy.  The children grow, they lose their director.  They play for him outside his hospital room and he waves down to them.  Polina visits him in his room, and it is shocking to see how thin he has become.  After Ryvkin’s death a young man steps in to carry on the work, and practice continues.  When he talks about studying in Kiev the young girls are clearly upset at the prospect of losing him.  He points out that everything changes, and this applies not least to the children themselves, who must inevitably leave the group and forge their own direction.  In Dixieland Bondarchuk has created a subtle film of great poignancy and humanity.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Arthur Brown and Jesus at the Chalk Farm Roundhouse

Thinking recently about my most influential teacher reminded me of the best music act I ever saw, which was while I was at the same school.  This was Arthur Brown’s Kingdom Come (strictly speaking ‘Kingdom Come with Arthur Brown’) at the Chalk Farm Roundhouse, which thanks to a partial listing of Arthur Brown’s gigs I find happened on 11 February 1973.  The concert was a benefit for Nicaragua, though whether this was to provide relief for the devastation caused by the December 1972 earthquake, or to assist the Sandinistas’ fight against the Somoza dictatorship, I don’t know – probably the former, but possibly the latter, as there was a strong movement in this country at the time protesting against the reactionary government in Nicaragua.

It was one of a number of gigs I attended at the Roundhouse during the early- and mid-1970s.  These were on Sundays, from 2-10 pm, and each featured a number of acts.  So what made Arthur Brown’s set so memorable?  It was thanks to someone who was generally referred to as Jesus.  He attended all these events and wandered round in the intervals wearing a Kaftan and weirdly with what was essentially a mullet, handing out nuts to the audience.  He looked vaguely biblical, and was clearly a good egg, hence the nickname.  It was also amusing to say ‘thank you Jesus’ when he handed you a snack.  During performances he would often jump up on stage to dance, and as it was Jesus, and everybody knew who he was, this was tolerated and bands took little notice.  The general atmosphere at the Roundhouse was very laid back.

On this occasion Brown was giving a sterling performance when Jesus climbed up in his kaftan and began dancing at the edge of the stage.  Instead of ignoring him though, Brown began dancing with him.  They were very close together, then Brown pulled Jesus’s kaftan off him.  That could have been awkward, but mercifully Jesus was wearing underpants.  Brown got him down, face up, and was lying on top.  Then Brown shouted (and this is what made the day so memorable) ‘I’m going to fuck you, Jesus’, whereupon he simulated having sex.  This went on for probably only a few seconds though it seems longer in memory because I was gobsmacked, then Jesus got up, put his robe back on and the set continued.  I’m sure this was not pre-planned, but Jesus was relaxed about the whole thing.

Brown was on a roll because he refused to finish and the band just kept playing.  It is possible artificial stimulants were involved.  After a massive overrun the management turned the electricity off, whereupon Brown stood there defiantly shouting ‘give me power’, echoed by an enthusiastic audience oblivious to the impact Brown was having on the day’s schedule.  Eventually he gave up and the band exited the stage, leaving my sensitive teenage soul scarred by the sight of a man pretending to rut another, underpant-clad, man.  Astonishingly Arthur Brown, in his mid-70s, is still performing; one of rock’s great survivors.  Jesus’s fate is unknown.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Alec Richardson (1941-2003)

Recently I received an alert from the Red Mole website (subtitled ‘A modest contribution to the history of the Fourth International in Britain’, which frankly is far too modest) headed ‘Fancy a pint, comrade?  The post reproduces a crudely-printed ticket made for what it calls a ‘Karl Marx Booze Up’.  It continues: ‘October 1968 – A competitive pubcrawl to celebrate Karl’s 150th birthday – organised by South West London Vietnam Ad-Hoc Committee and believed to be the brain-child of one Al Richardson.’  The epic pub crawl began at Centre Point and took in a couple of dozen pubs before finishing in Hampstead.  The purpose was two-fold: to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Marx’s birth, and to raise funds for the South West London Vietnam Committee.

The idea, according to the ticket (no. 82), was to sink an alcoholic drink in every pub on the route, all of which existed in Marx’s time and were on the route Marx and his German émigré friends took on their own pub crawls.  The person to complete the course and finish a pint the fastest in the final pub would receive a ‘unique prize’.  The ticket proclaims: ‘Victory to the N.L.F.’, i.e. the National Liberation Front, or Vietcong.  To enter cost ‘half a dollar( 2/6)’;  five bob was often referred to as a dollar, reflecting times with a more favourable exchange rate.

An update to the post says the mystery prize was the brass door knocker from the house Lenin lived in in 1905, which Richardson rescued from a skip while the house was being demolished.  The winner was Peter O’Toole of the Irish Workers’ Group (so presumably not the Peter O’Toole).  I wonder where the door knocker is now.  Sadly I would have been too young to join them, but it must have been quite a sight.  I suspect there was a lot of singing as they made their increasingly wobbly way northwards.

Many people talk about that teacher who had a profound effect on their education going beyond school and helping to shape their lives.  I think I can identify two:  Someone called Ron Barrett, who taught me English at Battersea Grammar School, and the ‘one Al Richardson’, instigator of that long-ago excuse to get pissed, who was my history teacher at Forest Hill School, where he was known as Alec rather than Al.  His Wikipedia page describes him as a ‘British Trotskyist historian and activist’, which he was, but he was as well a professional Yorkshireman with an often blunt manner and an infectious enthusiasm.  He could also be very funny.

I had left Battersea Grammar (actually in Streatham) at 15, tried something that didn’t work out, lost a term’s schooling, and started at Forest Hill in January 1973 with two terms of the fifth form left.  I had been down to do a history O level at my previous school but the syllabus was different and I wasn’t able to carry on with the course.  So for two terms I sat in class with Alec’s prescribed reading, a straight diet of Isaac Deutscher.

Clearly Deutscher had a huge significance for Alec as it was reading the monumental three-volume biography of Trotsky – indeed a magnificent achievement – which caused Alec to leave the CPGB and join the Trotskyist Socialist Labour League, resign his lectureship at the University of Exeter and become a teacher at Forest Hill.  There he left the SLL and joined the International Marxist Group, but by the time I knew him he had resigned (not been expelled, as some reports have it) from the IMG because he objected to its increasing post-1968 obsession with student activism.  Ironically in the early 1980s it turned to Labour Party entryism, and Alec had always argued that the Labour Party was the key expression of working class politics and should be the focus of revolutionary activity.  He later joined and left the Revolutionary Communist League, then concentrated on research and writing.

He did not strike me as much of a party man, which may go some way to explaining why, doctrinal issues apart, he never stuck with any of the groups he joined.  There is though no doubting his commitment; in May 1968 he hitch-hiked to Paris to participate in the student protests, where he must have cut a distinctive figure.  He became a historian of the movement, interviewing Trotskyist veterans, and a prolific author and polemicist.  His major achievement was the three books he produced with Sam Bornstein: Two Steps Back: Communists and the Wider Labour Movement, 1939-1945 (1982), Against the Stream: A History of the Trotskyist Movement in Britain 1924-1938 (1986) and The War and the International: A History of the British Trotskyist Movement 1937-1949 (1986).  In 1988 he founded the magazine Revolutionary History.

I have very fond memories of him, such as joking in class that it was appropriate for A J P Taylor’s Origins of the Second World War, published by Penguin, to have an orange spine as it was essentially a work of fiction.  He had studied ancient Greek and told the story of visiting Greece and using it, to the bemusement of the locals.  He stressed the modern Greeks were nothing like the ancient ones, so I don’t think he was too impressed by those he came across.  He had had a first in theology from Hull, but kept that quiet, and was of course sniffy about religion; I first heard the phrase ‘four-wheeled Christians’ from him.  He loved ancient Egypt, and told us it was his favourite period in history.  He was a tad sexist, and did not seem impressed by women, I suspect because he considered them lacking in sufficient class consciousness.  Appreciations of him after his death drew attention to his objection to sectional interests on the left, including feminism, anything he thought would dilute the workers’ struggle.

Sixth formers taking history would be invited round to the house where he rented a room from another teacher, and while we were supposed to be preparing for A levels he would hold forth on a wide range of subjects.  He gave the impression that teaching was a stop gap before he turned his attention to something more interesting, even though he did it for decades.  He was in fact a dedicated and inspirational teacher.  His Guardian obituary refers to him ‘earning the respect of colleagues and the devotion of pupils’, which is spot on as far as the latter were concerned.

He died in his sleep at the tragically young age of 61, but he was overweight when I knew him and never looked as if he took care of himself.  The coffin was draped in the flag of the 4th International, and his memorial meeting as reported in the Weekly Worker appropriately concluded with the singing of the Internationale.  The last time I saw Alec was in 1976 or early 1977, at a political meeting in London, where I was with people from the University of Kent.  We bumped into each other in the foyer and exchanged a few remarks, then I left to join my friends.  I’m sure many others will have warm memories of him as teacher, historian and political activist.  His influence on me was profound, and I celebrate his memory as he celebrated the memory of Karl Marx that day in October 1968, though in my case not by drinking in two dozen pubs!

Next year marks the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth, and the 50th anniversary of the famous pub crawl.  It would be nice if someone were to recreate the outing to commemorate both, but particularly Alec’s significant contributions to the cause he served in his own idiosyncratic way.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Harry Lockhart the phrenologist

Last week I had the huge privilege of meeting various Pinder/Sanger relatives on a pilgrimage to see family graves at West Norwood and Brockley cemeteries in south London, including that of my great-great-grandparents, Samuel Lockhart (1825-1894) and Hannah Lockhart, née Pinder (1826-1910).  As a result of the meeting I became aware of the book A Ticket to the Circus: A Pictorial History of the Incredible Ringlings, by Charles Philip Fox, published by Branhall House, New York, in 1959.  As the subtitle suggests, this is a history of the Ringling Brothers’ Circus.  It contains a couple of references to Sam and Hannah’s son, and my great-grandfather, Henry James Lockhart, generally known as Harry, who had worked for the Ringlings.  On p. 145 we learn that Harry was a believer in phrenologising elephants:

‘Professor Lockhart, an Englishman who had a trained elephant act on the show in the 1890's wrote:- “Elephants are selected for training when young.  The bumps on their heads are taken into consideration, for the phrenology of the elephant head is a sure index to character. A flat, low narrow head belongs to a vicious low-bred dangerous elephant. On the other hand, well rounded bumps over the eyes, a high forehead, and straight well-set eyes indicate intelligence and docility. Educating an elephant is like educating a child. You must begin training in childhood if you want them to be perfect at maturity. Patience, perseverance, and pluck are needed to train elephants.”’

Harry had been characterised as a great joker by a journalist on the El Paso Herald, so the suspicion naturally arises that he was having a bit of fun by espousing the application of phrenology to elephants, though they certainly have enough bumps to read.  Unfortunately no source for the quotation is given, so we don’t know where or when he wrote it.  The reference to patience, perseverance and pluck though was probably said in all sincerity because Harry would have been conscious of the risks involved in training elephants; his brother George was killed in January 1904, crushed by an elephant at Walthamstow, a year before Harry’s own death.

The book also contains a rather wonderful photograph of Harry dwarfed by five elephants standing on barrels, captioned ‘Prof. Lockhart, an Englishman, had a great elephant act on the show in 1897.’  It’s not to everyone’s taste these days but it must have been a remarkable spectacle.

Monday, 24 July 2017

A visit to the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum

Returning from a trip to Devon recently we stopped off at the University of Exeter to visit the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum (part of the Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture, as a sign inside pronounced).  Despite it being a Saturday in the holiday we were amazed that we were the only visitors during the entire two hours we spent there.  The research centre was shut on a weekend, so no curators were around, but the museum itself is open seven days a week, other than bank holidays and between Christmas and New Year.  Admission is free.  As it was a vacation weekend we were able to park near the front door of the building in which the centre is situated, but I got the impression parking can be a problem during term-time.

Based on the collection put together by filmmaker Bill Douglas and his friend Peter Jewell over a thirty-year period, the museum has on show a small selection, about 1,000, of the 75,000 objects held by the university devoted to the moving image.  They include equipment, posters, photographs, books, magazines, toys, publicity ephemera – in fact anything connected with going to the pictures.  As well as covering the history of cinema, there is a great deal on pre-cinema, including optical toys, shadow puppets and magic lanterns.  It’s not all British and American; there is an international, or at least European, element.

Split into two main galleries, with extra cases before you go in for temporary exhibitions, the smaller ground floor room one enters first is devoted to cinema post-1910, and the much larger downstairs room to pre- and early cinema.  Thus visitors will tend to look at the more modern material before the older, rather than follow it in chronological order.  That on pre- and early cinema is grouped into peep shows, optical illusions, the magic lantern, panoramas, ‘the beginnings of film’, and so on.  Eadweard Muybridge has a case to himself.  Post-1910 cases cover filmmakers, British cinema, cinemagoing, animation, Charlie Chaplin, stars, Hollywood and blockbusters.  One would not expect much in the way of television, but the temporary exhibition, ‘Space, Astronomy and the Moving Image’, included Dr Who and the Star Trek series.

In addition to the cases there were objects on tables for visitors to try, such as replica praxinoscopes, zoetropes, stereoscopes and cards, and flick books.  Artefacts were well presented, within the constraints imposed by limited space and the necessity for low lighting, though often descriptions, particularly dates, were scanty.  However, it was possible to borrow a copy of the Bill Douglas Centre Museum Guide (2010) from reception to learn more about the collection.

The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum opened in 1997 with the Douglas/Jewell donation, but there have been additions by others since (including Derek Jarman’s producer James Mackay, whom I have had the pleasure of interviewing), and we noticed something from the British Film Institute’s old Museum of the Moving Image collection.  It is a shame the BFI has dispersed objects from MOMI, which closed in 1999, but this is a good place for them to reside, though Exeter’s restricted space means they can only display a fraction of what could be seen at the BFI.  I visited MOMI several times and, while I loved it, I was always frustrated that the curators failed to rotate exhibits.  I wonder if the same might be true of the Bill Douglas Museum.  If so, as it is much smaller, it will repay repeated visits less.  Of course, all the items listed on the museum’s website can be examined in the centre’s reading room.

While researchers will see the museum as an adjunct to the research centre, it is a valuable destination for the general public interested in this important part of our cultural heritage.  Those concerned primarily with the cinema in the south-west will find that the region is not prioritised (the South West Film & Television Archive is based in Plymouth), rather it celebrates cinema, its precursors and its culture, in the round.  Thanks to Douglas, Jewell and the other donors, and not least to the University of Exeter, it is a tremendously enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Spirit photographs under the hammer

If anyone harboured a doubt that original spirit photographs are valuable objects, it would have been dispelled by the sale on 11 July of an album of prints at Sotheby’s.  The estimate was £2-3,000, and they went for £10,000, plus buyer’s premium of 25%, making a grand total of £12,500.  The lot was described as ‘Spirit Photographs--Hudson, Frederick (and others) ALBUM OF 29 PHOTOGRAPHS. [C.1872]’. 

Contained in a scrapbook, of the same vintage, were 29 albumen prints, 24 mounted on card, 2 unmounted and 3 cartes-de-visite, including one by Frederick Hudson, captioned and signed by Georgiana Houghton on the reverse:  "...I was seated in the place where the figure appears, but my face was in the opposite direction - I am invisible and the spirit is apparent...", with a date of 4 April 1872.  In addition there were three press cuttings.  The album was described as having ‘green roan-backed cloth boards, upper cover stamped in gilt 'Scrap Book', spine worn with loss, covers bowed, some wear.’

A note in the catalogue stated that ‘The majority of the photographs are evidently the work of a single photographer and are highly reminiscent of known photographs by F.M. Parkes.’  Parkes was working at the same time as Hudson but is far less well known today.  Georgiana Houghton was a spirit medium, artist and writer, and associate of Hudson’s.

A figure well over the estimate for spirit photographs is by no means unprecedented.  In 2013 an album of 27 photographs taken during Thomas Glendenning Hamilton’s séances at his home in Winnipeg in the 1920s, and copiously annotated, sold, with buyer’s premium, for the enormous sum of US$93,750 (estimate $4-6,000) – the kind of number that makes museum curators swallow nervously as they reassess the security of their collections.

Admittedly that was an unusually large amount.  The following year a series of lots comprising photographs by Richard Boursnell and J. Evans Sterling, and Craig and George Falconer, went for more realistic prices: $3,000 with premium (estimate $2,500-$3,500) for five Boursnell and Sterling images, and the same for eight Falconer brothers photographs (estimate $1,000-$1,500).  Surprisingly ten cartes-de-visite taken by Hudson and annotated by Houghton remained unsold (estimate $4-6,000).

The market for spirit photography is in good health, and as the Hamilton sale indicates, post-Victorian images can achieve high prices.  Such sales are not confined to high-end auctioneers like Sotheby’s either – single original images occasionally appear on eBay among the junk, though they often struggle to sell at the prices asked, perhaps because their authenticity (referring to the artefact rather than the content) is less certain than it would be if sold through a reputable auction house, with its access to experts.

One unfortunate by-product of these prices, however, is that it is likely, when good quality material turns up, it will go back to private collectors with deep pockets and not be available to researchers.  Such collections as those of the Society for Psychical Research and (especially) the College of Psychic Studies are rich sources for the serious study of spirit photography but these institutions do not have the funds to compete for fresh acquisitions.  Instead they rely on donations, and for the owner who can realise a significant sum by selling, the chances are that the auction house will be the preferred destination.

Monday, 3 July 2017

I love that dirty water

The theme of this week’s Cerys Matthews show (2 July) on BBC Radio 6 Music was rivers, to celebrate London Rivers Week.  In the words of London Rivers Week’s website it:

‘aims to inspire people like you to take pride in our waterways, understand the challenges they face and come together to create a healthy future for our rivers.’

I’m not sure about that ‘like you’, which sounds a tad patronising, but the sentiments are sound.  Naturally Cerys played an enjoyable selection of tracks, but one I was expecting which didn’t appear was Dirty Water.  Written by Ed Cobb and originally performed by the Standells in 1965, they sang about Boston, Mass., USA, referring to the ‘banks of the River Charles’ and including the line ‘Aw, Boston, you’re my home’.

That wasn’t though the version I thought I might hear.  A pub rock band I used to see regularly in the late 1970s/early 80s in London was the Inmates.  A vague link was a school friend, Jeff Mead, who organised these outings. He was friends with somebody called Mike Spenser (whose sister Maxine by coincidence I worked with for a while).  Spenser had had formed the Flying Tigers but they had broken up, producing two bands – Spenser’s the Cannibals, with whom Jeff played for a while on bass, and the Inmates.

The Inmates covered Dirty Water and did very well with it, substituting the banks of the River Thames for the Charles, and London for Boston.  A generally punchier version than the Standells’, with singer Bill Hurley channelling Mick Jagger, it was a huge crowd-pleaser guaranteed to get everybody dancing.  The song was included on the LP First Offence and issued as a single.

Surprisingly, it was the Standells’ Dirty Water which was used on the soundtrack to the film Fever Pitch (2005), a missed trick.  The Inmates’ though appeared in the 1999 film EDtv.

One unfortunate line which may account for its failure to appear on Cerys’s show is ‘Those frustrated women have to be in by 12 o’clock’.  This was apparently a reference to the curfew imposed on female students in 1960s Boston but frankly didn’t make much sense in late 1970s London, and sounds sexist now.

Yet overall there is a difference in tone between the Standells’ and the Inmates’ approaches.  Where the former feels sneering and ironic (they didn’t even live in Boston), the latter has always struck me as sincere; a love letter to a London that, despite undoubtedly grotty aspects, still evident beneath its creeping homogenisation, is a city worth celebrating and worthy to be called home.

Thankfully the Thames is a lot cleaner than it used to be, but the Inmates’ Dirty Water feels relevant all the same.  I’ve not lived in the city for a quarter of a century, but the river is in the DNA of all Londoners, wherever they find themselves, and Dirty Water is its appropriately grungy anthem.  It would have been wonderful if Cerys had found time to play it in celebration of London Rivers Week.  Perhaps she will next year.


My friend Dr Christopher Laursen at one time had a blog, Sound Addictions, on which he asked people to nominate a favourite track and briefly say something about why it was important to them.  My choice was Patti Smith’s version of ‘Gloria’, and the following appeared on his blog on 27 January 2013, linked to a video of Smith performing the song live.


Amazingly, 2013 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Van Morrison’s composition of ‘Gloria’.  It has happy associations for me: I used to have a school friend who played in a band called the Cannibals, and saw them many times in pubs around London.  They always finished their set with ‘Gloria’.

However, my favourite version has to be Patti Smith’s.  I bought Horses, which kicks off with her idiosyncratic ‘Gloria’, not long after its release in 1975, and it never fails to lift my spirits.

Updated 5 February 2018

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Photography exhibitions by Jan Kempenaers and Christopher Nunn

© Jan Kempenaers 

Belgian photographer Jan Kempenaers has a new exhibition at the Breese Little Gallery in London which shows the results of his forays across Europe to record a number of large structures, many of them in a state of decay.  My eye was particularly caught by his photograph of the enormous arch at Brest in Belarus (certainly not decaying) as I have walked through it myself.  The offset star-shaped entrance to the Brest fortress displays an aesthetic playfulness often missing in Soviet architecture.

Playfulness, however, is not Kempenaers’ concern: he presents these monolithic structures in black and white, emphasising their hardness and dominance, but also their drabness, ossified and out of time.  The results commemorate his subjects’ power and overwhelming presence in the landscape, with an emphasis on their’ graphic qualities. 

He had previously compiled a series in colour, Spomenik – also shown at the Breese Little Gallery – which focused on Tito-era Second World War memorials across the former Yugoslav territories, and the colour gives them a softness his latest project lacks.  As in his earlier project he has photographed the structures without people, emphasising their sense of permanence by excluding specifics that would date them, and foregrounding their sculptural qualities.

Information on the subjects is deliberately kept to a minimum as well, ripping them from their context.  For fans of surviving traces of (mostly) vanished regimes – Belarusian president  Alexander Lukashenko doesn’t appear to be in a hurry to leave office – the exhibition is well worth a visit, but this is by no means a documentary approach and some viewers may find it frustrating not to have captions to support the images.

Down the road at the Calvert 22 Foundation, British photographer Christopher Nunn’s Holy Water work-in-progress consists of recent photographs taken in eastern Ukraine, showing as part of the Independent Photography Festival.  He has captured people being themselves in what must be difficult circumstances; just how difficult can be judged by Nunn himself, who earlier this year ended up in hospital with eye damage when he was caught in shelling by separatists.

In a world dealing with so many problems it is easy to forget the Russian efforts to destabilise Ukraine, but Nunn show the determination of the residents near the front line to carry on as best they can.  Looking at the photographs, one wouldn’t know that there was a conflict raging that has now claimed tens of thousands of lives.  Eschewing the fighting itself, he captures people relaxing, drinking, being affectionate.  Pet dogs feature prominently.  As a counterbalance to the people there are shots of domestic interiors.  The emphasis across the exhibition is on the everyday.

The war is not totally absent, as indicated by a photograph of a field with fragile wooden crosses marking graves, but the focus is firmly on ordinary activities.  Religious iconography is prominent: a golden statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary; an elaborate tattoo on a man’s back of the Holy Family, and youths stripped to the waist by a lake sporting Orthodox crosses; but at present its residents must surely feel this is a land that God has forsaken.

While the conflict lasts, life will become ever harder and more dangerous for the local population, and Nunn’s photographs reinforce the message that the world cannot look away from what is happening.  He has put his own life on the line to document this troubled region, and he deserves our utmost respect and attention.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Changes to the SPR logo

The new SPR logo

Eagle-eyed followers of the Society for Psychical Research’s Facebook page and Twitter feed will have spotted that the logo adorning the top of each has changed, though not by much.  The previously shaded psi symbol is now entirely black and sporting a broader foot, the typeface used for the name is slightly thinner and upper case, and the ‘SPR’ abbreviation at the bottom of the ring has been replaced by Est. 1882, an improvement as the initials are redundant and the date reinforces the longevity of the Society.  These are fairly cosmetic changes, but it was decided the logo needed to be refreshed as the old version was looking dated.  The replacement will be rolled out on the website and print publications in due course.

The old one had been in use since 1990, when I co-designed it with Bernard Carr.  The then SPR Publicity Committee, which Bernard chaired, held a competition among the membership to choose a logo.  This was announced in the SPR Newsletter, No. 30, July 1989, p. 20.*  The judging process was protracted, and the winner was not announced until the October 1990 issue, No. 35, p. 29.  Bernard introduced the design by saying the Committee had received nearly 40 entries (some half-a-dozen of which must have been mine) and that ten had been selected as a shortlist for a Council decision.  One of these was my double ring with lettering, to which Bernard had added the psi symbol.

Once a single design had been selected, on which there was ‘surprising agreement’ as Bernard put it, a number of variants were drawn up, with the chosen version looking similar but not identical to the one that has been in use for many years – the original had sans serif lettering of slightly different dimensions, and the shading was not quite the same.  Bernard continued by saying, somewhat disparagingly, ‘It is obviously very traditional – and not as modern or as imaginative as some of the other suggestions – but its conservatism is perhaps a fair reflection of the nature of the society and it does at least convey the essential message!’

The old SPR logo

He concluded: ‘The closest approximation to the final logo was suggested by Tom Ruffles.  Rather embarrassingly, he is also on the Publicity Committee, which adjudicated the competition.  We therefore decided to award the prize (a book token) to Maurice Grosse, who besides making several suggestions of his own, also helped by drawing up proper versions of the short-listed entries.’

On the whole the logo has served the Society well as part of its image, and it seems popular; so much that the Dutch SPR use it on their Twitter feed as well.  Whether the new version will generate the same degree of affection, or adoption by other organisations, remains to be seen.  The new psi symbol could be considered as rather heavy, even stodgy, whereas the old ‘3D’ one had a lightness chiming with the image of psychical research, but shading does seem dated and the new version will soon become familiar.  For all its ‘conservatism’ I’m pleased that what is essentially the same logo has been in use for over a quarter of a century, with a few more years in front of it, which in this fast-moving image-conscious world is no mean feat.

*The old Newsletter, which preceded first The Psi Researcher and then the Paranormal Review, ran from February 1981 to January 1991, edited for nearly all that period by Dr Susan Blackmore.  For some reason while the later two publications are in the Lexscien online library of SPR publications, the SPR Newsletter isn’t.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

George Harry Ruffels – 11 April 1917

April 1917 was a busy month in the prosecution of the First World War, with the Battles of Arras and Vimy Ridge in full swing, the declaration of war by the United States on Germany on the 6th, not to mention the death of writer Edward Thomas on the 9th.  Not as significant as the military and diplomatic endeavours, but of huge significance personally, 11 April 2017 marks the centenary of the death of my paternal grandfather, George Harry Ruffels (sic).  My father was not quite four months old, and he became an orphan when his mother Lucy died in the influenza pandemic towards the end of 1918, leaving him to be brought up by relatives.

George was born at Palgrave, a village close to Diss just inside the Suffolk border; that much is certain.  When he was born is less clear.  I have not been able to find a firm date of birth for him and there is a possibility the birth was not registered.  His parents’ census returns indicate he was born in 1867, or possibly the previous year, but he may have been born in about November 1865 according to information he supplied to the army.  He was baptised on 21 April 1867, but it could have taken place well after he was born, and his parents may have made an effort to obfuscate his true age in census records in order to conceal his illegitimacy – Thomas Ruffels and Elizabeth Firman married only in the first quarter of 1867.

In the 1871 Census the family is listed as living at Holly Cottage, Palgrave, though by the 1881 one they had moved to 40, St Andrews Street, Bury St Edmunds, and George’s occupation is given as errand boy.  His father’s census returns for 1871 and 1881 states George’s age as 4 and 14 respectively, and in the 1911 Census George gives his age as 44, putting his year of birth as 1866 or ‘67.

In 1881 or 1882 he enlisted for 12 years’ service in the First Battalion, The Suffolk Regiment.  During 1888-90 he was a private serving in India, according to the Campaign Medal and Award Rolls.  By 1893 he was back in England because on 12 August of that year he married Lucy Ann Gibson and was living at The Camp, Colchester.  According to the marriage certificate his occupation was lance corporal (bandsman), Suffolk Regiment.  He gave his age as 26, which again chimes with an 1867 date, while Lucy’s was 19.

At some point they moved to Liverpool, though why is unclear.  There is a Findmypast record of soldiers who died in the Great War which says of him that he was ‘Formerly 2/613, King's Liverpool Regt.’, so he may have transferred regiments prior to discharge; I have not seen any primary documentation for this.  He left the army sometime in late 1893 or 1894, after he had completed his 12 years, and became a goods porter on the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway, living in Toxteth Park.  This doesn’t seem to have worked out because by 1899 he was working as a dock labourer.

His movements and changes of occupation can be tracked by examining the birth certificates of his and Lucy’s children.  The couple had 12 over a 21-year period, only 3 of whom made it to adulthood, while the rest had mostly appallingly short lives, as can be gauged by this table.  Their early deaths cast a grim light on condition in working class households of the period:

13 October 1895         Birth of Ellen Elizabeth          (1st child)

22 March 1897            Birth of Sarah Ann                 (2nd child, died 1990)

13 February 1899        Birth of Albert Edward          (3rd child)

1st quarter 1900          Death of Albert Edward         (aged c. 1 year)

30 September 1901     Birth of Lucy Pretoria             (4th child)

1st quarter 1903           Death of Lucy Pretoria           (aged c. 16 months)

1 January 1904            Birth of Laura Marion             (5th child)

20th October 1905      Birth of James Harry               (6th child)

2nd quarter 1906          Death of James Harry             (aged c. 6 months)

16 February 1907        Birth of Lucy Ann                  (7th child)

3rd quarter 1907           Death of Lucy Ann                 (aged c. 6 months)

3rd quarter 1908           Death of Ellen Elizabeth         (aged 12)

18 December 1908      Birth of John William             (8th child)

1st quarter 1909           Death of John William            (aged c. 2 months)

8 July 1910                  Birth of Alice Louise              (9th child)

2nd quarter 1911          Death of Alice Louise             (aged c. 9 months)

2 January 1912            Birth of Annie Ellen               (10th child)

4th quarter 1912           Death of Annie Ellen              (aged .c 9 months)

22 February 1914        Birth of George Edward         (11th child, died 1973)

15 December 1916      Birth of John Harry                 (12th child, died 1995)

September 1918          Death of Laura Marion           (aged 14)

This is a shocking mortality rate by any standard.  Their mother Lucy only had four children alive and at home between 1905 and 1908, and never more than that at any one time.  In 1913 she only had one, Laura (Sarah had disappeared from the household by the 1911 Census).

The birth of Lucy Pretoria in September 1901 is noteworthy because of her middle name.  The city of Pretoria had been captured by the British in June 1900 during the Second Boer War, and there is a celebratory aspect to the name, one that enjoyed a vogue at the time.  More to the point, George had re-enlisted in the 8th Royal Reserve Battalion on 17 March 1900 for a year’s service, and Lucy was born in Colchester, with Georges’ occupation as musician on her birth certificate. George’s attestation form still exists, and here he gives his age as 34 and 4 months, which would make his birth date November 1865.  I think this is a possibility for his birth, rather than early 1867, as he would have provided this information himself, assuming he a) actually knew the date and b) was telling the truth.  He gives his place of birth as Palgrave, near Diss, and again states his ‘trade or calling’ as musician.  He does not appear to be in the 1901 Census, taken on 31 March, presumably because he was still abroad, though oddly neither do Lucy and the children, Ellen and Sarah, as far as I can tell.  The stay in Colchester was short-lived because by the time Lucy Pretoria died in 1903 the family was back in Liverpool, living in Kirkdale, and he was again working as a dock labourer.

It is possible the age on his 1900 attestation form and his RDC application is wrong and the 1867 date is correct.  We essentially have his word against his parents’, but the apparent lack of a birth record is suspicious.  One piece of evidence for the earlier date is that when he joined the army in 1881-2 he would have been only 14 or 15 according to his parents’ date.  However, he may have lied about his age to join up, adding a year or so enhance his chances if he had only been 14.  Without a birth certificate this seems an issue that will not be easy to resolve.

As well as a certain disdain for consistency in birth dates, there was also carelessness over the spelling of names.  Between the birth of Annie on 2 January 1912 and young George on 22 February 1914 the name changed from ‘Ruffels’ to ‘Ruffles’, which was how he and the last baby, John, were registered, though George Snr retained the original spelling in his own name, as did Lucy; at some point in her long life Sarah’s name was changed to Ruffles even though that spelling is not on her birth certificate.  There are other inaccuracies in the records:  When George registered Lucy Ann in 1907 he was put down as simply ‘Harry Ruffels’, while the 1911 Census form gives his middle name as Henry.  George was not alone in having a relaxed view about such matters: in the 1871 Census his father is recorded as Thomas Ruffells.

But George was not the first to change the children’s names from Ruffels to Ruffles.  His younger brother Thomas joined the army, at the age of 15, in 1893.  His attestation form is also existent, and he signed up as Ruffles.  Initially in the Suffolk Regiment, he transferred to the South Wales Borderers.  Despite enlisting for 12 years, he was only discharged in December 1918.  His entry in a 1919 list of soldiers entitled to the War badge still has him listed as Ruffles (it notes overseas service in South Africa, so he may have been there at the same time as George).  One gains the distinct impression that these were people not too bothered by bureaucratic niceties.  Thomas, it may be added, lived through yet another world war, dying in 1946.

At the time of his son George’s birth in February 1914, George was still working as a dock labourer, but at some point after its formation in March 1916 he joined the 123rd Company, Royal Defence Corps, with the rank of corporal, Regimental no. 37536.  He was serving in that capacity at the time of his death in an auxiliary hospital, Shornells, at Bostall Heath, Kent, on 11 April, 1917.  He died of pneumonia and syncope, by which was presumably meant he had a heart attack.  The age of 52 on his death certificate is in line with a year of birth of 1865, and this is probably also the date given when he joined the RDC.  (Actually the age on the death certificate is still wrong if he was born in November 1865, as in April 1917 he would have been 51, but it is a reasonable error if the person recording the information only looked at the years 1865-1917.)  The information he gave at the time of his third enlistment in the forces may support a year of birth of 1865, or it may be wrong but given to maintain consistency with her previous military records.   He is buried in a grave, plot F.601, in Woolwich cemetery with 13 other service personnel.  Remarkably, the register recording his effects at death has been preserved.  Referring to Shornells as Erith Hospital, the sum of £17/16/10 was authorised to be paid to his widow Lucy.

My father wasn’t told much about George, who was considered a black sheep with a reputation for having engaged in immoral behaviour in India.  There is certainly something unpleasant in fathering so many children even when it was apparent their life expectancy was low.  As a mark of this reticence about George, Dad knew nothing of all the children who died young – as far as he was aware there had only been three children, Sarah, George and himself, and he was astonished when I did some family research in the late 1980s and presented him with a set of birth certificates.  He had had no idea his mother had had nine other children, and that he wasn’t even the first child in the family to be christened John.  His elder sister Sarah had been institutionalised at an early age, and while she had made vague references over the years to other siblings, he had not taken them seriously.  Uncle George presumably knew as little as my father, and they were not particularly close; George stayed in Liverpool while my father made a new life in London as soon as he could.  It is surprising, considering the fractured nature of the family history, that a photograph of my grandfather in uniform has survived.

The centenaries of my parents’ births in 2016, and the centenary of my grandfather’s death this year, have given me a renewed interest in my family history.  I appreciate that this sort of thing is of little interest to others, on a level with hearing about someone’s dreams, but I think it worth recording my findings, and I shall add to them should more information come to light.  If anybody can establish the precise date of my grandfather’s birth, I shall be grateful.  As well as thinking about my grandfather on the centenary of his death, my thoughts are with the many aunts and uncles I had who never made it to adulthood.