Friday, 25 February 2011

The Englishwoman

I'm not really English at all. (Is anyone?) My mother's mother was Norwegian. My mother's father came from a family of Huguenots who fled persecution in France and settled in Ireland. My father, on his father's side, is descended from Bohemian immigrants - probably Jewish although nothing is said in the family.
    I never used to care about families - it was all based on the male line anyway and I wanted to be me, not someone descended from someone else. While writing my autobiography however I began to think about family stories and what we inherit from our forebears, emotionally and character-wise, as well as in terms of money and status and security (or not).
    I only met my mother's father once. He was called Max and worked as a British spy in Eastern Europe during the Second World War. My aunt Annabelle, my mother's sister, has recently written his biography. She scarcely knew him either. Their mother died of cancer when Annabelle was six (and my mother 22) and the family broke up. Max was by all accounts a huge character. On the one hand, typically upper-class British, writing to London for reinforcements, 'I want a perfectly ruthless thug whom I can like and trust, and if he talks the King's English so much the better. PS For Christ's sake don't send me a bloody pansy!' On the other, leading his staff in flight across occupied Europe by car when the Germans invaded Yugoslavia. He signed his memos 'M', like James Bond's boss, and may be part of the inspiration for that character (or even Bond).
    My father's great-uncle Leo came to England at the turn of the nineteenth century and started a commodity-broking business in the City of London. Commodity broking involves buying raw materials and then selling them on to manufacturers. There is much skill - and gambling - in buying and selling at the right price and the right time. Leo was the first (or one of the first) to go out to the Pacific islands and buy up their copra (coconut flesh) for soap manufacture. My father joined his father in the business, and when he used to go out to the South Seas with my mother (it was a hard life) the islanders still talked of 'Mr Leo'.
    My maternal grandmother's parents were in business too in Norway but two of her three brothers went into the arts. One became a sculptor and the other a music critic, said to take musical scores to bed and read them like novels.
    My father's sister could have been a professional pianist but her nerves got the better of her. My father could play the piano too and although completely untrained could play a song for us children complete with harmonies in the left hand even if we only sang it to him once.
    My aunt Annabelle is an academic and published poet in both Norwegian and English. She is bilingual and able to write in both languages and translate her own work.
    So I have quite a lot to live up to.

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