Wednesday, January 10, 2007


When I was a little girl, I had a very best friend. We understood each other - despite a ninety year age gap.
I remember him to this day. Photos of me with my Great Grandpa, or Alvo as we all knew him, show us holding hands or him pushing me in his wheelchair, we are caught on film talking, and, always smiling. We had that magic that 'thing' that happens between the very old and the very young.
I almost cringe as I write this, it sounds too Disney and sacharine sweet; perhaps a little creepy even. I deleted it all, but it just came back - that really is how I remember him.
He died when I was four and a half. His wife, Florence, my Great Grandma, died a few months before I was born. My middle name is Florence, but from what I've been told, Alvo used to call me Florence anyway.
There is no doubt that they were remarkable people - they met at SouthFields, the leading centre for freethinkers and humanists. They always stood up for what they believed in and refused to 'tow the line'. They threw religion out, kissed before they married, thought the hippies were great, and let their daughter live in a bus at the end of the garden, in the 1940s. Not to say that they were perfect, this is real life, not Disney after all; they could be stubborn and idiosyncratic, to say the least. However, they were very much loved.
Thirty plus years on their influence is still felt in my large rambling family. Thirty plus years on seemed like the perfect time for me to gather as much information about them and write a book, about their amazing lives. Thirty plus years on it seems that someone has tried to turn their memory into a possession.
If it were not that I really hate the book that goes by the same name - it felt like literary self masturbation if I'm honest, but it was on the A' Level syllabus when I was teaching - then there would be a beautiful humour to all of this. I say that because i really do feel that I have somehow wandered into that story and got stuck on the pages. Really not a nice thought.
I'm a writer, chasing the love letters of two remarkable people. Just to add a bit of extra sparlke to the plot, there is also rumour of other letters to Alvo and Florence from Christina Rosetti and Byrne-Jones. I know that there is a photo in the family album of George Bernard Shaw. It's a great story.
But in trying to piece the story together, it seems that I've opened a family can of worms.
I'm writing all of this here for the record. I am going to go ahead with the story, although quite what form it will take I'm not yet sure. So as I go, this blog is a great place to chart the stages. Family worms then...
Florence and Alvo had four children. They lived in a house in Stoke Poges. It was commonly assumed that when they died, the house would be left to the four children.
When the will was read there was (I'm recounting this from heresay and embellishing for effect, the facts are true but any emaphasis is mine) a HollyWood sigh of shock. The will had been changed in the last few weeks, months of Alvo's life, he left everything to one daughter and the other children were written out. Needless to say, this caused a few issues.
I'm young enough to have been oblivious to all of this, I was young enough to just get on and love all my Great Aunts and uncles. In true Middle Class style, most of this was only ever discussed behind closed doors. A few years ago I was told a final spin on the tale that turns it into something from a Desperate Housewives episode; the rumour in certain branches of the family tree is that Alvo did not die naturally, he was helped on his way, to speed up the reading of the will.
It's strange, this is my blog and my space for creative freedom, but I really don't like writing about this, partly because I don't believe a word of it, and partly because it's a vicious story that doesn't need to be given extra fuel. However, now it's down perhaps I can leave that bit of the tale well alone and just get on with the book. If any libel laws have effect in cyber space then I just say that I made that bit up. Call it exorcism, you know who you are.
Anyway, back to my part of the story. The house was left to my Great Aunt, who spent many years nursing Alvo and Florence towards the end. When she died it was left to her daughter. With the house went many things, including furniture, letters, photographs and memories.
When I first started to research the book I called my cousin (she's actually something once or twice removed but cousin is easier) to ask if it would be possible to have access to the letters and photographs. Sure, I was told, she had been keeping them in the attic ready for the day that someone came along to do just something like this. Next time I spoke to her she was rather edgy, asking for a synopsis, alluding to 'issues'. By the time I got to see her she's pulled the rug.
I was handed some scanned letters, her choice of letters, some very difficult to read. I handed over a draft of my proposal, thinking that once she read that then we could get on with it and I could start reading and archiving. But no. She has drawn a line that I don't seem able to cross right now. In her eyes she was left the house, and therefore the letters are her own private posessions. Hers. She owns them.
How can you own the memory of relatives? How can one person claim possession of their love, their story? The glimpses I've seen offer the promise of something so beautiful and unique. Even were I not considering the book I would want to read them. I loved them, their children and grandchildren loved them. It seems to somehow taint their memory to pull a stunt like this. I know, beyond any doubt that Florence and Alvo would not want it to be like this. I have no doubt that they more than any others would have understood me and some of the rather more unconventional 'life choices' that I have made along the way.
It's too big to post in one blog, this is the first of many. I write this in slight shock and confusion. It's a good place to put all the bits that have no place in the bigger project.
The story has only just begun.