I have recently started a new job with a charity that supplies books to developing countries in Africa. It’s a very exciting post that will involve some travel, and I am reminded of my previous visit to that continent. In 2010 I went to Sierra Leone as a volunteer with a different library-related charity, and whilst I was there I took the opportunity to pay a long overdue family visit. By way of introducing this family member, here is his entry in my youthful Mum’s autograph book from the 1930s:
Mum was very close to her brother Murray, who was two years older than herself. I never knew my “Uncle Murray”, but his memory was a constant ghostly presence in our childhood. I know he would have been a brilliant uncle: funny, affectionate, charming, kind. Not just because that’s how Mum always described him, but because his personalty shines through the few letters and snapshots of him that remain. Mum wrote in her memoirs that Murray “had a very sunny disposition with the gift of making others happy”, despite suffering beatings and other cruelties from their harsh father.
He volunteered for the navy when war broke out, and was called up in 1941, becoming a Leading Writer. The following year he turned 21 and wrote in a letter to his estranged father:
“I’m glad to be 21, & yet I wish I were not 21 til the end of the war. I feel very much hampered, & it seems – or rather is – a great waste of time to be doing an idle job & just waiting for the end of the scrap. ..Nevertheless, I get a great kick out of life + am thoroughly enjoying being young & healthy “.
He spent a week’s leave with his sister and mother before being recalled to serve on the HMS Edinburgh Castle, stationed at Freetown, Sierra Leone. They were relieved to know he would be out of danger there, and he promised to telegraph to let them know he had arrived safely. When a telegram arrived they opened it eagerly, only to read the dreaded words, “Regret to inform you…”
Murray didn’t make it to 22. He had drowned whilst swimming in the sea off Freetown.
His “arrived safely” telegram, along with some cheerful letters, arrived home some time later. I don’t think my mother and grandmother ever fully recovered from the shock and grief of losing him. Some of Grannie Lane’s letters marking his birth and death survive in the archives. (My grandfather’s response was to claim half of Murray’s estate, adding more pain to their grief). Nearly 60 years later, my mother still felt his loss keenly as she approached the end of her own life: when we found this autograph book with his affectionate little verse, she cried. So we looked into the circumstances of his death and burial, which had never been fully explained to the family. There wasn’t any further information about how he drowned, but Mum suspected he may have suffered one of the blackouts that had plagued him since the age of 14, when was concussed after being hit by a car. But through the Commonwealth War Graves Commission we were able to find out the details of his burial, in the King Tom military cemetery at Freetown. Mum would have liked to pay a visit but her health was never good enough.
Fast forward to 2010 and I found myself travelling to Freetown on library business. With the information the CWGC had provided, I emailed one of the host librarians, Nance, to ask if it would be possible to visit the grave. This formidable lady pulled out all the stops on my behalf. She visited the cemetery and searched every headstone along those neat regimental rows for a Charles Murray Lane, to no avail. There were other Lane lads, but no sign of my uncle. Eventually, refusing to give up, she did what came naturally to her: if you want to ask something of your ancestors in Africa, you talk to them. So she spoke to my uncle, telling him that his niece was coming all the way from England to visit him, so could he please reveal himself? As she was leaving shortly afterwards, the cemetery attendant ran over to her. One of the headstones was broken in half and he had found the missing piece, with the name on it, in his shed. Was this what she was looking for? Sure enough, not only had Nance found my uncle’s headstone, but she arranged for it to be repaired in advance of my trip. So it was that I found myself, a few days later, standing at this beautiful, tranquil spot overlooking the ocean, saying hello to my ghost uncle for the first time. It was a deeply moving experience in which I felt myself bringing all the long-pent-up farewells of my mother and grandmother to their beloved son and brother. It felt like a release: closure at last.