Today is Brother 1’s 60th birthday. It doesn’t seem that long ago that the above photo was taken, in the early 1960s. He is on the right, Brother 2 in the natty bow tie on the left, myself in the middle. I find it amusing that my eldest brother, who has always seemed to me like a classic English gentleman, with his tweeds and niceties and eccentricities, was born on St George’s Day, while I with my arguably more Celtic love of drinking and carousing was born on St Andrew’s day. In many ways he seems a throwback to our posh English grandfather, whilst I feel more affinity with our Glaswegian relatives. (Brother 2, the middle one, seems to fit in quite comfortably wherever he chooses to be). That said, Brother 1 did meet his French wife at Scottish country dancing classes, so I am probably oversimplifying things. In honour of this auspicious occasion, which we will celebrate later today, here is a post about brothers.
Brother 1 was named after our mother’s only, much loved brother, who was lost at sea when stationed in west Africa in 1942. I have written about him before, so this post is by way of an update. My brother is the custodian of the letters he sent from the Navy just before and during his posting, which he has recently shared with me. Knowing his fate, they make for very poignant reading. Some are reproduced in the links below. Even more poignant, for me, are the words my brother wrote when he sent the scanned documents:
“How would things have turned out if we’d had another uncle? I understand why Mum was so affected. I feel a personal affinity with him – the curse of being named after and forever compared.”
I had no idea he felt like that, but I understand perfectly what he means when he wonders what might have been. Mum was very close to her brother who by all accounts would have been the perfect, funny, loving, supportive uncle. At the time of his death he was engaged to a local girl and would probably have stayed living nearby, so we would have had close cousins and extended family growing up. We were fond enough of our aunts and uncles and cousins on Dad’s side but didn’t see much of them as we didn’t live very close (strangely I am closest to the one who lived furthest away, in Glasgow, as we were nearest in age and wrote often). It would have made all the difference to Mum as well to have had her dear brother to support her through the difficult times in her life, such as the loss of her mother and sudden re-appearance of their estranged father soon after. My Dad was solid as a rock in support of her but she must have felt her brother’s loss extra keenly at these times. And I think that she may have been a different person herself – more light-hearted perhaps, carrying less of the weight of the world on her weary shoulders, had she not also carried this heavy burden of loss.
Some of the letters he wrote to her and their mother from the HMS Edinburgh Castle can be found on the links below:
My Mum and grandmother had seen him not long before he left and he promised to send them a telegram to let them know when he arrived safely in Freetown. When a telegram duly arrived they opened it eagerly, only to find this inside:
15 August 1942 Telegram
One can only imagine the shock. And the grief, especially when this telegram arrived a few days later:
The following tributes from his mess mates and the ship chaplain are some of the few scraps of evidence we have of the person he was, and the uncle he could have been:
Tributes from friends 16 August 1942 from G Gardner messmate 3 September 1942 from Chaplain
In my earlier post about Mum’s brother I wrote about an unforgettable experience I had in 2010, when I travelled to Sierra Leone as a volunteer with a library project and was able to visit his grave. As the first member of his family, indeed to my knowledge the first person ever to visit him in his final resting place, it was a deeply emotional occasion for me. As a a result of this project I ended up leaving my library career in academia for a job with a charity that supports libraries in developing countries. When I joined the charity 5 years ago we did not have any programmes in Sierra Leone, but last year we were able to send books there for the first time since 2007, and this January I had the opportunity to visit this beautiful country again on a monitoring trip. This second journey was deeply significant for me for more than one reason. In 2010 I had visited with an organisation that was trying to establish a library in the Freetown central prison. In the intervening years the library has been established, but had only a few out of date books. In my new job I was able to connect the dots and arrange for a donation of new books to the prison via one of our distribution partners. By sheer coincidence, my monitoring trip in January coincided with the official handover ceremony of the books we had sent last year. I was able to visit the prison library I had helped, in a small way, to set up, and meet some of the prisoners whose lives will be changed, with opportunities for literacy, education and (virtual) escape, by having access to these books.
And I was able to visit the grave again, and this time I took a flowering bush to plant in his memory. Mum’s brother is buried in the Commonwealth Graves Commission cemetery at King Tom in Freetown, a beautiful, tranquil spot overlooking the sea with its fierce undercurrents that claimed his life. It is immaculately maintained, with sparkling headstones arraigned with military precision commemorating many European, north American and Antipodean people who have lost their lives there, not only those in the armed forces: there are merchant seamen and civilians buried here too. My taxi driver at first took me by mistake to the public cemetery, which was a stark contrast of unkempt, overgrown graves with broken and vandalised stones and evidence of unpleasant activity. He was astonished when we found the right cemetery, never having been aware of its existence before. I was pleased to find my uncle had a new headstone in place of the broken one I found there last time. The cemetery caretaker helped me to plant the bush and promised me faithfully he would water it every day; he seemed genuinely pleased that someone had come from Britain to visit a relative there, and evidently took pride in his work.
I have never been as close to either of my brothers as our Mum was to hers, but blood, as they say, is thicker than water.
Happy birthday, Brother 1: you’ve done alright.