Saturday, 23 August 2014

I'm Depressed - But Is It Allowed?

"He didn't die by suicide, he died from depression", said quite a few people on the social media networks this week about the actor and comedian Robin Williams. One pointed out that when a person dies of cancer, we don't identify the embolism, or morphine overdose, or cardiac syncope, that was the precise and immediate cause of death, we blame the whole disease, not the immediate presenting symptom.

A very great many people suffer from depression, and thankfully few of us suffer it as badly as Mr Williams, and with fatal consequence. But many need, and some use, medication, cognitive behavioural therapy, silence, music, yoga, meditation, walking, and other ways of keeping what Sir Winston Churchill, who suffered it badly, called "the Black Dog" at bay.

I notice more and more the casual idioms of our culture - "you all right, then?" "cheer up" "chin up" "worse things happen at sea" "never mind" "it'll be all right" "it's all for the best" "smile for the camera" - all designed to squeeze away any possible space for admitting things are not OK, and happiness is for the time being unthinkable. And that most uncomfortable thought for the healthier mind - that it might be OK not to be OK. After all, if my unhappiness is reality, might not your happiness be illusion? It's all rather threatening.

In a culture geared up to maximise the possibilities of success - and therefore of failure - the chances of depression which is geared in part to external circumstances are enhanced. You take a job, it's rubbish, you get crushed by it, you have to leave, you're unemployed, earning nothing, worthless, the spiral spins downwards. It can happen as much to the high achievers - the intensity of expectation that last time's triumph will be trumped again, and funders and backers and fans and all who thrive on other people's success, will be so dismayed if you fail. The pressure is intense. Even just being a parish priest, as a custodian and messenger of the Good News, to sit there at the front of the church with a long face, is to have failed in your ministry.

There is no cure. Some depressives hit good times that never end, and bravo for them. Some live always conscious that below the plank are crocodiles; and some fall off it. But if I have a plea it is for it to be OK not to be OK. That bad days are no one's failure, and if someone in answer to your kindly question says "actually, it's a bit rubbish", that's no reflexion on you, nor a challenge to make it any better. In fact, by just listening, allowing your friend to tell the truth, and by being yourself - because it's their life, not yours - and then making, or accepting, coffee or tea or whatever, you may be making it better. Just allow it. Be a friend. It's OK to be not OK.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
August 2014

Work, Rest, and Play

Work's A Curse - Or Is It?

"On the seventh day, having finished all his work, God blessed the day and made it holy,, because it was the day he finished all his work of creation" (Genesis 2:2-3, REB). "For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it" (Ten Commandments, Holy Communion Service, Book of Common Prayer.)

I quote these two passages because they present subtly different versions of what "the day of rest" is meant to be about. The modern Bible translation doesn't actually say anything about rest, it just says God had finished his work of creation. The implication might be that he rested, and that is clearly what the later tradition in the Old Testament Law became, later installed in the Prayerbook, which is the version most of our English ancestors will have heard since 1549. But to finish working, and to rest, are not quite the same thing.

What prompted these thoughts was a rather incoherent broadcast from Gloucester Cathedral last Sunday morning on the theme (why must we have themes for Sundays, when there is a lovingly and laboriously crafted lectionary?) of "Sabbath Rest". It was a sort of anthology of all the mildly religious references to "rest" that Google could come up with. And it was most unsatisfying.

The item I found most irritating about it was the notion that Sabbath Rest is all about recuperation so we can go out and do the work of the Gospel in the rest of the week. But that isn't what God's Sabbath was about. He had finished. He had no more work to do. He was free. There's something rather Puritanical about resting just so that you can do more work. It's like those ghastly pills and potions advertised on the London Underground for things to give you more energy when quite clearly, if you need them, you're over-stretched to the point of being ill, and you need to be stopped from hurting yourself any more with over-work. Likewise, the Puritans whose heyday was in the 17th century but whose shadow is long in our culture, made Sunday a Sabbath not of rest, but of joylessness (and had obviously transferred the Jewish Sabbath to the Christian Sunday, an interesting early example of the inability of Fundamentalists actually to read Scripture). Rest, oh yes, but make your inactivity a virtue - in fact, don't quite rest, fill it with God-bothering prayer and reading and hymns (if the Puritans allowed them) and, of course, going to church. All good Puritans would turn in their well-deserved graves if one pointed out that they had made keeping the Sabbath into "a Good Work".

What was entirely missing from the broadcast was any remembrance of God's curse on the Man, just before he and the Woman (and presumably the serpent) were thrown out of the Garden of Eden: "on your account the earth will be cursed. You will get your food from it only by labour all the days of your life ... only by the sweat of your brow will you win your bread until you return to the earth" (Genesis 3:17-19). Flanders and Swann were more honest about this in their rather unlikely song "The First & Second Laws of Thermodynamics"

"Heat is work and work's a curse
And all the heat in the universe
It's gonna cool down as it can't increase
Then there'll be no more work
And there'll be perfect peace."

Our society is caught up in contradiction between these attitudes. On the one hand, we do indeed see work as a curse. Look at the way, alone of all welfare claimants, old age pensioners have been ring-fenced against both "Austerity" and inflation. The pension is to be paid - alongside, if they are lucky, other privately-funded ones - so that old age can be enjoyable, at least for a time. The Sabbath rest of the elderly is a reward for work done, and often felt by its beneficiaries as such - "I've worked and paid in all my life for this". Well, they might have worked, but what they paid into was the expenses of the generation before, now they are living off the present working generation; there never was a fund they paid into. All too often that turns out to be true of private pensions, too, alas. But this is not how the old age pension first came about. In 1909 the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lloyd George, recommended an allowance of 5 shillings a week for single people, 10 shillings for couples, who were over seventy, and destitute. In other words, they had no other income, it was means-tested, not universal, and only payable if you had lived twenty years after the age at which most people were dead. I'm not suggesting we should return to those times, merely be mindful of them, and how our attitudes have changed.

On the other hand, there are those who see work as dignified and noble, and that to be denied work, by a mismanaged economy, disability, illness, or bad luck, is a terrible thing - or a disgraceful one. We saw this in the "Post-War Consensus", haunted by the Great Depression and the Jarrow Marchers, that there must be "Full Employment", which is a term from economics which means not that everyone is in work, but that there must be as many vacancies as there are people out of it. This was about ensuring the dignity of work for the greatest possible number (and was pretty good for the economy and society, too). We see its dark side now, with the punitive measures of the Austerity Regime to pressure disabled people off benefits and into unemployment, and all unemployed people to search like headless chickens on pain of reprisal, for work that doesn't exist. This is the "scroungers" mentality, one which condemns the "culture of entitlement", and sits a little uneasily with a government unusually heavily populated by millionaires who have done nothing but inherit their riches, and others who have made them without ever having, in the words of my late, hard-working, father "done a real day's work in their lives".

There is a perverse economic reality that all the best jobs are the best paid. You'd think, being heavily-subscribed, they would be low paid, and that the jobs no one wants, the dirty, and dull, and demeaning, and dangerous ones (ever noticed how many negative words begin with the letter D?), should be the highest paid, with short service and early retirement. But no, because economies do not operate under simple supply and demand, but through rackets and smoke and mirrors and anything to ensure the illusion that those who have lots have earnt it, and that they work very hard indeed. I don't personally believe the average cabinet minister works much harder than my postman. But I do think it must be a lot more fun being in the cabinet, never mind getting six times the money, and subsidised lunches and booze (and, if you're canny, a free house from the taxpayer).

And there's the key. The best work is really play. When we are enjoying our work, we are lost in it, we don't count the hours. It was only when I was really hating one job I had that I counted them - 72 hours one week, 84 the next - and this after my oldest childhood friend had died (and I wasn't burying grief in work, I was working with people who couldn't see how it mattered). This work was a curse indeed. Vicaring is an example of work as play. Many vicars boringly complain about how busy they are, which is a sort of defence mechanism because they know they are gloriously unregulated, and can, if they wish, do almost nothing. I've only known a couple of them who achieved this. But the work is a wonderful combination of tedium and thrill. For some, writing a sermon or doing the accounts, is the tedium, for others, the thrill; for some it is pastoral visiting, or teaching, or calling into schools and hospitals, community centres; or sitting in the study, reading, and learning, and deepening their wisdom for the next foray in the pulpit or the Bible class. The blend of toil works for so many different kinds of people because there is an element of the right kind of play for everyone. What is Sunday, if not dressing up, play-acting, learning lines, and giving a performance? It's more than that, but it is not less than that.

When children come out of school - their work - they don't, generally, want or need to rest, they want to play. They want the freedom to engage with the world and their friends on their own terms for a while, to make up stories, live in imaginary worlds, to make things, to be energetic, to strive to win - play is full of striving, and it's fun. And the modernists tell us that children learn more from play than they do in their lessons, and when you look at their concentration at a game, or the intensity of their knowledge of the different kinds of sharks (for instance), their attention to details and rules, you can well believe it.

This is why the Puritans - ancient and modern - got it wrong. Sabbath Rest isn't about holy indolence and God-bothering, it's about play, and for those whose work is dull and drear, that play is the most important part of their day or their week. Of course we must rest if our minds and bodies are tired by our labours. But what will refresh us is our playtime. Play is what frees us from the curse of work.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
August 2014


Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Something overheard ...

... on the way back from the shops. Small child to smaller child (almost certainly his brother):

"Shut up, Logan, you're starting to sound like a psychopath".

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Is it real? London, through the Eyes of a Child

London is always a long day out for me. Not because it is a long way from Oxford, but because to be sure of avoiding the worst of the morning traffic, it's necessary to be on the coach by 6.30 a.m., and the stop is about a fifteen minute walk away. This means invading HL's morning pre-work time, and the awkward occasional ballet of two people with things to do, in a confined space. But, by 6 I was up and dressed, the coffee flasked, the lunch packed, books chosen for the journey, everything bagged up in the rucksack, and it was chocks away in the damp glimmer of a grey dawn.

Mostly I slumber on the coach, but this time I managed to read a little monograph about Oxford's patron, Saint Frideswide (by John Blair, fellow of Queen's College). It's rather revisionist, taking nothing on trust, but allows for a generous reading of a definite underlying historical truth. For events in the 8th century, this is quite something. One interesting observation he makes is that the likelihood for even a princess, undefended, of being able to fight off an over-lusty suitor was negligible, so it might be that our Holy Virgins were as often as not the victims, rather than the resisters, of sexual violence. It would make sense that they were then sent off to run nunneries, as being damaged goods, and unsaleable on the marriage market. Making virtue of necessity.

From these not quite lofty thoughts, we emerged into the bustling grime of London, arriving in precisely 90 minutes (any later departure can mean a journey time of three hours, or more). There is a rather handsome statue at Duke of Wellington Place that signifies London's heart to me, although what first caught my eye many years ago was not its heart but its bottom. A photographer friend years later risked life and limb to take some birthday present photographs of it, one of which still hangs on our wall now.

From there, we skirted the walls of Buckingham Palace garden (45 acres, with flamingos), and I noticed for the first time that the fence was not only barbed and razor-wired, but electrified. The ancient spikes I remember from my youth, when I was first admiring statuary, remain, a conspicuous, but tasteful, crown-of-thorns sort of style.

The object of the expedition was to meet my sister and younger niece who had come up from Sussex. This was to be Tara's first time on a railway train - and later, an underground train - as they left the car with friends in Raynes Park, near where we used to live, and headed in to Waterloo. For my sister, any visit to London is a renewal of a lifelong love affair with the city of our birth. Tara wanted to see dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum. I wanted to see the poppies at the Tower of London - 888,246 ceramic poppies being planted between now and Remembrance Day to mark a century since the beginning of the Great War, and the number of the dead.

Victoria to Waterloo is not a long walk, and anything is preferable to the underground or the buses in the rush hour - even in August. We met at the London Eye, a novelty which has in my view melted perfectly into the London skyline, and determined to walk along the South Bank to Tower Bridge. This turned out to be rather longer a stroll than I had planned, certainly not, given their propensity for walking sideways as much as forwards, with a five-year-old. Having worked for some time at S. Giles-in-the-Fields, and always walking to appointments at the cathedral, or with friends or parishioners in the City, I had a false impression of distances. It's the Square Mile, so everything has to be within a mile (obviously not true on a diagonal, but let's not be picky), so that means once you've reached any bit of the City, you're 20 minutes from any other. This might be true in the City itself. It is not true on the South Bank, where the river twists and mimsies like anything. You see the dome of S. Paul's and think you must be right by Tower Bridge, but you're not even in sight of it. And the plaintive "are we nearly there yet?" gets more deafening.

But there was much to distract us, along with the promise of "the place where they used to chop people's heads off". One unexpected conversation with my sister was about the Tudors, those masters of the art of head-chopping. I mentioned that Lady Margaret Beaufort, Henry VII's mother, was only 13 when he was born. "Blimey, they kept that quiet", she said. But they didn't really, it was always there for anyone who could do the genealogical sums - although I admit I doubted it until recently - what has changed is that more of our historical programmes about the Tudors are presented by women, who would perhaps be more apt to notice. I thought of Saint Frideswide again. Lady Margaret didn't become a nun, but she was immensely religious and given to good works, including the endowment of a professorship at Oxford, once held by Rowan Williams, who had the honour for a term or so of being my tutor. The tendrils of history, if we but notice them, entwine round us at every turn.

And so we passed the Globe Theatre, and the Clink Prison, the Golden Hinde, Southwark Cathedral, the Mayor of London's rather peculiar wonky headquarters, the enormous buildings that have gone up in London since I left the centre in 2003, and finally reached Tower Bridge, the place where they chopped off people's heads, and the poppies.

I was not disappointed. Affixed to some sort of netting, the poppies appear to pulse from the top of a tower, and from a high-up window, down the walls of the fortress, to seep across the lawned moat like an unstaunchable wound. The imagery is unmistakeable, and irresistible. It was before 10, and already crowds were forming, some posing for photos with big smiles in front of this backdrop to one of the greatest tragedies of human history. Should Tara, as a girl of her generation can expect, live into her 90s, she might, as they approach the 200th anniversary of the Great War be able to show whoever cares to listen how we marked the 100th. There was a production line in the moat below us, the poppies being assembled and "planted" (by volunteers?) before our eyes. We debated whether they were wearing red in sympathy with the poppies, or whether anyone wearing red had been press-ganged to work, at fear of losing their heads. She wondered why there was a war (that question will run and run), and asked "did everyone die?" And were the poppies "real"?

And then it was time for coffee and ice cream (when is it not?) and part two of our outing. This entailed her first underground journey, which I think rather intrigued her. So much that we tell children is nonsense, but quite literally the underground is what it says it is, and the trains are like scuttling moles running round their tunnels, consuming, and disgorging, not worms, but people. She's not quite a reader yet, but she wanted to know where we were on the map, so it was avuncular duty to explain the names of the stations - Tower Hill, where they chop heads off; Monument, where the Great Fire started; Cannon Street, where they made cannons for pirates to use on the Golden Hinde; Mansion House where the Lord Mayor of London lives, with all the money, but he's only allowed to stay for a year in case he steals too much; Blackfriars, where something went terribly wrong in the kitchen at breakfast time; Temple, where they sacrificed .... and then the narrative probably needed to end.

I have visited the Natural History Museum many times over the last forty years, but never once had to queue except for a bags search before. On Thursday there must have been 600 people ahead of us, maybe more. The queue was deceptive, winding round itself like a coiled snake. We did our best to be British and patient, standing idly but carping by as a few people pushed ahead of their place; and Tara's boredom was alleviated by other children setting the example of doing some cartwheels on the lawn for us all to applaud, and someone from the Museum coming out with a replica polar bear skull for them to handle and admire. "Is it real?" Well no, but it's very close.

Any visitor will remember the magnificent dinosaur that greets you as you enter this Victorian cathedral to science and wonder, but even its vastness was obscured by yet another curling queue for the last week of a special (paying) exhibition, so we headed upstairs, and into other galleries, and in the course of our tour I encountered two childhood friends. Well, not real friends. One was Chi-Chi, a giant panda who lived at London Zoo, and who I saw shortly before her death in 1972. Her skin and skeleton are mounted and presented as if she is eating bamboo. "Is she really eating it?" No, but she did, fresh supplies from boy scouts in Cornwall every week. And then, upstairs, something I have avoided all these years, we stumbled across Guy the Gorilla. A panda's face is mainly fur, it has little character. This was Guy all right, instantly recognisable, though he died in 1978. "Is he real?" No, but he was. His death was my first real experience of bereavement. Real, not real, what were we seeing?

We saw the famous model of the blue whale, numerous stuffed creatures which had been shot dead long ago, before hunters exchanged their rifles for cameras, Tara was very taken by a baby Sumatran rhinoceros, as one might be, as they are very cute. But then it was time for a spot of lunch. Although not a parent, I have learnt to spot the signs of the fractiousness that comes from hunger. In fact, I know adults who get the same way. So we headed for the Lower Ground Floor Picnic Area. Entry to the Museum is free, and one cannot blame them for putting profitable cafés in the more attractive parts of the place, but they are to be given high praise for this picnic area. It is well-lit, and air-conditioned, both improvements on my last memory of it, and allows a family on a budget the chance to economise on a part of the day their children will not in any case appreciate.

"This is an Emergency Evacuation, will all visitors immediately, calmly, and quietly, make their way to the nearest exit from the Museum". Well, you don't want to hear that, do you? The last time I'd heard the word "evacuation" was when half-asleep listening to some news from the World Service about white rhinoceroses being moved around the Kruger National Park in South Africa. Not having quite caught the story, I thought "crikey, that's not the sort of thing you want to do with a rhino at the best of times". Ironically, I was in the gents when the announcement came through, and there was time to wash, but not dry, my hands before I heard my sister's only-slightly-anxious voice calling my name from outside the door of that forbidden male sanctum (actually a festival of the campest yellow decor). So we proceeded to a car park just off Exhibition Road, in the most British and orderly way. Given that possibly a majority of our fellow non-panickers were not ostensibly British, it did make me wonder whether, like our charmless government, I have confused "British Valus" with just being decent and sensible.

We were told to move to the far side of the car park. This rang an unpleasant bell, as at the DWP Gestapo trainings these last weeks, we had been drilled that for a fire alarm we were to gather in the middle of the car park, but for a bomb alert, what with the risk of shrapnel and such, "at the far side". My sister said "at least the staff are nearer the building than we are". "Look behind you - most of them aren't". And that decided us. Plus, it was starting to rain. No dinosaurs for Tara. "Well, all she really wants is a toy". So, off to the Rainforest Café in the Trocadero at Piccadilly Circus.

Thus our day ended, after a brief ice cream stop in Soho, and I took my leave of my kinsfolk, and walked from Piccadilly to Victoria. I passed the Athenaeum Club, where for years an elderly gentleman had called in to use the gents. Challenged one day by a porter "Excuse me Sir, are you a member of this club?" "Good heavens, is it a club as well?" Then the front view of the electrified Palace, idly speculating on how many of its 700 rooms Her Sacred Majesty has actually seen, and the coach home.

Journey's end was intended to be half an hour in a local park, just quietly, on my own. Although it was high summer, as I got off the coach, thunder boomed, and I imagined I'd have the place to myself. Of course, I'd been on my own on the coach, but somehow that's not the same. It was not to be. Moments after I had chosen my bench a nice young lady asked if she could sit next to me, as there was a dog running around and she was afraid of it. I'd seen it already, on the way to the park, scavenging round bins and rubbish bags, but it was too healthy and well-kept to be a stray. It was boisterous, though, a puppy, with Staffie stock, but taller and lankier, and without a collar. Then he tried to play with a tiny little dog, whose mistress made things infinitely worse by holding her dog up above her head like a trophy to jump and bite for. The wailing got worse when two small girls arrived, one weeping tears of frustration, fear, guilt, and who knows what, because it was from her garden that the dog had escaped. But they were powerless to control the thing - and so was I, the little bugger knocked my glasses off, which is not something I take lightly. By the time the girls had resolved to do what they should have done at the start, which was to get the weeper's mother and a collar and lead, the miscreant had gone bounding off to menace yet another small dog, fielding fierce kicks from the large, slow, boy walking it, and fiercer ones from the boy's father, who happened to be passing in a car at the time. I pointed out it would be more sensible just to get their dog into the car and go away. Their fears weren't real, the dog was a puppy, but fear makes a thing dangerous when it wasn't before.

Then, resistant to the charms of my Dr Doolittle tones (I fear I must speak with accent of cat) the bounder bounded down the hill to the playground, amidst shrieks of "pit bull!", which he wasn't. So I called the police, and just as I was talking to them - and I formed the opinion that they really would respond at once - Mother Weeper arrived, with collar and lead, and peace was restored.

Not quite how I'd expected to finish the day. And we never did find out why the Natural History Museum was evacuated.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
August 2014

Sunday, 10 August 2014

The Transfiguration - a few years old, but I think I still believe it

Some thoughts on the Feast of the Transfiguration
9th August 2010

Gospel: Matthew 17:1-8

“This is my beloved son, in whom I take delight”

In the Orthodox churches, the Transfiguration is one of the great feasts of the year. Bafflingly, our Anglican reformers left this utterly Biblical occasion out of the Book of Common Prayer, until it was put right in the rejected Prayerbook of 1928.

On Friday morning I went down to Fairacres to celebrate the feast with the Sisters of the Love of God. I was sitting in the visitors’ chapel, and a priest I have known for many years was the celebrant. It was bright, and sunny, and all was well with the world … until my mobile ‘phone rang. After years of telling people at weddings and funerals to turn their ‘phones off - lest it seems in the first case as if someone has thought of a “just cause or impediment”, and in the second as if the dear departed has thought of a loophole and wants to appeal – I was finally hoist by my own petard. But worse, much worse, was the ringtone that His Lordship has put on the telephone, and which I can’t shift. It says “pick up, bitch, pick up, bitch”. Fairacres chapel has the most amazing acoustic, and I was most amazingly embarrassed. I ran for the door at a most unusual speed, and wouldn’t have returned if I hadn’t left my hat behind. A very naughty friend said that the suave thing to do would have been to hand the ‘phone to the nearest Sister and say “I think it’s for you”.

But I’m very glad I did return. Something happened at The Peace, which transfigured my experience, and, I’m sure, that of many others there. They say of the saints, and of the dying, and even the dead, that sometimes they are transfigured. The great Russian mystic, Saint Seraphim, is perhaps the most famous. They say he often glowed with the mystic light of God, in the same way that Jesus did in our story in the Gospels. More prosaically, when my godfather died, and it was a hard dying, nobly borne, his wife said “he looked so peaceful, you couldn’t wish him back”. She was lost without him, and that was a sacrificial thing to say. Without knowing it, she’d hit on what transfiguration is all about – peace.

Jesus tells his disciples not to be afraid. Fear corrupts us, but love casts it out. And when love is allowed in, peace prevails. Love, of course, is hard work. When we look to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, or the progress that has been made in Northern Ireland, peace has been made by hard work, by self-sacrifice, by forcing ourselves to see the face of God in our former enemy, by committing ourselves to the welfare of our brothers and sisters now, rather than harking on about the injustices of the past.

We find it in our own lives, too. In domesticity, with partners, or children, we can choose to fight a battle, or choose to let things go. We can let peace in. My mother always says that with children it is far better to distract than to confront. They’re behaving badly – of course they are, that’s what children are for – but face them head-on and they will transfer their anger to you, and peace becomes impossible. Of course, some instances need to be addressed directly, but most don’t, and the awful task of the parent is to tell the difference. The wonder is not that so many get it wrong, but that so many get it right. And the parent is the midwife of the child’s transfiguration to adulthood.

And every so often we do get it right. We sit on the sofa with a lovingly-made meal (or even at the table if we have space for such luxuries), and “dinner’s at seven, and God’s in his heaven, and everything’s right with the world”, as Joyce Grenfell joyfully sung.

And that is peace. And it transfigures us.

There is a better prayer than this, but what I can remember is “God, give us your peace, in the world, in our nation, in our homes and families, and in our hearts, now, and always. Amen.”

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Love, Death, War, and Disillusion

1914 was a bad year for everyone. It was a particularly bad year for my grandfather's family, as his mother died in April, at the age of 37, from too many children, too bad a husband, and too much poverty. The elder children tried to get into the armed forces as soon as war broke out, particularly the Navy, as being from Great Yarmouth in Norfolk and the Isle of Thanet in Kent, they thought of themselves as seafaring folk. Even Great-Uncle Alf tried to enlist, lying about his age, at 12. They turned him away.

But the eldest, Great-Uncle Harry, succeeded in joining the Royal Navy, and served, with intermittent leaves, for the duration of the war. In 1916, he married Dolly Scroggs. Her real name was Jenny, but it was the way in those days for the eldest or only girl in a family to be Dolly or Queenie or Missy. For my grandfather, then aged eight, and two years after his mother had died, this was deep betrayal, but he didn't blame Uncle Harry, he blamed Dolly Scroggs. Their family had fallen apart after their mother died, and for Grandad, his biggest brother was the Great White Hope. The evil stepmother, Emily, had moved in, and was doing her best to move all the children out - by about 1920, she had had her way, eight of the nine children gone, the exception being the baby, Great-Aunt Rose, who was only 6 months old when her mother died. She later ended up on the game.

Uncle Harry must have had more than one leave during his naval service, as he not only married, but followed it up by siring a daughter, Doris May, in 1918. He never saw her. Towards the end of the war, he went with the Navy to Australia, and died there in 1919 from the 'flu' that caused as much grief to the world as the war had, and is buried on Thursday Island, Queensland.

Dolly Scroggs and her daughter now set up home with Uncle Harry's next brother, Arthur, although it wasn't until Doris herself wanted to marry that Dolly entertained the idea of marrying Arthur, because with Doris married, she and her husband would want the room she'd shared all her life with her mother, so she'd have to share with Arthur, and that wouldn't do, unless they were married. Many years later, Arthur died, and the next brother but two, himself also a widower, saw quite a lot of Dolly. After Uncle Bill died, Grandad was convinced she was a pernicious minx, and that he and Uncle Alf, although married, would be next.

I rediscovered Doris, and she made friends with us in Sussex in the mid 1980s, bringing a family album half of whose characters she couldn't identify, and others, like her father, she'd never known. Not long afterwards, she made plans to move to Australia, where her daughter already lived, and looking into it, discovered that her father, before he died, had already signed up her mother and herself as Australian citizens.

Grandad went to his grave convinced his big brother, were it not for the evil Dolly Scroggs, and his early death, would have come back to save the family. The truth is, he was not planning to come back to all. He wanted a new life, on the other side of the world, with his wife and daughter, and none of the rest of them.

Cousin Doris eventually lived that life, and died in Perth, Western Australia, at the age of 93, shortly before Christmas 2011.

Sometimes the heroes are not quite who, or how, you expected them to be.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
August 2014