Issue 4: Bloody Heritage

20 Sep

You are most welcome to Issue 4 of The Feminist Jumble Sale.  Have a rifle through Bloody Heritage to find the usual mish mash of fact and fiction, by three writers.  Here you’ll find heritage explored through the remnants and rubble of national heritage, some almost-forgotten pieces of family heritage, a jaunt to see the  international heritage industry up close, and an unpleasant visit to the bloody heritage of East London in the company of a Ripperologist.

As always, both genders are represnted in our blogzine, but this time only one star sign. We hope you enjoy our offerings. We are looking for new contributers to our next issue on the theme of Bloody London, which is due out in early November.  Plenty of fodder there for your haikus, rants, limericks, essays or stories – please send them by Hallowe’en to feministjumble@hotmail.co.uk for ourconsideration.  Especially if your birthday isn’t 24th November.

Plus check us out now on twitter @FeministJumble

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CONTENTS:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

YOU AND WHOSE (TERRACOTTA) ARMY? – by Celia

THE FINAL INDIGNITY (JACK THE RIPPEROLOGIST)  – by Emily

THE LAST BASTION – by Jim

INHERITANCE – by Emily

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YOU AND WHOSE (TERRACOTTA) ARMY? – by Celia

I was on a 24 hour  train ride to Xi’an to see the Terracotta Warriors. I had wanted to fly there, but the  English Language school I was working at had commandeered my passport for some undisclosed bureaucratic process and  so armed with nothing but my maroon ‘Foreign Experts’ License’, I headed for Xi’an by train.

I shared my compartment with an age-mismatched couple. Her, with a chubby face and light shining from her wet eyes  behind thick spectacles and him,  hunched and liver-spotted. They fought all night,  hissing at each other in the darkened cabin. Then came morning, they cooed and fawned over each other, finally acknowledging my presence and eager to pose for snaps with me on our bunks.

Looking out at the endless cultivated fields, not a strip of land not utilised, I contemplated what had brought me here. Perhaps it was watching those Michael Palin documentaries at a young age, wondering how the camera crew had caught up with him after filming him leaving on the last ship for four months from the edge of a distant harbour. Maybe it was the boyfriend who left me for a girl he met at the Science and Industry Museum who had made me take off suddenly for somewhere more different than I could have ever imagined. After a few months, I couldn’t remember what my house back in Britain looked like or what the streets had been like. China made me feel free. At times I felt famous, people stared, even followed me down the street and asked to have their picture taken with me. At the same time, I grew up quickly, realising my own mortality and that I was just one person on an Earth home to many billions.

I arrived late and found my youth hostel. The next morning I woke up early. The man in the bottom bunk who was off to climb Everest was still asleep in his woolly hat. It was still dark as I waited outside the Youth Hostel  for the minibus to take me on the excursion. Sitting on the dusty bench and staring up at the city walls, I was about to visit a World Heritage Site. I had been due to travel to Xi’an with two other English teachers, an American nerd type with his super domineering Czech girlfriend. I had met them a months before at a gig, ‘Shit Sandwich’, who were a Beijing punk band. However, the night before our trip the boy had inserted a Q-tip cotton bud into his ear and the top had snapped off so they had to go to hospital to have it removed.

The minibus arrived and I climbed in. I sat at the front in the middle with my feet up on the gearbox. I nodded and smiled at the bemused Chinese holidaymakers crammed in behind me. When we stopped on the road for petrol, all the men leapt out with their leather carrying cases to spark up extra strength cigarettes from red packets. The tour guide suggested we all introduce ourselves. I used 50% of my existing Chinese vocabulary to tell everyone my name and that I was an English teacher, deciding that my other phrases “I’m very drunk” and “Pass me the ashtray” could wait until later.

The tour group came mainly from Southern China and seemed as excited as I was to be visiting such a miraculous sight. I anticipated it to be dramatic in such a way that is would make me sign in wonder and I would feel my heart soar, as I had done when climbing to the top of the giant Leshan Buddha or the Great Wall.

After an hour we arrived at a vast car park and climbed out of the bus. A polite queue formed to have pictures taken with me, this time with members of another tour group who all wore identical yellow baseball caps. There was a young couple selling popcorn which they made in an adapted oil drum. I bought a bag and we headed towards the building housing the warriors.

We climbed up on to a rickety platform constructed of scaffolding poles. There was a white tarpaulin roof covering the pit which we overlooked. It was a lot smaller than I expected and a sandy colour which I had not anticipated either.  Each soldier was unique. Many of them were in an advanced state of decay.  We were told that the visible warriors that had been excavated were only a tiny fraction of the tomb. We were also told that the actual tomb was as big as Brussels. I remembered a boy on a bus remarking how Beijing was as big as Belgium. I hadn’t ever visited Belgium so such comparisons were wasted on me.

The tour guide told us that the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor had been discovered by an illiterate farmer in the 1970s who had brought up a bucket of water from his well to find it contained a stone hand. She told us that this man was still alive and it would be a great privilege to meet him and on rare occasions he  appeared at the site. The guide also informed us as an aside that all the hundreds of thousands of  workers who had built  the tomb had been killed off and  buried alongside the Emperor at the time of his death.

I turned the corner and saw a group of tourists crowding to get within there was a man wearing a blue jacket with dark wrinkled skin. The tour guide got very excited and told us it was him, the farmer who discovered the warriors! He was signing thick guidebooks full of photographs for a gathered group. We all rushed forward to get one too.

After a while I became tired of listening to the guide who would speak in Mandarin for a long time, then translate a few sentences for me. I wandered away to buy a Chinese take on the Magnum ice lolly, which tasted of off milk and  contained  black beans.

I rounded a corner and saw a group of tourists crowding to get within hearing distance of a seated figure. Nudging forward, I realised it was another man in a blue jacket signing books and smiling for the cameras with another tour guide saying “This is a great honour, he rarely appears here!” I smiled ruefully and make my way back to my own tour group, who I realised had just disappeared into a sea of identical mini-buses in a car park half the size of Belgium.

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THE FINAL INDIGNITY (JACK THE RIPPEROLOGIST) – by Emily, with thanks to Helen

Why do people go on Jack the Ripper Tours of London’s East End? Why do at least fifteen companies provide tours every evening of the week, pretty much every week of the year?  Why are they usually fully booked, making it the most popular history tour in the capital, with an estimated industry turnover of well into six figures per year?  And when they sign up for a tour, what are they hoping to get from it?

I have always been vehemently (to the point of arguing with people I’ve only just met) against the very idea of going on a tour which ghoulishly glorifies the murder of women who worked in the arse end of London’s Victorian sex industry. The fact that the Whitechapel Murders took place 113 years ago makes them no less horrifying to me than the Ipswich murders which took place only five years ago.  And I obviously wouldn’t dream of visiting Suffolk in a tour of Steve Wright’s murderous tyre tracks.

So I can only imagine why the tours and the subject remain so popular.  Books, TV and film have relived and re-imagined the unsolved murders countless times and certainly help prop up the cult of the East End’s most notorious killer.  People do seem to be attracted to thrilling, chilling experiences; there is a whole Fright Industry to cater for these urges.  But Jack the Ripper provides so much more than the London Dungeon ever could.

Firstly, the setting: the filmic fantasy of Victorian lamplit streets, cobbled and misty; dark alley ways; working class pubs and slum housing.  The added bonus is that unlike other parts of London which hold shady, crime-ridden pasts, parts of the East End remain as grim and poverty-ridden as they were a century ago.  Then, the people; the imagined supporting cast of the top-hatted gents, flat-capped barrowboys, bonneted ladies, raucous drunks and bawdy landladies, historical poverty tourism. The stars of the show, however are the main attraction: while the Ripper himself remains shrouded in eternal mystery, his victims are well-known, notorious and crucially lacking in innocence and purity.

Women working in the oldest profession, who picked up clients in the Ten Bells or on the streets, working for their gin or a room for the night by providing cheap knee-tremblers and hand jobs.  And the fact that such women were brutally murdered while doing their last client, killed because of their trade, because of their “fallen” status, because they are women.  And everyone knows that the allure of a sexually motivated murder of women far outweighs any other type of murder – as the popularity of detective shows, from Morse to The Killing clearly indicate.

Although one of my day jobs is in heritage and I am a self-confessed history fanatic, with a passion for East London history in particular, you would never have seen me dead traipsing around Spitalfields with a load of American tourists, looking at patches of tarmac where in 1888 some women’s corpses were found. But, in order to write about this subject for this issue’s Bloody Heritage theme, I unfortunately had to sign myself up and experience a Ripper tour for myself.

I found a willing companion in Helen, and picked a tour at random from the richly competitive selection on offer.  I was slightly worried I might be proved wrong in my preconceptions, that I may find it fascinating or intelligently and sensitively delivered, but decided to keep an open mind when I turned up at Aldgate East Station on a rainy evening in August.

Our guide, a Ripperologist we’ll call Jack, began by gathering the twenty six rain-sodden tourists in an alley next to the Whitechapel Gallery for a historical preamble, delivered in a slightly angry tone, with a West Country twang, in the manner of a cabaret performer who despises their audience.  It included offensive jokes about ethnic cleansing in 19th Century Russia and Poland leading to the overcrowding of the East End.  As an elderly Bengali woman shuffled through our group with a walking stick, we were treated to Jack’s opinion of 19th Century street prostitutes: “Forget young Keira Knightlies, with lovely long hair and pretty faces.  Think Susan Boyle before the makeover.” This exercise in historical contextualisation also included a warning about the local hoodies, (“don’t say come on , then,  because they will”) and finished with some advice for the “gents”, that the “pros still work some of the same streets and alleys, so if you’ve got £20…”  The tone was duly set; Helen and  I stared at each other, aghast.  If not on a self-imposed research trip, I would have left then and there.

As Jack led us to our next stop, he announced, no screamed, that that was enough of all the history stuff, we were now going to find out about “whores being murdered – because that’s what you came for!” Much as the popular press’s coverage of Steve Wright’s killing spree, or any other instance of sex industry workers being murdered throughout history, the victims are defined entirely by their profession; they are whores or vice-girls first, women or people second. The fact that they work as prostitutes is all we apparently need to know about them, for it explains their vulnerability, disposability and morally-deserved ends.

Our guide does provide us with a little more detail about the women, however, as we “meet” each one at or close to the place of her death. Our first victim was “5’3” and fat” and was murdered in an alleyway having received 39 stab wounds, which Jack helpfully acted out for us, before mock-dying and laughing.  The next victim was described as being 43, with five children and five teeth missing: “Five was obviously her lucky number!”  We were then unnecessarily informed that this impoverished, homeless, alcoholic single parent even had the audacity to wear a new bonnet on the day she died, in an obviously futile attempt to make her look more attractive.  The insinuation clearly that she was so lacking in desirability, she deserved to be brutally murdered and disembowelled, or as Jack preferred to put it, “turned into a jigsaw puzzle”.  But he says the Ripper wasn’t a sadist, because most of the violence was perpetrated after the women were dead.  How he arrived at this psychological assessment was not made clear.

It was around now that Jack explained his profession as a Ripperologist, and does the first plug of his “bestselling” book on the subject.  Helen was particularly appalled by the term, saying that Ripperology is the pseudo-science of revelling in the violent deaths of women working in prostitution.  Giving themselves this professional-sounding title is an attempt to give credence to their misogynistic obsession by making it sound like some kind of criminology/sociology/psychology combination.  But there was nothing in the tour that fell into any of those categories, there being absolutely no analysis or theories offered or even contextualising in terms of other psychopaths.  The tour was pure gory description, an excuse to promote hatred of women in general, and particularly women who happen to be ugly, fat, bad tempered, alcoholics or prostitutes.

The next woman we found out about was the Ripper’s oldest victim, at 47, and as her post mortem showed advanced TB, “she was going to die anyway.”  There is no discussion of how and why a terminally ill, older woman is still forced to sell her body in highly dangerous circumstances, and the obvious desperation this indicates.  The poor woman’s extensive and brutal disembowelment and genital mutilation are described in detail, but according to Jack, the final indignity she suffered was that rings were taken from her dead fingers.  I would have thought that in the dignity stakes having property stolen somewhat pales into insignificance when compared to being repeatedly stabbed in the vagina.

I was feeling sick by now.  As we gathered in the former Dorset Street, now a car park next to Spitalfields Market, we are treated to a description of the spot’s 26-year old victim.  Jack omits to rate this woman’s appearance, but instead focuses on her personality.  Perhaps her post-mortem police photograph shows a pretty face. We are informed that she had a terrible temper, so terrible that her common-law husband left her.  The fact that she lived in the “worst street in London”, had to have sex with strangers to pay her rent, was alcohol-dependent and an extremely harsh life are not put forward as reasons for her temper, and we are not given information on the husband and his moods.  The night she died this young woman had apparently met a friend and fellow prostitute, Mary Ann Cox; Jack can’t resist dazzling us with his woman-hating wit: “interesting surname considering her job!”

We now reach the peak of Jack’s theatrical misogyny, are shown an optional photograph of the woman’s corpse, which is passed round face down, for those of us “chicken” enough not to want to see it, while Jack lists in graphic detail all the victim’s injuries.  A second photograph is shown, which shows internal organs on a table next to a body.  Our guide delights in the details, the brutality, the blood and the guts.  Most of the crowd are frowning and looking worried.  We are implored to put ourselves in the shoes of the poor photographer, who had to live with that image for the rest of his life.  And to pity the poor policemen who attended the scene. Every man mentioned in the historical narrative is presented sympathetically, but not once throughout the whole tour are we asked to empathise with any of the Ripper’s victims.

As police vans screeched past, tourists looked nervously over their shoulders while Jack exclaimed that he was standing exactly where the bad tempered, murdered woman’s body had been discovered.  At this point a young member of the tour actually fainted, falling hard on the tarmac and hitting her head.  Jack was visibly alarmed, probably fearful of litigation (the woman was American) and he spent some time fussing with water and tissues, giving my compadre a grateful opportunity for a cigarette.  When the fainter was deemed fit, our guide started up the “comedy” again, declaring that he’d definitely be mentioning it in future tours.  He clearly took the fainting as a compliment to his theatrical horror skills.  He’s probably bragging about it to a group on that spot right now.

Crossing Middlesex Street, and therefore the boundary between the East End and the City, we hilariously gain a 50% increase in our life expectancy (poverty is so funny).  St Botolph’s church at Aldgate East was apparently known as the “Whore’s Church” in Victorian London, because a blind eye was turned to soliciting in this area, as long as street workers kept walking.  So, we were invited to imagine visiting the area in the 1880s, when we would have seen a load of “tired old slappers walking round and round the church.”

The final victim we learned about was a widowed Swedish single mother, whose alcoholic husband had died in the workhouse.  The night she died, she had apparently been warned to be careful, but ended up dead with a face so severely mutilated she could only be identified by her hair.  The tour reached its blessed conclusion in Mitre Square, where there was a lot of very dull cobblestone-related talk, some shouted opinions about how all the theories about the Ripper’s identity are wrong, and the full book promotion, with the kind offer to sign copies.  We didn’t stay long enough to know whether Jack made any sales.

During the course of the evening, we passed at least six other tour parties, one with a group of at least fifty people trailing along.  As Helen and I headed in search of an urgent and very large drink, (not in the Ten Bells), we wondered whether any of the other tours had been subjected to such an extraordinarily appalling performance for their £8. And wondered whether all the attendees of our tour had got what they wanted from the experience.  If so, then I had been worryingly wrong about why people go on these tours.

The Ripper’s victims were people, women with mothers, fathers, lovers, children and friends, women who wouldn’t or couldn’t work in the factories of dirty, grim industrial London, who relied on drink to ease their discomforts and relied on prostitution to pay for their drink and feed their kids.  Their job was to walk the streets and alleyways of cholera-ridden and labyrinthine East London, and met their extreme, desperately unfortunate ends performing their last job with the wrong client.  Jack’s narrative implied that each of the women he discussed deserved to die: for being ugly, for being old, for being ill, for being bad tempered, for not being careful; for working in the sex industry.  What these women’s other life or work options may have been was not mentioned.

Victorian prostitutes were more independent than married women, and earned more than matchbox makers or textiles workers, just as women working in the trade today may earn more than unskilled minimum-wage labour opportunities.  But they were unprotected, then as now, by the society which both needed and despised their services.  Unprotected, assumed to be unwanted and therefore unmissed, women working as prostitutes have frequently been targeted by psychopathic killers throughout history.  Our tour guide did not discuss the possible reasons why male serial killers select sex workers as their targets, what kind of insanity or hatred or misogyny may have led the Ripper to commit these crimes.

Helen and I ended the evening feeling that the same motivations which led the Ripper to commit his extreme crimes must have inspired Jack to take up his pseudoscience and make a living from shouting at people about “dead whores!” night after night.  Helen queried whether to be a Ripperologist you had to already be dead inside – or whether choosing this “profession” leads you to become dead inside. Whichever, people like him and his industry continue to promote the view that women are somehow deserving of violence. Women living in poverty and being sold or forced into prostitution is as rife now as it was in the 19th Century, society’s attitudes just as prejudiced, and the dangers just as real.  The “pros” Jack promoted at the start of the evening will all have stories, reasons for ending up where they are in life; perhaps trafficked, perhaps owned by violent pimps, perhaps addicted to crack or smack or perhaps just trying to feed their children.

The Ripperologist, shares and promotes the Ripper’s own views of women as punishable by death and disembowelment. He actually keeps the Ripper’s work alive, and worse, makes a tidy profit from it. This tour really was the final indignity to the Ripper’s victims, to all female victims of male violence, to all women everywhere, prostitutes or not.

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THE LAST BASTION – by Jim

  As the man behind the bar I’ve got full control of the big flat-screen on the far wall.  During the day it’s like an all-male care home I’m running in here and I don’t think pish like Celebrity Flog It! gives them enough dignity in their old age, so I just stick the sport on.  My favourite thing is the interview with the defeated football manager right after the game. Forget the smug, victorious ones who refuse to single anyone out – give me the guys who are trying their very best to say it’s a big ask to come to a place like this and get a result, but look like they want to tear the reporter’s throat out and can’t quite stop themselves questioning their own goalie’s commitment and the referee’s integrity.

Sometimes, when it’s really quiet, I plug my boy’s Playstation in – he’s found other forms of amusement recently – and play Premiership Manager.  It’s all buying and selling, tactics and strategy.  I’ve also got a shoot ’em up, Operation Valkyrie, where you have to try and assassinate Hitler.  It’s appropriate to have a bit of military history on show, because this is the British Legion.  Around the walls, between the fruit machines and the dart board, are pictures of Britain’s finest hours – the Dambusters, Dunkirk, Scots Greys giving the malky to Napoleon’s men – and a load of regimental coats of arms.  A lot of the regulars have been Jocks at some time or another and there is still a bit of friendly rivalry going around, though one old boy took it too personal when I called him a sheep shagger – the nickname for the Black Watch – and actually swung for me.  He half-connected, threw himself off balance and landed on the floor.  ‘Everybody gets one shot at the title, Rab,’ I said, picking him up.  ‘Now sit down and have a drink.’  I reckon I’m the only one that’s seen active service more recent than Korea.  Fourteen contacts, in total, in five different conflicts.  A contact, in case you didn’t know, is when someone tries to kill you.  The net result is that I’m still here and a few other people, from various parts of the world, are not.

It’s probably the furthest flung Legion in the country, this one, and you would sometimes even wonder if you were still in Britain. The real locals barely speak English themselves, and the rest of us are a bunch of mercenaries and vagabonds. Come to think of it, a few more of the punters might count as ex-army if you included armies other than the British one.  A couple of the barstool diehards are IRA men, or claim to be, who got into too much trouble with the wrong people and came here to avoid being knee-capped.  Their idea of supporting the nationalist cause now is refusing to buy a poppy.  Then you’ve got your former Warsaw Pact people coming in and a couple of blokes from the Indian who like a game of snooker.  Watch out for suicide bombers, say the regulars, but I’ve noticed these particular guys like a fly pint, so that would rule them out as serious Taliban suspects.

Another thing that’s changed in recent years is the sheer number of gay people  in the place – well, at least one couple of either persuasion.  Everybody knows the hairdresser and his pal from the shopping centre, and now we’ve got the two paramedic women.  Fair play to them, it was that pair who stepped in and gave big Eddie the kiss of life during the last Old Firm game.

As far as my own love life’s concerned, I’ve been relegated to the settee since coming home.  I wasn’t there for her while our kids were growing up – now the boy’s in all sorts of trouble just when she’s got her hands full trying to look after her mother, and what do I do now I’m back but drink beer and watch Formula 1? She stopped short of throwing me out because she feels sorry for me, trying to deal with money and housing all by myself after a lifetime in the army. There was a rumour that she was seeing one of the guys in the pipe band during my last tour, though she denies it.  Good luck to him, I say, because they’ve not got a lot to shout about in the band ever since coming last in a national competition, even after the Legion paid for a trouble-shooter to come up from the mainland and help them tune their pipes.  It costs a fair few bob to run a pipe band, so they know their sporrans are on shaky nails.

In my book, whatever people believe and whoever they’re sleeping with, it’s live and let live.  Like when that u-boat commander turned up for the unveiling of a memorial to a ship he personally had sunk.  ‘Gotcha!’ he must have thought, in German.  It’s all within the rules of war.  In saying that, the one exception is probably Bosnia.  Our unit found a village full of bodies – men and women, grannies and kids. I never did get the bloodstains out of the boots I was wearing that day.  I reckon we were partly to blame, the amount of standing around we did before the order finally came to take the blue covers off our helmets.  We let rip then, good and proper, though it didn’t really put things right.  I’ve been in two other wars since, but that’s the one that still keeps me awake at night, despite all the counselling and the various tablets.

After commanding 30 men in battle, it’s a bit of a comedown to be looking after a roomful of geriatric drunks for less money than my own daughter gets in Tesco’s.  But knowing how to conduct a house to house search or deal with an improvised explosive device are not skills you see on the person spec for most of the local vacancies.  Security work – that’s what a lot of the guys end up doing and I had a go at it for a while, patrolling the oil terminal.  I came across a fellow in a tent one morning, just outside the perimeter fence, a young bloke.  There was no point getting heavy because he was obviously a lost soul.  I took him to the tea hut and he turned out to be ex-Marines, not long back from Helmand.  He’d lost two of his buddies in a rocket attack – friendly fire from a drone.  It’s all very well, modern warfare, without the kilts and bayonets, until some nerdy wee guy in a command centre in the States, with his thumbs on something like a Playstation console, selects the wrong target.  Then it’s Game Over for a bunch of your mates.  The upshot for the young marine was that he couldn’t hack staying in a house any more. The boss thought he might be a green protester and started to call the cops, until I took the phone off him and hung up. The boss is a great one for showing you who’s wearing the trousers and up to that point I’d been taking it off him, but I knew the boy was on the level.  It’s the post-traumatic stress.  I could actually see the appeal of it, wandering round with a rucksack and a tent –  an option worth considering.  Anyway, as it was Friday, I invited everyone to the Legion, including the marine and the boss.  It was going okay until the boss gets a drink in him and starts complaining about my attitude, tries to give me a dressing down in front of the lad and everyone else in the bar.  That’s when I decided to make a new fire exit with his head.  I got three months for that, but I met some decent blokes inside. What a place for veterans – it was more like a Legion than the Legion – though no one else with the final rank of Sergeant, it has to be said.  It should have been Sergeant Major, incidentally, but I got into a dust-up with an RSM and lost a stripe.  Oops.  It affected my pension, but, as I say, it doesn’t do to be backing down all the time.  Still, me getting the jail put the tin lid on things as far as the wife was concerned, what with the boy already awaiting trial for possession with intent to supply.  In the end my three months was reduced to six weeks and our lad got a suspended sentence, so that was a relief.  It wouldn’t have been that funny if we’d ended up as cell mates.

It was while I was in there that I learned to play computer games, which gave me an interest, though my virtual football team made a disastrous start to the season with a 6-0 defeat at home to Stoke.  All I did was send the assistant manager out to handle the media while I locked the door and knocked seven bells out of the whole team, including Ronaldo, who was on loan from Madrid but looked like he was more interested in his hairstyle than anything else. Now I’m a free man again and they’ve given me this job in the Legion, even though the dent I made in the wall with the security boss is still there, so I can’t really complain.

I was standing in here earlier listening to Sir Alex Ferguson describe Wayne Rooney as a great lad who has just been led astray at times, when they cut to a news flash about a tsunami in Japan.   The room went quiet as we watched the sea sweeping in, wiping out everything in its path, then lying like a colossal body-bag over the whole landscape.  Awesome.  Mind you, it sort of put me off the tent idea – what chance would you have?  Not that the Jap buildings stood up to it for long, even though it’s  part of their heritage, isn’t it, earthquakes and tidal waves?  The survivors did just seem to be accepting it, trying to pick up the pieces, and there’s a lesson to be learned there – when shit happens you have to pull together.  That’s what you tell your troops and it’s what I’m going to say to the family when I get home tonight.  It’ll be like a half-time team talk, though if I’m being honest, with all that’s been going on, this is probably one of those times in life when sport becomes irrelevant.

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INHERITANCE – by Emily

Emily (1901)

Our mother says I was lucky to get this job, and she’s most likely right, but I don’t like him, the butcher.  Being a maid these days is being a glorified dogsbody, and I knew I’d be helping with the baby and cooking and cleaning, and helping missus with all the household work, but he has me washing down the shop floor every day too – all that blood and sawdust.  I am lucky to get some tripe to take home to ma and Bea, though, so I shouldn’t complain.  And the little boy is bonny.  I love it when missus sends me on an errand with the baby in the pram; I like to take a long walk along the docks. I like to count the masts and wonder what’s come in on all the ships, or watch the fishermen unloading their nets.

I wear my coat and best hat for these excursions, and stay out as long as I can if the weather’s fair.  I feel proud to be a working woman, pushing the pram and letting the ladies I pass by admire the baby. When he’s asleep I like to stare out at the muddy Hull, and watch the bridges being operated to let the ships in and out.  Sometimes I wonder what will become of me.  I’m seventeen and hope I won’t have to be in service for ever.  Will I have my own bonny baby one day?

The sailors and dockers are awfully friendly, but I know I mustn’t talk to them much; people would talk.  Having the baby in the pram makes me respectable, but I still have to walk on by when they call out to me.  I wonder if I’ll ever get to go courting with one of these young fellows.  Chance would be a fine thing.  I have to get back to make the baby his tea and do the ironing and missus will be wondering where the groceries are.  Hopefully I’ll be too late to help scrub down those butchers’ blocks. Sometimes it’s worth mister’s anger if it gives me a break from that smell. I’d rather the smell of mud and fish and the sea any day.

Doreen (1979)

A nice piece of cake and a nice cup of tea.  I love Songs of Praise and I love singing! And tea.  Muriel says I make the best cup of tea in Hull.  I’m not very good at making cake but it’s alright if Muriel helps me.  But I’m very good at knitting!  I like making blankets and shawls, Muriel taught me when I was little. At church this morning we sang For Those in Peril on the Sea – which is my favourite.  It was my dad’s favourite too.  I learnt the words from a book that we got at the library.  A big book full of songs.  It’s my favourite book.  We sit down, Muriel and me, and we watch Songs of Praise.  Sunday is the best day of the week.  I’ve got my best dress on and my new beads from the charity shop where I sometimes help out.  And we sang my favourite.  Dad used to hum it when we went to visit him at the bridge.  He had a very important job, making the bridge go up and down.  Muriel would take me there when we were out shopping.  He doesn’t do it any more. He died. I saw all my friends in church.  The minister said I can help out at the Christmas fair – on the tea stall! I’m good at making tea, Muriel says so.  And I can help with the cakes too. And take the money from the customers – and count it all up at the end.

Muriel (1931)

It was a bright September morning, and Doreen had shiny new shoes for her first day at school.  I walk the familiar route, holding my little sister’s hand tightly. In case she stumbles. I must’ve walked this way a thousand times, more – when I was at school, and when I used to take and collect little Ron.  Now at last it’s Doreen’s turn.  Doreen is laughing to herself, and trying to disentangle her hand but I won’t let her.  “Stop being so daft!,” I say, and she giggles.

Ma had combed her youngest daughter’s hair this morning and tied a new, blue ribbon.  She checked her nails were clean, tucked a clean hankie into the little cardigan pocket and as she kissed her on the head at the door, said “You be good now, our Doreen.  I don’t want to hear from the teacher that you were naughty at school today.” I saw her wipe a tear from her eye as she waved us off.

I could tell Doreen was excited but she didn’t really know why.  I explained that that she’d be learning lots of new things like her ABCs and meeting lots of other boys and girls.  I knew she’d be a slow learner, but had no doubt that she could learn. As we got closer to those old school gates, I started thinking, wondering what I might do now that Doreen would be at school.

Perhaps I’d be able to go to secretarial college, or get a part time job in a shop.  Secretly I’ve always wanted to work in the haberdashery department at the department store.  She loved sewing and imagined the feel of those big shears slicing through some fine fabric.  She’d be good at that.  She certainly didn’t want to go into service like her mother, but not so many girls were doing that now anyway.  Girls! How silly I am – I’m 20 now, no longer a girl. But there aren’t many jobs, times are hard, I imagine I won’t be able to be that choosy.

As we retrace our steps back home, I replay the head mistress’s words.  I’m terribly sorry, but we can’t take a Mongol child at our school.  She’s different to all the other boys and girls and just won’t fit in. She can’t learn like normal children.  We can’t help her at all.  You do know there are special institutions?  Many families find it best to just forget when they have a child like that.

Too shocked to speak for a while, when we neared our front door, I said to my bewildered sister, “Right, our Doreen, it looks like I’ll be teaching you your ABCs instead”.  She laughed, saying “A, B, C, A, B, C.”

Muriel (1990)

If I’d had children, I’m sure they’d think of me as a bit of an old burden by now.  But my nephews are good to me.  I was sad to say goodbye to the family house, but they were right, I couldn’t really manage the stairs any longer, and it had felt so empty since Doreen died.  I was happy for a while in my little flat, but time came in the end to move here.  The last stop on the line, I call it.  I don’t like it, but I’m not as young as I was! I still see my friends – those who are left – and a couple of the ladies in here are alright for a game of gin rummy, or as company to watch Songs of Praise with. But, although it’s called a “Home”, it will never be home to me.  Home is where there’s people you love, people who love you, where you all muck in together.

There’s not much love here. No one mucks in.  The carers come round with tea that’s always a bit cold and over-stewed, or shout loudly to ask if we’ve taken our pills.  It’s embarrassing.  I try to just ignore it, or have a laugh to myself. Most of the people just sit there, asleep or half asleep.  I’m glad I’ve got my knitting, my crochet and my books for company.  One of the other ladies and I are knitting squares to make up into blankets for the poor babies in Africa. It’s quite simple, and I miss doing finer work, but my hands are too stiff for smocking now.  Neither of us has grandchildren and our nieces and nephews – and even their children, my goodness –  are all grown up now.  I like to get letters. And I like writing back.  But there’s not much doing here.  And the telly’s always too loud in the lounge.

Muriel (1926)

Now little Ron was at school, and my big brothers left home, I was delighted that there’s be another new baby in the house.  With four brothers, I really hoped it would be a girl.  I imagined brushing her hair and making her clothes, teaching her things.  Our mother said I mustn’t wish for a girl or a boy – that I must just hope it’s healthy, and delivered safely.  The most important thing is that it’s loved, she said.  I had no doubt, could not imagine that this late, unexpected addition to our family would not be loved.

When the day came, I was sent for the midwife.  There was no money for a nursing home, but our father had insisted that we get a midwife, what with Emily being an older mother this time.  I had to help with getting some spare linen ready, filling the baby bath with hot water, making sweet tea for our mother and the midwife.  She had been much younger when Ron was born, and had been sent to the neighbour’s that day.  I paced the house, awaiting the next instruction, trying not to hear the moaning, the shouting, my mother in terrible pain.  I made myself busy, peeling potatoes for the family’s tea, pegging out the washing in the back garden.  I so wanted to go and see our father at the bridge, where he worked, operating the machine so that it opened when the ships came in.  But I was needed here.  I peeled enough potatoes for two or three family teas.  I counted the hours until he’d be home.

Later that evening, when I’d fed Ron and washed up, our ma called down.  “Muriel, come and say hello to your sister.” I raced up to see them, my mother propped up on pillows, holding a tiny bundle, the midwife packing up her bag.  “What shall we call her, ma?” I asked.  Emily sighed, “I like Doreen.  Such a pretty name for my new little girl.  But we’ll have to see what your dad thinks.”

Emily (1926)

She mustn’t let Muriel or Ron see her crying at the sink as she scrapes the carrots.  She’d told them everything would be fine, that as long as they all loved her, that Doreen would be fine, they’d all be fine.  But she knew it would be hard, having a Mongol child.  She was tired, so tired, and felt old, worn out. This baby will be slow to develop, she’ll be prone to illnesses, the nurses said.  Even feeding her takes an eternity.  How would she be able to keep caring for a handicapped child into her old age?  Although maybe Doreen wouldn’t live that long – Mongols don’t have a long life expectancy, she’d been told. The doctor had said there are institutions, “homes” for “abnormal children like her”.  She was proud of William when he said firmly to the doctor that no child of his would be going to an institution.  He didn’t explain to the doctor why he felt so strongly, but Emily knew.  He had never spoken much about his childhood, but she knew that he and his brother were sent to the Sailors’ Orphan Home when their mother could no longer feed the family.  She knew that was how he got his apprenticeship.  But there was no way he would send his daughter away.  They would love her and care for her at home.

When I discovered I was in the family way again, my heart sank.  We thought after Ron that our family was complete, and I was getting on a bit now, hadn’t expected another child to come along.  I did want another girl, of course, but worried about another mouth to feed, another little soul to take care of.  But when I told William, and he was over the moon, I let myself look forward to the baby.  He was so delighted he twirled me round the kitchen like we were 21 again.  I began to ask around for baby binders and a cot – we’d got rid of all the baby things when Ron was out of nappies.

Muriel will of course be a help.  She’s already helped so much with Ron.  With all my other boys grown up, some of them married now, I knew I’d have to rely on Muriel.

Muriel

Oh I got used to the taunts – “Your sister’s a Mongol – put her in a home!”.  I’d say, “She is in a home.  Our home.  Where we look after her and love her.”  Silly people.  I got used to taking my little sister everywhere with me, in a pram, walking along the docks or around the town.  Mother was so tired, I liked to give her a break whenever I could.  And Doreen was nearly two before she could sit up properly, so that pram was used for years. We’d always go to wave at our dad at the bridge.  Doreen loved this – especially when we caught the bridge going up or down.  She would point and laugh.

When she could walk, she used to follow me around everywhere, and loved to play at helping.  She got under my feet and would laugh when I told her to mind out the way – it made her get in the way even more; it was her sense of humour.  I taught her to count and she liked to help pay at the shops, and count the change.

I used to wonder what would become of us, but nothing much did.  We got through the war, unlike many families. We looked after our dad after our mother died and after he died, it was just the two of us in that house.  People still stared at Doreen sometimes when we were out and about.  But she never noticed, and I didn’t care. She was my blessing and my burden.  I could have done with more of a hand from some family members, of course, although I did get the odd holiday – went on my jollies with friends to Bridlington, or Blackpool, ate ice creams on the pier and had a change from my daily life.  But I never once wished my little sister away.  The day she was born, my future was decided; she was my inheritance.  I wouldn’t have changed it for the world.

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5 Responses to “Issue 4: Bloody Heritage”

  1. David October 26, 2011 at 9:42 am #

    Since I knew Muriel and Doreen and Ron and William (but sadly never Emily, who died before I was born) I know that this tale is as true as it can be. An uncanny vividness that is convincing, and sad. I wonder how it resonates with others’ recollections of people with Downs Syndrome who lived in the 30s and 40s and 50s?

  2. Sallie Anderson October 30, 2011 at 5:48 pm #

    Hi Emily and David – I am the child auntie Mue brought up – it is a very complicated story but I loved her moere than a mother and take so much guidance from her life. Thank you for such a lovely memory and if you want to get in touch please do so. I am in constant touch with your cousin Peter.

    Thanks again

    Sallie

    • David October 31, 2011 at 5:27 pm #

      It would be good to get in touch. You can contact me at davidjost7@gmail.com or tel 01733 313835

      Kind regards

      David

  3. Peter Jost November 28, 2011 at 5:05 pm #

    Emily thanks so much for having the inspiration and in parts imagination to create this
    story, I loved it and as with your Dad, Muriel and Doreen were both my Aunties and William my Grandad. When I was born my Mum contracted tb and was to spend the next two years in a sanitorium until she recovered. My Dad (Ron) abandoned their flat at Withernsea and took me home to live and be cared for by Muriel, Doreen and William, I swear my earliest memory is being in a pram outside their house in Bentley Grove with Doreen coming towards me smiling and laughing. For the rest of their lives I always loved visiting them and their visits “down south” to visit us, on occasions Doreen would come on her own, on the train or by coach and someone who was doing the same journey from Hull to Kings Cross or Victoria would be asked to keep an eye on her and we would meet her in London. No one doubted that this arrangement would work, risk assessments were not necessary.
    When I was 45 years old I was browsing through the situations vacant section of our local paper when I saw a job advertised for someone with an engineering background to work as a supervisor in a council run supported workshop for people with disabilities. Because of my relationship with Doreen I had always wanted to do something like this but had never seen a way in that called for what skills I possessed so I applied and was offered it and have never not enjoyed a day at work since.
    The governement cuts have resulted in our workshop being closed at the end of March next year and 14 disabled people being made redundant (two with downs syndrome). I’m sure Emily would recognise the situation were the most vulnerable are the ones that suffer first when times are hard when really they are the ones that need our help the most.

    • emmeline1 November 28, 2011 at 7:12 pm #

      Thanks Peter, Yes it was mostly imagination as I actually have very limited memories of Muriel and Doreen but have always been moved by their situation and the family solidarity, and the humour that made them who they were. I know that you and Sallie were also cared for by these brilliant people. I’m really sorry to hear about the closure of the workshop where you’ve worked for so long. Adult services have been hit very hard (I also work for a local authority)and it’s criminal that we’re heading backwards as a society due to callousness of the ruling class. Will the families be strong enough, like our ancestors were, to survive it? They would recognise the grim times we’re heading towards, that’s for sure! Thanks for reading, and commenting. Best wishes, Emily.

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