The airport was full of English cricket fans, heading to Colombo for the first of three test matches against Sri Lanka. On the Emirates flight to Dubai, they seemed to be drinking the plane dry, first of beer and then whisky. On the second leg, I tried to sleep, blocking them out with ear plugs. At dawn, I declined the offer of breakfast. But when I smelled the meal I quickly changed my mind. It was a fish curry with kiribath and seeni sambol, my first taste of the real Sri Lankan food that I would be eating for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the rest of the month. After twenty years away, I was travelling back to Sri Lanka, to understand part of my cultural inheritance and investigate my mother’s roots. I had been eating this food for forty years, and cooking it for more than twenty, but I had only previously made one visit to my ancestral home. Having discovered more about my father’s past, it was time to hear about the other side of the family tree. Since my teenage years, my mother and I have spent more time squabbling than bonding, and I was excited as well as anxious about the prospect of more than two weeks alone together.
As a child, my mother’s exotic origins were a source of pride and fascination to me. I liked the fact that we ate proper curry at my house, and turned my nose up at what passed for curry elsewhere. I tried to compute the fractional contributions of my different Ceylonese ancestors – the Germans, the Irish, the Dutch and the Portuguese. I liked our olive skin colour, and the way that English people always thought I had a sun tan. I hoped that somewhere in the family tree a Sinhalese forebear would be found, and was thrilled to find pictures of dark skinned ancestors. When I read Zadie Smith’s book The Autograph Man, I identified immediately with her description of childhood as:
“a time when genetic./cultural inheritance feels like this weird but cool thing you just got landed with, like an extra shoe. Hey, check this out Tom! I’m Eurasian! Whoa, I’m a Maori! Look, no hands!”[i]
On the plane I sat next to a middle aged American. He had already lived in the country for nearly a year, and was now returning to continue building houses for people displaced by the Tsunami and by civil war. His church in Baltimore sponsored him to travel to disaster areas and help with reconstruction. I found it embarrassing to realise that although my family had lived in Ceylon for several centuries, this earnest Christian aid worker was far more familiar with the island than I was. As we shared a taxi from the airport he pointed out sights which were entirely new to me.
The Sri Lanka I remembered from the early 1980s was an impoverished place. Most of the cars on the roads were ancient and much mended Morris minors or other relics of the 1950s, the men all wore sarongs and there was a persistent smell of rancid coconut oil. But now there were advertising hoardings along the main road displaying western logos and marketing slogans, the roads were full of new cars, and the locals were mainly wearing trousers. There was still poverty, but there was an overlay of new wealth. Heavily armed men in uniform were everywhere. Over the following fortnight, I detected the familiar acrid reek of rancid oil on only one occasion, but I was able to get a signal for my mobile phone wherever I went.
* * * * *
Aside from the remnants of the original aboriginal population, the Veddas, all Sri Lankans are immigrants. Sri Lanka is a land of hybridity. Evidence can be found in the many names for this tear drop island which floats twenty miles south of India. The Greeks and Romans called it Taprobane, derived from the Sanskrit name Tambapanni, referring to the copper coloured beaches. The Arabs called the island Serendip, other names include Simandu, Salike, and Sila-diva, but the Sinhalese always knew it as Lanka and the Tamils as Ilankai. In Sanskrit Sri Lanka means “resplendent isle”. The first visitors from China called it The Land without Sorrow. It is said that Adam and Eve came here after their expulsion from Eden, and the line of reefs and islets that connects Sri Lanka to India is still called Adam’s Bridge. In the fourteenth century Giovanni de Marignolli recorded the legend that “from Seyllan to Paradise is a distance of forty Italian miles”. Sri Lanka may once have been paradise, but the two decades since my last visit were hell on earth for many locals. First, a bloody civil war between Sinhalese and Tamils, then the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami which killed forty thousand people, displaced a million more and devastated the coastal areas.
According to the origin myth of Sri Lanka, a lion (Sinha) had a liaison with a princess from Northern India, which resulted in twins, who married and produced 16 sons. One of these, Prince Vijaya emigrated to Sri Lanka in the sixth century BCE, founding the Sinhalese race. Prince Vijaya would have found the island empty except for the Veddas. But he would have been only the first of many waves of immigration. Tamils from South India crossed to the island, founding kingdoms based around Jaffna, in the North. Centuries of warfare between the two communities followed.
From the tenth century, Arab traders came to trade in spices and Moorish influence, including Islam, became pronounced along the southern coast.
Individual Europeans had visited for centuries, including Marco Polo, but the first Europeans to arrive in force were the Portuguese in 1505. A Sinhala scout Kotte, reported back that they were “a race of men, exceeding white and beautiful. They wear boots and hats of iron, and they are always in motion. They eat white stones and they drink blood.” Establishing themselves along the coasts, the Portuguese were keen to spread Catholicism. Many Sinhala gentry embraced the religion, and took Portuguese names such as Fernando, De Silva and Pereira. In turn, the island’s Pali name Sihalam transmuted into the Portuguese Ceilao.
The kingdom of Kandy remained the independent stronghold of Sinhala Ceylon, resisting the invaders. In the seventeenth century, King Rajasinha of Kandy sought help from the Dutch navy to defeat the Portuguese. The Dutch conquered Colombo in 1656 and Jaffna in 1658, but rather than handing these coastal cities back to the Sinhalese, they kept them for themselves. Rajasinha retorted that “We gave pepper and got ginger”, the Sinhala proverb being the equivalent of “out of the frying pan into the fire”. The Portuguese Ceilao mutated into the Dutch Zeylan.
The Dutch were more interested in making money than saving souls, and ran the country on commercial lines for the next 150 years, building forts at Jaffna, Colombo and Galle, and trading in cinnamon, nutmeg and gem stones. In return, the Dutch brought innovations included batik, from Indonesia, fruit such as rambutan, Dutch Roman law, and characteristic styles of architecture and cooking.
The Dutch East India company seems to have been a bit like the French foreign legion, and German, Danish, Swedish, French, Italian, Irish and British people came out to work for the company. Like the Portuguese, the new occupiers were almost entirely male. European women were not keen on emigrating to the tropics, and the company soldiers and other employees consequently inter-married with Sinhala women. All the European descendents of these settlers were known as Burghers, but came in different varieties: the Calvinist Dutch looked down on the Catholic Portuguese, who were more racially mixed and who tended to be poorer, working on the railways. The more European looking Burghers looked down on the more Asian looking Burghers, whom they called “Backdoor Burghers”. In my mother’s ancestry are Irish (Cooke), Germans (Hoffman, Raffel), Dutch, Portuguese (De Saram) and, a few centuries back, a Sinhalese or two.
When the British arrived in 1802, they looked down on everyone. Describing the Burghers, Captain Robert Percival wrote in 1803
“Originally a spurious and outcast brood, they retain only the blemishes which tarnished the character of their ancestors; and they combine all the vices of the Europeans and Indians without any of their virtues.”
In May 1848 Lord Torrington wrote in a letter:
“For all those who have been in the East admit that among the half-castes if to be found every vice that disgraces humanity and nowhere is this axiom more strikingly exemplified than in the male and female Burghers of Ceylon”[ii]
By 1815, the British had finally defeated the independent kingdom of Kandy, and the whole island became a British colony called Ceylon. The Burghers were quick to learn English, and became the backbone of the administrative and professional classes, acting as intermediaries between the British and the local populations. Imperialism brought undoubted benefits such as roads and railways, and economic advances, culminating in the introduction of tea plantations in the 1870s. The Sinhalese were unwilling to work for the foreigners, and thousands of Tamils from South Indian were brought in to pick tea, often living in miserable circumstances.
The 1871 Census identified no less than 78 nationalities and 24 races. In 1803, a British colonial officer had written
“There is no part of the world where so many languages are spoken or which contains such a multitude of nations, manners and religions. Besides European and Cingalese, the proper native of the island, you meet scattered all over the town almost every race of Asiatic: Moors of every class, Malabars, Travancorins, Malays, Hindoos, Gentoos, Chinese, Persians, Arabians, Turks, Maldivians, Javians and Natives of all the Asiatic isles, Parsees… There are also a number of Africans, Caftees, Buganese, a mixed race of Africans and Asiatic; besides the half-castes, people of colour and other races which proceed from a mixture of the original ones. Each of these different class of people has its own manners, customs and language”[iii]
Sinhalese culture disparaged racial mixing as much as British imperialism did. The Sinhala term for European was parangi, which was also the name for a disfiguring skin disease. The mixed race Burghers were labelled karapotta, cockroaches, and regarded as degenerate and loose living outsiders. Between 1891 and 1945, there were 4,500 mixed marriages in Ceylon, the majority between Sinhala and Burgher couples. The many Burgher women who married Sinhalese men were seen as undermining Sinhala racial purity.
By the end of the nineteenth century, a wave of Sinhala nationalism began. The Ceylon National Congress was founded in 1919. As the Sinhalese took political centre stage, the Burghers retreated to the margins, but enjoyed a cultural golden age in the 1920s and 30s, where sport, photography, music and drama flourished. As a result of nationalist pressure, the new Constitution of 1931 meant Ceylon became the first Asian country to gain universal suffrage. Finally, on February 4 1948, Ceylon became independent. The first United National Party government was led by D.S.Senanayaka a moderate who stressed continuity. But in 1956 the Sri Lanka Freedom Party of SWD Bandaranaike took a radical line, using the 2,500th anniversary of Buddha’s visit to the island as the cloak for nationalism. The Sinhala Only Act enshrined the majority language as the sole language of government, disadvantaging both the Tamils and the English-speaking Burghers.
Bandaranaike was invited to make a speech at the 50th anniversary of the Dutch Burgher Union, where he bluntly told his audience
“The future will doubtless have some difficulties, for you are really a European group, though with your roots deeply sunk in the soil of the country.”
Half of the island’s Burghers emigrated during the 1950s, moving to England, Australia or Canada. Warned of this, Bandaranaika is said to have shrugged his shoulders and announced that as far as he was concerned, they could just “Burgher off to Australia”. At independence, there were less than 50,000 Burghers out of a population of 14 million, and although they had been a significant part of the professions and civil service, their departure was indeed of minor significance.
More important was the reaction of the Tamil community, who made up nearly a fifth of the population. Bandaranaike’s government had proposed repatriating hundreds of thousands back to India. In 1958 came communal riots in which 168 people were killed, and a state of emergency was declared. The Tamils reacted against Sinhala oppression by forming the Tamil Tigers and other paramilitary groups. Since then, civil war has raged intermittently, causing thousands of deaths, including the assassination of Indian President Rajiv Gandhi (in retaliation for the Indian intervention in the north of the island) and of Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa. Another effect has been the polarisation of the island into two communities, Sinhalese and Tamil.
On my flight to Sri Lanka, the plane’s TV monitors had displayed BBC News headlines, reporting two bomb blasts in Colombo. The Tamil Tigers pioneered the tactic of suicide bombing, and in this latest attack, dozens had been killed. As we drove into Colombo, there were soldiers or police stationed at every junction, brandishing Kalashnikovs. Travelling around Sri Lanka over the next fortnight, our car was stopped at road blocks and our driver interrogated several times every day.
The taxi dropped me at the guest house in Horton Gardens, where my mother and I had decided to base ourselves in Colombo. She was due on the Air Lanka flight later that afternoon, but her school friend Jennifer had already been round to leave two lampries as a welcoming present. After a shower, I had one for my lunch.
Burgher cuisine is as hybrid as their gene pool. The word lampries derives from Dutch word lomprijst and this elaborate dish consists of a portion of rice cooked in stock and a special curry made from beef, pork, lamb and chicken, together with a couple of meatballs or frikkadel, an aubergine curry called brinjal pahi,and a spicy prawn paste called blachang. These different items are wrapped together in a banana leaf parcel and baked, and the resulting delicacy is served at weddings and other festivities. Unwrapping the fragrant parcel, my jet lag was forgotten as I began to eat, using my fingers rather than cutlery, in the traditional Sri Lankan style. I remembered that I was only meant to use the right hand for eating, and that only the lower two joints of the fingers were meant to get messy.
After lunch I walked up the road to visit my friend Sunila, who had directed my one man show in Newcastle, the script of which formed the kernel of this book. She had only recently returned to Sri Lanka herself, after studying and working in England for many years. Her family live in the Cinnamon Gardens district. Centuries ago, it was a huge area of cinnamon groves. Now it is a smart suburb, home to many embassies. Sunila’s friend Mirak Raheem, a political activist, was visiting for lunch, and the pair of them were able to give me a crash course in Sri Lankan current affairs. They were very depressed about the incompetence of the government and the prospects for peace. Mirak gave me a list of books that would help me understand the Burgher tradition. As I strolled back in the sweltering afternoon heat, cars and tuktuks (motorised trishaws) slowed down to gawp at me. Everywhere I went in Sri Lanka, I was an object of fascination and hilarity as a disabled European. Not for the first time, I wished my few words of Sinhala included some expletives which would drive away unwanted attention.
The next morning, my mother and I hailed a tuktuk and headed into Colombo. First, we bought our train tickets for Kandy, where my grandparents had lived. Then we headed through the Pettah, the heart of the old town, to Wolvendaal Church, where many of my ancestors had got married. At first the old Dutch Reform Church seemed to be locked up, but then a friendly local woman led us to an entrance round the back. The caretaker explained that he kept the gates locked to stop local children playing cricket on the grass. Unlike many Sri Lankan monuments, the church is well preserved thanks to the Dutch government who have funded the restoration of their colonial past. The walls are plain and whitewashed, with pews and pulpit carved from dark wood. We examined the gravestones of Dutch settlers on the walls and in the churchyard outside, many of them dating from the seventeenth century, but none seemed to be names from our family tree.
Next, we went to the Art Gallery, a rather decrepit hall of early twentieth century paintings: my mother pointed out the work of George Keyt, who was my grandmother’s cousin, and who painted in a modernist style influenced by Picasso. As we were looking at the fading and peeling pictures, we heard a drum beat from outside. Following the music, we entered the auditorium next door, where a troop of young men were practising their Kandyan dancing in front of their teacher. They weren’t wearing their costumes and headdresses, but their anklets of bells tinkled as they stamped and pranced.
After this unexpected cultural treat, I wanted to return to our historical investigations, and so we took another tuktuk to Boyd Place, Bambalapitya where my mother had lived as a child. On the way my mother pointed out the old Regal Cinema where she had watched Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Swiss Family Robinson and other classic children’s films in the 1940s
My grandfather Douglas Raffel, a solicitor, married Sheila Sproule, daughter of Cox Sproule, a legendary Kandy barrister in April 21 1930 at St Paul’s Church, Kandy. They began their married life in Alfred House Gardens, Colombo. Apparently Douglas walked round the new house with nails clenched between his teeth, driving them into the wall seemingly at random. When his bride enquired as to what he was doing, he announced that this was where they’d later hang their paintings. They had three daughters in succession, but it was a stormy marriage, with incessant rows. My grandmother was a very critical person with a terrible temper, who probably made her husband’s life a misery. Douglas would walk around the house with a gun, threatening to shoot her and the children if she didn’t shut up.
When they divorced, Sheila took her children and rented the house in Boyd Place. By this time, Douglas had suffered a serious heart attack, and was told that if he did not retire from his stressful law practice, he would end up dead. He needed little encouragement to abandon the legal profession and return to his real love, observing and painting the flora and fauna of Ceylon. For the next twenty years, he would survive thanks to the hospitality of his friends and relatives, to whom he would give paintings in lieu of rent. He wrote articles about nature for the Times of Ceylon, and took parties on treks through the jungles of the South West dry zone. In this way he scraped a subsistance, but failed to provide for his family. Meanwhile, my grandmother struggled as the single breadwinner of the household, infuriated at the thought of Douglas’ irresponsibility and bad-mouthing him to her daughters. Running the guest house, she was always worried about the finances, existing on black coffees and painkillers for her headaches and arthritis. To make ends meet, she sold or pawned all her jewellery. She found her servants hopeless, so she ended up sacking most of them and doing all the cooking herself, helped by one very good Tamil kitchen boy.
My mother was three or four years old at the time of her parents’ divorce, and thereafter she saw her father only sporadically, when he came from Hambantota to visit Colombo every few months. They spent occasional weekends together, going for walks and visiting the art gallery. Douglas’s teaching gave Susan her lifelong interest in birds and wildlife. It’s evident from the way she talks about her father that my mother still feels grief that he was not a bigger part of her life. Her mother was so busy that she hardly ever had any conversation with her, other than about food. From Sheila, Susan learnt about cooking. What she learned from her mother, she passed on to me – the scolding, as well as the recipes.
There seemed to be no one at home in Boyd Place, so we opened the gate and had a look. It is a large villa in a leafy suburb. My mother pointed out the jam fruit tree in the garden, which they would climb to feast on the ripe sweet fruit, staining their white school uniforms. It was here that my grandmother ran a guesthouse for European visitors, which must have been very like the house in Horton Gardens where my mother and I were now staying. But during the war, the clientele would have been British and Allied military, rather than the NGO and UN personnel whose names filled the visitors’ book at Horton Gardens. One of the tenants at Boyd Place was a Scot who worked in Signals at the GCHQ section in Colombo. He fell in love with my mother’s older sister Penny, and invited her back to live with his family in Edinburgh after the war. Their wedding in 1955 coincided with the rise of Sinhala nationalism, and my grandmother decided to cut her losses and immigrate to England with her two younger children. My mother left Ceylon and never saw her father again: she wasn’t able to return until 1974, and my grandfather had died on August 9th, 1965, at the Blue Lagoon Hotel, Miravilli, of a heart attack.
Next, we went round the corner to Bishop’s College. This was where Susan and her sister Virginia went to school. Due to the terrorist bombing of the day before, all the schools had closed for two days, and so we were able to look around. My mother is a member of the Bishops College Old Girls Association, which has an active UK section who meet regularly to raise funds for their alma mater and to eat huge curry feasts. The teacher who welcomed us was the sister of one of my mother’s schoolmates and my mother reminisced about memories of school, fifty years ago. In Sri Lankan culture, your batch mates – your year group at school – remain a vital social network throughout life. In mum’s class were Buddhist Sinhalese girls, such as Surangani, who we were going to have dinner with that evening, and Muslim girls like Rivkah, who was also coming, and Burgher Christian girls like Jennifer, who had sent the lampries and was also joining the party, and English Christian girls like Frieda and Phillipa, and a couple of Tamil girls, including Gwynneth who was a Tamil Christian.
Every day they would have curry for lunch at school. My mother loved this, because at home they only had curry at weekends: during the week, her mother served European food to suit the paying guests. Every night for their school supper they would be served string hoppers (which are like doillies of rice vermicelli) and sambol, without curry: when they finally noticed that the nuns were getting much better meals, the girls staged a strike in protest.
As a baby, I was weaned onto rice (bath) and lentils (purripoo). I grew up eating Sri Lankan curries, with their accompaniments – pol sambol, a side dish of chilli and coconut, and seeni sambol, a side dish of fried onions with chilli and dry fish which is both hot and sweet. Sri Lankan curries are either white – mild vegetable or fish dishes cooked in coconut milk – or red – meat or fish curries with lots of chilli – or black, my favourite, which are dishes of pork or beef where the spices are roasted so that the resulting curry ends up dark and succulent.
As I remember my childhood, it seems as if it takes the form of one long conversation, conducted by my mother and my grandmother and my aunts, which entirely revolved around food: lampries, kiri hodi, iddi appang, bringal pahi, egg hoppers, pittu, and the richest, stickiest Christmas cake in the world. They were always shopping for each other, cooking for each other, eating with each other, or trying to make the other accept money for whatever they bought or cooked for them. I have memories of eternal squabbles about who owed what to whom. These conversations were conducted in a mixture of English and Sinhalese, and sprinkled with clicks, groans, sucking of teeth, sharp inhalations of breath, shaking of heads to side and side or nodding, long drawn out phrases such as ‘my God’ and ‘Child!’, and a series of sounds like ‘chh’, ‘nhh’, ‘aiee’ signalling empathy, agreement, horror and interest.
As a teenager, when I returned to boarding school at the beginning of term I would always have my jar of chutney and my parcel of curry puffs, the Sri Lankan version of samosas, filed with spicy tuna curry. Soon, my friends and even several teachers were demanding their own supplies of curry from Mrs Shakespeare. At the age of 16, I announced that I was a vegetarian. My mother, perhaps feeling that I was rejecting her maternal care, retorted that in that case I would have to cook my own food in future, which was another incentive to learn how to make puripoo, rice and mallung, a stir fry of greens and coconut. I would watch my mother cooking and ask her how to do it, so that when I went back to boarding school, and later to college, I could cook my own curries.
My mother dominated our family life, which meant that my father rarely got a word in edgeways, and was deprived of the traditional English nursery food which all Englishmen of his class and generation craved. As a teenager, my rows were always with my mother, not my father. Yet, when I started having to make my own meals after I left home, I too entered that everlasting conversation about shopping and cooking and curry and rice. I would ring home, and exchange small talk with my father, before asking to speak to mum in order to get the recipe for kiribath or seeni sambol or vatalappam.
My grandmother Sheila wrote home for a copy of the Daily News Cookery Book, so I could discover more recipes. The collectoion, edited by Miss Hilda Deutrom, first appeared in 1929 and is the bible of Burgher cookery, and probably the indirect cause of my grandmother’s guesthouse becoming bankrupt. As the preface to my 1964 edition says, “the Island’s position on the highways of the World is mirrored in the variety and the range of recipes in its pages”. The dishes include Sinhalese, Tamil, Arab, Malay Dutch, Portuguese and British specialities. So as well as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, there are instructions for dozen of curries and sambols. In the pudding section, as well as Queen of Pudding, Cabinet Pudding and Rice Pudding, there is a recipe for Vattalappam, a steamed custard made from coconut milk and jaggery which originates from Malaysian immigrants to Sri Lanka. There are pages and pages of short eats, and my granny had told me about serving them at the endless parties and celebrations in pre-war Colombo.
The collection may epitomise the hybrid culture of Sri Lanka, but is of questionable practical use for the novice. There are no timings, few measurements, and the instructions tend to be rather vague, as if readers would already know what the author was talking about. The unit of rice and lentils is “a measure”, a quantity nowhere defined, nor is it clear how many people each recipe might serve. I was particularly disappointed to discover that making string hoppers from scratch required extensive equipment – a cone shaped basket or gotuwa, a sieve or aswatting, a mould, a series of wicker mats or watties, and a special steamer. They may all have been easily available in any street market, but not the ones I had access to in the Home Counties.
* * * * *
Colombo is a hot, humid and exhausting city, and we were anxious to escape, so we hired a car and a driver and set off down the south coast. First is the busy Galle Road, as you head through endless suburbs. Mum pointed out the Church of St Paul, Milagriya, where she was baptised, and Jaya Road where her Auntie Gertie lived. When we got to Mount Lavinia we stopped for lunch at the famous Hotel, so I could see where my grandmother once worked. It is a privileged enclave of colonial buildings and private beaches, where many tourists remain sequestered for their entire stay on the island. I was more interested in adjacent Wellawatte, which is where Pablo Neruda spent a few lonely years as Chile’s consul. In his memoir, he wrote of how
“The English had entrenched themselves in their neighbourhoods and their clubs, hemmed in by a vast multitude of musicians, potters, weavers, plantation slaves, monks in yellow and immense gods carved into the stone mountains.”[iv]
He became friends with Lionel Wendt and others from the Burgher cultural circles of the 1920s: I dream that he might have met my relatives. However, there is no memorial to Neruda, and no record of his bungalow, and so we continued towards Galle. We crossed the Kalu Ganga, and our driver Chandana stopped outside the Gangatilaka Vihara, a huge dagoba, to make the traditional offering for a safe journey. We set off again, and tried to tune the radio to English speaking station so I could catch up on the cricket scores.
The hire of car and driver caused tension between us. My mother resented having to pay what she felt were exorbitant prices. I felt stressed by these financial arguments, and pointed out that we could afford it: the weekly rate for a car and driver was about the same as the cost of a day car rental in England. Chandana was a pleasant young man, but felt his duty was to drive as fast as possible to each destination, whereas I wanted to take things at a more leisurely pace, with stops to see the sights.
The road south takes you along the idyllic palm fringed shore, which I was familiar with from my grandfather’s paintings. Fishermen perch on stilts in their waves, or sail outriggers canoes beyond the reef. We passed breadfruit trees, tropical almonds, mangroves, purple bougainvilleas, yellow alamander, huge rubber plants, pawpaw trees and bananas. Everywhere we found evidence of the tsunami: an abandoned ruin, or grave markers, or signs advertising the western city which had sent aid.
That night we stopped in Galle, where the ramparts of the old town enclose an almost unchanged relic of the Dutch colonial period. After visiting the old Dutch Reform church, I took a walk around the fortifications as the sun set over the turquoise sea. Heat radiated from the ancient stone. As usual, I was a source of great fascination to the locals, most of whom wanted to know why I wasn’t at the cricket match in Kandy, which England was losing. A fat middle aged man approached and opened a conversation in time-honoured style:
“Where you from?”
I couldn’t disagree, and continued walking. At least, unlike most people, he didn’t stand there giggling at me.
The next day, we wanted to see Hambantota. A century ago, Leonard Woolf lived in the town for three years as assistant government officer: his novel A Village in a Jungle is based on his experiences. Fifty years later, my mother’ father Douglas lived here, staying in a cottage in the jungle belonging to Bill Butler, an Englishman. Apart from fishing, the main traditional industry was salt panning – the shallow pools are a haven for birdlife, which delighted my naturalist grandfather. He also made many trips into the nearby jungle, including the Yala National Park, and before making this journey, I had read his book, In Ruhunu Jungles, for the first time. One morning, he was whistling “My heart belongs to Daddy” when he realised he had an audience of a pair of Paradise Flycatchers. From that day on, he whistled show tunes and classical themes to the birds, convinced that they appreciated his efforts. The book is like a Ceylonese version of Thoreau’s Walden, opening with a quotation from Walt Whitman, and full of spiritual, anthropological and ecological musings, but also tales of trips shooting snipe and of how once he had to shoot a rogue elephant.
Butler, like my grandfather, is long dead, and I knew that there was slim hope of locating the bungalow, which was called Repton. It had been many years since my mother had visited it, but she remembered that it was off the main road leading out of town, and had a pair of white gateposts. As we left Hambantota behind, the country filled with scrub, interspersed with lewayas (salt pans) and kalapuwas (lagoons), and we kept looking out on either side. As usual, Chandana had his foot down, but he screeched to a halt when I let out a yell. When he’d reversed back fifty yards, my mother thought that the concrete posts I’d spotted might be the right ones. The gate was locked, but we walked into the neighbouring property to look through the fence. The garden was overgrown, but we could see a bungalow, which my mother was certain was Repton. It was here that Douglas had watched his birds and been visited by monkeys and even cobras. It was from here that he had set out on long walks in the surrounding jungle. He’d celebrated his fiftieth birthday in this house, written his articles and painted many of his paintings here too. It was a shame we couldn’t look inside, but at least we saw the place, and as I got back into the car, I felt happy that it hadn’t been a wasted journey
We continued on to Tissamaharama, where a great white dagoba towered over the lush green paddy fields, and where there was a great Tank, or reservoir, which had been constructed thousands of years ago for irrigation. That night we stayed in the local Ceylon Hotel Corporations establishments, which said little for the merits of nationalisation. The combination of terrorism and tsunami has devastated the island’s tourist industry, so the hotel was perhaps not used to westerners. Although we were virtually the only guests everything was inefficient, complicated and late. My mother took another opportunity to complain about how the country was going to the dogs. But, when they finally arrived, at least the curries for dinner and breakfast came in generous helpings, with chilli to suit local, not tourist tastes. My mother is addicted to chilli. When she comes to stay with me, I like to cook something special for her. But however elegant the dish, she always seems restless and dissatisfied until I produce the hot sauce: her eyes light up, as she pours it over her food like ketchup. I think chilli has so desensitised her taste buds that she needs a bigger and bigger fix in order to get any flavour at all out of her food.
Originally, we had planned to visit Yala game reserve, but a terrorist attack on the park the previous month meant it was closed to visitors, and we had no chance of seeing wild elephant, let alone leopards. As consolation, and on Sunila’s recommendation, I had booked us three nights at Galapita, a remote eco-lodge in the jungle, next to the Menik Ganga, the river of gems.
Before we got there, we stopped for morning puja at the Kataragama shrine. It is a place of pilgrimage for both Hindus and Buddhists, and there’s also a mosque on the same site, showing that despite the ethnic tensions, there are close ties between religions. At the annual festival at the Esala full moon in August devotees of the Kataragama god pierce themselves with skewers and blades, and hang suspended by hooks in their skin. We settled for a basket of fruit, and stood around rather impatiently in the tiny temple, surrounded by young and old. Finally, a red carpet was rolled out, and the priest arrived. Now everyone rang the bells that hung from the ceiling as hard as they could for ten minutes. The din was indescribable. There was more waiting, and then an electronic chime, which sounded suspiciously like Big Ben. Incomprehensible chanting was followed by a man who daubed ash on everyone’s forehead, then handed out handfuls of rice and ladles of water, a part of the ritual I thought I’d better forgo. Then we began to shuffle forward, those with fruit to the left, those with cash offerings to the right. My mother passed over her basket and we made our way to the exit. A devotee rushed after us to return the fruit. We discovered that the donation was strictly symbolic, and that worshippers now got to eat their fruit in the courtyard outside, while a large troop of langhur monkeys waited for the leftovers. My mother complained that it was all superstitious nonsense: I tried to point out that the same could be said for Christian rituals, but didn’t push the point when another squabble threatened to erupt.
The road to Galapita took us alongside the Yala National Park, but although I kept my eyes fixed to the jungle, there were no animals to be seen. There were multiple army checkpoints however, as there have been a series of terrorist incidents in the area. We were now in the dry zone, and heading further and further away from centres of population. Finally, we spotted a miniscule sign by the road, and struck out across country to reach the eco-lodge. We discovered an idyllic haven, beside a rocky gorge. Our huts were rudimentary, lit in the evenings by candles and oil lamps. There was no electricity, but there were flush toilets. It was perfect. Three times a day, beautiful vegetarian curries arrived but apart from that, we were left undisturbed. There was nothing to do but read books, swim in the river, and go for walks. We saw monitor lizards, a snake, peacocks, monkeys, squirrels and many birds. At night, cicadas and bullfrogs and other unspecified fauna kept up a soothing chorus of beeps, croaks and chirps beneath the stars.
Here, I felt that we were experiencing the life that Douglas had so enjoyed. My mother was finally able to relax, after a week of complaining about how inefficient Sri Lanka had become, and how everyone was trying to take us for a ride, and how run down the country was. She made lists of the birds she saw, and shared more stories of her childhood. As the fireflies danced around the open hut, she told me how as a young girl she would run into the garden at night, hold up her skirt, pull open her waistband and brush fireflies into her knickers, then run inside and twirl around shouting “Look at me!” as she shone. When we saw squirrels running along the branches, she told me how she had found a young squirrel that had fallen out of its nest, and kept it as a pet. First she fed it milk with a pipette, then it graduated to bananas. She used to take it to school in her pocket, until it urinated, leaving yellow stains across her white uniform. Then it took to living in a laundry basket, until finally it suffocated when a servant piled dirty sheets and towels on top of it.
At Galapita, I read the memoir of Christine Spittel, daughter of the famous doctor RL Spittel, who had worked closely with the Vedda people. Her anecdotes of high society in the 1920s and 1930s, and of Colombo during the war gave me a picture of what my grandmother’s life might once have been like. She was a sociable person, who loved dancing. No wonder she was bitter at the poverty and exhaustion of those years after divorce. My grandmother had little business sense: at Boyd Place she served such elaborate food and drink in such generous quantities that she never made money. In the end, she had to give up the guesthouse. She got a job in charge of housekeeping at Mount Lavinia Hotel nearby, the most prestigious of the island’s hotels. She had her own room there as part of the job, and the girls became boarders at Bishops College. When she finally left Ceylon to come to her eldest daughter’s wedding, the move was only made possible by a job offer. The English owner of Mount Lavinia Hotel had died, and his widow Mrs Pilbrow needed a housekeeper at her home in Sussex. The family offered Sheila a wonderful deal, including accommodation and education for my mother and her sister, in return for her cooking and housekeeping for the elderly lady. But as before, my grandmother was her own worst enemy. She got into rows with her employer, apparently complaining at her meanness with food, and was sacked. Now the family were in dire straits. The nuns at the school were charitable enough to let the girls stay on free until they had finished O levels, and my grandmother worked in a Brighton restaurant to earn her living. Then she came to live in Aylesbury, where my father bought her a little house. She made one trip back to Ceylon after 1955, but she said it had changed so much she never wanted to return.
My Granny was a rather grumpy lady, who constantly squabbled with her daughters. When my mother and I are having bad days, I irritate her by pointing out how she is coming to resemble her mother. In turn, my daughter points out that I nag her in the same way that my mother nags me. I’m not sure if it’s learned behaviour or a genetic predisposition. I learned from an academic colleague that Sri Lankan culture tends to be very critical and negative: everyone spends most of their time complaining or bad mouthing people. This insight was a revelation, because by that point I had become disturbed at how my mother was so negative about everyone and everything we encountered. Rather than turning into Granny, perhaps she was just reverting to Sri Lankan cultural norms.
In my childhood I remember a Granny who could not resist the lure of the supermarket. Constantly amazed at the new products emerging onto the supermarket shelves, she spent much of the seventies and eighties returning in triumph from her expeditions into town with the latest meal from Marks and Spencer’s or Sainsbury’s. Chocolate cream dessert! Pre-prepared garlic bread! Sweet and sour prawns! Despite the fact that she could cook meals which are in a different league from anything the supermarkets could contemplate, she remained in big eyed wonder at the wealth of convenience products which blossomed onto the shelves. When I went round to her house for a meal, or return for the weekend from boarding school, at the centre of the table was the latest prepared food item to wonder at and sample – even though I would have preferred her own curries, or better still, her curry puffs.
Granny’s declining years revolved around food. Never a reader, she found television increasingly irritating as she grew older, because her deafness meant she was excluded from most of it. Her days were punctuated by the Daily Mail, frequent visits to the fridge to snack, and increasing recourse to the whisky bottle as afternoons wore on. Having given up smoking, due largely to my own nagging, and no longer betting on the horses, she spent much of her later years bored and irritable. Eating was the only pastime she really enjoyed, and as dementia set in, self-regulation was abandoned. In her final years, she ate anything and everything she could find in the fridge, particularly whatever my aunt had prepared for her own return from work, and including on one memorable occasion a whole raw chicken. The fact that my grandmother survived this brush with salmonella can only be because her insides were probably awash with neat spirit at the time. Never obviously drunk, she had an impressive capacity to get through bottles of Teacher’s. I remember on one occasion when my father pointed out that this tendency – what my grandmother would call ‘elbow waggling’ – runs in the Sri Lankan side of the family, my mother kicked him hard in the ribs, which left him rolling around on the floor squeaking ‘Ooo, ooo, ooo’, and protesting the accuracy of his statement in aggrieved tones.
* * * * *
It was my great grandfather, Cox Sproule, who was the most renowned of the drinkers. After returning to Colombo, my mother and I took the early train to Kandy, where he practised law and earned a reputation for wit and inebriation. As the train grumbled its way up the incline into the hill country, we munched our chilli omelette sandwiches. I had an idea that a Raffel had been involved in the engineering of the Colombo-Kandy route. On my return to England, I consulted the family records which my younger brother had compiled to learn the full story. Henry Raffel was an artist, who went from the Netherlands to Ceylon in the eighteenth century, but eventually returned to Europe. His grandson Christiaan originated in Hamburg, but emigrated to Ceylon in 1798. In 1809 he married Engeltina Giller in the Wolvendaal Dutch Reform Church but in 1818 he died, leaving her with three young children, one of whom was Douglas’ grandfather Jacobus Hendricus Raffel. He was a surveyor who helped build the Kadugannawa pass for the Ceylon railway, and who contributed to the first accurate modern map of the island. He may well have worked with Robert Stephenson, son of George Stephenson of Rocket locomotive fame who came to Ceylon from Newcastle to supervise the bridge building.
Kandy is an elevated town in both senses of the word. At its centre is an artificial lake, besides which is the impressive Dalada Maligawa or Temple of the Tooth. Twenty years previously, we had watched the famous Kandy Perehara, the festival where a replica of the relic is paraded on a mighty and richly caparisoned elephant, surrounded by dancers and drummers and people swirling fire, and more elephants and more dancers, and more lights, and so on for another nine nights. This time, we went to morning puja at the Temple, joining the faithful who each carried flowers, saying under their breath “with these flowers I reverence the Buddha. May the merit help me to Liberation. As these flowers dry up and die, so will also my body dry up and turn to dust.” Among the worshippers was a girl in a red tee-shirt with the legend “This is what spoiled looks like” and another one texting on her mobile phone. Others sat silently, eyes closed, hands folded in supplication. There was a constant murmur of chanting. The adjacent museum contained hundreds of gifts to the Temple: silver lotus flowers, elephant whisks, ola leaf books, gold and silver temple wear, coins and jewellery donated by the faithful, carved elephant tusks, all to gain merit for the donors.
My main interest in Kandy was to locate places associated with my great grandmother, Minnie Cooke, who had a stormy marriage with the charming but impossible Cox Sproule. She ran a bakery and café, the Green Cabin, which sadly is no more, although our friendly tuk tuk driver eventually managed to locate the premises, where now a new building stands, selling plastic goods. It was difficult tracking down old addresses because all the colonial names have changed to Sinhala ones, but after asking some of the older residents we also found Malabar Street, where her house Fraser Lodge would have been surrounded by a big garden. Now it is a nursing home, no trace of the house or the trees or the flowerbeds remaining. But I had heard stories of those days from my mother’s cousin Diane, who used to lodge with Minnie in the 1930s. Many of the younger members of the family seem to have been sent to stay with their grandmother when life was difficult at home. Minnie was about 5’2” but weighed 20 stone: cousin Diane remembers an immense lap, hair pulled back off her forehead, and dewlapped arms.
Minnie’s cooking was legendary. At the Green Cabin, people would come and buy cakes and pastries, made to the traditional Portuguese or Dutch recipes: poffertjies (puff balls), foguete (rockets – stuffed pastry tubes), bolo flohado (like a danish pastry), broeder (fruit bread), curry puffs, and maas pan. These last were a particular speciality, bread buns baked with meat curry inside. I went into a modern Kandy bakery to try and buy one, but these days they’re not available – instead I bought a malu pan, the same thing but made with fish curry.
Minnie also made jams and pickles and chutneys. Diane remembers how Minnie would supervise the cooks, sitting in her chair under the breadfruit tree in the garden. The limes would be laid out quartered on trays, sprinkled with salt. The cooks would arrive with sacks of fruit and nuts, and trestle tables would be laid out, and the chopping would begin. The whole place was a hive of activity, with the children – Diane and my aunty Penny – trying to steal nuts or fruit from under the servants’ noses. A huge cauldron would be suspended on a tripod over a fire, and Minnie would sit with her ladle in her hand as the cooks threw in the chopped fruit, tipped out stone jars of vinegar and poured in sacks of sugar. The chutney would be stirred up and boiled, and Minnie would hold out her ladle for a taste, and order “more sugar” or “more vinegar” or “more chilli”, until it was just right.
Both Cox and Minnie were well known Kandy characters. Cox was descended from William Bernard Sproule, who came out from Drogheda as a school teacher with the British Army sometime in the 1830s. His surname suggests he originated in Ulster. In Ceylon, his job was to teach English to the native troops, although he later became a master at the new Colombo Academy, which in 1881 became Royal College. Cox’s father was a lawyer and a member of the municipal council. Cox was christened Cyril, but became nicknamed Cox after a triumphant performance in a double act called “Cox and Boxe” for a charity show at the Empire Theatre. Minnie was daughter of another lawyer, Nathaniel Cooke, whose ancestor had been a Cork man. Her mother was Grace Treherne de Saram, and among her Dutch and Portuguese forebears I was delighted to discover Sinhalese ancestors. They married on June 17th 1907. Cox called her “Cooto” and pretended to be terrified of her.
Cox loved language, and was known for his quick wit, composing impromptu rhymes for every occasion, particularly those associated with alcohol. On the rare times he was “on the water wagon”, his natural shyness turned him into a quieter man. He was a voluminous reader in both English and French.
Cox was a master of the quick riposte. A colleague called De La Motte once quipped:
“If you want a mutton roll, go to Mr Cox Sproule”
Cox looked over his spectacles at the man and without a smile on his face replied:
“And if you want a chamber pot, of course you go to Mr De La Motte”, because his opponent’s family owned a hardware store. Cox was particularly amused by the ways that some of his Sinhalese rivals butchered the English language, and he once published “The Verbal Infelicities of a Masculine Malaprop”, a collection of such slips including “We lionised him with elephants” “He is a brilliant Alma Mater of his old school” or, said of a lady who had been married for twelve years without issue “She was impregnable”. His house had been called Peak View, but after a Shell petrol station opened opposite, he renamed it Pump View.
A treasured family possession is the typed volume of Random Rhymes which Cox compiled, full of light verse, satire and pastiche. When Lionel Wendt, a celebrated artist, announced that he had cut his flowing locks, Cox produced a mock elegy of seven stanzas, including this one:
Wail low an epicedium
The nymphs are all with grief struck dumb
To view his bare bald cranium
Little Lionel’s got his hair cut!
On another occasion, when his friend Muttutamby Maniagar sent him the gift of a turtle, Cox responded with this:
Mark well the spot where his young blood was spilled
And build him on the beach a cenotaph;
Then bid some bard with inspiration filled
In rhyme turn turtle into epitaph.
No more he’ll frolic ‘neath the crested foam,
Nor roam the beach, unknown to his mamma,
Nor flirt, nor see young lady turtles home,
By moonlight in the blue Gulf of Manaar.
Bring lilies white, bring cypress leaves and myrtle
And breathe a prayer for his departed soul,
Here lies the last of Muttutamby’s turtle
Slaughtered in youth to feed a hungry Sproule.
Cox features in Running In the Family, Michael Ondaatje’s beautiful memoir of Burgher life in the 1930s, one of a colourful cast of drinkers and reprobates. Cox is described as “charming when sober and brilliant when drunk, appearing before judges when intoxicated and still winning his cases”. Although in court, he would sip whisky and soda through a straw from a ginger ale bottle, his quick brain, eloquence and huge knowledge of the law meant that he was in great demand as a defence barrister in criminal cases.
Cox and Minnie were separated, although they never divorced: she first lived in Trincomalee Street, and he lived in Malabar Street, where she later moved.
Every day Minnie would send her estranged husband his meals from her restaurant. On one occasion he sent a message in reply:
“I love your tresses, even though done in hurry
But I don’t, Mrs S, like them done in my curry!”
Faced with this entertaining, insufferable man, Minnie once confided to Douglas, her son-in-law, with tears in her eyes:“No one knows what I suffer, I love him so much.”
Cox’s early death in 1938 was hastened by alcohol abuse.
Minnie did her bit in the early years of the war, catering for the British troops when they were in the jungle on exercises. Kandy was Mountbatten’s HQ for Pacific operations, and many Allied forces were stationed on the island. Although Colombo was bombed by the Japanese, the island was never attacked. With her retinue of cooks Minnie would head off into the jungle in her car and ensure that the soldiers were well fed. Minnie died due to a heart attack in 1942: at her funeral, the procession of people following the cortege included everyone from bishops to beggars and soldiers to rickshaw coolies.
* * * * *
Back in Colombo, we were invited to dinner with Michael Sproule, my mother’s second cousin. He lives in the same house where his late father Hamish practised medicine: his own son lives and works alongside him in the family law firm. The other guests were Burgher friends including several more of mum’s school friends: skin tones ranged all the way from my mother’s olive to very dark Michael Dias, whose mother was Sinhalese. Conversation and whisky flowed, as we sat waiting to eat. Michael’s son explained that the old lawyers still told stories of the antics of Cox Sproule. Everyone spoke of the old days, when folk were always visiting each other’s houses, never needing an invitation, often staying the night. Michael Dias spoke of trips to Yala Game Park, all the leopards they would see and the snipe they would shoot. Alcohol featured prominently in many anecdotes. One of the older ladies, who’d been practically dozing all evening, suddenly had a new lease of life and told us how when she was a child, her family had a lion and a bear as pets, to the alarm of the neighbours. Another story featured a man who kept a defanged cobra as a pet, and turned up to a fancy dress ball dressed as a snake charmer. There he produced the snake causing an outbreak of terror: he was awarded first prize for his outfit, on condition that he and the snake departed immediately. Our evening got later and later, the whisky continued to circulate, but there was no sign of food. Finally, after eleven, dinner was served: hoppers, hoppers with eggs baked in the middle, pork curry, chicken curry, seeni sambol, and very hot katta sambol.
The day before leaving Colombo, we paid a visit to the Dutch Burgher Union, founded in 1906. The sign outside read Hollandsche Burger Vereeniging Van Ceylon, although since the nineteenth century, Burghers have spoken English rather than Dutch. Varnished honours boards inside the hall recorded the presidents of the Union and those who had died serving in the world wars. I was more interested to see the posters advertising breudher, a fruit bread which is part of Christmas celebration. The café advertised lamprais, ginger beer, beef smoore, pork badun, hot dogs and Christmas cake. This last shows how European traditions have been hybridised: the Ceylon version is a very moist, rich, spicy mix, with exotic ingredients such as pumpkin preserve and heavily laced with alcohol. My mother wanted to check the DBU journal to find the Cooke ancestry. Probably because they were Irish, rather than strictly Burgher, there was no record of that side of our family.
A few days later, I was back in England, busily making love cake, because Christmas was only days away and it was too late to make a Burgher Christmas cake. This rich confection is based on cashew nuts and semolina and spiced with cardamom, nutmeg and cinnamon: I had to make a last minute trip to the Indian shop to buy rose water, an ingredient which reflects the Muslim influence in Sri Lankan cuisine. Then I had ten eggs to separate and beat. Finally, I poured the mixture into the carefully lined tin, and slid it into the oven.
As the cake was baking, I checked my email, and discovered I had received an email out of the blue from a Mickey Cooke, living in Vancouver. He asked: had my parents lived in Boston, and were there any Cookes in my family? I replied immediately to say they had indeed married in that city, and that my great grandmother had been Minnie Treherne Cooke. The reply that came back a few minutes later was overjoyed. Mickey was another Burgher, a distant cousin, and his family had only emigrated from Kandy in 1986. His father Monty, a nephew of Minnie, was about to turn 90, and was very keen to be put in touch with his long lost cousins. Mickey remembered the Green Cabin Café very well. Even better, he had researched the entire Cooke family tree, and could send me a copy for my mother.
This coincidence of a long lost relative turning up as I stirred the cake mix is typical of Burgher culture. Everyone is related to everyone else, and food is at the centre of the identity. I’d like to think I had inherited something of Cox Sproule’s irreverent wit. Less positively, I worry that I’m as censorious as my mother and grandmother. But above all, I relate closely to the matriarchal inheritance of cooking and delighting in food. From Minnie to Sheila to Susan to me, the aptitude and enthusiasm has passed down. I cook the same recipes, and delight in entertaining. In this way, I am a Burgher still, despite my British accent and passport.
As a scholarly account, People In Between rather portentously puts it,
“In effect, we emphatically contend that the palate is a repository of ethnic identity, that the heart is where the stomach is, that ethnicity is a form of embodiment which draws nourishment from the distinctive ingredients which nurture the body.”[v]
I think this means that even though I’ve spent little more than one month in Sri Lanka over the four decades of my life, it’s part of my cultural inheritance because every week I cook the traditional curries, and because every New Year’s Day, along with every Sri Lankan no matter whether Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, Malay or Burgher, I make kiribath, the milk rice dish which ensures you will have good luck in the year to come. As the famous French gourmand Anthelme Brillat-Savarin remarks in his 1825 volume on The Physiology of Taste, Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.
The son who never was
She was a student nurse, aged just 21, and she lived in a flat in Clapham with a few friends and a guilty secret. That evening she had to make a terrible decision, right there and then, on the spot, and afterwards she felt in turmoil and despair, at a situation which seemed so unfair, but for which she blamed herself. Because she had been strongly advised to keep it all a secret, she had no one to talk to about it.. Her mother and the Matron could not have been more clear: it was vital that she did not tell a soul.
Her new friend was about to come round and take her out to dinner. She could not quite call him a boyfriend, they’d only been out a few times. He was the junior registrar in charge of the paediatric fever wards at St George’s, Tooting, where she worked. He seemed kind and nice, and keen, and she’d met his family and friends, and they all seemed to like her. But the last thing she wanted was to go out and celebrate New Year’s Eve with him as if nothing was wrong. That’s not the sort of person she was, she couldn’t pretend that she didn’t have a care in the world and that everything was fine when it wasn’t.
When he arrived, he could see immediately that she was upset. He asked her what was wrong, but she wouldn’t say. She just didn’t want to go anywhere that night, it wasn’t about him and she was very sorry to ruin their plans, but she couldn’t go out. He was a kind and patient man, and so he sat down and held her hand, and kept on asking her what the problem was. She began to weep, big tears of shame and frustration and grief. In the end he suggested that they forgot about the party, but went for a drive in the car instead. She wiped her eyes, and sniffed, and smiled a weak smile, and agreed, yes, that might be nice. He was being so good about it, and she felt awkward. They went down to the car, it was a freezing cold night, so he turned up the heating, and they drove off together, aimlessly through South London, and while they were driving around, she told her story, bit by bit.
She’d had a baby. It wasn’t her fault, she wasn’t that kind of girl. She was taken advantage of by an older man, another doctor. She was stupid to get into that situation. It was her first time. But Sister was so helpful. She arranged for her to go away and work in an old people’s home, a long way away, where none of the other nurses would know. The baby was born on New Year’s day that year, and she called him Patrick, after her uncle who died in a car crash, back home. She thought it might please her mother. But her mother was just angry. Her mother just wanted her to get the baby adopted and forget about him and not tell anyone.
But then there was a problem, a medical complication. Patrick had a skin rash, and the doctors were worried in case it was something she’d picked up during the pregnancy. So Patrick could not be adopted straight away as they had all agreed. The plan changed. For a whole year he was fostered, with a very nice lady in Cheam, which meant that she could go down and visit. She had to pay for his care, which took the bulk of her wages, but at least she could go down and see him on her days off, taking her baby out to the park for a stroll.
Then the Church Adoption Society finally found a family who would take Patrick. They were just the sort of people who she’d want for his adopted parents: the husband was a judge, and he would have a good home, and get a proper education, and the best chance in life, which is all she wanted for him. Because she couldn’t keep him herself as she didn’t have any money, and mother didn’t have any money, and in any case, her mother was totally unsupportive, just telling her that she had no choice and that she must give him up.
So she explained, Patrick’s first birthday was the next day, And he’d been with the family for a month, and they obviously adored him, and it sounded as if he was going to be happy with them.. It was as good as it could be. But when she came off duty that evening, there was a message to call the lady from the Adoption Society. Although all the legal paperwork for adoption takes three months, the adopting parents were insisting that they needed to know now whether they could keep him. They wanted her to make up her mind, forever, before his first birthday. They didn’t want her to change her mind, and they aren’t prepared to wait until the three months were completed.
She felt like they were forcing her to choose once and for all. It was a terrible moment, standing there with the phone, and the lady from the Adoption Society waiting on the line. The lady was very apologetic, but she needed an answer. For a long time Susan just couldn’t say a word, she was too upset. Finally, in the smallest voice, she said yes, and the lady said she didn’t expect her to say any more, and she was really sorry, and that was it.
He took it really well. He didn’t seem shocked, or angry. He waited until she’d finished telling him the story, and then said he wished she told him before. Then he made a suggestion. She could change her mind. She could ring the lady back and say that she was going to keep the baby, and that the pair of them could bring him up together. She was shocked, because it was not an option she has even considered.. For a moment, she imagined a different future. Marriage, bring up Patrick together, in a family, her family. But then reality set in.
It was a new relationship. He hadn’t asked her to marry him. They didn’t have any money, they didn’t have a house, they were a trainee doctor and a trainee nurse. And things might not work out for them: she was not sure what she felt about him. She couldn’t be sure. She knew her mother did not approve of this man, she’d made that quite clear. She’d already let her mother down once, and she couldn’t do it again. And she would be gambling with Patrick’s future: he was in a brilliant situation now, and she couldn’t risk that. She’d given her word and it was too late to go back on it.
She’d always been good at accepting the inevitable. Her parents’ divorce, coming to England, her mother struggling for money, the indignities, the harsh life of a student nurse. Through every trauma, she was the sort of person who didn’t cry over spilt milk. All her life, she lived with what happened, and made the best of it.
She was Susan, my mother; he was William – Bill to her – my father. It was December 31st 1962. She signed the papers, and her son was given up for adoption. On June 12th 1964 my parents married in Boston. In 1966, I was born, and in 1971, my brother James. For the next twenty years, so far as we or anyone know, I was her eldest son. Her first pregnancy was never mentioned again.
* * * * *
Adoption stories are quest narratives. For example, the grown up child tracing the birth parent, almost always the mother. They have come to a stage in their life when they need to know about their origins: often it’s a point of transition: becoming a teenager, becoming a parent, or following the death of an adoptive parent. Or else the couple who realise that their life is incomplete without a child and who fight to find and keep a child orphaned by circumstances or abandonment. In the modern era, it’s hard to find a child for adoption, harder still to find a baby. Adoption narratives
are slices of real life which succeed brilliantly as drama. They ooze human interest. They involve a journey – to find information, to overcome bureaucratic obstacles. Often they include literal travel across the country or across the globe. In each case, the protagonist’s life seems to them incomplete until their union with an unknown third party is achieved. At the end of the journey there is a different quest: a struggle for emotional connection and to establish a viable and lasting new relationship. Both narratives, in most versions, are about gaining: gaining knowledge, gaining a family, gaining closure.
Less common are the stories of loss. In the wonderful collection Family Wanted, there are ten stories of adopted children finding their birth parents and there are nine stories of parents adopting babies or young children. But there are only five stories of parents – all mothers – giving a child up for adoption, and these are the saddest ones.
Since legal adoption was first introduced in 1926 (1930 in Scotland), there have been over 750,000 adoptions in the UK. Approximately half a million British women have given up a child to strangers.
For the first fifty years of adoption, the dominant ethos was secrecy. Because of the stigma of illegitimacy, it was felt to be in the child’s interest to conceal all the details of origins. There could be no contact. The mother had to give up her baby forever, with no possibility of tracing her child in future.
Sometimes, couples give up a child: perhaps because they aren’t married, or they cannot cope with another child, or because the child is disabled, and they cannot imagine parenting a disabled child. Every year, a handful of children with restricted growth are given up for adoption. More often, a single woman gives up her child, because her circumstances make it impossible for her to be a parent. In the 1960s, there were few single parents in Britain, and unmarried mothers were seen as moral failures and a social scourge. The choice of keeping a child and caring for it alone was almost inconceivable for a young woman.
The mother who gives up her baby has a difficult relationship with the couple who takes on her child. She owes them gratitude, for giving her baby the support and security she cannot provide. But she feels jealousy that they are able to have the relationship of love and care which she would like for herself. They are enjoying her perfect son or daughter for their own. It seems unjust. Throughout the rest of her life, she will imagine the life which her child is living, invisible to her. No wonder Polly Toynbee claims that a birth mother might “harbour secret enmity against the couple who took her child from her.”[vi]
* * * * *
It was only after my father died that I finally sat down with my mother and heard the whole story from her own mouth. I came to visit her in her new house for the first time. Several years after being widowed, she had finally managed to leave our family home behind. It felt strange, to see the familiar books and furniture in a different building, one which held no memories for me, and which my father had never seen. It was almost as if the new location meant that my mother and I could have a new relationship: we could be two adults together, Sue and Tom, not just mother and son.
I arrived with my tape recorder, feeling self-conscious about my intrusion into Sue’s memories, and concerned that I was over-stepping an important line. I sat at her feet, with my notes and pointed my microphone in her direction, and smiled encouragingly. Start at the beginning, I suggested. Later, it would be my daughter who would transcribe the audio tape: she needed the money. She sat at the computer in our home in Gateshead and through the headphones came the voice of her grandmother in Aylesbury talking about events which had happened forty years previously.
She was a student nurse, at St. George’s Hospital, Tooting, aged twenty. In photographs she looks sweet and shy: tall and thin and olive-skinned, with a plait of long black hair, often tied up in a bun. The film Breakfast at Tiffany’s had just been released, and in my mind’s eye, Susan Raffel is not unlike Audrey Hepburn, although less reckless, more demure. She got asked out often. Knowing nothing of men, except that they weren’t to be trusted, she was scared. After her divorce, her mother had had no further male companions, and she hadn’t told her daughters much about love and sex. So when men became too attentive, Sue simply stopped seeing them. She was scared of something happening. And then it did. He was a doctor from Argentina, a rather forceful older man, and he got the better of her. Doctors and Nurses was a familiar game, which he had probably played before. First she was too polite, and then it got to the point where she couldn’t defend herself. It was her first time with anyone, and then she was pregnant and terrified.
Morning sickness and terror forced her to go to Matron. Hearing the whole story, Matron believed that Sue was the victim, not the floozy, and decided to support her. No doubt this was a familiar tale. The doctor was confronted – insisted Sue had been consenting – but provided £100 to cover any expenses. Matron had a friend, Welsh like herself, who ran a nursing home near Hampton Court, and so Sue went to work there as a nursing assistant, and stayed, hidden away from her colleagues for the duration of her pregnancy.
Matron had insisted that no one be told. She informed Sue that she’d only have her back at the Hospital if it never became common knowledge. But Sue’s mother had to know, and Sheila was furious: livid, horrified and upset. Sue tried to explain to her mother that this wasn’t something she’d asked for, but Sheila was not convinced. She said that she couldn’t help her. Sue replied that she wasn’t asking for help. Having no money, Sheila was in no position to help out anyway. Sue felt awful that she’d let her mother down, and the two hardly spoke during the entire pregnancy.
It was a lonely time. Sue had told her friends that she was nursing her sick mother, and saw no one. Her only friends were the old folks and other staff, and she lived on her own in a little room at the home, lonely and miserable. But she didn’t want to go the Mother and Baby Unit. She’d been there already. It was a terrible place, a charitable institution where the pregnant women were treated like scum. Rather than going to the Mother and Baby Unit in Barnet, she stayed working near Hampton Court until ten days before the birth. She absolutely hated it the time in Barnet. It was Christmas, and the food was ghastly. When the baby came, there were no friends and family to support her. An Irish sister from the Nursing Home visited her, and a few days later her mother Sheila arrived.
The baby was born with a rash, scabs and blisters covering his body. The doctors thought there must be something the matter, and mother and baby were put in isolation for two weeks. They found nothing wrong, but the mystery ailment meant that he could not be adopted straightaway. They worried that it might have been a viral problem, and that he might be blind, or deaf, or intellectually disabled, and they had to be certain before he was adopted. So Patrick had to be checked at Great Ormond Street every three months.
To start with, he stayed with Sue, and then he went to a foster mother in Cheam. By now Sue was back at work at St George’s. Sue’s nursing colleagues had already qualified. Sue was now six months behind, her former friends were aloof and superior, and she was left lonely in the midst of a new cohort of students. None knew of her situation. On her days off she used to visit her baby son. She was contributing £5 a week from her meagre student nurse pay to cover the costs. Once, her mother and her younger sister came up from Brighton to visit Patrick with Sue. The three of them had a day out together. They took Patrick out in the pram to a park in Cheam, and had sandwiches together for lunch. According to Sue, he was very charming, and lovely looking, and gurgly. It was the only time Sheila ever visited Patrick as a child.
In the year after Patrick’s birth, life almost returned to normal for my mother. She was living in an attic flat in Clapham with a friend from nursing. She even went out on a few dates with people from the hospital, although she never had a regular boyfriend. And then she met my father. He asked her out to dinner, and took her to the Café Royal with his best friend, David and his step-niece Sally Ford. Other dates followed, and Sue met the rest of William’s friends, and his family, including his father and step-mother down in Chislehurst.
The delay in the adoption meant that her baby was nearly a year old before his new parents were found. They asked to have him at the beginning of December. She had to go and see Patrick for the last time and say goodbye, never to see him again. He would be one on the first day of January, 1963. It would have been easier if she’d given him up immediately after birth. After a whole year she had bonded with him, and now she felt terrible letting him go.
Up to this point, my mother has told me the story fluently, telling me the details in a matter of fact way. But as Sue says these words, she stops in her tracks. Her eyes fill up with tears. I turn off the tape recorder as she sits there, silently weeping at this most painful of memories. I stand up and put my arms around my mother, and for a while, we say nothing.
* * * * *
In Britain, the story is rarer now. Three changes have almost cut off the supply of unwanted babies. The advent of oral contraceptives meant women could take more control of their fertility and were less likely to fall pregnant. The legalisation of abortion in 1967 gave women the option to terminate pregnancy and opt out of parenthood. Finally, the change in sexual mores in the late Sixties and Seventies has gradually removed the stigma of illegitimacy. Where I live, on Tyneside, there are now more babies born to unmarried parents than there are to married parents, to the horror of the Christian Institute and the Daily Mail. With three out of four marriages ending in divorce, and with cohabitation having even less durability, many children end up in single parent households, almost all headed by women. Children available for adoption are now more likely to be the ones who the state removes from their unsuitable or substance abusing birth parents.
The disappearance of the unwanted baby, and the fact that many middle class women and men delay starting a family until they have established a successful career, highlights the new problem of infertility. Fertility declines with age. Just as more couples are discovering that they can’t conceive naturally, so abandoned children become scarce.
In other developed countries, inter-country adoption has played a major role in matching the unwanted children of poor countries with would-be parents in rich countries. Africa, Asia, South America and Eastern Europe export thousands of their orphan infants. In 2003, 40,000 children went to new homes in the West, half of them to the United States. Norway, per capita, has more trans-national adoptions than anywhere else in the world, importing children from more than 20 different foreign countries. Although there are many couples in the UK who have succeeded in adopting from overseas – several of my friends now have Chinese daughters – the process is made hugely complex and laborious here by the prejudice of the social work profession and the bureaucratic obstacles insisted on by the state.
The outcome of the lack of domestic children for adoption, and the difficulties placed in the way of inter-country adoption, has been the extraordinary growth of the fertility industry in Britain. In 2003, over 10,000 children were born as a result of assisted conception, the equivalent of one in 80 births. According to the HFEA, that year there were 38,251 cycles of treatment, each of which costs around £4000. The turnover of the private and public sector fertility services must amounts to more than £160 million per year. As well as this huge financial cost to the state and to individuals, there is an additional unseen cost in terms of the health risks of the medical procedures and the psychological impact of repeated attempts, not always ultimately successful, to conceive and bring a baby to term.
But my mother fell pregnant in spring 1961, when all of this was unimaginable.
* * * * *
I find it hard to imagine a world where illegitimacy was so stigmatised.
I turned teenager in the early eighties, when there was no question of saving sex for marriage. I didn’t know anybody who was intent on preserving their virginity until the right person came along. Soon after the beginning of my second term at Cambridge, I fell into a warm and friendly love affair which lasted for a year and a day. Other romances, flings and fumbles followed. I felt like an adult, though in many ways I hadn’t grown up at all.
We all knew about contraception, although in the carefree days before HIV that usually meant hoping that the woman was on the pill. A friend in college had found herself impossibly pregnant, and my best friend supported her through the trauma of a termination. My friend Kate had a one night stand before going off to practise her Catalan in Barcelona, only to return to the UK several months later, having discovered that she was pregnant. When she decided to keep the baby, we all found it the most exciting and natural thing in the world.
Kate and her new partner Bruce shared a house with me and my new partner Lucy. We were in our early twenties, and full of radical optimism. We would do everything differently, and better. We protested against Cruise missiles at Molesworth, we sold leftist newspapers and feminist books at Grapevine Radical Bookshop, and I started a job the week I graduated as an offset litho printer at Cambridge Free Press, another workers’ cooperative. That autumn Lucy fell pregnant too, and this time it wasn’t a mistake, it was our plan. It seemed a great thing to do.
Less great was the moment that I fell into bed with Judy, a woman I worked with at the print shop. The word “fell” implies a lack of control, but in fact it was just a lack of responsibility on my part. Naïve and idealistic as we were, Lucy and I felt it was progressive to have an open relationship. Clumsy and thoughtless as I was, I took her at her word, but then did not tell her quite how open I was being until it was too late. It was almost inevitable that Judy would become pregnant. In the word of one of the soul singers whom we listened to at the time, “now’s the time to pay for the fun you’ve had”.
So now, by my twenty-second birthday, I had fathered two children – Ivy, born June 7th and then Robert, born November 19th. I felt a huge sense of guilt and shame. Two women felt a corresponding sense of betrayal. There were many tears. There was the awful, stomach-churningly difficult task of telling my mother and father that they were to be grandparents for a second time in a year, after they’d already been so shocked by the first announcement. And ever since then, I have had the challenge of explaining how I come to have two children whose birthdays are less than six months apart.
There is a certain echo between my mother having an unplanned child aged 21, and me having two children aged 22, one of whom was unplanned. When I told her about fathering another child, I already knew what had happened to her at the same age, although the parallel was certainly not uppermost in my mind. Perhaps that meant that my parents could not be as angry or as shocked as they might otherwise have been.
But in most ways, things were very different in 1988 from 1961. The majority of people would not stigmatise Lucy and Judy for having children outside marriage. Neither mother ever considered giving up her child for adoption. While it’s preferable to grow up with both parents together, neither Ivy not Robert has suffered psychological harm because their parents are not living together. Today, single parents can rely on some measure of support from the state, however inadequate. As an absent father, I provided child maintenance, and continued to have a relationship with my son, despite living in a different city. I am now equally close to both my children, who each thrive at university. The world in which we have lived our unconventional family lives is a very different one to that which forced my mother to make the terrible decision to give her first son away forever.
* * * * *
When I was a child, I either wanted to be a doctor, like my father, or an artist. My Sri Lankan grandfather Douglas Raffel was an artist. Two of his paintings hung side by side on the wall of the sitting room, at the back end of the house, the part with 1717 written in bricks on the gable end, with the leaded windows and the view of the main road. There were others by him around the house, but these were the best. They were proper paintings, which looked like what they were meant to, unlike my own unsatisfactory drawings or the pebbles that I incessantly painted and varnished and gave to people as Christmas parents.
I never met my grandfather Douglas, although I had seen the photograph of a handsome man with the dark moustache and bushranger hat who had lived in the jungle. In the sitting room cupboards I found an old tobacco tin which contained a few pairs of boars tusks from animals he had shot, and war time medals from his time in the Reserves, when all Ceylon feared that the Japanese would arrive at any minute. These glamorous souvenirs bolstered my fantasy of a relative in the Indiana Jones mould.
When my mother, her sisters and her mother left Ceylon in 1954, they took several of Douglas’ paintings with them. Granny had divorced Douglas several years earlier. Now she was departing for a new life in Britain. For my mother and aunt, these tropical images must have been a connection to their home, as well as to the father they would never see again. Later, when the family were struggling for money, he sent more paintings, on salvaged plywood. He told them they should sell the paintings to raise funds but of course it was a patrimony from which they refused to be parted.
The two landscapes which hung in the sitting room are the ones I’d like to inherit. One is a beach scene from Hambantota, on Ceylon’s south coast. The second is of a watering hole, in the Ruhunu jungle, where Douglas often went to paint and photograph. When as a young boy I gazed at this pair of tropical landscapes on those endless Sunday afternoons they seemed to offer two alternative views of an exotic world which I had never experienced. The beach scene was framed by sinuous palms, and shot through with golden light. Outrigger fishing boats launched through the rolling breakers into the cerulean sea, and the beach was filled with people and activity. The Ruhunu picture was altogether calmer, almost sombre. It was twilight, and the sky was purple with gathering night. A line of cranes arced across the evening clouds, and animals gathered to drink at the watering hole: there were no humans in view. Whereas the first picture was exotic, reminding me of the Robert Louis Stevenson books and poems that I loved, the second image was pregnant with a foreboding to which I was strangely attracted, as if things were ending or something awful was about to happen.
Less than fifty miles away from the somnolence of my Home Counties Sunday afternoons, another boy was leading a different life, and occasionally wondering about where he came from.
* * * * *
For the first fifty years of state-sanctioned adoption, the dominant ethos was of secrecy and the clean break. Adopted children had no means of searching for their birth parents. The picture changed with the Children’s Act of 1975. Now for the first time, despite the protests of the adoption agencies and adoptive parents, children were entitled to receive information about their adoption once they reached the age of 18. At once, it become much easier for children to trace their mother or father, if they wanted to do so. Another change in 1991 meant that birth relatives could add their names to the Adoption Contact Register, so that children would know that they were willing to be found. Now searching by birth parents is also becoming more common.
It was a social researcher, John Triseliotis, who played the pivotal role in this humane development. His study, In Search of Origins, followed the stories of adoptees who had tried to trace their birth families. His data showed how important it was for people to understand the circumstances of their adoption. According to Triseliotis, without knowledge about their background, adoptees were at risk of what he called “genealogical bewilderment”, a sense of confusion and uncertainty which made it difficult to feel secure. By discovering why they had been given up for adoption, and by learning something about the physical and social characteristics of their parents, his respondents felt that their sense of self was complete for the first time. Triseliotis found that the outcome of search and reunion was generally positive, and not harmful to the adoptee, the birth parents, or the adoptive parents. 80% of respondents had no regrets about having traced their origins, and felt that it had been helpful.
In her 1985 book Lost Children, the journalist Polly Toynbee was more sceptical about the benefits of adopted children tracing their mothers. She pointed out that often adopted children faced negative reactions from their birth parents who did not want to know anything about them. They might discover that they were the product of rape or incest. Commonly, women who were forced to give up children were from troubled backgrounds, and their children were brought up by more secure middle class families: the reunion was therefore sometimes a meeting of very different people. Sometimes, mothers were still in very difficult circumstances. Toynbee’s book is full of stories of feckless or even criminal birth parents, and failed efforts at contact. Rather than the optimistic story of reunion, where the adopted child is able to form a bond with his or her birth family, alongside the existing bond with the adoptive parents and siblings, it is just as likely to end unhappily. The birth parent might reject their adult child. Or there might be a positive reunion, but then no lasting bond. Differences could be too acute, or the adopted child might realise they had more in common with their adopted family than their birth parents.
Biologists love adoption stories, just as they love the “natural experiment” of twins, because these family dramas appear to cast light on the role of genetics in forming personality. If an adopted child fails to be shaped by the mould of their new family – for example in their academic achievements or in their behaviour – and reverts to the pattern of their birth family, then this is seized on triumphantly as evidence of the dominance of nature over nurture.
The story of separation or abandonment followed by eventual reunion is a narrative which predates genetics. From Oedipus to Shakespeare to Oliver Twist, orphans have been growing up in unfamiliar settings, only later discovering their true identity and by doing so, becoming complete and fulfilled as individuals. This plot line has a seductive pull. Moreover, it is easy for adoptees to ascribe their feelings of not belonging to the fact of adoption. The truth is that many children feel they do not belong with their parents, and many people yearn to discover a glamorous alternative reality which makes sense of their difficulties in fitting in to the world.
The social scientist in me is resistant to the lure of the biological. We sociologists have been trained to regard human nature as more of a blank slate than a pre-programmed destiny. When separated identical twins turn out to be so similar, we mutter about coincidence and suggest that the reporter is being selective, highlighting the parallels and ignoring the differences. This scepticism is shared by Polly Toynbee. She suggests that the tendency of reunited adoptees to stress similarity is an unconscious way of affirming connection, rather than genuine evidence of genetic influence:
“Almost every adopted child I have met has fallen upon the looks of their long-lost family and claimed to find remarkable resemblances.” (Toynbee, 63)
Like most social scientists, Toynbee is influenced by her social and political worldview to underplay biology and place more weight on society:
“We all know how very different natural brothers and sisters can be, products of the same gene pool emerging as very dissimilar human beings, showing how random and arbitrary inheritance can be.” (Toynbee, 198)
The familiar story of blood ties makes us overlook inconvenient evidence of the importance of social connection. For example, less is heard about those children who feel more at home in their new family than in their family of birth. Nor is it automatic that an adopted child would want to trace their origins at all. Many do not. The problem now might be that people feel a pressure to search: because they can, they do, something like 80% of them. In his beautiful book about the search for his birth mother, Jeremy Harding starts by saying “it wasn’t obvious to me that the blood tie mattered.”[vii] (2006, vii). His story ends happily with a successful reunion with a family of Irish siblings. But by the end of his quest, it is his adoptive mother with whom he becomes most fascinated.
* * * * *
A side effect of the public fascination with visible disabilities such as restricted growth is that television producers regularly decide that dwarfism would be a great subject for a documentary. Several times a year, I get a telephone call or email from an enthusiastic researcher wanting to know whether I would interested in participating in a programme about dwarfs in pantomimes, or dwarfs and sex, or teenage dwarfs, or sporty dwarfs or lonely dwarfs or dwarfs who have had limb-lengthening, or dwarf strippers, or dwarfs who want dwarf babies, or genetics and dwarfs or some variation on these themes. By now, I have enough experience to realise that many of these proposals will never result in a film. I have also cringed at several voyeuristic and sensationalist treatments of what to me is a very ordinary way of life.
Several of the documentaries have been more successful.. In 1971, my whole family featured in Lord Snowden’s film Born to be Small. I was five, and have no memory of the filming, only of walking into primary school the day after the broadcast and being hailed as a TV star. The film that changed all our lives was broadcast in the BBC Forty Minutes strand in 1986: called Short Stories, it featured several restricted growth people talking about their lives. One of them was me, pictured at university and with my parents.
Heather Galpin watched the film, and knew at once that this was the family of her son Matthew’s birth mother. She had kept in touch with Matthew’s foster mother, and knew of Sue’s marriage to a restricted growth doctor. Coinciding with the broadcast, the Mail on Sunday magazine ran a feature about our family. Heather visited her son, brandishing a copy of the article. “You know how you said you didn’t want to trace your birth mother?” she said. Now he didn’t feel as if he had any option. Once he’d seen Sue’s picture, he felt he had to see his mother. Or rather, our mother.
In the magazine photograph, our family were standing outside the front of our house. Matthew could just make out the sign which said Manor Cottage. So he wrote to Mrs Shakespeare, Manor Cottage, Aylesbury Bucks. The letter arrived, despite the absence of a village or street name, but we were away on holiday, so there was a delay.
When Sue opened the envelope, it took her a few minutes to work out who this person was that was writing. Then it dawned on her. This was her son. Her long lost child, getting in touch after all this time. Matthew had written a bit about himself, and asked if it was possible for them to meet. He didn’t want to upset her or her family,
Sue felt a mixture of emotions: excitement, pleasure, but also anxiety. Of course, she wanted to see him, but she was fearful of people’s reactions when this long-hidden story finally came out. Bill was pleased for her, and encouraged her to make contact, but they both agreed that it would be better to keep it quiet for a while.
A few days later, Sue went up to London and visited Matthew’s house in Shepherds’ Bush. She went up on the 9.45am train from Aylesbury, and walked from the tube, the A to Z in hand. The door bell wasn’t working, so she knocked on the door. When it opened, she was surprised to find that Matthew was shorter than she had expected. He had a big smile on his face as they shook hands. To her, he did not look like anyone in her family, although he had olive skin. Mother and son sat down and had coffee. They talked for three hours: Matthew told her all about his childhood and his life. She had a hunger for information. But they did not touch on the deeper emotions: it was an exchange of news which avoided intense emotions, and they hardly talked about the adoption itself. Belatedly, they ate lunch together, before Sue had to leave at 3pm to go home and cook for her older sister and brother-in-law who were staying at Manor Cottage. Matthew gave her a lift to the tube, and they hugged and kissed as they parted. They both felt churned up, but they were sure they would now meet again.
As Matthew explained to Sue, his family background was very different from that of the Shakespeares. His family was loud and unruly and disorganised, where we were sedate and conventional and ordered.. Whereas my brother James and I went to boarding school and were expected to study hard, Matthew went to Holland Park Comprehensive, and hung out around West London. He had a motorbike and was a bit of a stoner. There was no pressure to do his homework or succeed at school – no one seemed to care what he did. For a while, he wanted to become a vet. Then several weeks before the exams, his father had had a heart attack and died suddenly, which put paid to any chance of academic success. Matthew left school with three O levels, and one A level in Art. He went and served an apprenticeship as a blacksmith. Sue felt let down by this. The one thing she had most wanted was that her son should have a good education.
It wasn’t that the Galpins weren’t privileged, it was just that they were more bohemian than the Shakespeares, a reversal of the normal trend that adopted babies move from chaotic origins to more regular adoptive families. Matthew’s adoptive father Hugh was a circuit judge, and his mother Heather taught English as a foreign language and was interested in psychoanalysis. Hugh and Heather were first cousins. They both loved a crowd, filling the house with lodgers, writers, artists, hitchhikers, and students from Thailand. It was chaotic. While the Shakespeares were a nuclear family of four who ate together every night, there were up to a dozen in the Galpin household, and they rarely sat down to dinner together except at Christmas. Mostly people would fend for themselves. Every summer, Hugh Galpin took his six weeks annual leave in a single block. He would pack the family into a big estate car and they would ramble around the south of France, where they would swim in the rivers and visit churches and dolmens – Hugh was very interested in archaeology, an influence which Matthew absorbed.
There were three children in the family. Pippa, a natural daughter had come first. Then, there was the tragedy of two still births. On average, first cousins share a quarter of their DNA: the high chance of getting two copies of the same deleterious gene accounts for the fertility problems and increased risk of impaired children in such marriages. After the trauma of losing two pregnancies, finally the Galpins opted for adoption. First they picked Patrick, who came to them nearly a year old. Like most adoptive parents, they changed his name. First, they called him Pucky. Their daughter Pippa wanted her new brother to be called Light or Treetop. Eventually they settled for Matthew. Later they adopted Anna. She came to them only a few weeks after her birth.
From the start, Heather and Hugh were open about the adoptions. The vast majority of adopting parents are, Matthew felt different: his parents told him he was special, because he had been chosen to join the family, but he was never sure he really belonged. He did not look like a Galpin: whereas his father was 6’6” and skinny and pale, Matthew was short and stocky and dark and tanned easily. Unlike the rest of his family, Matthew liked art and sports. He was a dreamy kid who felt a romantic sense of difference, a strange feeling of isolation. He was part of the family, but at the same time he was on his own. Sometimes he felt like one of his mother’s waifs and strays who always hung around the house. It was a mystery where he might have come from and what his story had been. His parents offered to tell him more of the details, but he always refused to hear them. He did not want to rock the boat or cause problems. He thought it might be too difficult to deal with.
One unusual thing. His grandmother had a lady doctor, Dr Parker. When Matthew met her, he had a strange and electrifying reaction to her. She was a tall woman with olive skin, and she wore her hair in a bun at the back of her head. The child Matthew Luck Galpin found this woman doctor intoxicating. It was like seeing a ghost. When he met his birth mother for the first time, she too was olive-skinned, and wearing her hair in a bun, as she always had.
* * * * *
My mother was a very traditional parent. From her own mother, Sue had learned a parenting style which was strict and distant. From her nursing training, she had developed a business-like way of relating to babies and children. Having given up her first born, perhaps she had learned to suppress her instinct to bond with her babies. According to her, children were meant to be seen and not heard. My brother and I – or perhaps it was just me – were often told that we were selfish and ungrateful and deserved to go to bed hungry if we made a fuss, or if we didn’t eat our supper. Although in many ways my mother was kind and loving, she was also busy looking after my father and my grandmother, and visiting old ladies and playing a leading role in the parish council, the school governors, Christian Aid, and the church. Not feeling as if I had much of her time or attention, I resented sharing what I did have of her.
I remember a moment of terror when Mum announced one day that we should perhaps offer to adopt an orphan, one of the Vietnamese Boat People. Our family was privileged, and we had a duty to do something to help. It must have been in about 1976, when Operation Baby Lift flew more than 3,000 orphaned Vietnamese babies to America, Europe and Australia for adoption by western families. Aged nine, I was horrified at the idea of having another infant in the family. Whether or not my mother was serious, nothing came of it.
Ten years later, the four of us were together at home in Stoke Mandeville one autumn weekend, when my mother said that she had something to tell my brother and me. It was clear that this was an important announcement. Sue appeared ill at ease, and my father was on hand to provide support and encouragement for her. Ours was not a family which went in for big debates or emotional exchanges, so this was an unusual situation. I am sure the thought crossed my mind that this was the moment when our parents told us they were going to divorce. I’d imagined that scene from the stories my schoolfriends told me. But the tale which my mother explained that day in 1986 was very different, though no less momentous. It marked not an ending, but a new beginning.
While participating in the Forty Minutes “Short Stories” documentary had been fun – there’s nothing like being followed around by a TV crew for a week to bolster your self-importance – there had been humiliating moments. The director came up to Cambridge to film my typical undergraduate lifestyle. My friends and I hammed up dreadfully. When we were asked to go punting on the Cam, I engineered falling over-board. When I cooked rice and lentil curry, a joint circulated the room, shared with the film crew but out of shot of the panning camera. To my everlasting shame, the documentary also included my mother’s horror at arriving in my Pembroke College rooms at the end of term, to find not only that everything was unpacked and in disarray, but also that I had recently let a friend bleach my hair in an unbecoming patchwork. It made me look, in the opinion of my friends, like an ocelot. In the opinion of my mother, broadcast to a television audience of several million, it made me look like an idiot. The haircut was gone within weeks, but the humiliating refrain of “Thomas! How could you?!” was to echo in my ears for the remainder of my student days.
But these indignities were forgotten when my mother explained about another family who had been watching the programme, somewhere in West London. Amidst her tears and our astonishment, Sue explained that she had once made a terrible mistake, the worst in her life. As a young student nurse, not long arrived in Britain, she had been seduced by an older man – a doctor – and had become pregnant. Alone in London, poor, and desperate, she had agreed to having her son adopted, and had never seen him since. Hers was a private tragedy. Apart from her sisters and her mother and my father, virtually no one knew about Matthew’s existence. And now recently he had made contact, out of the blue, thanks to the BBC documentary.
Our reaction to this bombshell was very low key. I think my brother and I took our cue from our father. He was clearly entirely supportive of my mother. He was sitting there calmly. At one point, he took her hand. He had known the story all along. He wanted her to be happy, and would place no obstacle to her renewed relationship with Matthew. After his death, I learned from my mother later that his acceptance concealed considerable anxiety. He feared that Sue would now abandon him, and that he would be neglected because of the overwhelming dominance of her relationship with Matthew.
Rather than being hurt or angry or dismayed, my brother and I easily slipped into a similar attitude. We almost took it for granted. More than anything, it was a fascinating development. The most striking impression I have of that moment of revelation was the grief that my mother felt. I had always thought of her as a very strong character. She was more often seen angry than distressed. The greatest surprise to us was the growing awareness of her vulnerability and shame. After she told us her story – or at least the broad outlines, which was all we learned at the time –we each hugged her firmly, told her it was fine by us, that we were happy to have a new brother, that it was positively exciting, that we would be okay, that we were glad at last to know.
And so family life resumed. Matthew down came to visit. On the first occasion, the engine of his car started smoking on the journey down from London, finally bursting into flames near Amersham. Not for the last time, he was late for lunch, eventually turning up ninety minutes later in a police car, his hair full of smuts and hands black. Later, Sue drove him back to London.
We went to visit him. He and my mother developed a relationship, which first was intense and close, almost a love affair. They would walk hand in hand through the woods. It felt as if Sue needed to hold onto the son she had given away, that she still had a deep wound from having given him up. This intensity was not what Matthew was looking for at all. He had drifted into contact and did not want to join another family. He was concerned about Sue, who wanted him to be there all the time, and would ring him up or write to him regularly. But he was unable to give her what she wanted. Like an unrequited lover, Sue found this hard to bear. At one point, my father wrote to Matthew, secretly, asking him to make more of an effort, saying “you are the most important thing in the world to Sue, and she is the most important thing in the world to me, and please try and communicate with her more”.
Now she had him back after more than two decades, Sue wanted Matthew all to herself. She would not allow him to meet her mother, the woman who had forced Sue to have him adopted. For five years, Sheila did not know that her oldest grandson had made contact. They only met twice: once at Manor Cottage, and once at my father’s funeral. The first time, she said “Let me have a look at you” and Matthew turned round so she could see him from all sides. “Yes, you’re a Raffel”, she announced, seeing something of his grandfather in him.
Later, years later, Matthew’s relationship with our mother would became more easy and routine, and then finally fell into a pattern similar to that of my brother and I, now living far away from home. . She would complain at being neglected and excluded from our lives. We would call her up and invite her to stay. She would be perennially anxious about our ability to cope, about our careers, about our health and wellbeing, in all the obvious maternal ways, which feel like control but are the only way she knows how to care.
Perhaps our lack of jealousy was explained by the stage in our lives when Matthew reappeared. I was 20, and my brother was 15. I was more than ready to leave home and become independent from Mum and Dad. Because we had been at boarding school since the age of nine, we had made the break with home many years before. We could think more objectively, and be pleased that our mother’s twenty year injury was now healing. It was almost a relief, to me at least, that my mother had another powerful emotional relationship to distract her from trying to organise my life. For me, discovering I was the middle son, not the eldest, was paradoxically liberating. My irresponsibility was justified. There was someone for me to look up to. I didn’t have to look out, in the same way, for either my younger brother, or my mother. I could practise talking about “Matthew, my older brother”. In turn, he had become an elder brother, having been until then a middle brother. For the first time, he had two brothers to go with his two sisters. He told me it felt brilliant, but curious.
I was envious that Matthew’s relationship with our mother was so much more equal than James and mine, and it sometimes disturbs me still. Because he came into her life fully formed, Matthew was able to relate to her on the same level, as an adult. Sue couldn’t mother him, in the way she continued to try to mother us. He was to make it increasingly clear that she had to take him or leave him as he was. He was the way he was, and she couldn’t change him. If Matthew smoked roll-up cigarettes, or rode a motorbike, or had a bohemian lifestyle, then she would have to accept that. No embarrassing “How could you!” remonstrations for him. He would call her Sue, not Mum. After a while, I cautiously and gradually emulated him.
And there were pangs also about Sue’s extraordinary need to be with Matthew, and to engage with Matthew, and to connect with Matthew. She talked about him all the time. He went to Sri Lanka with her, and met all the relatives, and toured the country for weeks, and it seemed to me that he had her all to himself. James and I had made the Sri Lanka trip a few years previously, so we hadn’t really missed out. Yet, I still felt strangely short-changed, as if his was a different and richer access to this cultural tradition that mine, because we had still been children, and we had only gone for a fortnight, and it was only the two of them on their trip, and they had inhabited the country not as tourists, but as prodigal travellers returning to take up their birthright.
But as the years have gone on, things have altered. Time, and the accumulation of shared stories and memories, is crucial to kinship. Most adoption reunions do not go as well as ours, but often that is because they do not have time to grow and the relationship never becomes genuine, deep and sustained[viii]. After twenty years, Matthew’s relationship with my mother has settled down and normalised. What had formerly been a closely guarded secret is now common knowledge. After my father’s death, the asymmetry of her three sons has become less marked. Her six grandchildren have equal status, because whoever talks about half-cousins? And above all, Matthew and I have grown closer, our theoretical bond of relatedness becoming a practical and emotional one. Living far from London, I often need somewhere to stay when I come to the capital for meetings. Over the last decade, it has become automatic to stay with Matthew and his family. I have now spent countless evenings talking, exchanging recipes, playing with his children. We have followed each other’s lives through divorce and new jobs and hopes and failures. I am closer to him than I am to any other member of my family, because we have very similar interests and concerns and outlooks. We have been brothers now for half our lives. We have grown into relatedness.
Matthew, who had always felt different, latched onto his Sri Lankan heritage very quickly. The month-long trip with our mother and a growing fascination with the work of Michael Ondaatje helped, but it was food that proved the strongest connection. Matthew has always been a great cook, and has relished having a whole new repertoire of exotic food to investigate. Apart from cooking, that ubiquitous Sri Lankan trait – our other main topic of conversation is art. There were no artists in Matthew’s adoptive family, so he felt vindicated when he discovered that his birth family included many painters. After completing his training as a blacksmith, Matthew had decided that what he really wanted was to be an artist. He went to Chelsea and then the Royal Academy. Now he juggles architectural metalwork, which enables him to make a living for himself and his family, and fine art, which is his vocation. He is a visiting tutor at various Art Schools, as well as making his own work. Unlike the showy, media friendly artists of his generation like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, Matthew has a low profile and an irregular income. But I find his strikingly original and intelligent conceptual installations intriguing and respect the integrity of his artistic journey.
I’ve also always loved art. The decision to study art history for A level was the best choice I made in my life. I have been a member of the Arts Council. I’ve curated several exhibitions of contemporary art and written critical essays for various artists, including Matthew. But the Raffel and Sproule artistic genes ended up, not with me, but with him.
* * * * *
After a busy morning at the University, I take the train south out of Newcastle. My daughter, coming to the end of her year working in London, meets me at Kings Cross. We head for the Hammersmith and City Line: me with my rucksack, dashing as usual, her coming more slowly behind, always annoyed at my pace. For once, the right tube train is waiting. A few stops before Shepherds Bush, I call Matthew’s wife Elaine to collect us. We’re hardly out of the tube station when the car pulls in, grinning mop haired girls sitting in the back, jumping up and down in their car seats with excitement.
My brother Matthew is having an exhibition, an installation with another artist in a space next to the river in Brentford. There’s a website, Liable to Flooding, and much excitement about the first chance for a long time to show work to an audience. The venue is a rough two storey building, a former workshop. Outside, there is a walled yard, with the Thames running by. Matthew and Alastair have turned the space into a kind of observatory. They are delighted to have found the local heron, guardian of the river, who stands and waits for his daily fish supper to be trapped by the retreating tide. A flash of kingfisher is a more fleeting visitor. Matthew has made a coracle out of abandoned satellite dishes: it floats in the water, hanging by chains from a pivoted beam, which arches over into the yard. At the other end of the pivoted beam there is a globe of bitumen. As the river rises and falls with the tide, the globe describes a wide arc from floor to roof. On the window sill is a skrying mirror, a disc of polished slate, after John Dee, the Elizabethan alchemist who lived down the river in Mortlake. On a stool there is a simple compass, a magnetised needle floating in a bowl. There is talk of alchemy, and shamanism.
At the opening, crowd of friends, relatives, students, artists and other visitors meet, jostle, enquire and observe. Matthew is at the centre of things, broad shouldered and beaming with relief to have opened on time and in order. Although he’s been part of the family twenty years, and knows us all, I’ve rarely met anyone in his adoptive family or wider social circle, except his partner and children. I suspect that he keeps people in boxes.
“This is my brother, Tom”, he says, introducing me over and over again. Every time he says it, I get a flash of belonging. People are interested, glad to meet my daughter and me, curious about where we’ve been all this time. Almost everyone says the same thing: that Matthew and I have exactly the same eyes. It’s what I want to hear. I tap Matthew on the shoulder as he passes:
“Did you know, we have the same eyes?”
“Yes, of course,” he says. “Don’t you remember? I would have known you as my brother anywhere.”
I don’t know if it’s the red wine, but I feel absurdly happy.
Now here’s Anna, Matthew’s younger sisters, also adopted. Her toenails are painted silver and she sips white wine. I’ve heard a lot about her, over the years: about her Irish actor husband, about how she became a mature student after a misspent youth, her burgeoning career as a lawyer. Immediately, we feel comfortable together, just as Matthew and I had connected effortlessly so many years before. We both feel outraged that we’ve never previously been allowed to meet. We blame Matthew, and his compartmentalised life. Anna’s astonished to hear that I’ve never been invited to any of the legendary Boat Race parties in Heather’s house by the Thames. She tells me about her move to a new solicitors’ partnership. She is full of excitement at a new role, a new employer, and a good company. I don’t know it yet, but within a fortnight, I am going to be needing her legal advice, faced with sudden and unexpected divorce. Across the yard I see an older woman, with curious eyes and a shock of white hair. As I turn to Anna, she nods in confirmation. This is Heather, the adoptive mother of whom I’ve heard so much. She looms large in Matthew and Elaine’s conversation. To my mother, she is part bogey woman and part good Samaritan, the other woman who brought up her son.
Heather shuffles over, almost shyly, and we greet each other warmly. We sit in the corner, and talk about how things turned out this way. She has more to tell me, details I don’t know. The two still births. Matthew’s godmother, who was a doctor who had worked with my father at St Georges. Matthew’s first wife Ine, who was also adopted. Sue, who had seemed hostile on first meeting. Heather seems kind, straightforward, different from the character I’ve imagined. She has played a difficult role.
Now someone else is saying hello to me, someone from a different world. For a moment, I can’t remember her name. Nobody ever reminds me of their name when we meet, assuming that because they remember me, I will remember them. I rarely do. Few people are as distinctive as me, and my memory is terrible. Then I remember that she is a clinical geneticist, later her name comes to me: Dr Caroline Ogilvie, from Guy’s and St Thomas’. Caroline is surprised to see me at an art opening in West London. She’s here because Matthew was her son Charlie’s tutor at art school. I explain that I’m here because Matt is my brother. But he’s Galpin and you’re Shakespeare, she queries. I have to provide the full explanation, and then inevitably we segue into the discussion of nature versus nurture.
To Caroline, steeped in biology, human nature is based in DNA. Two fifths of genes have an influence in the brain, and hence on the personality. She cites newspaper tales of children adopted into nice middle-class homes who follow the same criminal trajectory as their birth fathers. Perhaps she’d see Matthew’s artist grandfather as evidence that he was destined to be artistic, ignoring Grandfather Douglas’ other four non-artistic grandchildren. Caroline and I discuss how much DNA matters and what the mechanism of influence could be.
There’s something that has always bothered me: I explain to her how I have so much more in common with my half brother than my full brother. How can this be so? If you read the textbooks, I share 50% of my DNA with James, and only 25% with Matthew. Moreover, James and I share not just our genes, but also our upbringing. Caroline explains that the statistics for shared DNA are always averages. In practice, it could be that I share 50% of my DNA with Matthew, and only 25% with James. According to the latest psychological research, shared environment – home and parenting – account for less than 10% of personality. In any case, we both conclude, anyone who knows anything about families knows that just because you share your genes does not mean that you get on. In our case, despite the tangled skein of DNA and history which both links and divides us, we all do, these two families, these multiple mothers, this complex generation of siblings. We all get on. And in the end, that’s the miracle.