True or false: the ethics of writing reality as fiction

Just reading an article from the NY Times http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/17/books/review/Gates-t.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&partner=rss&emc=rss about Janet Frame (NZ author, subject of Jane Campion’s film An Angel At My Table) and her book Towards Another Summer, which has been published posthumasly.  It’s not arbitrary that the book came out after Frame’s death in 2004; she deliberately witheld it, saying it was ‘too personal’ to release during her life.  I think this must have been done to protect the other subjects of the book, who are based closely on real people, as if you’re ever read Frame’s autobiography, you’ll know that she isn’t concerned in the least about being open and honest about her life.

So reading this article (which is brilliant, by the way, check it out), got me thinking about something I very often worry about.  My English teacher in year 11 (second last year of highschool before university, if any non-Aussies are reading this) was instrumental in giving me confidence with my writing and showing me the correct path to follow to improve it.  For some reason, I wrote a short piece about my grandparents and handed it in to Mr P (should I use his real name?  Read on…)  It was about visiting my grandparents, various conversations we had, just giving a snapshot of their life and surroundings, and I remember describing their ‘nicotine-stained hallway’ which I thought was nothing special (they were chain smokers) but which Mr P thought was fantastic.  I said to him that I’d always wanted to write fantasy for young adults, but was always criticised for being to ‘cliche’.  He said I should follow this lead, write from life, as exemplified in the story about my grandparents.  Suddenly I realised, that’s it!  Write about what you know!  Why didn’t I take in that piece of wisdom when I watched that episode of Degrassi Junior High when Michelle has to make a presentation and she’s afraid, so Mr Raditch says, ‘just talk about what you know’.  Genius advice!

I thought I was free and clear and would be a published novelist in no time… but sadly, another more fundamental problem arose.  How do I write about what I know and the people I find fascinating without offending them?  At first I thought the solution might be simply to change people’s names.  But I realised very quickly that the detail with which I wanted to write about people was such that they would be identifiable without their names.  I constantly struggle with this idea of how to make these characters known to others, how to show them for how interesting and entertaining they are, without defaming or exposing the living individuals.  Even dead people are a struggle – I couldn’t write everything about, say, my grandmother, without a member of my family reading it and getting upset; the truth is painful, even if it’s not your own truth.  Most people are more private than me, I’ve discovered, and everyone has their own truth which usually differs from mine – truth, after all, is often heavily influenced by perception.  I toyed with this idea of just using bits and pieces from different characters to create new people, new lives, fictional ones.  But the fact remains, at least in my head, that truth, reality is deeper, more interesting, more relevant and rather more entertaining than fiction.  Why write about a fluffy, cliched fictional creature when the real one is right there in front of you for you to describe in complete detail, whose story you can tell in full, not having to make sloppy assumptions and guesses.

‘Interesting?  Yes, of course, people LOVE interesting writing!’ exclaims Elaine Benes (Seinfeld), upon her sudden realisation that she can write product descriptions without help from her boss.  As funny as it is, it’s so true: so many basic things are realised too late.  So it’s the realisation that makes the impact, provides the impetus to act.  Things are always there, have been there all along, it’s just up to us creators to realise them.  I realised something just as obvious in deciding to write from my own life.  Yet, as I say, I’m still at something of a standstill.

It’s odd though, now I think about it – I’ve been writing from life my entire life.  From the age of 10, I’ve kept a diary.  Not an everyday, ‘Dear Diary, Today I did something incredibly mundane which is of no interest even to me let alone others…’  No, it began as ‘Dear Diary…’ of course, because, at 10, you think this is how it’s supposed to be written, and I had this sort of obsessive idea in my head that made me want to organise my life, record every moment, no matter how seemingly mundane.  I always knew at some level that I’d want to know when I got older, like a sociological experiment.  That’s why I’d make so many different time capsules, write letters to myself in the future, include tiny fragments of my life at that point – a plastic Kinder Surprise toy, an old Yugoslav postage stamp, a silk scarf that used to sit around the neck of one of my small teddies, random keys for long lost locks… In my first year of uni, at art school, we were asked to complete a ‘cultural nexus’ project – something that represented our own personal culture, whatever that was.  I made a life size bust with a long hooped skirt, all thin strands of metal wire welded together, and then the ‘dress’ itself consisted of layers of clear sticky tape running down the contours of the frame with various small objects embedded.  Our old front door key made an appearance there, dwarfing everything else with it’s thick, four inch long body.

So the point is, I want to capture lives, people, how life unfolds through time and circumstance.  I think it’s some sort of desire to prove that nothing is arbitrary, everything is connected and relevant.  But without exposing people’s bare bones, I cannot really do this.  Maybe I’ll write everything and, like Janet Frame, prevent its publication until after my death.

Advertisements

The Melbourne vs Sydney debate

How I arrived at an answer to the question: where to live – Melbourne or Sydney?

Everyone who’s actually heard of it thinks Canberra is a shithole. It’s not. Yes, it’s small, spread out, lacking in population, insular, manufactured specifically for the seat of government in Australia. But the fact is, it’s unusual and this makes it appealing.

Does it look like a bunch of confusing roundabouts wedged into bushland?

I grew up there, but I don’t think I’m biased. I was born in Sydney, and when I was about 2 or 3, my parents and I moved to Canberra; for the obvious reason – public service jobs.  Well, on the surface it was for that reason, but I think underneath my parents had more reasons. We lived in a beautiful area of Sydney, around Mosman, which back in the late 70s and early 80s (when we were there) was stunningly beautiful, as it still is, and quite affordable, which it no longer is.

My dad was trying his hardest not to do what his own father did and uproot his family time and time again, but in fact he did exactly that. My mum wanted a pure and simple life for me, and Sydney wouldn’t  provide that in the same easy way Canberra could. So we moved. And now I say ‘I’m from Canberra’.

Living there, once I’d finished school and uni and was working, I got into a terrible rut. I wasn’t happy and I knew it. I was something of a hermit, watching too much tv, eating crap, and going out with friends occasionally when I could stand it. Life there was really unhealthy, and although it’s the kind of place where you can lead a really healthy, simple life, something made me fall into this neverending cycle of self-indulgent, lonely, depressive behaviour.

Is it really that stunning or just plain odd having a city perched on those fingers of land?

I always had this idea about moving to Melbourne – I think because it wasn’t Sydney really, and I always felt it was like Canberra and Sydney combined; the order and small town feeling of Canberra, with the big city ‘things are happening’ feel of Sydney. My whole life I’ve driven up and down to Sydney, back and forth, hundreds of times, and it’s always been quite a negative experience for me. The sticky heat, the traffic, the roadworks, the smog, the pretentious people, the consumerism, the superficiality (see, here comes the angry rant already, bubbling up inside me like puss from an infected wound)…

Sydney has a lot of negative memories, experiences, feelings attached to it for me. I’ve only recently realised just how much that stuff has affected my view of the place. Yes, it is expensive, congested, busy, hot, uncomfortable… but it’s also stunning, full of beaches, cafe lifestyle, so many places to go and explore, and it’s varied, it’s all different.

I first went to Melbourne at 16 with my friend – we took the bus there from Canberra, nine hours all up. I liked it because it was new to me, and it was a proper city, unlike Canberra.  There was great shopping to be had, lovely little cafes where we had cheap breakfast, and it was so easy to find your way around on the grid system.

It doesn’t look very distinct but it’s not about the outside appearance.

Yes, I loved Melbourne, and I still do. But I loved it because I knew nothing else but Canberra and Sydney. What was Sydney to me? We’d always go there to visit relatives, and both sides of my family were not the healthiest or happiest, so there was always an element of negativity, and I’d feel trapped there, couldn’t wait to get out.  I loved it when I got my driver’s licence and could just get in the car and leave when I wanted to.  Such freedom.  I always enjoyed the drive, and I think driving those three or four hours each way every few months contributed to my love of driving and road trips.  As soon as I’d hit Campbeltown, and the outskirts of Sydney, I’d get disoriented and lose my bearings completely.

I never know where anything is in Sydney; I know the names of suburbs and areas, and I know who lives where, but where all those places are in relation to each other, I haven’t got a clue!  I’d just drive and try to follow signs to where I was going and hope for the best, but inevitably I’d find myself going over one bridge, then another, and before I knew it, I’d be in the northern beaches again.  I once even ended up in Hornsby, which is on the way out of northern Sydney.  My grandparents lived in Manly, and somehow I was always drawn there, it seemed like the easiest place to get to.  So overall, I hated Sydney with a passion and vowed I’d never live there.

I’d wanted to move to Melbourne for a few years when I left Canberra for London.  A few of my friends were planning on moving there, and it just seemed like the best place for me, a single girl, to move and make my own life better.  There were possibilities in Melbourne, and being the arts capital of Australia, I thought it would fit me perfectly.  I looked forward to moving there for years, and it always played on the back of my mind – my personal utopia, where everything in my life would slip magically into a pattern of harmony, balance and joy in being alive.

I certainly didn’t want to go to London, which I’d hated both previous times I’d visited, but something inside me told me it was my only hope for pulling myself out of that Canberra rut and really reaching my potential.  Of course, that was the right instinct, and it did exactly that.

Despite my transition from hermit to happy, I still carried that Melbourne dream with me, thinking about how great it would be.  So many of my friends have moved there recently, and I saw myself there; or at least I thought I did.  When I met my future husband, things changed.  He wanted to go to Sydney!  What?!  Sydney???!  Hell no!!  I couldn’t believe anyone would want to go there.  To me, Sydney was London, just with better weather and beaches.  And I was planning to leave London, I wanted the quiet life.  Or did I?

For my boyfriend’s sake, I seriously considered Sydney.  I read suburb descriptions online, read polls about Melbourne versus Sydney, and time and time again, I came back to the idea of Melbourne; I just couldn’t do Sydney.  So although I wasn’t adamant, it was pretty clear to my boyfriend that I wasn’t going to agree on Sydney.  He eventually said, right, that’s it, let’s go to Melbourne then.  And I wasn’t excited.  It just didn’t seem right.  I was confused as hell!  I was glad, happy that he would make that sacrifice for me, as I knew he hated Melbourne (and had initially wanted Perth but, you know, instant veto, for the obvious reasons…)  But something just wasn’t feeling good about the decision.  So I emailed a few friends and told them he’d agreed to Melbourne and it was official.  As soon as I started telling people, I knew it was the wrong decision.  I really didn’t want Melbourne; it wasn’t me any more.

I suddenly became acutely aware of just how much I’d changed since I’d come to London.  I knew there’d been huge changes, and I’d talked a lot about them to others.  But what I didn’t realise was that Melbourne didn’t suit me any more, as a woman in a committed relationship with a man, ready to settle and have a life together.  Melbourne might suit me as a single girl, flitting about and having coffee with friends in trendy cafes on weekends.  But now I wanted to make a partnership, a family life; and I thought Melbourne would be a good place for bringing up kids, which it would be.  But in all honesty, it’s foreign to me.  I’ve been there maybe three or four times all up, and it’s still very much new and unknown; I can only apply very limited knowledge to it, and the rest of my feelings about Melbourne are influenced by projections I have about the place.

So in my Melbourne vs Sydney debate, Sydney seems to have won.  Not because it’s the ‘better’ city, but because it matches who I am in this very moment.

Chase family – NOT American

So, I’ve been doing my genealogical research seriously for about a decade now.  I have had periods where I’ve done virtuallyl nothing for ages, so that’s why I’m only up to about 250 people in my tree (I haven’t included living relatives like my parents’ siblings, due  to privacy, but also because that doesn’t really help me get further back… so I’m missing about another 14 people there…)

The Chase branch in my family is pretty interesting, well I think so. But the annoying barrier I’ve run up against time and time again, well perhaps not so much as a barrier but a frustration, is that Chase is always assumed to be an American surname. So when I search on various genealogical forums and whatnot, people ALWAYS ask me if I’m related to some Chase individual from Massachusetts or something!  I’ve gotten back to about 1790 or so on that branch, and so far they’re all east end Londoners, with the family moving slowly further east, so beginning in Shoreditch and Hackney (central east London, zone 1 on the Tube map now), and eventually ending up in Essex (off the tube network). 

Because there are so many Americans doing family history, and the Chase family must have literally exploded when Thomas and Aquila Chase went out there sometime in the 1600s or something, it’s near impossible to rein in the research and concentrate purely on UK Chases.  It’s quite possible that I’m related to these Chases who went out on the Mayflower or something like that, but I know that the branch of the Chase family that I come from is totally British.

It was fun, the other week, when Google Street View came out and I was able to have a look at the church where my 4x great grandparents were married in 1828 – St Leonard’s Shoreditch, in case you’re wondering.  Although really, looking at it on Google is pretty silly when I live in London and could go and have a look at it any time.  It’s quite an important church for the Chases, as there were numerous children baptised there too.

Now’s the time to spend a day (probably turn into weeks) at the London Metropolitan Archives and get a hold of these parish records, get some parent details for Daniel Chase and Charlotte Robertson (my 4x great grandparents) and find out once and for all, a) if Charlotte was Scottish (just a hunch I have), and b) if yet another generation of Chases comes from central east London.  I always see all these Chases from places down south like Portsmouth, but the ones from London are few and far between. Are we special? I think so!

My dad always mentions the information we got when we ordered the Chase heraldic crest. The print out we were given says that the first mention of Chase was, I think, in the Domesday Book, or some such early Norman record dating back to the 1300s at least. Ironically, he was the Earl of Essex I believe! The name is Norman in origin, from the French for ‘hunter’, chasseur. 

But before I do any of that I must get my partner’s family tree sorted out to a point so his 94 year old granddad can check it out before he goes off to meet all the ancestors in person!

Drained…

Why I can’t write anything good at the moment.

So last week I went completely insane and wrote six film reviews between Monday and Friday, including watching the films themselves.  They were all really cool documentaries, on various interesting topics, and I loved writing the reviews and was so happy about how well-received they were.  I couldn’t believe how well I handled it, just pumping out all this writing, and fairly good writing too.  When my friend asked me to write them, I agreed, but in the back of my mind I thought ‘I will let her down, I won’t be motivated, I’ll bomb out, I have no discipline’.  This is usually the case for me when it comes to writing. I get all these great ideas and feel this desperate urge to write, but when I start, fairly soon, my passion dwindles and I give up after a couple of pages. The idea begins to look, well, crap, and I think, how did I ever imagine this was a good idea?!  So I was totally shocked when I just churned out these reviews and the editor loved them so much, hardly made any changes (even to the one I pumped out in an hour after just having watched the film the hour before!)  I started to think, hmm, maybe I’ve changed, maybe I can write, maybe I am a writer!

I know now that I am a writer, I was all along.  Writers write, as my grad dip tutor used to say. So I got almost used to juggling my work and writing in any spare  moment I had – I even stayed at work til 6:40pm (oooh, that’s late for me!) on Friday to finish the last review. But then, come Saturday, I had no more left to do. There is another I could do, but the film festival (I’m writing reviews for the London International Documentary Festival – www.lidf.co.uk) started on Saturday, so it seemed too late to do more. And I wanted a break. Or at least I thought I did.

Instead of just having a break and then getting on and doing some more writing, maybe even my own writing, I did nothing at all on Saturday, and the same on Sunday!  I started to feel drained from all the writing, but lost as well, because I felt like I should be doing more, I missed it. I wanted to write a blog post, as I had been using the reviews as an excuse not to blog, but even that I couldn’t get motivated to do. I didn’t have any ideas!  Or it was almost like I had too many ideas that were getting all confused in my head and I couldn’t sort them out.

So I decided to write this, about how I can’t write! Reminds me, though, I’m reading Michael J Fox’s Lucky Man at the moment, and it’s really fantastic, he’s a great writer. It’s especially impressive because it’s not ghost-written at all, it’s all his own work.  And it’s a great story too, really interesting, very insightful.

I’m thinking about what makes me motivated to write. It’s a really odd thing actually, it’s near impossible to predict, to know when I’ll be in the mood to write and when I’ll feel completely demotivated and lazy. I guess you’d call this writer’s block; although if I were working on a particular thing, a book or script or something, then I’d feel more justified in saying I’ve got writer’s block. At the moment it’s like I have the urge to write, desperation almost, but I just can’t work out what to write about, every idea is like a dream, kind of hazy, I can’t grasp it and write it. 

Well I was hoping this might help unlock that motivation. I was thinking maybe it’s because I’m at work that I can’t write, because I know I need to leave in an hour for my kickboxing class, and there is other stuff I should be doing. But I don’t even think it’s that; it’s just general loose-endedness… feels better to have written about it though!

Rattlesnake vomits

I moved into a place which I (or someone along the way) dubbed ‘Castle Aspenlea’. There were five of us there, with various other hangers-on, dossers, dodgies, friends, losers, freaks, units from all over the place lobbing in from time to time. A fairly typical antipodean sharehouse, the Castle was the temporal junction point (of the entire space-time continuum – just wanted to use that line!)… no it was a London sharehouse dream – we should have had a camera installed, would have made an awesome reality tv show.

One Saturday morning I got up about 11am to find Rattlesnake still drunk from the night before. He clearly hadn’t been to bed yet, and wasn’t planning on it for a while, as he sat muttering and drinking a Fosters on the couch. A tall, lanky, messy haired, Aussie, Rattle was the quintessential occa bloke. His drunken, drug-fuelled ramblings were some of the most priceless speeches ever uttered in the history of antipodean dodginess in London.  I hung out with him in our converted kitchen/lounge while I had a cup of coffee – perfect comedy entertainment to start the weekend, and I was feeling fairly good myself, not having gone out the night before.  It was a fairly normal occurrence, for Rattle to still be up after a big night, but by this point he was usually on the downward turn to crashing out for a few hours before doing it all again on the Saturday night. Today he was clearly going for a record.

I popped out to Sainsbury’s for some breakfast items, probably for about 20 minutes at most, and when I came back through our front door, there was a nasty surprise just in front of the doorstep.  On the tiled area leading to the street pavement was a significantly large pile of regurgitated beer.  I side-stepped the revolting deposit and yelled out, ‘Rattle, did you throw up out the front?’ as I came through the front door. The man was adamant that it had nothing to do with him, when it was clear it was his. He claimed initially that he’d never vomit, it wasn’t his style, that he was a hard arse, a ‘unit’. I hadn’t heard that term until I moved to London – coming from Canberra I don’t think I was a very typical Aussie, and a lot of these types of expressions were foreign to me.

Anyway, so finally, Rattle said, ‘well there’s nothing wrong with throwing up, everyone’s done it. You wouldn’t admit it but you’ve done it.’  I laughed because I’m famous for being sick from drinking too much. But he wouldn’t let it go, obviously feeling a bit stupid for being sick.  Eventually, Siggy, our token South African flatmate, came downstairs and I told her about the vomit. ‘Rattle!’ she shouted, half laughing, half revolted.  Then her boyfriend Jim came down and saw the vomit too; he promptly retreated back upstairs in disgust.

By this point, Rattle started to feel a bit guilty – ‘you can’t just leave it there, someone will step in it, it’s gross!’ I said.  So as I cooked my breakfast, he sat quietly sipping his beer on the couch, then stumbled out the back for a cigarette. ‘I feel bad,’ he said, when he came back inside. He did his ‘hovering’ act, when he’d elect to lean precariously against the kitchen bench, can in hand, and I’d almost hold my breath looking at him, thinking he could drop the can or keel over at any moment.  Dear Rattle, I thought, he has a good heart, despite his drunken rampages and being a general menace to society more often than not. ‘Just get the bucket and wash it away with water,’ I suggested.

So next thing I knew, he was stumbling up the hall with our handle-less bucket, full of water.  I couldn’t miss this moment of comedy gold, but I didn’t want to distract him from cleaning up – the only time we ever saw Rattle clean was when he couldn’t get to sleep on a Sunday after 12 hours of coke the night before! I crept after him down the hallway and ducked into my room, which was right at the front of the house, used to be the lounge. I didn’t dare lift the wooden blind on the bay window, so I stood and listened to the water sloshing across the tiles, washing the offending material into the gutter. Suddenly, I heard Rattle’s voice over the trickle of water. ‘Hey ladies. Just doing some cleaning. Someone vomited in front of my house.’ I laughed out loud as I heard the poor innocent girls walking past giggle and groan in disgust. ‘Ewww!’ Rattle, true gentleman that he is, gave us yet another priceless moment. ‘So,’ he said to the girls, ‘you ladies fancy coming in for a drink?’ I burst out laughing and ran back to the lounge to relay the turn of events to Siggy.

‘All sorted,’ said Rattle, wandering back into the lounge.  He gave us his signature smirk-cross-intoxicating smile, realising I’d told Siggy about his pickup attempt whilst simultaneously cleaning up his own vomit. ‘Yeah,’ he said, taking another sip of beer and sending the empty bucket flying across the kitchen floor – almost outside. ‘They were keen, you know.’ We fell about laughing, it was pure gold!

People who ask you for money

I felt bad yesterday not giving some dude a measley 5p… and then I got over it.

So normally I have this whole thing about not giving people money for nothing. It stems, I think, from when I lived in Italy and I noticed no beggars on the streets during winter, but as soon as the sun (and the tourists) came out, suddenly there were all these poor people asking everyone for money!  I spoke to a few Italians about it and they all said that most of the beggars aren’t actually beggars and that you should never give them money. So I became a bit of a hard-arse, and developed this policy that I wouldn’t give anyone money for doing nothing.

Now, living in London, I maintain that policy. Beggars here are pretty clever; they ask you for ‘just 25p’, a specific and small amount, so it sounds somehow more legitimate. But for me it’s the principle, I just don’t hand it out for nothing. And it’s not because I’m greedy with money, I’m not; I don’t have much myself and with my boyfriend currently out of work, money is very, very tight.

Anyway, so yesterday I was standing outside St James Park tube station, about to go in, and this fairly young but quite rugged-looking guy with a quilt bundled up on his back comes up to me. I knew he was going to approach as I made the mistake of making eye contact a few seconds before. He had lovely bright blue eyes, quite a sweet demeanour, although it was clear he was doing it a bit tough. I was waiting for the usual ‘can I have…’ question, but this guy began with the ‘sorry to disturb you…’ line.  The problem was, he couldn’t spit it out! He obviously didn’t speak English as a first language, and he was a bit out of it, wanted to be more expressive than he could be. He began to speak, but just couldn’t tell me what he wanted to say. I wanted to ask him to ‘spit it out’, but I thought better of it, realising that, a) it would mean I want to enter into a dialogue, and b) he probably wouldn’t understand an idiom like that. So I looked him straight in the eye and waited. He stammered something about being a ‘bloody stupid Eastern European’ (himself) and eventually managed to articluate his apology for disturbing my ‘break’, or whatever if was he thought I was doing, and then promptly asked for 5p. It took him so long to get the words out that I found myself considering giving it to him – his eyes were so bright and I felt like he needed something, a bit of a lift, some encouragement. It seemed like he had something important to contribute, but for some reason hadn’t ever been able to do it. I hesitated momentarily, gave him the time to get his words out, and then said I don’t have any money, whereupon he went and hassled two guys standing nearby.

I quickly rushed inside the station, as if the interaction had made no impact upon me, and jumped on the next tube.  As the train sped away, I felt an immense sense of guilt for not giving him the measley 5p (about 12 cents, I thought, immediately converting to Aussie currency). What was 5p to me? Wouldn’t it be so much more to him? Why was he asking for such a tiny amount?  He phrased the question with, ‘I’m short 5p…’, making it sound like he needed that last little bit to make up a train fare, but I thought maybe it was something else, a pack of cigarettes, a coffee, something stronger… It took me a good while to get rid of that guilty feeling, and I found myself vowing to give money to the next person who asks; which is not what I’ll do, but if someone had caught me in that moment, I would have. And then I’d probably have felt silly for giving away money that I myself needed.

Other stuff happend in the war too you know…

So you always hear about World War II and the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps etc.  There’s been so much written/spoken/filmed about it all, and why not, it’s such a historically significant period, such important events which changed the world.

But other stuff happened too, stuff that was connected to the Nazis and probably at some level the Jewish plight, but it wasn’t all about Nazis and Jews.  What about the people who lived in the places that constantly changed borders as a result of the goings on during the war? I can’t say I know a lot, as I was born over thirty years after the war ended, but I’m learning…

What I want to talk about and research is what happened to the Danube Swabian people (known in Bavarian German as ‘Donauschwaben’) who lived in the former Yugoslavia (now Serbia), right near the border of Hungary. These are an interesting group of individuals. They originally came to the area from Bavaria, and not really of their own choosing. I haven’t done a lot of research yet into what exactly happened, but as far as I know, the Austro-Hungarian Empire got their hands on that part of the world and realised that no one lived there (this was in the 1700s). So they decided to populate the area by bringing in some of their Germans. They gave them an incentive to go, setting up some houses, giving them food and money to help them establish in their new home.

So these Donauschwaben spoke German, and were very Germanic in their customs, but they actually lived for generations in what is now Serbia. I am descended from these people. My grandmother was one in fact. She spoke Serbian as well, but apparently the Serbs in the area were considered beneath them, or like peasants, and it was frowned upon to fraternise with them.

My grandmother was wilful, and probably quite spoiled. The family, by 1914 when she was born, lived in a large, pentagonal dwelling, with a courtyard garden in the centre, and were obviously doing quite well for themselves. I’ve since found out the name of the village was Torschau (Torzsa in Hungarian, Savino Selo in Serbian), and it was located in the Batschka, an area in or around the Banat.

Being, as I said, wilful and full of confidence, as a young girl of 14 or 15 often is, my grandmother wanted to do what her friends were doing – get married. She told her father she intended to marry, just like the others, and have babies etc. Luckily my great grandfather wasn’t standing for any nonsense and he told her there was no chance she’d marry now, just to be with the ‘in’ crowd. To deter her and make it easier for her to steer clear of an early marriage, he arranged for her to start working as a nanny in nearby Belgrade. She went to live with a family there, no doubt fairly well off, and in what was then quite a cosmopolitan city. Little did my great grandfather know, but his plan to educate her in fact brought her to her future husband.

My grandfather – a native Serb and apprentice bootmaker – was short and stocky but a handsome, open-faced, charistmatic young man. He and my grandmother courted in secret, and he would walk ten paces behind her down the street in case they were ‘seen’ together. I’m sure my great grandfather wasn’t impressed that his daughter was now keen not just to marry but to marry a Yugoslav; but by this point almost ten years had passed and perhaps his daughter, now a twenty-three-year-old woman, was quickly becoming an ‘old maid’. They married in 1937 and lived in Belgrade to begin with. My great grandfather visited them and was appalled to find they didn’t have bread in the house – for him, the quintessential sign of a properly domesticated household.

My grandmother was actually able to claim German citizenship, with documentary evidence of her Danube Swabian ancestry, even though her family hadn’t actually lived in Germany for many generations. She managed to get my grandfather out of a work camp during the war because of this.  But that’s another story…

What is interesting to me is that these Donauschwaben were uprooted and deposited – granted in a very organised and calm manner – to another country first of all, developed such a sense of pride in who they were and where they came from, their Donauschwaben identity. They were actually content in their German village in the middle of Yugoslavia; but being quintessentially German, and the Germans knowing this, the children were recruited into the Hitler Youth Movement, just like any German young person of the time. It was a good thing at first. But of course we all know what happened…