Saturday, 3 April 2010

I May Be a Bit of a Jew

This is autobiography.

My mother was born in 1907, the youngest of seven children. Her mother (Eliza Stevens née Turner) was 40 at the time and her father (Thomas Redsell Stevens) a few years older. As a boy, he had run away from home to join the Navy. Somewhere I have a medal from the Battle of the Nile in the 1880s. After that, he joined what we would now call an armaments firm, Vickers, and worked outdoors as a gun tester - a job in which he lost an arm. The family lived in what I guess was a tied house in Sutton at Hone, Kent.



My mother left school at 14 (or, more likely, 13) and went to work in the local (Hawley) paper mill. Photographs from the 1920s show her having fun with other mill girls.

I was born in 1947 when my mother was 40. I grew up with a long view of history. When my mother spoke about The War she quite often meant the First. I must be one of the few people alive able to sing the song which she and other children sang as they skipped behind German Prisoners of War being marched to a camp near her home:

At the Cross, At the Cross
Wher the Kaiser lost his Horse
And the Eagle on his hat flew away
He was eating German buns
When he heard the British Guns
And the artful little bugger ran away

There were aspects of my upbringing that linked me to an even older past. As a child, I was urged to eat the bitter lettuce put on my plate with the words "It's got lodnum in it". Lodnum, in case you haven't worked it out, is laudanum.

But I think my mother's political opinions were fixed at a later date, in the 1930s, and in part fixed by The Daily Mail. This is how I account for the framework she used to explain family dynamics when I was a child.

Her father had a fiery temper, she told me, and this was owing to the fact that his mother was Irish (maiden name Redsell) and, as was then known, the Irish have fiery tempers.

My father also had a temper but this was combined with a domineering manner, and these she attributed to the fact that his own father (my Grandfather Pateman) came from a German family. My father did not help matters by sporting a Hitler moustache.

My father was also very mean, a fact I learnt early in life, and this my Mother attributed to the fact that his own mother was clearly Jewish - you had only to look at her nose.

These national and racial stereotypes were mobilised without any malice.

Indeed, my mother took her Bible seriously and believed that we are all equal before God. On this basis, when women in saris began to appear in our local streets in the 1960s, my mother made a point of saying Good Morning to each of them as she made her daily way to the shops. She told me that they must feel very lonely being in a strange country and this was her way of making them feel welcome.

When I was a teenager and began to put two and two together, I realised that if what my Mother had told me was true, then I was in some unknown proportions a German Irish Jew. I quite liked this exotic thought and treasured it for many years.

Unfortunately, it's not all true. My mother's grandmother Redsell was almost certainly Irish or of Irish descent. My paternal grandfather could have had some German descent - the name Pateman occurs (as Patemann) in Germany and the facial look is plausible. My paternal grandmother had a very un-English look, including a very big nose, but her maiden name (Veryard) appears to be of French Huguenot origin and her family lived in parts of the country linked to Huguenot Veryards. So though I may be a bit of a Jew, it seems unlikely. It's a bit of a disappointment. But, it's true, my grandmother did have an enormous nose - or so it seemed to me as a child; her photograph below was taken in 1975 when she was 89.

My mother never linked her own mother to a national or racial stereotype, not even an English one. She always linked her to a gender stereotype. Her mother was the Angel in the House.