Alas, dear Readers, the hot weather is playing with my brain and last night I dreamt I boarded my usual northbound Northern Line train only to alight at some point towards the end of the nineteenth century. I couldn’t be entirely sure, but I think I was wearing a bustle. There was a hint of Edwardian langour in my hat, although why my unconscious chose to dress me in flip-flops I’ll never know. Alighting at my normal station, I was suddenly overground in a vast amount of space (they forgot to build Finchley until about 1924. And then they built it. All of it). A small wooden fence was erected at the platform which replaced the usual, sweeping, beeping, tube train doors. Stepping out I realised that they hadn’t bothered to build a platform yet. There was only a short descent down a hill, towards a rickety, wooden station, and then out into a main road which wasn’t, and I was standing opposite a Tesco which wasn’t, and in fact everything that I could use to alert me to my whereabouts – wasn’t. It didn’t help to be wearing the flip flops either because I was knee deep in snow.
I was in snow because just before I had nodded off, I was thinking about Russia. Not exactly about the country, but about Russian-related things. You see, family research had dragged me towards the 1901 census to discover that a wandering great-grandmother who was supposed to be born in England, went around telling everyone she was born in England and probably thought that she was born in England had been born in Russia. At least that’s what was written on the 1891 census. By 1901, she’s changed her mind and decided she was born in Poland. Easy mistake to make. Most days I have to remind myself I was born in Watford, not Abyssinia and it’s always a clammy, cold wake-up call. But the great-grandmother was about one or two when she eventually made it to England. I can see her coming off the ship now – 20 months old, sturdy ankles marching steadfastly towards Britannia, concentrated chubby brow on her face, a sewing machine jammed under one arm and a steaming vat of bean and barley soup, slowly starting to cool in the midday sun, under the other. From there it was a hop, skip and jump to tawdry, squashed lodgings in a small street which now runs directly beside the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel which, if nothing else, would have been at least slightly warmer than Russia.
I suppose it’s a happy accident that anyone ever really ends up anywhere slightly warmer than Russia at all. Even London can look chirpy compared to Russia to a two year old emigrant with a plan. And all of this – all of three of four generations – only happen to exist as clusters of molecules because one chunky legged toddler toddled from a ship in 1877 and happened to get married 16 years later to my great grandfather (a roof over her head and all the beef brisket she could eat) who also appeared to toddle off a similar ship at a similar time from a similar destination. Not that anyone can work out his story, because he said he turned up in 1876 on his own, doesn’t appear on any censuses until 1901 and makes his entree into the public records system only in the act of marriage in 1893, so God knows where he was half the time.
So, I went to sleep with all of this murky, eastern bloc history swimming and fizzing inside my brain. God knows how any of us actually manage to be anywhere at ANY of the time with all this nonsense going on. In the move from my concious to my subconscious mind the issue became me slipping through time, to the most uncertain patch in the old family history annals. No one seems to be anywhere in the 1880s. It’s a complete Marty McFly Moment. Almost everyone (on that side of the family at least) vanishes in the 1880s, only to pop up again in the early/mid 1890s demanding to be naturalized by the British. Perhaps we are relying too much on the census? What if you’re out that evening? What if you can’t understand the questions? What if you lie? What if, a hundred years later, your great grand-daughter is driven to consume three Twix bars on the trot with the sheer emotional strain of being unable to locate you? Did they spare a thought for THAT? Selfish, I call it.
In my dream, however, there were no answers. There was only a sheet of snow and a soundless, graceless, empty Finchley. Once I walked out of the station and into the snow I started up the hill , aware my dress was too long for the weather, and dragging in the ice. I was surrounded by other late Victorian people – stovepipe hats, practical millinery, gloves that button up at the heel of the hand – but whether any of these dream ghosts shared DNA with me was unknown. Soon my dream descended into what Nabokov called “the insolent logic of nightmare” and I was suddenly on a RyanAir flight, celebrating the launch of their new kosher menu options and resplendently waving a box of Rakusen’s matzos over my head. Perhaps, readers, the flight was on its way to Russia?
My trail continues. Only another 8 years and I’ll get my mitts on the 1921 census by which time all grandparents will be present and accounted for. Perhaps they’ll be Bright Young Things, or at the very least not Dull Old Things. Perhaps they’ll be brylcreemed and wife-swapping and doing charleston dancing in bizarre parties in St Johns Wood. Unfortunately, I’ve been lead to believe that they are running carpet importing businesses in Willesden, but, as last night proves, a girl can dream, can’t she?
Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this. This blog is updated every other Thursday, so our next update will be Thursday May 23rd. See you then….