I was jogging in the neighbouring cemetery (St Pancras & Islington) as is my wont, when I passed an old man tending a grave. I looped back to have a chat because it is a distinctive headstone which I have often noticed so was interested in the story behind it.
It is a tall, thin headstone with a burning torch on it which I believed was known as a ‘fasces’ – from memories of my Latin classes at school. I thought that meant a torch made from a bundle of sticks bound together. Having just checked though it looks like it means “a bundle of rods with a projecting axe blade, carried by a lictor in ancient Rome as a symbol of a magistrate’s power, and used as an emblem of authority in Fascist Italy”. Seemingly ‘facem’ is one of the Latin words for torch, I may be remembering that. Whatever – it always reminds me of Latin classes at school which I enjoyed (and went on to study languages).
The old man explained that his brother had designed the unusual headstone for their mother, who died at just 44. There’s a small photo of her and her husband on the grave. The father, who was a parachutist in World War Two, lived to 77 but got Alzheimer’s. He always remembered the two brothers’ names though, even when all else was lost.
The family originates from Camden Town (which is odd as the cemetery does not serve the Borough of Camden). I told him I was planning to go tomorrow on Christmas day to the plot, further down the same lane, of semi- or unmarked graves connected to Arlington House in Camden Town – mainly Irish people who died away from their families on strange soil. “Ah, the Big House,” he said, “that’s what we used to call it.”
After I wished him a Merry Christmas and ran on I regretted not asking him more about both Camden Town and parachutists. I had though passed on the fact that the gravestone is unique in the cemetery, given that I run in it several times a week and know it as well as anyone by now, which I hope brought him some simple pleasure.
This morning on Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time on BBC Radio 4 they discussed T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. I listened in my half-sleep and was reminded that a copy of it was sitting half-read about ten inches from head, on my bedside table. I finished it later in the garden, it being a mild and sunny winter’s day.
So today is the day of the tragic Lakonia fire – 22nd December. A copy of the 1964 Paris Match with the burning liner on the cover arrived this very morning in the post from France. I read the second half of Four Quartets and these lines from The Dry Salvages (1940) stood out…
And on the deck of the drumming liner
Watching the furrow that widens behind you,
You shall not think ‘the past is finished’
Or ‘the future is before us’.
At nightfall, in the rigging and the aerial,
Is a voice descanting (though not to the ear,
The murmuring shell of time, and not in any language)
‘Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging;
You are not those who saw the harbour
Receding, or those who will disembark.
Here between the hither and the farther shore
While time is withdrawn, consider the future
And the past with an equal mind.
At the moment which is not of action or inaction
You can receive this: “on whatever sphere of being
The mind of a man may be intent
At the time of death”—that is the one action
(And the time of death is every moment)
Which shall fructify in the lives of others:
And do not think of the fruit of action.
O voyagers, O seamen,
You who came to port, and you whose bodies
Will suffer the trial and judgement of the sea,
Or whatever event, this is your real destination.’
So Krishna, as when he admonished Arjuna
On the field of battle.
Not fare well,
But fare forward, voyagers.
Lady, whose shrine stands on the promontory,
Pray for all those who are in ships, those
Whose business has to do with fish, and
Those concerned with every lawful traffic
And those who conduct them.
Repeat a prayer also on behalf of
Women who have seen their sons or husbands
Setting forth, and not returning:
Figlia del tuo figlio,
Queen of Heaven.
Also pray for those who were in ships, and
Ended their voyage on the sand, in the sea’s lips
Or in the dark throat which will not reject them
Or wherever cannot reach them the sound of the sea bell’s
To round off my Lakonia posts on this day of the disaster, remembering the 128 that perished and my two that survived, here is the conclusion (on the rescue ship) of my grandmother’s typescript narrative of the events which served as the basis for her A Survivor’s Story broadcast…
“Later, banded together in the corridor, we talked, cried and tried to comfort each other. No praise can be high enough for the Salta crew who were so kind and sympathetic and even gave their own food and clothing to the survivors.
When we arrived in Funchal [Madeira] I tried to thank one of the senior officers, the only one I could find who spoke English, but he turned and said: “Do not thank me, Madam, it is a sad day for all of us.” As we were waiting to disembark I was horrified to see the quayside lined with ambulances and buzzing with doctors, nurses and newspapermen. It was now one realised how many dead and injured we must have aboard. …
[I] would like to thank from the bottom of my heart all those who were so brave, generous and kind to us. After witnessing this experience I really believe that there is a God and if you are destined to live through anything such as this, then nothing can stop you.”
So we’re now into 22nd December, the day of the Lakonia disaster. I’ve just come upstairs from watching the end of James Cameron’s Titanic on Film4 – it looked different through this filter, many of the same safety lapses as occurred 51 years later on the Lakonia. The Lakonia fire, with the loss of 128 souls, was the worst cruise ship disaster since the sinking of the Titanic. I reckon my grandparents make a good Jack & Rose (they’ve even got the railing)…
To mark the day I decided both to add Ian and Rita to the Wikipedia entry and to make an archive record of the documentation in our family.
- 2 B&W photos marked Foto Perestrellos of survivors on the Salta
- Telegram from Ian Harris aboard Salta to Marilyn Gee (nee Harris) in London
- Letter from Ian Harris to John Harris [son] dated Tues (24th Dec 1963)
- Letter from Marilyn Harris [daughter] to Ian & Rita Harris dated Wed 25th Dec 1963
- Letter from Rita Harris to John & Marilyn Harris dated Christmas Day (Wed 25th Dec 1963)
- Letter from Rita Harris to John & Marilyn Harris dated Sat (28th Dec 1963)
- Letter from Ian Harris to John Harris dated Tues 31st Dec 1963
- Letter from Rita Harris to John & Marilyn Harris dated Tues 31st Dec 1963 – I get a mention (“To … my lovely little grandson Adam” – I was her first and just 3 months old)
- Paris Match, n° 769, 4 Janvier 1964
- 4 photos of newspaper article headlined Skipper Defends Crew – Daily News Thurs 26 Dec 1963
- Script for A Survivor’s Story item on Woman’s Hour, BBC Radio Light Programme, 2nd July 1964
- Newspaper billing for previous radio programme
- 5 page typescript from which radio programme script is extracted (ie longer version)
- 14 page manuscript account by Rita Harris
- 1 page typescript leading in to 5 page typescript above
- Video interview with Ian Harris 10/1/99 in which he recounts the disaster and rescue – here is the last section
- [there are other items at my mum’s house which I’ll add in due course]
BBC Radio 5 covered the Lakonia story the day before yesterday on Five Live Daily with Adrian Chiles
This is a Remittance Advice from BBC Radio (signed off by a certain Teresa McGonagle (Miss)) for a talk my grandmother, Rita Harris, gave on Woman’s Hour on 2nd July 1964, recounting her perspective on the Lakonia disaster (see previous two posts). I also have the transcript:
What is striking about the account (for which she received the princely sum of 12 guineas) is the litany of safety failings from the moment they set foot on board the ill-fated vessel in Southampton. Here are some extracts:
“We arrived at Southampton and boarded the Lakonia. From the very beginning things seemed to go wrong. The corridors were still teaming (sic) with workmen, the gangways were still down, and the wind whistled around the ship. Eventually the workmen scrambled ashore and two hours late we were under way.”
“Next morning we received the ship’s newspaper with the programme for the day. At 10.15am there was to be a fire drill. So after breakfast we made our way to the promenade deck, where we waited sitting wrapped up in rugs. Some 30 minutes before the drill was to commence some passengers were already walking around wearing their life-jackets. As a result of the subsequent way the fire drill was carried out, at least two thirds of the passengers would have no conceivable idea of what to do if a real emergency arose. My husband was so disgusted that he wanted to complain to the Captain, as he said it was the biggest nonsense that he had ever taken part in. I am sorry to this day that I did not let him carry out this threat.”
In one section it is clear that my grandfather, Ian Harris, had his camera on him at the time of the tragedy because he was taking photos of the crowning of the King and Queen of the Tramps at the Tramps Ball that was taking place when the fire broke out. He was the only person on board who had a camera (although I believe another man may have had a movie camera). All the stills one sees taken on board during the disaster were by him.
“To take the photos of the crowning, my husband made his way to the main entrance of the room [the Lakonia Room]. As he went a steward whispered something to the Captain who was at the next table – he immediately jumped up and ran out of the room. My husband returned more quickly than he’d left, and quietly informed our table that the ship was on fire and we should go to our cabins and get our life-jackets on. Simultaneously smoke started to billow in through the now open doors. As we made our way down to our cabin the alarm sounded, short and faint, then died away never to be heard again, for the tannoy system broke down almost immediately.”
“We rapidly made our way to the main dining room, where we had been ordered to go. Here we found many women and children barefoot and in their nightwear. We realised that we were two decks below the fire! Things now became chaotic. People were milling round the dining hall. Fire hoses appeared in the corridor which were so entangled they reminded me of spaghetti. Water was everywhere except coming from the hoses. Many people were crying – elderly people were wearing life-jackets but had no idea how to do them up and the tapes were hanging loose. I spent some time tying them up properly. When my husband could stand it no longer, he had an argument with an officer who was still directing people downstairs into the already overcrowded dining room. He argued that if there was a bad fire, everybody would be trapped below. The officer gave in and we all started for our life-boat stations. Half-way up the stairs we received a counter-order sent by the Captain to return to the dining room. People were now becoming really distressed.”
“Finally we received the order to make our way to our boat stations. In an attempt to reach the lifeboats, members of the crew were hacking with firemen’s axes at supposedly moveable partitions. These partitions were stuck fast with either paint or varnish.”
“We were not able to get into our lifeboat, which incidently tipped up [due to painted up ropes] and never reached the water. We went to the next lifeboat in which there were already about 40 people. The officer was about to cast off. After another argument my husband managed to get us aboard together with a further half dozen. This lifeboat had a capacity of 85 persons and so approximately 30 more lives could have been saved if it had been correctly filled. The next day we counted only 26 aboard another lifeboat.”
“Although the lifeboat wasn’t full to capacity it hadn’t been loaded properly and I spent the night sitting on a tiny space of about ten inches, while my husband stood, as there was no room for him to sit. Gradually the water started to rise in the bottom of the boat.”
The water had risen to knee depth by the time my grandfather and another man, both ex-navy men, spotted ship signals in the dark, about half an hour away. The Salta eventually rescued them, hampered by the swell. After a tumbler of Cognac and a sweet black coffee my grandmother was given a berth in the crew’s quarters.
“I found the corridor filled with women and children. A lady to whom I had previously no more than nodded the time of day recognised me and cuddled me like a long lost relation. Folk who seemed like strangers a few short days ago, now felt like family.”
Last night (19th December) was the night the Lakonia sailed, today was the first day at sea.
OK Google, did the Holocaust happen?
Picking up from Sinking of the Lakonia this photo, from Paris Match magazine, shows my grandparents after their rescue from the Lakonia. They are on board the ship that rescued them, the Salta (an Argentine vessel – see Update at bottom of last post), probably on Tuesday 24th December 1963.
Here’s a wider shot of the scene I found among the family papers.
This is the telegram (featured in last post) sent from that ship at 03:00 on Tuesday 24th December to my mother and uncle in my childhood home.
What I’ve discovered since first posting this telegram is that because my grandfather signed it “Daddy” my mother and uncle spent another 36 hours agonising as to whether the omission of “Mummy” signified held-back bad news. So do be careful when wording that all-important telegram or urgent text from some desperate situation. You can see such a text being composed in one brief shot of Clint Eastwood’s excellent new movie Sully about the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ plane crash – or rather plane landing (under desperate circumstances).
Here’s a letter my mother wrote to her rescued parents on Christmas Day, 1963 (no mention of Christmas or festivities).
Some stand-out sections:
“Monday was positively the worst day of my life. I can honestly say it’s the first time I have ever prayed”
“Today I had a heart-breaking phonecall from a lady in Cornwall somewhere, who told me what a saint and veritable tower of strength Daddy has been to her and so many others. She told me of his endless searching for the missing and how she is still hoping her husband is alive somewhere, perhaps suffering from temporary loss of memory.”
“My brother-in-law [Johnny Gee] phoned early on Monday morning to say your ship was on fire and sinking, little hope of survivors. I listened to each news and help sounded so far away, and completely hopeless. … Eventually we managed to get through to the shipping office only to be told they had no names of survivors. John [brother] and I just sat and looked at each other for 36 endless hours. Finally a friend’s mother phoned to say she was sure she saw Mummy standing aboard a rescue ship sobbing in Daddy’s arms.”
Here’s the cover of that Paris Match:
It already indicates that there may be a scandal behind the disaster. There was – both in terms of the condition of the vessel, and the competency of the crew and its practice and procedures. The story also made the cover of Life magazine.
Later in 1964 my grandmother recounted her experiences on Woman’s Hour on the Light Programme of BBC Radio. Here’s the transcript:
It opens by detailing how all was not well on the Lakonia from the moment they boarded in Southampton.
On 22nd December 1963 my grandparents lives changed forever. My grandmother started what she considered her second bite of the cherry of life. My grandfather watched rich men’s possessions float by him in the water and never again put any value on them (though he was always modest materially being from an immigrant working class background). The night of 22nd December 1963 was the night the cruise ship Lakonia went on fire and 128 souls were lost at sea. A Christmas cruise from Southampton to the Canary Islands turned into a terrifying brush with death.
Yesterday my brother heard a trail on BBC Radio 5 for a programme about the disaster next Tuesday morning on Five Live hosted by Adrian Chiles. Today I tracked down the production team in Salford to offer some of our family archives. As I start to delve into them I thought it would be fun to share the investigations and discoveries here.
First (above) is the telegram my mother received from my grandfather on Christmas eve confirming her parents were alive and safe. She had just had her first child (yours truly) and was settling in to her first home of her own (it cost them £4,000 if I remember correctly). JFK had been shot 5 weeks earlier.
The sender of that telegram is mentioned in this article from Life magazine (edition of 3rd January 1964)
That’s my grandma looking terrified on the left. Her husband was the “Ian Harris of London” referred to in the copy “the only man known to have taken pictures while on board the doomed Lakonia”. He worked for Picture Post (the British rival of Life with photographers like Bill Brandt and Thurston Hopkins). He was a scientist involved with the technicalities of printing photographs and a keen amateur photographer so his photos featured in the Life picture story were the work of a man in the wrong place at the right time with his omnipresent camera (now you know where I got the bug from).
More to follow as I burrow away…
“Salta” referred to on the telegram above was an Argentine ship which was heading west to Argentina filled with immigrants from Europe, which picked up my grandparents after dawn of 23rd December from their lifeboat. The passengers were hauled up one by one by rope after a landing stage the Salta crew had dropped was smashed by the lifeboat. My grandfather thought it would make a great shot but my grandmother forbade him as she didn’t want the indignity captured for posterity. He still seemed to regret missing the shot 36 years later when I interviewed him on film. He was wearing, by chance, a grey jumper he had been given in Funchal, Madiera after landing from the Salta in sea-shrunken clothes.
So we had our 15th Anniversary Book Group gathering last night and the book in the spotlight, The Sellout by Paul Beatty, was highly praised by all but one of our number, getting 9s and even 10s in our scores (for Literary Merit and Enjoyment), one of the most popular choices in the whole decade and a half.
My review on Goodreads: A dense and intense tour de force with shades of Catch 22 (absurdity), David Foster Wallace (intensity) and Candide (humanity), filled with insight about how black people are seen and see themselves in the USA (and beyond).
Here are 4 good reasons to read this standout satirical novel:
(i) On lawyers:
The Chief Justice meekly raises his hand.
“Excuse me, Mr Fiske [the defending lawyer], I have a question…”
“Not right now, motherfucker, I’m on a roll!”
(ii) On education:
Two hundred kids quieted instantly and turned their attention deficit disorders toward me.
(iii) On weed:
“What the fuck is this, dog?” Puppet coughed.
“I call it Carpal Tunnel. Go ahead, try to make a fist.”
Puppet tried to ball his hand but failed.
(iv) On intellectuals:
The meetings consisted mostly of the members who showed up every other week arguing with the ones who came every other month about what exactly “bimonthly” means.”
Classic satire in the heritage of Waugh and Swift that’s laugh-out-loud funny.
I put out a call today for books people have read this year which really blew their socks off. It’s my turn to chose for our book group – that’s a thing that only comes round every 20 months or so, so I want to make it a goodie. I wanted to go for Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am, which was bought as a gift for my birthday, but it breaks our 300 page rule. Last time out I chose The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell which was class and memorable.
Here’s what people sent in, mostly published in 2016 (with a few oldies for variety):
- Ragtime by EL Doctorow
- Wake & The Beast by Paul Kingsnorth
- A Brief history of seven killings – Marlon James
- the vegetarian by Han Kang
- Station Eleven, Euphoria by Lily King
- The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot
- Master and Margarita – Bulgakov
- His Bloody Project – Gramme Macrame Burnet
- Mr Penumbras 24 hour bookstore – robin sloan
- The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley
- The Girls by Emma Cline
- The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney
- Nutshell – Ian McEwan
- Bel Canto by Anne Pratchett
- A Man Called Ove – Fredrik Backman
- Life After Life – Kate Atkinson
- A god in ruins – Kate Atkinson
- All the light we cannot see – Anthony Doerr
- The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
- The Secret History by Donna Tartt
I went in the end with Autumn by Ali Smith (recommended by my friend Bill Thompson) as it’s very topical, one of the first post-Brexit novels, and I’m looking for some insight into how to deal wisely with the fucked up year we’ve just had. I knew I should have just gone to bed when Bowie died and slept through two winters.
Here is the list I made of suggestions for book clubs last year where the question was which book made most impact on your life.
And here’s the list of the first 10 years of our reading group’s books.
Finally here’s a list of recent titles from our group, based on email archaeology working my way back to the end of the first 10 year list (my favourites are bolded):
- The Sellout – Paul Beatty (11/16)
- The Looked After Kid by Paolo Hewitt (10/16)
- The Yacoubian Building – Alaa Al Aswany (9/16)
A Golden Age – Tahmima Anam (6/16)
The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht (4/16)
Joyce Carol Oates:” the man without a shadow” (4/16)
Brooklyn by Colm Toibin (2/16)
Submission by Michel Houellebecq (1/16)
The Moor’s Account, by Laila Lalami (11/15)
- The Good Soldier – Ford Madox Ford (9/15)
- “In the Country of Men” – Hisham Matar (Jun 15)
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (3/15)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (1/15)
- “Oblivion”by David Foster Wallace (Nov 14)
- “The Leopard”by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (Sep 14)
What was Promised by Tobias Hill (6/14)
- “Stoner: A Novel” – John Williams (Apr 14)
- “Rabbit at Rest” – John Updike (Feb 14)
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage – Alice Munro (12/13)
May We Be Forgiven – AM Homes (11/13)
Irretrievable – Theodore Fontane (9/13)
Wise Men -Stuart Nadler (7/13)
Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel (3/13)
- “Yellow Birds” – Kevin Powers (Jan 13)
- “There’s no such thing as a free press…” by Mick Hume (Dec 12)
William Trevor’s ‘Love and Summer’ (11/12)
- (Life and Fate – Vasily Grossman (8/12))
- “The Uncoupling” – Meg Wolitzer (July 12)
- A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard (May 12)
Philip Roth’s “Nemesis”(4/12)
“Old School” by Tobias Wolff (3/12)
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – Mark Twain (Nov 2011)
So our little group has just turned 15 years old. Our next meeting is tomorrow night (The Sellout). Glad to say it’s as good for us today as it’s always been…
I live for coincidences. They briefly give to me the illusion or the hope that there’s a pattern to my life, and if there’s a pattern, then maybe I’m moving toward some kind of destiny where it’s all explained.
It turned out something of a literary day today. It started with a note on this humble blog from an actor interested in Jean Newlove, collaborator of Joan Littlewood and pioneer of movement as a discipline in theatre. The actor in question appeared as a young Alan Turing in ‘The Imitation Game’, growing up into Benedict Cumberbatch (patron of our very own Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley). I interviewed Jean Newlove, mother of the late Kirsty MacColl (who will be coming in to season shortly as the female half of the greatest of all Christmas songs, ‘Fairytale of New York’), for the Littlewood chapter of my not-yet-finished book ‘When Sparks Fly’.
I was keen to read the last couple of chapters of the excellent novel I’ve been reading the last couple of weeks, Amos Oz’s ‘Judas’, so I left a bit early for my first meeting in Old Street and repaired to nearby Bunhill Fields to read in the low yellow winter sunshine. I sat down by John Bunyan’s tomb, inhaling the roll-up smoke of two Eastern European workers on the adjacent bench, and by way of hors-d’oeuvres downloaded a copy of ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ to my phone and read the opening. It’s a good complement to ‘Judas’. I then read some of the wizardry of Oz before heading off to my first meeting with a young scriptwriter of the Paul Abbott school. I’m producing a short film for him. On my way over to Silicon Roundabout I remembered there were other literary types in Bunhill Fields and sauntered past them – Daniel Defoe and beside him the great Londoner William Blake, born in Marshall Street, Soho where my very first job (for a film company) was located. I’d spotted on a Twitter post just after the note from the actor that today was Blake’s birthday. I hadn’t paid much attention but once in front of the grave it came back to me and the coincidence of showing up at his death place on the day of his birth delighted me as I have been much taken with coincidences in recent times.
I’ve had two other good ones in the last couple of days. On Saturday night I was on my way to see Michael Keegan-Dolan’s brilliant dance Swan Lake / Loch nEala when I came across One Lost Glove and photographed it as is my wont with a caption playing on a song title as is my wont: Whole Lotta gLove. I was having dinner first with some friends and as I took my seat in Miz En Bouche in St John Street, Islington over their sound system came a version of Led Zep’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’ covered by a relatively sedate female singer.
Today, after I’d finished the Oz book, I resumed Paul Beatty’s ‘The Sellout’, winner of this year’s Man Booker prize. In it I read this sentence: “Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised by p values in the .75 range.” I got that it was taking the piss out of a certain kind of academia and social science but I had no idea what p values are, never heard of them before. This evening I’m at a lecture by Ogilvy’s Rory Sutherland (who I also interviewed for ‘When Sparks Fly’) on Behavioural Economics. He mentions p values of course.While I’m at it a Blake-related coincidence this time last year which proved very important for me. When BAFTA season is in full flow you get inundated with PR emails from film publicity companies. I normally don’t read them but I did read one entitled A Bigger Splash because that first job of mine in Soho, opposite Blake’s birthplace, was with a film company that made a movie in 1974 entitled ‘A Bigger Splash’, about David Hockney and his circle. So the subject line caught my eye and I scrolled through the email. It was for a new romantic comedy (?) featuring Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton. At the bottom of the email was the address of the publicity company – 35 Marshall Street, the very address of Buzzy Enterprises where I worked. So it was Buzzy’s address and Buzzy’s title united on a single email. What are the chances? Two items with no intrinsic connection. Unlike the hearing the same word for the first time twice on the same day type coincidence there can be no rational explanation for this baby. I ended up sending it to my former boss, director of the original ‘A Bigger Splash’, Jack Hazan, and that triggered a train of events which lead to us working together for the first time in decades, on a documentary based on something he shot three years before ‘A Bigger Splash’.
The first chapter of ‘When Sparks Fly’ is about poet Allen Ginsberg, who was hugely influenced by Blake. The road I crossed to get to Bunhill contains St Luke’s church where I once met Patti Smith, who is also a massive fan of Blake and wrote a song called ‘In My Blakean Year’ (but we talked about two other poets who resided in London, albeit briefly – Rimbaud & Verlaine).
The coincidences, both explicable and inexplicable, are the kind of thing that make life worth living. They suggest pattern, yes, but more importantly they suggest magic.