Threads from the past

My old cactus plant with its beautiful flowers (image: Graham Brown)
My old cactus plant with its beautiful flowers (image: Graham Brown)

Many years ago – perhaps 20 or 30 years – my mother gave me a small cactus plant. It never grew very much, if at all, but always looked fine. It has moved from home to home with me, through laughter and tears, good times and bad times, the ups and downs of life.

My mother died in 2001. My wife Kathie Touin and I met in 2002, married in 2003 and moved from London to Orkney in 2010. The cactus, still with me, or us as we had become, was put on a window shelf in the lounge in our Orkney home. By luck we had chosen a good spot because it started to grow steadily.

Last year, for the first time, it flowered, but so briefly that by the time we realised what was happening the flower was virtually gone.

This week, though, the cactus produced two beautiful yellow flowers. My mother, Mary, would be so thrilled to know this. The flowers help keep a thread through the years, to someone much loved and fondly, regularly, remembered.

Coincidentally when Kathie and I were married the celebrant placed a yellow flower on the altar to represent my late mother. So yellow flowers are starting to symbolise my mother.

These threads from the past fascinate me. I have an aunt who has researched the history of my father’s side of the family. She has told me a little about it but I really must make time when I next see my aunt to sit down and understand it properly. One of the disadvantages of being in Orkney – though it is a great place to live – is distance from family.

We have different attitudes to our ancestors – my father, though admiring of my aunt’s work, told me “I don’t worry about all that.” But family history fascinates me. One of the projects I had in mind when I took semi-retirement in Orkney was to research the history on my mother’s side – a project I have yet to start properly, along with learning the ukulele.

But one story my aunt uncovered sticks in my mind because she emailed me about it in 2012. She wrote: “Did [your father] tell you of our ‘foreign’ 3 x Great Grandfather (4 x in your case)? He must have come from Prussia as I think he was in their army fighting Napoleon’s lot – until they were routed in 1803. In 1804 that part of their army was disbanded, by which time many had come/escaped to England where they joined the King’s German Legion. Later they fought under Wellington at Waterloo in 1815.”

I thought about my great great great great grandfather when the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo was commemorated last month. I tried to picture him as I watched a TV documentary about the battle. How frightening it must have seemed. Some years ago I visited the battleground, while on holiday in Belgium, with no idea that an ancestor of mine had fought there.

My aunt’s research paid off. Not only did she find a fascinating family story, she attended the service of commemoration for the Battle of Waterloo at St Paul’s Cathedral as a descendent of a soldier who fought there. Others attending included Their Royal Highnesses the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall. My aunt reported back to me: “It was exceedingly well done and the present Duke of Wellington has a superb voice!”

I wonder what my 4 x great grandfather was like? This is ridiculous, what is his name? I must ask. Does this thread across the decades and across Europe explain why I feel drawn to Germany and its people, or would that be too fanciful?

An incident from my own recent past came to mind later in June with the passing of the actor Patrick Macnee, aged 93, best known for The Avengers TV series. My memorable encounter with this true gentleman, at Peterborough’s Nene Valley Railway, was recounted in an earlier blog in February, The Day I Met An Avenger.

Fionn McArthur of BBC Radio Orkney interviews the author at the Kitchener Memorial (image: helpful passer-by)
Fionn McArthur of BBC Radio Orkney interviews the author at the Kitchener Memorial (image: helpful passer-by)

Meanwhile, here in Orkney we are having a pretty poor summer weather-wise, following an unusually wet winter and spring. It’s not all gloom, we get some lovely sunny days as well – but not enough of them this year. BBC Radio Orkney reported at the beginning of June that in the first five months of 2015 we were already well on the way to having three-quarters of our normal annual rainfall.

Some events in Orkney’s August show season have been cancelled, the latest being the annual Vintage Rally because of the state of the ground at its venue. It’s a friendly event I enjoy – there is always a beautiful selection of restored vehicles on display – and this year I was due to be volunteering on one of the stands as a committee member of the Kitchener & HMS Hampshire Memorial project.

Speaking of which, I’ve just made my first appearance on BBC Radio Orkney, interviewed by Fionn McArthur, about this project to restore the Kitchener Memorial at Marwick Head, and build alongside a commemorative wall to all 737 men lost with HMS Hampshire in June 1916.

We are making good progress though we are about £15,000 short of the money we need so there is still work to do. But we are encouraged by supportive comments from Orcadians, and from the descendants of those lost, who also feel the tug of the threads from the past.

Graham Brown

To find out more

Prince of Wales attends Waterloo service of commemoration at St Paul’s – https://www.stpauls.co.uk/news-press/latest-news/-prince-of-wales-to-attend-waterloo-service-of-commemoration-at-st-pauls

The Day I Met An Avenger – https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2015/02/06/patrick-macnee/

John Vetterlein interviewed on BBC Radio Orkney about our rainfall (11 minutes in) –
https://soundcloud.com/radio-orkney/around-orkney-tuesday-2nd-june-2015

The author interviewed on BBC Radio Orkney about the Kitchener & HMS Hampshire Memorial project (after the news) –
https://soundcloud.com/radio-orkney/around-orkney-friday-10th-july-2015

Kitchener & HMS Hampshire Memorial project blog – https://kitchenerhampshire.wordpress.com/

Published by Graham Brown

I am Graham Brown, author of this blog, an Englishman living in Orkney since St Magnus Day 2010. I’m married to musician, singer and songwriter Kathie Touin. I am a member of Harray & Sandwick Community Council and a Manager (committee member) of Quoyloo Old School (community centre). I volunteer with the RSPB. I was on the committee which restored Orkney’s Kitchener Memorial and created the HMS Hampshire wall. I belong to the Radio Caroline Support Group, Orkney Field Club and Orkney Heritage Society. I spent nearly 24 years at the BBC in London. Remember: One planet, don’t trash it.

One thought on “Threads from the past

  1. I’ve received an update from my aunt about our ancestor who was at the Battle of Waterloo: “Your 4 x Great Grandfather was called Heinrich Dencker – later known as Henry. He was Hanoverian… I have recently established exactly where his Kings German Legion battalion was at the battle of Waterloo which was most satisfying.”

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