Kafka’s Head

I walked last night from the hotel to the restaurant, down Wenceslas Square, through the Franciscan Gardens, to a modern shopping centre in the middle of the New Town. The restaurant is on an outside corner of the brightly lit, glass-clad building, glistening in the late afternoon sunlight. But out-glistening it on the plaza outside the mall is a massive metal head.

Franz Kafka's Head
A rotating head of Franz Kafka the Czech novelist, outside the Quadrio Shopping Centre in the New Town, Prague.

The head consists of slices, one imagines not so different from those of a CT scan. Each slice rotates horizontally, independent of all the other slices. Sometimes the features are distorted by the random rotation, sometimes it moves in facial harmony. There’s an almost maritime feel to it all, as if a sailing ship’s figurehead has grown so large it has displaced the entire prow. The head sits on a high-gloss metal plinth, suggesting, perhaps, that it has only just landed there from another world. A small group of people – tourists? – photograph the head.

The sign says the head is Kafka’s – the Kafka, writer of Metamorphosis, The Trial and other disconcerting fictions. The head is handsome, if also disconcerting. It distinguishes an otherwise undistinguished plaza, but in a, for me at least, disturbing way. I stand looking for a long time, finding it hard to pull myself away to join my companions for dinner.

Later, I wonder whether Kafka would approve. In his short life he was not well known and far from a public figure. He had to write in his spare time and at his death did not expect his main works to be published. Would this public acclaim, this huge statue, please him? I am not so sure it would. On the other hand, the bizarre, surreal, and slightly incomprehensible form of the sculpture is highly appropriate for an author who placed his protagonists in bizarre or surrealistic predicaments in an incomprehensible world.

Taste Memory

When Proust dipped a Madeleine into his tea and bit into it, it stirred memories that resulted in À la recherche du temps perdu, the longest novel ever.

Tonight I bit into a mango and was transported back to 1949, when I climbed to the top of a Black mango tree full of the sweet little beauties, and ate so many I couldn’t come down. I had to be rescued by George the gardener.

That’s it. There is no more. Sorry, there’ll be no Jamaican
À la recherche from me!


‘Days’ by Ray Davis, a capella by the cast of ‘Sunny Afternoon’

Thank you for the days,
Those endless days, those sacred days you gave me.
I’m thinking of the days,
I won’t forget a single day, believe me.

I bless the light,
I bless the light that lights on you believe me.
And though you’re gone,
You’re with me every single day, believe me.

Days I’ll remember all my life,
Days when you can’t see wrong from right.
You took my life,
But then I knew that very soon you’d leave me,
But it’s all right,
Now I’m not frightened of this world, believe me.

 I wish today could be tomorrow,
The night is dark,
It just brings sorrow anyway.

I bless the light,
I bless the light that shines on you believe me.
And though you’re gone,
You’re with me every single day, believe me.

Days  © Ray Davies 1968

Rip Van Winkle (Again)

A Tale of Brexit for another Brexit Day

(After Washington Irving)

Once again, he had drunk the liquor the old men had given him, and, under a tree in the woods on a hill overlooking the village, once again he had fallen into a sleep so deep that 20 more years passed before he woke. Once again, his hair and beard had grown long and matted; his fingernails, like talons, twisted and long; his clothes tattered.

Rip Van Winkle stretched and yawned. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and looked around him. The village looked the same – the same houses with smoke rising comfortingly from their chimneys. The same little shops – butcher, baker, off licence, pawnbroker, bookmakers. The same church, the same pub. Only his hair, nails and clothes told him that another 20 years had passed.

He was hungry and thirsty, so, getting up carefully, he set off unsteadily toward the village. Going down the hill he passed a farmer, driving two reluctant cows up the hill toward him.

“How do?” he said.

The farmer just scowled at him and continued on up the hill. Rip Van Winkle thought this was odd, for civility was a hallmark of the village.

At the edge of the village, by a turnstile, he came across two elderly crones, deep in conversation.

“How do?” he said.

“Get lost, foreign vagabond!” one of the crones replied. “We don’t need your sort here. There are just too many of you around these days!”

Stunned, Rip Van Winkle stumbled over the stile, and trudged off toward the shops and the pub. Soon he saw ahead of him two men, arguing loudly.

They looked vaguely familiar, like older versions of two youths he had known, famous for their close friendship since childhood. Eloi and Settle. They had been born on the same day, were inseparable as children, married the same weekend, and moved into adjacent houses.

As he got closer, the argument became louder. “Could this really be Eloi and Settle,” Rip thought, “who never exchanged a harsh word, and certainly never fought?”

As Rip Van Winkle came up to the two men, they came to blows, hitting and thumping each other, and both shouting that the one had betrayed the other. Rip tried to separate them, but they both turned on him, raining blows on his head and further ripping his clothes. He made a fast retreat.

And so it went as he walked along the high street, past sullen, unsmiling, grumpy men, women and children going about their business in a grim, distracted way.

He entered the pub, which was dark and cold and gloomy, not the bright place he remembered, with its roaring fire, bright lanterns, and cheery atmosphere. Two customers sat at opposite ends of the bar, ignoring each other. Both eyed him with suspicion.

“How do?” Rip Van Winkle said to the landlord. The landlord did not return the pleasantry, he just growled “What do ya’ want?”

“A pint and a pie, please.”

The landlord slowly and reluctantly pulled a pint of bitter ale, and shoved it sullenly toward Rip. He took a pie from the cabinet, and without warming it, placed it on a board in front of Rip.

As he drank his ale and ate the cold pie, Rip Van Winkle thouight deeply about all that had happened since he woke up. He thought about the unhappy people, the quarelling friends, the incivillity, the unwelcoming xenophobia.

“So,” he finally said to the landlord, “I see that we haven’t left yet!”

On Jumping Mouse, vultures and me

At the end of his children’s classic, ‘Jumping Mouse’, a retelling of a Native American story, the poet Brian Patten vividly describes the transfiguration of the little desert mouse, hero of the story. Like the hero of all good stories,but unlike his timid kin, Jumping Mouse is a brave explorer whose curiosity pushes him to see all of his world, the American prairie. So he discovers rivers and frogs, flowers and dying buffalo, and, eventually, the Sacred mountains and the eagle.

The story ends:

And then in the middle of his back Jumping Mouse felt an odd sensation, and up above he heard the noise an eagle makes. The Spots were coming to him now. He felt the rush of wind as huge wings came down from the sky and a bird descended on him. He was terrified as he felt the claws grab round his body, and then he did not mind at all. He felt himself being lifted from the ground.

The next thing he knew, Jumping Mouse was beginning to see again. He saw colours and shapes, and shades of light, and all the time he was rising higher and higher. He laughed! O he was sure he had wings! He was sure he could fly! It was wonderful this feeling! This rush of the wind! He felt that like the eagle he had a beak, and claws and perfect sight.

[…] Out on the Great Plain he saw the buffalo thundering along. And there was the frog by the Great River! Jumping Mouse felt so happy and free. He shouted down to his friend the frog, and his voice seemed changed. ‘Hello, Brother Frog,’ he called, all the time rising higher and higher.

And the frog looked up from the river and shouted: ‘Hello, Brother Eagle!’

(Jumping Mouse by Brian Patten, George Allan & Unwin Ltd., London, 1972)

Ever since I first read that story, aloud, to my small children in 1972, I have wanted, like Jumping Mouse, to, at the end, soar as an eagle. Achieving this, without the intervention of a god or magic, has seemed at times well beyond me. Like my unfulfilled ambition to be born Italian so that I can wear a white suit with impunity, it seemed beyond the capability of an ordinary human.

But now, I think I have cracked it. Historically, in the North American west and central plains, many Native Americans disposed of the dead by building wooden platforms on stilts, on which bodies were laid and left to decompose and be consumed by birds. That’ll do for me! I realise that eagles don’t eat carrion, but I’d settle for a vulture – they soar, don’t they?

A Native American Sky Burial

I realise also that Jumping Mouse was alive when he was taken by Brother Eagle, but I would have to be dead in this scheme. But to me what matters is the essence of the thing, being eaten by a soaring bird, not the timing of the meal.

Putting this plan into action presents certain practical difficulties. I cannot find anywhere in Europe with an even ancient tradition of sky burial. The Zoroastrians at times used the practise, but I have no connection with Zoroastrianism or Iran. Neither have I connection with Tibet where it is practised even today.

I do, though, have some, small, meso-American Amerindian ancestry, and they share common roots with the First Nation peoples of Canada. That’s close enough for me.

On enquiring I find that sky burial is no longer allowed in Canada or the US. Apparently if offends against all kinds of health and safety legislation. They trump my somewhat remote ethnic requirements, apparently. So, it’ll just have to be done clandestinely.

My plan: Get my body while still alive to Canada, to some under-populated province with lots of open wilderness and more than a few vultures. Find a susceptible relative with a spare room, a pickup truck, some basic platform building skills and a general disregard for pettifogging restrictions. Then wait for my final breath. Then, in a few warm days, and with a fair wind, I’ll be off and soaring.

Footnote: ‘Jumping Mouse’ is still in print. More details >> here.

On taking Wittgenstein Seriously

My human friend (and arboreal landlord) was irritated by a letter he had from some bloke at the (British) NHS Business Services Authority – the boss of it in fact – purporting to advise him what he needs to do about his health cover in case of Brexit, deal, no deal, or otherwise. It enclosed a round-robin from the UK ambassador to France on the same subject, covering other aspects of life – or no life – in the EU after the UK shoots itself in the foot and Brexits – or not as the case may be.

Since it is clear, even at this late stage, that nothing is clear about Brexit, neither letter is particularly helpful, filled as they are with ‘maybe’ and ‘possibly’ and ‘could be’. Both shout out: “I really have no more idea about what will happen than you do, but I am required by my government to help them spend the £100 million they have set aside to tell you very little about preparing for Brexit (because they don’t know any more than you do) and it’s as much as my jobs worth not to, so here goes nothing!”

So my human friend sat down and drafted a reply to Mr….. well I’ll protect his identity, let’s say he is a Mr Redacted:

Dear Mr Redacted,

Re: Your letter of 23 September 2019 (Get Ready for Brexit)

As far as I know, we have never met. Therefore the correct form of address when you write to me is ‘Dear Mr Verity’, not ‘Dear Jeremy Verity’.

Your letter. I realise that you are required by the government to write to me on this subject, and that you are probably doing so under protest (well, at least, I hope you are). The buffoons running our country must appear to know what they are doing even when they don’t, so it’s £100 million of our money well spent. But I counsel you, and them, to take to heart Wittgenstein’s aphorism ‘Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent’

Much of your letter is singularly uninformative, hedged around as it is with uncertainty; reservations such as
                “…may affect…”,
                                “…will depend on…”,
                                                “…if there is no…”,
                                                                “…you may be asked…”.
If you don’t know what is going to happen upon Brexit, or even what kind of Brexit there is going to be – and how could you know, the buffoons don’t, and they are in charge – then you should remain silent. Until you can state with certainty what I should do, your speculations can only cause me alarm.

Let us take just one of your suggestions: “Consider buying health insurance”. Do you think I haven’t considered it? Cheapest quote for the cover I already have (S1+private top-up) and, incidentally the minimum that will be required by the French government? Just under €11,000 p.a. Think a bit deeper, consider this question: How does a 79 year old, Windrush Generation British pensioner with a total pension income of under €1,300 p.m. afford €900 a month for healthcare?

Let’s take our thought experiment a step further. Suppose that my response to your letter is to panic. I rush out and sign a health care contract. Then the UK agrees to continue S1 cover after Brexit, or Brexit doesn’t happen. Where does that leave me? Stuck for at least a year with an $11,000 bill for insurance I don’t need but can’t cancel. Why? It seems, under French law, a rolling contract can only be cancelled on death or in the 21 days prior to automatic renewal. Thank you, NHS, but no thank you.

Maybe I misread you, but the overall gist of your letter seemed to be: ‘Brexit is going to happen; I don’t know how it’s going to affect you, but it will. Here are some thoughts which may be helpful. Or maybe not. But whatever, as far as the NHS is concerned, you’re on your own.”

You will be pleased to hear that your letter wasn’t totally unhelpful. The section ‘Travelling around the EU and UK’ explained that after 31 October I will need to present a copy of my S1 form should I need NHS care when visiting Britain. Didn’t know such a form existed, so I’d better get one. I would have thought that having an NI Card and number, a 45 year record of NI contributions, 55 year record of paying UK tax (yup, I still pay tax), and my British nationality, I’d be a shoo-in at any NHS facility. I guess not; but it delights me that I can help justify you administrators’ existence by jumping through a few more hoops.

You will by now have gathered that ill-considered and largely uninformative letters cause me concern, anxiety, worry, depression, and no little anger. I do not think you intend this, but that has been the effect. Nor am I alone in this – several British pensioners in this area have told me how frightened and upset they have been by your letter to them and by the equally unhelpful one from the ambassador you enclosed. We expats have low expectations of the Foreign Office and its outposts; we expected better of the NHS.

Finally, it is my view that, in 1964, when I entered the British social security system, the NHS undertook a duty of care for me which has not lapsed at any point since then. It continued when I came to live in France, though under a different delivery mechanism. I assert that this duty must and will continue even after Brexit. I am prepared, with others, to take whatever action is needed to hold the NHS to its duty of care to us – UK citizens resident in the EU whose healthcare is currently funded by the British Government and administered by your department.

Yours sincerely

But then, he thought better of it and didn’t send it!



She comes calling.
With ashen face, hooded, cloaked,
Bearing harvest tool.
Her who gifts bring:
Silence, peace, stillness, oblivion.

I greet her, but I do not embrace her.

She does not speak
Demands entrance, knowing
She cannot be denied.
Her who ferries souls
Across rivers: Styx, Acheron.

I admit her, but I do not embrace her.

She in the hall
Bringer of sepulchral chill,
Freezer of time,
Paid bearer away
Of time expired ones.

I welcome her, but I do not embrace her.

She raises arm, bony finger pointing
Indicating courtyard,
Transformed now
To river bank,
Planked landing, passenger ready.

I follow her, but I do not embrace her.

She takes my coin,
Mistress pilot of the Styx.
She skulls us,
Me now willing,
Toward Cerberus and Eurydice.

I accept her enforced crossing, and I embrace her.

On the Lagoons

Last weekend, for the first in a long while, I listened all the way through to Berlioz’ Les nuits d’été, six settings of poems by Théophile Gautier.

I have loved this work dearly, ever since I first heard it sung by Janet Baker at the English Bach Festival in 1971. In the past, when I listened to them there was one song, the third, Sur les lagunes: Lamento, that somehow I didn’t embrace – or perhaps understand – in the way I did the others. All that changed on Saturday, as the song went straight to my heart, for now I understand, now I share the desolation.

Ma belle amie est morte:
Je pleurerai toujours
Sous la tombe elle emporte
Mon âme et mes amours.
Dans le ciel, sans m’attendre,
Elle s’en retourna;
L’ange qui l’emmena
Ne voulut pas me prendre.
Que mon sort est amer!
Ah! sans amour s’en aller sur la mer!

La blanche créature
Est couchée au cercueil.
Comme dans la nature
Tout me paraît en deuil!
La colombe oubliée
Pleure et songe à l’absent;
Mon âme pleure et sent
Qu’elle est dépareillée!
Que mon sort est amer!
Ah! sans amour s’en aller sur la mer!

Sur moi la nuit immense
S’étend comme un linceul;
Je chante ma romance
Que le ciel entend seul.
Ah! comme elle était belle
Et comme je l’aimais!
Je n’aimerai jamais
Une femme autant qu’elle.
Que mon sort est amer!
Ah! sans amour s’en aller sur la mer!

“Sur les lagunes: Lamento” by Pierre Jules Théophile Gautier (1811-1872)

You can hear the music here and an English translation is here.

Finding Stefan, the search for a Russian grandfather – The Final Chapter

I put the dossier aside and brought my friend Jeremy another Appleton. He sipped it slowly; he had become quite sloth-like as the evening progressed. I had so many questions for him, I worried that he might snooze off again before I could ask them all.

So, now that you have read your grandfather’s naturalisation dossier, what have you learned?

“Quite a lot, actually. His war service, for example. I now know that in his three years in the Army he served in France for at least two, possibly three tours of duty; that, after the war was over, he was part of the British Expeditionary force sent to Archangel in North Western Russia to support the White Russians against the Bolsheviks in the Civil War, one of Churchill’s more foolish and Quixotic adventures. He obviously was a good, probably not exceptional, soldier: he was promoted twice in two years; his commanding officer goes to bat for him, helping him get his naturalisation through the process and to track down his missing certificate; he is awarded his due medals, suggesting good behaviour.

“I know for sure that he was born in Warsaw, not Paris, in 1885 not 1889 as one US document records it. I know the names of his parents, but not who they were nor what they did for a living. As far as I can discover, this is the only appearance Gustav and Felicya Helen make in any publicly available record.  Good archaeologists always leave a portion of a site unexplored, for a future generation with better tools to develop. Like them, I’ll leave Stefan’s parents to the future.

“I know where and when he married my grandmother, Marguerite Coudert, and something of the circumstances of the marriage. There’s more about where and when my aunt and uncles were born – two in London, but interestingly one, Paul, in France at the home that my great-grandfather, Dr Louis Albert Coudert, had retired to in Cazeres-sur-l’Adour in the Landes in Southwestern France. I will visit the village one day – it’s not that far from where we are now – and if the house still exists, I will know it from my mother’s vivid description of her visit there as a child in the 1920s. But I do wonder why, when they were well established in Holland Park, they travelled to France, which had been invaded by Germany the month before, for the birth of Gustav Louis Paul. Maybe they were already there when war broke out, or perhaps Marguerite insisted on going on her own, leaving Stefan in the Holland Park home. I will never know.

“About Stefan himself: he worked as a clerk and as a shop assistant in a pharmacy but was not a ‘chemist’ as my parent’s marriage certificate has him. He could be a good employee but was not above being stroppy, as the pharmacy he worked for in Broad Street, Soho, found out. What was that quarrel about? Why didn’t he work for a year? Sulking? Couldn’t get a reference? Was it hard for a ‘Russian’ to find work in London? But, all in all, he was considered to be ‘a good character’. “

I sense a hesitation in your voice. You are still not sure about him, are you?

“Well, yes. You see, although there’s a lot we can gather about Stefan from the paperwork, there’s a lot missing, or ambiguous, or not quite right. I’ve had to do a lot of thinking about these and work out for myself what it all means. Without an older generation around to check things with, and the difficulty of getting access to many of the archives, particularly in Poland, I can’t be certain of any of the conclusions I have drawn.

What do you mean?

“Well, take the length of time he claims in that he has lived in London: he puts it at 6 years and 2 months, which would make it November 1911. But that’s when he married Marguerite on 26th November 1911 in St John the Baptist Church, in Great Marlborough Street. That would mean he came to London not only to settle but also to get married just a few days after he arrived.

“One wonders what are the circumstances? Where did Stefan meet Marguerite? In Paris, where we know she worked before coming to London? Or did they meet in London, which he was visiting perhaps looking for work. Or was he already living in London? And when did they meet? It had to be in early 1911, as Marguerite was 6 months pregnant at the time of the marriage. Of course, it could be that they met in Paris, fell in love, conceived Maud, and, in God knows what circumstances, late in the day, leave Paris for marriage, work and a new life in London. Which could explain the timing – just.”

Very romantic, a sort of elopement maybe? Anything else that doesn’t quite add up?

“Yes. There is the marriage itself. This took place in St John the Baptist Church, near to Liberty’s on the edge of Soho. I looked it up, the church is no longer there; it was decommissioned in 1937. So, that adds up – we know from Sergeant Boustred report that Stefan lived and worked in Soho in 1911 and 12:

     Mr Burt first knew Memorialist through his wife Mrs Burt, who used to visit the young children in Soho district on behalf of the Westminster Council. Memorialist lived at that time in the Soho district and when one of his children was born he was visited by Mrs Burt.

“If you live in Soho, it makes sense to marry in Soho. But what is odd is that St John the Baptist was an Anglican church.”

And that is odd because?

“Marguerite was a Roman Catholic, from a very devout Breton family. She continued to be a devout Catholic throughout her life; she brought up all her children as Catholics, and at least two of them were devout and active Catholics throughout their lives. Stefan was, it is said, also a Catholic. So what circumstance could lead to them to marry in an Anglican church?

“At that time, relations between the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches were frosty to say the least. What would it take, then, to make Catholics marry in an Anglican church?”

Could they have been refused a Catholic marriage because Marguerite was pregnant?  

“No, the local Catholic priest would have been only too happy to officiate at the wedding to ensure the legitimacy of Maud’s birth. It had to be something else. For example, if one or other of the couple was a divorcee, and the first spouse was still living. Or, the couple were too closely related. Or one partner has lived in ‘notorious concubinage’ with the mother or father of the other. Or the man was impotent. Or one party had been abducted for the purposes of the marriage. Or Disparity of Cult – marriage between a Catholic and a non-baptized person. There’s more – so take your pick.

“Whatever the reason, they were married in an Anglican church, and at the time, the Catholic Church would have treated the marriage as invalid. But in the eyes of the British state, it was a valid, legal marriage.

“Then for me, there’s the final missing piece of the jigsaw – where was Stefan coming from when he arrived in Britain (and the associated question why did he come)? I have searched in vain for a record of his arrival in England, his Immigration Card. That it’s not there is not surprising, if the destruction in the present day by the Home Office of the entry records of the Windrush Generation, of which I am one, is anything to go by. If Stefan’s card was available, it would answer three questions: When did he arrive? Which country did he set out from? What was the reason for entering Britain?

“Knowing his reason for coming to England and where he embarked from would tell us a lot about Stefan and his history before 1911. For we really know nothing about him for certain from his birth in Warsaw in 1885 until his arrival in London. Did he come directly from Poland? Had he lived in Paris as a boy and a young man as family legend has it, and come to London from there? Was he coming as what we now call an ‘economic migrant’, or was he some sort of refugee like so many other Poles and Russians on the move in that period – 2 million of them? Unless we can find that Immigration Card, we won’t know. But I’ll leave that for some future generation to dig up.”

OK, but at least your research told you your grandfather’s nationality.

“Yes … and no! Of course, he was Polish, born in Warsaw of clearly Polish parents. Yet, he was Polish by birth but not by status. Although Poland had existed as a separate nation state for many hundreds of years, and was to be an independent nation state again after the first World War in 1919, at the time of his birth Poland was in a partitioned, colonial state, occupied and parcelled out for over 100 years between three neighbouring empires – Austrian, German and Russian. So, born in Russian occupied Warsaw, in law, Stefan was a Russian subject, travelling with Russian nationality, presumably on a Russian passport.

“I have no doubt that in 1918, and long before, most people in Britain would have sympathised with Polish aspirations to have their sovereignty restored and a free Poland once again a reality. Nonetheless, when he applied for British naturalisation, Stefan was forced to enter ‘Russian’ as his nationality, and ‘Warsaw, Russian Poland’ as his place of birth – remember the instruction on the special Polish/Jewish application form. The reason for this, apart from it being a literal, legal truth, is particularly poignant for me – like Stefan I was born a colonial subject in a colonised country. My nationality at birth was ‘British’ not ‘Jamaican’ and remained that until 6th August 1962, when Jamaica gained its Independence. In 1918, for Britain not to recognise, and insist on, Stephan being identified as Russian, would call into question not just the legitimacy of the Russian Empire, and by extension, also that of the British Empire.

“It is clear from all the other records, that unless forced to do otherwise, Stefan always identified himself as Polish by birth; even after he achieves British nationality, he describes himself as Polish, his nationality as British. (There is one exception – a document in which his nationality is described as French, but I think this is a clerical error.)

“Yet isn’t it extremely sad, and also ironic, that in his long lifetime, Stefan never managed officially to hold citizenship of an independent Poland. When the new republic was born, one of its first tasks was to determine who was Polish and who was not. They turned to a law of residence that existed in the Austrian Partition. Polish citizenship was for all people born in Poland, or descended from parents born in Poland, resident at the time of independence in the territory of the new Polish Republic. It also made provision for Poles ‘remaining abroad, to [acquire] Polish citizenship, unless they acquired the citizenship of a foreign country before 31 January 1920 by the fact of birth within its territory or by naturalisation.’ By becoming British in 1918, Stefan excluded himself from Polish citizenship. He also deprived me of my easiest Plan B for retaining EU citizenship in the case of Brexit ever happening!

“There’s one last little titbit – while waiting for his Home Office file to be sent to me, I did some further research on Stefan in the US records. I discovered that years ago I had missed a US Department of Immigration and Naturalisation Service record of Stefan applying for, and getting, US citizenship in 1947. That dossier should be very revealing, but not for me – I leave its discovery to another digger.

“Sometimes I wonder if Stefan found it unfair, or sad, or even ironic, that he was denied the right to be recognised as a Polish citizen. But somehow, looking at the broad outline of his his life, I doubt if he was given to that sort of self reflection.”

So, he was Polish, but was he also Jewish? Didn’t you say that most of the Poles and Russians who migrated to the UK between 1880 and 1920 were Jewish?

“I did, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Stefan was Jewish. Also, it may depend on what you mean by ‘Jewish’.

“Lets examine the words ‘Jew’ and ‘Jewish’? Judaism is a faith and the words Jew and Jewish can refer to the people who espouse that faith. In this sense, it makes no presumption about the ethnicity or colour of the person. So, there are today religious Jews who are Semitic people from the Near East, many are European, some black African, others who are Chinese, some Indian, and so on. They are as diverse as members of any other major faith, for example Christianity or Islam. What unites them is that they are all ‘people of the book’ despite their race (whatever the term race means.)

“But the terms have another meaning, which is often very fluid and sometimes hard to grasp. This meaning is of a people ‘belonging to a continuation through descent or conversion of the ancient Jewish people.’ And this is where the fluidity begins. Defining ‘the ancient Jewish people’ is not simple. As Simon Schama has pointed out, the ancient Jewish people were not only the people of ancient Jerusalem and Judea, but also the Jews of the upper Nile in Egypt left behind at the Exodus, the culturally Greek Jews of Alexandria, the more Arabic Jews of the Yemen. They all had different ways of being Jewish, often very different from that then current in Jerusalem. Because of this, although they were a people, the ancient Jews were not a ‘race’ in the popular understanding of that word. Many of them shared the mixture of genes of the original Jews of Abraham’s time, but many didn’t. Conversion and assimilation and intermarriage meant that the ancient Jews as a people were defined by their central shared customs and beliefs and not necessarily by shared ancestry.

“What is true of the ancient Jews, is true of modern Jews. They are a people who are descended from groups of people who held these central shared customs and beliefs, who clung on to that shared identity across 2000 years, and who today, whether they are religious or not, can be identified by that descent. So, they can look like Ethiopians, Egyptians, Chinese, Indians or Europeans, but they are all, nonetheless, Jewish. This is what we mean, or should mean, when we talk about the Jews as a people, as distinct from Jews as members of a religion. You should read Gil Yehuda on this.

“There are two historical communities who make up the great majority of Jews in Europe today. These are the Ashkenazi and the Sephardi people. The Ashkenazi are a Jewish diaspora population who coalesced in the Holy Roman Empire and as far west as Northern France around the end of the first millennium. It’s not known for certain what their origin was, the best supported theory is the one that suggests a Jewish migration from Israel through what is now Italy and other parts of southern Europe starting during the late Greek and early Roman Imperial periods and continuing into the Christian era. In the Holy Roman Empire in the 9th century their language became Yiddish, a High-German language fused with Hebrew and Aramaic elements. In the High and Later Mediaeval period, responding to persecution, the Ashkenazi started spreading east into lands that are now Poland, Russia, Ukraine, and the Baltic States. This is the group that might be relevant to Stephan.”

OK, I get that, but was he Jewish?

“There is nothing to suggest that he was a Jew in the sense that he was a member of the Jewish faith. His, and his parent’s, forenames are not what one would expect of religious, orthodox Jews. They are names that commonly occur throughout Central Europeans of that period.

“However, his surname, Kamelhard is a Jewish name. All rreferences to it are in a Jewish context, mainly in Holocaust related files or census and local government audits prior to 1939. The name is spelled in different ways in the Polish records, and some of these variants turn up in Stefan’s US documentation. The spelling variation is probably due to the problems transliterating words and proper names from one language to another, and clerical errors that become permanent orthography. The name the family now use, Kamellard, does not turn up in any Polish or Russian sources, and seems to have been used only after the birth of my mother at the end of 1918 – by 1921 Stephan is using it.

“The name Kamelhard turns up in databases of victims such as at Yad Vashem and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, and in collections like the records of the Łódź Ghetto. The people I found were from Warsaw and Kraków and small villages in what is now central Poland. All are Holocaust victims. There are no Kamelhards in the survivor lists I have looked at. I did find one Kamelhard who survived the war and was buried near Kraków in the 1950s. No other details. Searches on the internet for living Kamelhards return no results. They seem, like Stefan’s Manhattan telephone, to have been disconnected.

“The name, therefore strongly suggests that Stefan was Jewish by descent. His parent’s, and his, forenames point to them being assimilated Jews, and this is reinforced by the fact that they lived in the capital Warsaw. In the 19th Century many upwardly mobile, educated Jews throughout Germany, Austria and Russia left the small, rural towns with large Jewish populations, the shtetls, to settle in large cities such as Berlin, Vienna, Prague and Warsaw. This allowed them to join the new professional middle class and to take up the law and medicine, practise music and the arts, do science, and be teachers in the wider community in ways that Jews had not done before. Many lower middle-class assimilated Jews owned and operated pubs, hotels, breweries and distilleries.

“This assimilation often involved the abandonment of many of the customs and ways of Jewish life or becoming totally secularised. Sometimes they converting to Christianity, often to ensure promotion – Gustav Mahler is an example, he converted so that he could become Director of the Vienna Imperial Opera, Christianity being a requirement of the post.

“So, I believe that Stefan and his parents were a part of this wave of assimilated middle-class Jews. They may have been Christians but were more probably secular which might account for the marriage to Marguerite being in an Anglican not a Catholic church – there was a Disparity of Cult

“There is one last word on this. Recent DNA analysis suggests that, just as I inherit from my father genetic markers of West African ancestry – I am a carrier of Sickle Cell Trait – in the same way I inherit from my mother markers in just about the right proportions consistent with Stefan and his parents being Ashkenazi.”

It’s after midnight, much too late for an aged sloth like me. It’s time we parted, you to your home, me to my tree. But before you wonder off into the night, one last question. When we started talking much earlier this evening, you didn’t seem to have had a very high opinion of Stefan before you got his dossier. Has anything you found changed your mind?

“You are right, I thought he was, to say the least, a completely dodgy, untrustworthy character. I have had to modify that a bit now. The file shows that he did good things: he married Marguerite when she was six months pregnant, he did not abandon her. And he stayed with her for another ten years, long enough to father four children. Presumably, as new immigrants to London, it was not easy to organise the marriage, set up a home and provide for them all. That’s all to the good.

“Then his military service speaks well of him. He volunteered when he didn’t need to, since he was an alien he was not conscripted. He put in good service, rising from a kitchen clerk to a responsible role in military intelligence, leaving the army with two promotions. That speaks well for him.

“And later, in his life in America, his ‘marriage’ there appears to have been a good one, he seems to have been a faithful and diligent husband for the marriage lasted to the end of his life. So good.

“Nonetheless, there is still the debit side of the account. I come away with the impression that he is never completely open about himself, neither with the authorities, nor with the people he knew. There is a shiftiness about the fluidity of his surname that suggests a fluidity in his truthfulness about other aspects of his life.

“It’s still a fact that he abandoned Marguerite – and the children Maud, Paul, Jacques and Jacqueline – at a time when they needed him most, causing them not only social and psychological harm and economic disruption, but also arguably a much poorer life physically and emotionally than had he stayed. My mother was the way she was to some degree because she spent much of her childhood in foster care because Marguerite could not cope financially.

“He was not above committing crime, no matter how excusable the circumstances might be thought to make them. He was an illegal immigrant to the United States, and only regularised his status after a long while. He contracted a bigamous marriage, a crime in both the UK and his new country the US.

“He also comes across as indifferent to the harm he caused. As far as I know, once he jumped ship in the Boston in 1924, he made no attempt to contact any of the family he left behind in the UK. My mother and the uncles and aunts, never mention their father being in contact, or attempting to find out their circumstances and progress. While this might be understandable in the early years, particularly as these included the Depression and the Second World War, in later life, when conditions were better, his indifference continued. I revisited the research I had did years ago into Stefan’s American life and unearthed an entry I had overlooked at the time. It is a UK Immigration record of the departure for New York of Stefan and Elaine Kamelhard, US citizens, from the Port of Southampton in the summer of 1960. If Stefan contacted any of the family while he was in Britain, I am not aware of it. Yet it would have been easy enough – both Paul and Jacques Kamellard were in the London telephone book.

“I do not know, nor can anyone know at this distance in time, what were the forces – psychological, economic, political, social and religious – that shaped the character of Stefan Kemelhard in the 30 years or so before he turned up to marry Marguerite in London in 1911. Like all of us, he is not responsible for the genes he inherited, not for the circumstances that shaped his early life and character. But, as indepenent adults, we are all responsible for what we do with the cards we have been dealt. I think Stefan played his hand badly and I find it hard to put out of mind the abandonment of, and indifference toward, the Kamellards he left behind in London.

“If I met him would I like him? I don’t think so. Fascinating as his story might be, I find it a blessing that I did not have to know him. But, if I am right about all this, I do relish this irony: when my mother lied to bigots in Jamaica that she had a Jewish father, she was probably telling the truth.”