One day a piece of sky fell and hit Chicken Little on the head.
Chicken Little rushed over to Henny Penny and said: “The sky is falling in, and a piece of it hit me on the head.”
“Oh no,” said Henny Penny, “that can’t be true. I think it’s just Project Fear. Don’t worry.”
“No,” said Chicken Little, “a piece of the sky did hit me on the head.”
“OK” said Henny Penny. “We’ll go discuss it with Cocky Locky.”
And they did. And Cocky Locky said “Oh no, that can’t be true. I think it’s just Project Fear. Don’t worry.”
“No,” said Chicken Little, “a piece of the sky did hit me on the head.”
“OK” said Cocky Locky. “We’ll go discuss it with Ducky Lucky.”
And they did. And Ducky Lucky said “Oh no, that can’t be true. I think it’s just Project Fear. Don’t worry.”
As this is a children’s fairy story you know that we have to repeat this a number of times. So eventually a small crowd of farm birds – Chicken Little, Henny Penny, Cocky Locky, Ducky Lucky, Drakey Lakey, and Goosey Loosey go to Turkey Lurkey.
And Turkey Lurkey said “Oh no, that can’t be true. I think it’s just Project Fear. Don’t worry.”
“No,” said Chicken Little, “a piece of the sky did hit me on the head.”
“OK” said Turkey Lurkey. “We’ll go discuss it with Foxy Loxy. He gets around in the world, knows a lot of people,. He really knows what’s going on.”
So they all went to see Foxy Loxy who said “It’s just Project Fear, don’t worry about it. Why don’t you come in and I’ll fix you all a lovely hot drink.”
And they did. And Foxy Loxy whistled as he put a cauldron of water on the stove.
Foxy Loxy, having already eaten Henny Penny, Cocky Locky, Ducky Lucky, Drakey Lakey, Goosey Loosey and Turkey Lurkey, was about to tuck into Chicken Little, when the entire sky fell in as the earth unintentionally crashed out of the Solar System, killing Foxy Loxy.
“Screw me!” Foxy Loxy thought as he died, “Chicken Little was right. It wasn’t Project Fear after all!”
By now it was night, and the full moon was high, bathing Lanquais in a silvery glow. I poured another Appleton and Canada Dry Ginger, and my friend Jeremy continued with the story of his search for his Russian grandfather.
“So, where was I? Oh yes.”
In May 1924, Stefan, my grandfather, runs away to America, leaving Marguerite, my grandmother, a French immigrant in London, to bring up four children on her own. He settles down in New York, bigamously marries a younger woman, to whom he stays married until he dies in 1964. He is registered for the draft in 1942, although, at this point, he is 57 years old. He seems to work in catering establishments up to the year of his death. And that’s as much as I can discover about his life after Marguerite.
But what about the first 40 years or so. Other than the
scraps I picked up from my mother and her tight-lipped brothers and sister, precious
little. A name and a birthplace; some vague hints of a connection with France,
particularly with Paris, involvement with the British Army in the 1914-18 War;
raw records of his brief life at sea, abscondment. Oh, and he was definitely not
Jewish, my mother made that up! And that’s about it.
And it remained ‘just about it’, until that particularly English
(with some help from the Welsh) masochistic, self-destructive, insanity: Brexit.
Brexit: an ugly
word for an ugly reality! An act of stupidity so patently not in the interest
of anyone except perhaps a wealthy hedge fund operator, that even now, nearly three
years after the referendum that approved it, it takes your breath away. It
sucks the life out of its victims, the sense out of informed debate, the joy
out of life.
But, not even Brexit has no
upside. For thanks to Brexit, I have found a treasure trove that takes me
tantalisingly close to filling in many of the missing bits of the story of my
Polish, or maybe Russian, grandfather, Stefan Kamellard. Here’s how it
As the British Government negotiated its divorce agreement
with the EU, and as time went by, it became clearer each day that the UK was
using its citizens who had made their lives in the other EU countries as
bargaining chips. With no input from us – we had no vote in the referendum – we
were pawns in the great game. But all would be well. Hadn’t David Davis, the UK
negotiator-in-chief, assured us before the referendum that this would be the
easiest negotiation in history, that we held all the cards, that we would ‘have
our cake and eat it’? Or was it Boris? or Nigel? or Michael? or Liam? – doesn’t
matter, whoever it was, they knew what they were talking about, don’t they. Mrs
V and I’d be OK, we’d even come out of this with our rights enhanced!
Turns out this wasn’t quite 100% true. In fact, it wasn’t
even 10% true. As the weeks went by, one by one our rights as British residents
of the EU after Brexit, became less than they were before: restricted and
constrained; dependent on the kindness and goodwill of our neighbours,
something we have little reason to doubt; heavily dependent on the willingness of
our own government to protect our interests, something it would be stupid to
Of course, we were not without a Plan B. As it happens,
unlike Mrs May and her happy band of ‘No Plan B’ Brexiteers, we had more than
one, some more attractive than others. One of them, favoured by Mrs V, involved
having a foot in both camps, living part of the time in the EU, part of the time
in the UK. We started to make this happen.
Then I found myself alone. I have enjoyed my life in France,
and, all things being equal, am happy to stay here forever. There was a Plan B that
allowed me to achieve this: I have many French ancestors on both sides of my
family, so just become a French citizen by naturalisation, and retain most of
the rights the UK was happy to give away.
So, I began the process. And what a process! Mountains of
paper are needed. Certificates of all sorts, officially verified, and, if not
originally in French, officially translated into French by an official French translator.
Proof of good character, from our local Maire,
also the Gendarmerie, maybe even le Brigade nationale de répression de la
délinquance fiscalel (the police fiscale,
tax police to you and me!).
Add to that a minimum of 5 years’ worth of tax returns, tax assessments,
tax receipts; 5 years’ worth of monthly, bi-monthly and quarterly utility bills
to prove continuous residence in France; proof of regular monthly income; and
more. You see, a mountain of paper.
Also, I must not forget two passport-sized photographs, my
passport, my birth certificate, the birth certificates of my mother and of my
father, and, “where applicable”, their marriage certificate. And it’s in
getting hold of this last object that I discovered Stefan!
I wasn’t certain where my mother was born, we’d always thought
Paris. But I knew she was married in London, in 1939. I went online to the UK
National Archive and searched for her marriage paper. Sure enough, up it popped
– Jacqueline Andrée Kamellard married Robert Godwin Verity on 4th
August 1939 at the Registry Office, Willesden. I ordered a copy.
Then I did a search for her among the births but didn’t find
her. I found nothing at all for Kamellard between 1900 and 1920. Must have been
born outside the UK then. I contacted my sister, who found a copy of Mum’s
birth certificate in her attic. She sent me a rather fuzzy scan of it, and, surprisingly
it was a UK birth certificate, date of birth: November 1918, place of birth: Queen
Charlotte Hospital, London. So why didn’t it turn up when I searched the National
Archive? I got out the magnifying glass and had a closer look at the fuzzy
scan. After quite some minutes study I found it: my mother’s name at birth was Jacqueline
Andrée KAMELHARD, not KAMELLARD!
Back to the National Archive, and now a search for Kamelhard
between 1900 and 1920 yielded a treasure trove of Kamelhard documents:
Mum’s birth certificate
Her sister Maud and brother Jacques’ birth certificate
The War Office record card for Corporal Stefan Kamelhard (1916-1920)
The naturalisation dossier for Stefan Kamelhard and his son, Gustav Paul (1918)
I ordered the lot and waited impatiently for the National Archive copying service to do their work and get them to me. And, in the middle of March, the package arrived. I opened and read it all, and got to know so much more about, Stefan, my Russian Grandfather.
And now if you’ll fix me another Appelton and Canada Dry, I’ll
let you see the dossier!
A few days ago, over a late afternoon rum and ginger (Appleton and Canada Dry of course!) , my friend Jeremy was telling me about his search for his Russian grandfather. Here’s the tale he told as the sun went down, and a full moon came up over Chateau de Lanquais.
My mother was always quite tight-lipped about her father. She seemed to know, or pretended to know, very little about him. Talking to her brother or sister about him was even less informative, talking about him made them angry. I was warned never to broach the subject with my Breton grandmother, so I didn’t. Thus, what I know about him has been pieced together from scraps of information that have come my way from time to time over the last 70 years.
My mother said her father, Stefan, was Polish, born in Warsaw, she didn’t know when. He had been in the British Army in the first World War and was an interpreter during his service. After the war he worked on trans-Atlantic liners, until, one day he ran away to America, leaving my grandmother to bring up their four children unsupported, on her own in a foreign city, London, in a foreign country, England. He was never heard from again. My grandmother, Marguerite Kamellard, née Coudert, a single Mum, supported the family working as a dressmaker. That was what my mother knew. Punctum.
It will not surprise you that this was all my mother knew,
or admitted to knowing, if I tell you that she was only five when Stefan did a
flit, and as far as I know, she had few, if any memories of him.
There was one other thing I knew, or thought I knew, about
him. This came from my father. Mum and Dad met in London in mid-1939, when my
mother was 20. They married two weeks later, and almost immediately sailed for
Jamaica to get away from the Second World War, which was expected to begin any
day – it started the day the boat arrived in Jamaica. There, in Jamaica, my
mother, explaining her background to my father’s family and friends, said that
her father was a Polish Jewish chemist, but from a Christian, Roman Catholic
family. She told my father that her parents had met when my grandmother was a
young woman working in Paris.
When I was four, my parents had a messy divorce. My mother
returned to England. I stayed in Jamaica. For the next 50 years or more, that’s
all I knew about Stefan. Not much, but enough to know that he had behaved
badly. He was at best inadequate and, at worst, pretty cruel. No wonder his abandoned
wife and children were both tight-lipped and angry.
When I was about 30, in the early 1970s, talking to my
mother about her childhood, I asked her, if she knew much about the Kamellards,
Stefan’s parents. When had they converted from Judaism to Christianity?
“Oh”, she said, “he wasn’t Jewish, I only said that to wind up
some people in Jamaica. I was a naïve young woman when I arrived in Kingston,
and people patronised me. I thought they were very false and pretentious, so I
told them things that I thought would offend them. If they were conservative, I
said I was a communist. If they were anti-Semitic, I told them I was Jewish,
and so on. None of it was true, although your father often believed it. No, no,
my father was an ordinary Pole.”
My maternal aunt and uncle, deeply Catholic and deeply
anti-Semitic in a very Catholic way, were only too happy to confirm that Stefan
was not Jewish. They were quite annoyed that I could ever have believed such an
idea. So, I made a small adjustment to my mental profile of grandfather Stefan.
Now roll on some years, to the 1990s. One day my sister told
me that our mum had decided that her father was not Polish. He was Russian.
“So, how does she work that out?” I asked. “He came from
“No,” she said, “Mum says he was from a part of Russia that
later became Poland”
“But there is no part of Russia that later became Poland! It’s
actually the other way around. Bits of Poland became Russia.”
“Yes, I know” said my sister, “but now that Mum’s supporting
UKIP, she doesn’t like the Poles, so her father must have been a Russian.
Russians are dashing and romantic.”
“Oh well, so now we’re part Russian.”
“Yes,” my sister said, “we’re Russian, but we are not Jewish. UKIP doesn’t like them either!”
Roll forward again to the early 2000s.
Now retired, we have all the time in the world for pointless pursuits. I find myself gardening, pottering about in canoes, playing with bits of Meccano. My beloved Mrs V takes up knitting a vast array of dolls (for use as presents and for sale) and genealogy: she wants to know a bit more about the story of her family, and whether her mother’s family from the English Western borderlands, the Angells, was really originally Welsh (turns out they are 16th century Italian immigrants, del Angelli.)
She needs my side of the family to complete the tree she is
building. There is no problem on my father’s side – thanks to two cousins and
an uncle sharing their research, we have almost full details back to 1750 on my
Dad’s mother’s side, 1685 on his father’s. Later, Number 2 daughter gets the
Ancestry bug and fills in the missing bits.
But we have almost nothing on my mother’s side. Obviously,
we can work out her siblings and their children; we know her parent’s names but
little else. Mum sends me a copy of her
mum’s birth registration and from that we get her mother and father’s names,
and that she was born in Rennes, in the Ille-et-Vilaine department, Upper
Brittany. She has no idea who Stefan’s parents were.
I turn to the internet, and some ancestry discussion groups.
Nothing much on Kamellard that I don’t already know. The I get an email from
someone in the USA, Norbert Stevens, who has kindly done some digging for me
and found several documents relating to Stefan. Norbert must have worked quite
hard on finding them, for Stefan appears under a number of guises.
Here’s what he found:
There are multiple crew passage records for Stefan Kamellard on board the S.S. Majestic and Stephen Kammelard on the S.S. Leviathan, most for passages from Southampton to New York, and he is working as a kitchen clerk. They start on May 16, 1922 and end on May 19, 1924. He jumped ship in Boston on his last voyage and disappeared for all practical purposes until….
There is a 1930 U.S. census record for a Stephen Kamellar living in New York. His country of birth is given as France, but his date of birth is the same as Stefan’s. He is living with his wife (!) Elaine, born in England, who is 14 years younger than him. He works as a cashier in a restaurant, she as an attendant in a studio. They have no children.
In 1942 a WW II Draft Registration Card is issued to Stephen Kamelhard/Kamellar, born in Warsaw. At that time, he is living with his wife Elaine on West 140th Street in New York and is employed as a cashier at the Banker’s Club on Broadway. His telephone number is AU3-0699, but don’t call, it’s disconnected!
Finally, there are Social Security death indexes for both Stephen and Elaine Kamellar. Stephen died in July 1964, Elaine in December 1989, both in New York.
So, my grandfather was a bigamist – he never divorced my grandmother – and after he jumped ship, he seems to have found a settled life in New York. Between 1920 and 1964 he uses two different variants of his first name – Stefan and Stephen – and four different variants of his surname – Kamellard, Kamelhard, Kammelard and Kamellar. Of course, it is entirely possible that none of this is down to Stefan. Everything I found was in another’s hand, an official, list making, permit granting, fact recording hand. And we all know what mincemeat officials can make when transliterating names from one language to another, one naming system to another.
He does not appear to have had any more children and when I search on the internet, I find some people called Kamellard, but they’re all, like me, descended from Marguerite and Stefan. No one called Kamelhard or Kammelard turns up but I find some Kamellars but they have no connection with Stefan.
I apologise for my very long silence. I have been overtaken by writer’s block this last year, and have been unable to complete any of the many posts I started. But, now, I hope that by writing this brief apology, the dam will be breached, I will be flooded with words, and you may be rewarded.
I love you so much. I miss you so much. I am so lost without you.
My beloved Mrs Bradypus, three months ago today – April 11th 2018 – you died after suffering a major brain haemorrhage. I remember so clearly when we met 56 years ago; our wedding day more than 54 years ago is as detailed in my mind as on the day it happened. But I remember you most when I think of our four so wonderful children, who love you dearly; and our 11 granddaughters and grandsons, who also love and miss you. We are shocked and numbed at your sudden death, and three months on the shock and numbness has not diminished in any way.
You know, I often told you that I love you, but that was never often enough. How I wish that you were here now, so that I could take you in my arms again, kiss you over and over and never stop saying “I love you!”
To my regret, I don’t think I ever told you that you were the total centre of my life. That you were the only thing that kept me going during the dark times. That you were my refuge when I was afraid, my protection when I was at my most self-destructive, and my sole raison d’être. With you, my life made sense. Sharing a life with you, raising our children together, gave my existence meaning, purpose and joy.
Before you, I was nothing much to consider. With you I was at my best; with you I became a mensch; with you I drank of life fully and joyously. Now, without you again, I am nothing much to consider. Just older, and much less able to manage. Oh, how I miss you, how I want you back, how I would welcome you even if you were telling me off for some domestic forgetfulness or the other.
Also, were you here, I would apologise from the bottom of my heart that, when you became ill that last time, I was not more aware of how serious it was, how different it was from the times before, how in need of immediate action you were, how much your life was under threat. I delayed too long, expecting you to bounce back like earlier. For that neglect, and for not being able to save you, please forgive me.
Finally, Brenda dearest, in case you might forget, I remind you of the two most important promises I made you, promises I am so happy to have kept. The first, given when you made me propose to you, was that I would never leave you, no matter what. You know that I never left you – right up to your last breath, I was with you, holding your hand as you went away. The second, at the start of this year, was that you would go home to England in 2018. This promise too was kept, but, tragically, not in a way either of us would have chosen.
You are at peace now my love. I remain behind, lost, desolate, and with more than half of me amputated. But, I have this to cling to: the memory of the 56 amazing years I spend with you, the most wonderful and beloved person I have ever known or will ever know.
In 1975 we lived in a house in Gordon Town, Jamaica, and in the garden the owner kept two, 500+ year old Spanish jars. One day a photographer turned up to photograph the jars for a magazine – National Geographic, Jamaica Journal, History Today, I forget which. The kids were playing in the garden, and the photographer took a few shots with them in it, not for publication but for us. This one included Dominic.
In the last week of September this year, Dominic came with us to stay in lovely Mia and Guy’s apartment by the Med at Valras-Plage, in the Hérault, Languedoc. On a visit to the Oppidum d’Ensérune, near Béziers, we came across another large jar, this one 2000 years old and Gallo-Roman, not Spanish. Fortunately we had Dominic at hand for the photo.
We sit, Mrs Bradypus and I, in the early Autumn morning sunshine, drinking coffee, in the Cafe de l’Univers overlooking a small market place, the cinema and the Police Municipale. Starting early, we had driven up to St-Jean-du-Gard from the coast near Beziers, through vineyards and sorghum fields at first, then on through the more rugged foothills.
RLS & Modestine
RLS, in whose footsteps we are following, but backwards, ended Travels with a Donkey through the Cévennes, the account of his journey, here. Here he parted with Modestine, who was too lame to go on without some days rest, for Stevenson was in a hurry to get to Alès, where his letters awaited him. As we sit I read to Mrs B. the last few paragraphs from my battered, heavily annotated 4th form copy of the ‘Travels‘ .
“I determined to sell my lady friend and be off by the diligence that afternoon. Our yesterday’s march, with the testimony of the driver who had pursued us up the long hill of St. Pierre, spread a favourable notion of my donkey’s capabilities. Intending purchasers were aware of an unrivalled opportunity. Before ten I had an offer of twenty-five francs; and before noon, after a desperate engagement, I sold her, saddle and all, for five-and-thirty. The pecuniary gain is not obvious, but I had bought freedom into the bargain. […]
It was not until I was fairly seated by the driver, and rattling through a rocky valley with dwarf olives, that I became aware of my bereavement. I had lost Modestine. Up to that moment I had thought I hated her; but now she was gone,
‘…… and oh! The difference to me!’
For twelve days we had been fast companions; we had travelled upwards of a hundred and twenty miles, crossed several respectable ridges, and jogged along with our six legs by many a rocky and many a boggy by-road. After the first day, although sometimes I was hurt and distant in manner, I still kept my patience; and as for her, poor soul! she had come to regard me as a god. She loved to eat out of my hand. She was patient, elegant in form, the colour of an ideal mouse, and inimitably small. Her faults were those of her race and sex; her virtues were her own. Farewell, and if for ever–
Father Adam wept when he sold her to me; after I had sold her in my turn, I was tempted to follow his example; and being alone with a stage-driver and four or five agreeable young men, I did not hesitate to yield to my emotion.”
Maybe starting at the end – a rather sad end – may not be the best of ideas. But where we are coming from dictates that we go North, just as where Stevenson was coming from, Le Puy-en-Velay, dictated that he should go South.We thought however: set out sad, and as we progress our mood can only brighten.
I had known Stevenson as an infant, when I was often read to sleep with poems from A Child’s Garden of Verses.
All night long and every night, When my mama puts out the light, I see the people marching by, As plain as day, before my eye.
Armies and emperors and kings, All carrying different kinds of things, And marching in so grand a way, You never saw the like by day.
Like most boys of my generation, I read Kidnapped and Treasure Island around the age of 11 or 12; I only came across Travels as a set book in 4th form. To the twelve year old, Stevenson’s novels were just Ripping yarns, not literature! But it was studying Travels as an academic exercise that opened my eyes to just what a great writer RLS was, and how by studying and imitating the style of the authors that came before him, he honed his craft, to become the great writer and story-teller he was. In Travels he combines this craft with a restless curiosity about people and the places they live to produce a masterpiece of travel writing.
We set out
Our route is planned to follow as exactly as possible the roads and paths he took, avoiding the easy modern corniches built for motor cars, opting instead for the minor roads hacked from the sides of mountains.
Except that we do not realise how minor these roads, how narrow they will be, and how few barriers there are between the traveller and a deadly drop many tens of meters down the mountainside. All unaware we set out, Mrs Bradypus and I, mounted on our Peugeot Modestine.
We knew that we could not do the whole thing in a day, so our aim is to get at least halfway before heading home. Our first objective is lunch at Florac, in the Parc national des Cévennes, at the head of the Tarn Gorges. 53 kilometres, a little over an hours drive – should be a doddle.
The first stage goes well; the road from St-Jean-du-Gard up to the Col-de-Lamira lookout is a good one, with many straight bits. For a while after the col, we continue to make reasonable progress, as we run along the side of the deeply sloped valley of the river Gardon de Mialet. At first there is little traffic and we can keep up a good pace. But the further we go up into the mountains the narrower and more twisted the road becomes, and, the closer we get to lunchtime, the more white vans come toward us at speed, around totally blind bends, threatening to force us off the road, over the precipice, barrelling into assured death below.
Hardships on the way
We have been going now for over an hour and a half, covering about 18 kilometres, when we reach Saint-Étienne-Vallee-Française. Here Mrs Bradypus calls a halt and demands a break at a café. For the last 8 kilometres she has become alarmed and terrified by the danger of the road. The more we move forward, the more terrified she becomes, the more distrustful of my driving. All my assurances that I grew up in the mountains of Jamaica, learned to drive on mountain roads worse than this, fall on deaf ears.
We take a break, following the signs to the Café Parasol, which turns out to be an empty, roofless, abandoned shack on the side of the mountain above Saint-Étienne. No respite here then, or anywhere else in the village. I get Mrs Bradypus to summon up all her courage, and if necessary close her eyes, and we set out again for our lunch at Florac. I do not tell her that Florac is over 30 kilometres away and the roads look just as twisted on the map.
For the next 20 kilometres or so things get no better: the road is narrow and dangerous, the distance to fall over the side even greater, the white vans still barrel around the corners oblivious to what’s coming the other way, Mrs Bradypus now white with fear. We approach little villages hopeful of finding a bistro or auberge where we can take a break from the terrors of the way, for it is now well into lunchtime, but with no success. An hour passes.
Then suddenly the road straightens out as we descend gently into a high valley, cross a small stream and climb up again through a long, sharp hairpin bend, straight onto a major National road, graced at the intersection, by a truck stop and a small Routier restaurant. We are the last in for lunch, all that is left is a Cévenne mutton stew, the perfect antidote to mountain road terror. For the first time since we left Col-de-Lamira behind us Mrs Bradypus looks happy and satisfied.
Over dessert, crème brulée, Mrs B says she has had enough of travelling like RLS, from now on we must stick to big roads, wide enough for at least two white vans, and with a white line down the middle. Happily, the road we have just joined meets this requirement and goes all the way to Florac. After an afternoon in the town, we abandon Stevenson to other tourists and some walkers, and without a tear set off back to St-Jean-du-Gard on the Cévennes Corniche, a spectacularly beautiful road which meets Mrs Bradypus’ stipulation exactly.
Footnote: I plan someday to do the journey in its entirety; but then I will leave Mrs Bradypus behind. With her permission, I am sure!