Emotional Geography - a thank-you tale for Alexa and Johnney
Apologies for contacting you when we have never met or been in touch before. I am trying to trace a Julia Jones who lived in Writtle as a child, and wondered if this might be you? I run a removals and clearance company and have this week been clearing the property of a book publisher called Arne Soova. Within the contents, I came across a portrait sketch by Brenda Moore and on the back of the frame is written “Julia Jones as a child…[something beginning with N] Hall, Writtle, Essex”. Apologies if this is not you but if it is, I am just really interested in the story behind the portrait and would love to know more. I can also send a picture of the portrait if you wished.
This unexpected email came from Alexa MacDonald and her husband Johnney, whose removals and clearance company is in Newmarket, Suffolk. When a house is almost empty, Alexa explained that they often find some remaining letters, photos, small items which seem likely to have a personal significance to someone… somewhere. They try to get them back to the appropriate person. They don’t do this to make sales, they do it because they feel it’s the right thing to do.
(The novelist in me thinks wow! what characters they would make -- think of them as an investigating team in a series of detective novels...)
Alexa had googled “Julia Jones, Writtle” which had brought up a tweet I’d sent in June 2019, supporting the claim to keep libraries open in Essex. From this she’d found my email address and got in touch.
Her instinct was correct: there was a story, but it wasn't mine.
I remembered the sketch immediately. There were two of them; this one done when I was asleep and another which I’ve given to my daughter. I wasn’t very old. Maybe seven or eight? I remember sitting for the second one. We lived in Woodbridge then, not Writtle, and I had had to stay as still as I could beside the sash window of my bedroom, looking out into sunlight. I think it was spring because I remember the flag of St George flying from the church tower but I suppose there could have been other reasons for that. I was wearing my absolute favourite dark blue velvet dress, with a white collar and scallop trim.
I don’t remember Brenda Moore, the artist, at all. I discover now she was married to someone called Leonard Campbell Taylor who had been her tutor at the Royal Academy and they lived in Suffolk for a while. Her sketch of him is in the National Portrait Gallery.
But this story’s not about Brenda Moore or me. It’s about the person – Arne Soova -- to whom I’d given this picture and whose house Johnney had been clearing. I didn’t know that Arne had died. We’d been ‘in a relationship’ in the late 1980s but I’d ended it and knew that I’d hurt him. There was no more contact. I am deeply touched to discover that he had kept this drawing.
So I rang Alexa and told her what I could remember of Arne’s story.
He was born in Estonia in November (?) 1940. Stalin’s USSR had invaded that small, proud, recently-founded republic in June, just a couple of weeks after Nazi Germany had come storming through Holland, Belgium and France and two months after the invasions of Denmark and Norway. ‘Blows on a numbed head’ as Margery Allingham described the successively disastrous news bulletins of that period.
From Arne’s point of view it meant his father was gone even before he was born. Taken to a Siberian forced labour camp when Estonian politicians, officials, military leaders – anyone thought likely to make trouble – were deported or executed. There was a second dreadful day of people-theft in June 1941. Tens of thousands of citizens, old people, women and children, were stolen from their homes and transported, to Siberia usually to die. It wasn’t surprising that the ejection of the Russians by invading Germans later that summer was initially greeted as a relief.
Though not for long. The unfortunate people of Estonia soon discovered that the Nazis also had an appetite for conscripts and slave labourers. And they were not at all keen on dissidents, Jewish people or ethnic Russians. It’s estimated that 25% - one in four! – of the 1939 population of Estonia was killed or deported during WW2. At the end of the war, the country was handed back to the USSR.
Arne, his mother and his older brother Heiki, were among those who left their homeland in 1944 as the Soviet army advanced. They were lucky (lucky is just a relative word here) to find themselves in a DP (Displaced Persons) camp in Germany run by the UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration) They were part of the ‘Last Million’ refugees who had either fled their countries at the end of WW2 or had refused to return ‘home’.
Arne lived in the camp until he was ten. One of the habits he learned was always to join a queue. There might be an injection at the other end or there might be a food handout. Most accounts say that the Baltic DP camps were relatively well-run and orderly. Nevertheless, they were camps, not homes. I wonder whether Arne’s obsessive collecting habits developed from these first ten years of his life. In the kitchen of his much later, Newmarket, home (sympathetically emptied by Johnney and Alexa) I remember a spectacular pyramid of glass chili jars, accumulated though his passion for chili con carne and considered too good to throw away.
There was also an outstanding collection of books on mountaineering, focussed generally on the Caucasus and Karakorum, lovingly sleeved and shelved and acquired over many years. Arne was a book rep, promoting new books to shops across London, East Anglian and the East Midlands and keeping a look out, wherever he went, for markets and second hand stalls where he might discover his personal treasures. He spent weekends and holidays building ever more bookshelves to house his collection. I was glad to hear from Alexa that these books had been sold to a dealer in York. I remember he had a friend there.
Arne’s mother remarried while they were in the camp and had another child, Arvo. In 1950-51, when Arne was ten years old, the DP camps were finally closed and families offered some limited choice where they might live. Somehow, they came to Keighley, West Yorkshire where the three boys went to school, learned English, got jobs. Arne later married and become the father of two children. Then his wife left for America and a new marriage, taking their children with her. He remained a conscientious, hard-working publishers rep (Century in those days) and poured his passion into his book collection.
I think I may have been his only other ‘relationship’. I don’t know. I hope not. I’d been a bookseller during the 1980s, before beginning to write and try my hand at local publishing. The second part of the decade was an unhappy period when I was single with my three older children. Arne established a pattern of arriving at my house for a night in the middle of the week and perhaps a couple of nights at the weekend, sitting in a particular chair, drinking quantities of black tea, smoking roll-up cigarettes and making chili con carne when the children weren’t here. He also brought ready-meals and perceptively chosen books. I didn’t love him but he was interesting and very kind.
Then came the period of Russian ‘glasnost’ and Arne’s 50th birthday in 1990. Almost in the same week, it seemed, his older brother Heike learned that their father was not dead. He had survived the camps, then settled in Latvia, where he too had remarried. Heike was eager to travel and meet him. Arne was less sure.
I have rarely been more ashamed of this country than when the Home Office Department of Immigration and Visas at Lunar House, Croydon, sent a letter to say that as a previously Displaced Person, if Arne went to meet the father he’d never known, it would count as returning ‘home’ and he couldn’t necessarily expect to be readmitted to this country. At this point I did perhaps my only useful deed and flared up in a fury of middle-class Englishness, writing to Arne’s MP, Sir Eldon Griffiths and demanding that Arne should be given assurance of safe return.
He was -- but here my knowledge of the story fizzles out as it was around this period that our relationship ended. The trip did take place sometime later. I’m not sure it was a life-enhancing success but I don’t know.
At a funeral earlier this week we were discussing the poignancy of clearing a family home and leaving, never to return. A friend suggested that perhaps it wasn’t such a complete severance as the home would have become part of one’s ‘emotional geography’. Though I hadn’t thought often about Arne (sorry) until Alexa's email, I do think of Estonia and Latvia. I think of them in the post WW1, post civil war, post-Russian Revolution years of the early 1920s, when the Baltic States were having their first chance at independence and Arthur Ransome and Evgenia Shelepina took refuge there, built the ketch Racundra and sailed with Carl Sehmel, the ‘Ancient Mariner’ who became the fictional Peter Duck. I think of Estonia again from 1939 being invaded and divided, then cut off behind the Iron Curtain.While I have been writing the 'Strong Winds' series (especially Pebble and Voyage North) I have been using fragments of those Baltic tales within patterns of loss and rediscovery. It was a great pleasure to tell Alexa what I could remember of the real story.
Soon I will take the sketch to the frame-maker and then I will stop.
Always good to have a little extra twist at the end … before I began writing this blog I phoned Johnney to thank him and Alexa for sending the drawing and to check that they wouldn't mind me telling the tale that their kindness had prompted. Later that evening, as I was sitting here trying to find my words, I received another email from Alexa, revealing that she is also a clinical psychologist in a neurological unit. She is part of a team assessing people for dementia and also offering 1:1 support for families and carers. No wonder she understands the potential significance of scraps with such instinctive accuracy!
I thought again what a great pair of fictional investigators she and Johnney would make -- except they appear to be doing it already, for real.
Almost the worst 'war stories' are the people who we forced to return, knowing what was likely to happen to them.And that after a war that had been fought for freedom...Your aunt was admirable as she was exercising her own right to chose (I think your grandfather comes out of it as quite a sweetie too) Thanks
I wonder if Arne was ever able to see his father. I hope so.