Sunday 28 September 2014

Genealogy & family history research: Lessons to learn from the Aussies

Let me offer a huge recommendation for the Australian newspaper archive, Trove. It is brilliant, and I choose this word carefully.

Trove is run by the Australian National Library and if you are attempting to track down information about your relatives in Australia, it is an excellent starting point. It is free and navigation around the immensely-informative resource can be learned very quickly. Another plus is that new material is being added every day. The only downside is that it becomes quite addictive, but what fun!

Now, let me turn to the British equivalent, the British Newspaper Archive. This is no -- repeat no --  fun at all. It is infuriatingly and quite unnecessarily difficult to navigate and, further, makes corrections to the text very difficult. Add to this, you have to pay to access it. It is incredibly user-unfriendly and you have to wonder if it was ever beta tested on the public. I bet it wasn't. I spent the best part of an hour rummaging around the archive this afternoon. There is just one word to describe my experience as I bang my head against the wall in frustration: Aaaaaaaaagh!!!!!!!!

UPDATE: Coincidentally (?) my Facebook page came up with a sponsored posting from the British archive, but when I posted a complaint about the site, it was promptly deleted. And when I complained about the deletion, it was also deleted. So much for free speech at this British institution.

SECOND UPDATE: If you take out a subscription to the archive, be careful that a month's subscription doesn't become open ended. Make sure you read the small print "Your subscription is sold on a continuous membership basis, meaning it will continue until you cancel it." and hunt down and untick the automatic renewal.

Thursday 18 September 2014

The story about, and the story behind, God's Triangle

GodsTriangle: A tale of love, loss and scandal in early 
20th Century East Bengal
From  UK Asian September 2014
    For the curious there's nothing quite like flipping through old family albums, delving into the past, exploring the stories of the men and women who went before.
    Ian Richardson is blessed with shiploads of that particular kind of curiosity.
    The former BBC journalist's curiosity was piqued no end one later winter's day in 1997 in his hometown of Melbourne, as he helped his recently-widowed mother sort through some old family photographs. 
    One photograph in particular caught Richardson's attention, one that would culminate, some fifteen years later, in 'God's Triangle', an extraordinary story about sexual and religious politics, cover ups and nefarious intrigues in early 20th century Australia and India. 
Florence Cox (Standing 2nd from Left)
    At the heart of this fascinating story are three even more fascinating characters, all Australian missionaries: Florence Cox, Richardson's great aunt, who was affectionately known as 'Florrie'; her husband the Reverend Frank Paice and Olga Johnston, one of the bridesmaids at Florrie and Frank's wedding.
    In October 1912, Frank Paice left Melbourne for East to join the scores of Baptist missionaries who were attempting to spread the word of god in the then-wilds of what would become Bangladesh.
    When not preaching, the missionaries were doing yeomen work in some of the sub-continent's poorest and most deprived communities.
    Frank had recently become engaged to Florrie, then aged 24. 
    Florrie had a certain languidness to her, unusually tall in comparison to her contemporaries and devoted to her work. 
    She would join her new husband in Calcutta, some two years later. 
    Their marriage however, endured - for a lack of a better word - in the malarial swamps of the Bengal, culminating in a scandalous divorce after five years: scandalous for numerous reasons. 
Above: Frank Paice and Florence Cox pictured after their wedding in Calcutta
    The astonishment that greeted this devoutly Christian couple's divorce was matched decades later by the evasiveness shown by Richardson's mother in 1997 as the journalist asked after 'Great Aunt Florrie'. 
    "The first thing my mother said when I asked about Florrie was, 'Oh we don't talk about her'.  She became visibly embarrassed and evasive", Richardson says.
    "I'd been a journalist for all these years so I wouldn't let it go.  I pressed and pressed and she said that Aunty florrie had been a missionary around the first World War and had married a missionary as well. 
    "And during that marriage, her husband had become involved with another woman who was also a missionary.  I was only a little girl and no one talked about it.  Initially I thought it was an interesting sidebar story.  But what I found out was astonishing".
    Whilst divorce among missionaries, in a largely conservative world was more than just unusual, the fact that the divorce had then been kept a secret was even more intriguing, a fact merely exacerbated by a mysterious illness that, Richardson would later find out, had afflicted Florrie: a condition that had had a direct impact on the marriage and one which would later lead to Florrie being ostracized by her family and community.
    "The first point for me was that no one had talked about the divorce there was no information about it", Richardson continues.
    "When I approached the Supreme Court of Victoria about it, they would not show me the file, which was quite remarkable.  I thought it was very odd and they were quite adamant that they not give me the file because they said that the judge at the time of the divorce had ordered for the file to be closed for all time.  Well that really did get me curious."
    The resolute Richardson pressed on.
    "The battle with the Supreme Court was a long one but the people in charge understood why I wanted the information and I think they sympathized with it.  It was a piece of Australian history and church history.  I nagged them and nagged them over several years until they got so fed up with me and said I could make an application to the Supreme Court. 
    "To my astonishment, the judge approved the application."
    The file would start a remarkable hunt. 
    When Frank and Olga's affair became known, both were forced to resign. 
Florrie, too, returned to Melbourne and found that she was suffering from a very rare gender condition which may have impacted on her marriage. After the divorce, Frank and Olga went to Calcutta where they were married in a discreet civil ceremony. 
    "Florrie never knew what was wrong with her.  She grew up in a very religious Protestant family in an age when sex was a totally taboo subject.  The first Florrie knew that something was wrong was on her honeymoon when she and her husband were unable to have intercourse.      The marriage never recovered from that. 
    "Florrie went to her grave in 1950 thinking she was some form of freak, getting little support from her embarrassed family or from the equally-embarrassed Baptist Church in Australia. Her actual condition was not given a name until after she died."
    Remarkably, the press was also told to ignore the whole affair and the file on the divorce ordered by a judge to be closed for all time.
    Florrie was shunned by her family who failed to understand the burden she had faced and following the general norm to blame the woman for the breakdown of the marriage. 
Frank and Olga in the meantime had returned to Bengal for different work - Frank had taken up an engineering management job - before returning to Australia as upstanding members of the community.
Above: Councillor Frank Paice and Olga later in life.
    In Australia that standing would reach phenomenal heights: the couple becoming regular fixtures in the social scene in their town and becoming prominent in civic society. 
The past was buried.  No mention was ever made of their time in India and, in particular, Frank's first marriage.  Not even their only son and close friends knew of their missionary past.
    'God's Triangle' is made up of a series of diary entries as Richardson travels to Calcutta and Bangladesh. 
    His curiosity and journalistic skill shines through as he trawls through myriad troves of documents. 
    During his research, Richardson also discovers that Frank and Olga had a son, Paul, who aids in Richardson's search, astonished at the double life his parents lived.
    The cover up is arguably the biggest aspect of the story.  How was it accomplished and who ordered it covered up?
    "This is a story that had everything.  It was scandalous.  How did Olga and Frank hide their past?  I think that was amazing.  I mean they were so prominent in suburban Melbourne society.  How did they manage to get away with people not asking about six missing years in their lives? 
    "Above all though, it was a cover up."
    Richardson suggests that the Baptist church - aided by the ever-present freemasons - went to elaborate lengths to sweep things under the carpet. 
    Despite its diary-like style, the book is gripping, not least due to Richardson's meticulous attention to the tiniest details. 
    At just over 150 pages long, it's not a big book by any means but it is crammed with information, shedding light on everything from the religiously conservative community that all three main characters hailed from to the remote part of East Bengal where carried out their extraordinary work.
    It's a book about religion and the dichotomy of the yeomen missionary work carried out by the likes of Frank, Florrie and Olga and the all-pervasive power of a church with medieval ideas about sexuality and personal freedoms.
    Above all, it's a book about tolerance and justice for a woman who was unfairly marginalized for a reason that those were doing the marginalizing had little understanding about: a problem that continues to blight humanity.
    Unsurprisingly, a story with such universal themes has caught the attention of a number of filmmakers.
    West London-based Richardson is in the final stages of scripting a multi-million dollar film project based on 'God's Triangle'. 

For more information, visit

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Does borrowing a book or buying one second-hand help the author?

The other day when I was searching for some family information in old Australian newspapers I came across this heart-felt advertisement in a provincial daily published in 1880:

It reminded me of an issue that must bother the overwhelming majority of authors: the fact that they get no financial return from books that are loaned to friends or family or are re-sold in second-hand bookshops or charity shops.

I have one friend who was so enthusiastic about my book God's Triangle that she bought a number of copies and gave them away as presents. That greatly cheered me, but there are a number of people who have written to tell me that they enjoyed the story so much they passed the book on to their friends to read. I'm sure they tell me this because they think it will please me. Yes it does -- up to a point.

Every author likes to know that all the hard work that has gone into a book is appreciated. There is no point writing something that no-one wants to read. But, the downside is that loaning books to friends undermines the often-meager financial returns for an author. Even best-sellers can result in very modest returns. A few months ago, I was at a talk given by an established writer who had authored several high-selling books and a screen play. These were listed in the chairwoman's introduction to the talk, to which he replied: "Thank you very much for reminding me of my works, but what I want to know is why haven't they made me rich?" I once asked a friend who wrote a highly-regarded book on Italian politics if he felt it had been worth it. "Well, I suppose so," he responded without enthusiasm, "but only if I try not to think about the fact that my royalties demonstrated that I'd worked for just 25p an hour!"

A real problem for authors are the charity shops -- especially those that deal almost exclusively in second-hand books. Hundreds of pounds can change hands each day in these shops, but none of it will go to the authors. Oxfam has a second-hand bookshop in Ealing Broadway, and I am convinced that it has played a part in the closure of two independent bookshops in Ealing in the past couple of months.

I now have to make an embarrassing confession. Looking through our own book shelves, I see that a substantial number of books have not been bought new at a bookshop or from Amazon. They have been given to us or we have bought them from a charity shop. And that is the real problem isn't it. It means that most authors will just have to be grateful that their books are being read by someone, even if the financial returns are not what they hoped.

Tuesday 9 September 2014

Are snails like homing pigeons?

Personally, I have never had any problem stomping on snails. It's a speedy death and, I imagine, a painless one. They would probably prefer that to being slowly poisoned by those horrible little green pellets that people spread around their gardens. And for us, it is better than having to eat them, as the French like to do, and better than have them chewing away at our beloved home-grown vegetables.

This post was prompted by a Facebook friend who said she could never kill a snail. Instead, she would pick them up in a gloved hand and throw them over the fence into a neighbour's garden. Well, I am glad this friend doesn't live near me!

My response to my friend's admission was that she was wasting her time because snails were like homing pigeons and they would always find their way back into her garden. I meant this as a joke, but is it true?

A friend of my friend said she had once tested this out. She had gathered all the snails she could find in her garden and painted their shells with bright red nail polish. She then dropped them into a garden a couple of doors away. Sure enough, the snails were back in her garden flaunting their nail polish a few days later.

This got me sniffing around the internet to see if there had been any research into the possibility that snails had homing instincts. Sure enough there was a Guardian article that said they did know their way back to their original homes, but only if the distance was less than 20 metres.

There you are. My joke turned out to be true after all. So, you might as well do what I do and stomp on them, although some of you will no doubt write me off as a truly cruel and nasty snail-hating bastard. Perhaps that is also true.

LATER ADDITION: On a more serious note, hedgehogs are very good at keeping snails and slugs under control. The difficulty is getting one of the various hedgehog societies to agree to you having some, as they need to be carefully housed and looked after.