Where to begin?
With the offer to take me to Italy, when I was nineteen, to meet my Italian ‘family’?
With the disturbing conversation one long summer ago, when I was eighteen, which involved being cautioned about having a boyfriend of ‘another race’?
With the rambling letters on Italian culture when I was fourteen or fifteen?
With the set of abridged classics, in plastic leatherette, sent to me when I was ten?
I only met my ‘uncle’ Alec twice before his death in the mid-1980s. He was the last surviving Glasfurd in the UK, other than his wife, Jane, and my twin brother and myself, but it did seem to matter to him not to lose touch completely.
His communication was erratic, sporadic; nothing for months, perhaps years, then a letter on thin paper, written in his immaculate, spidery hand. Sometimes these letters were hand-typed, on the same thin paper, but typed with such force the paper had buckled and was riddled with tiny holes. He never had children of his own and clearly struggled to know how to relate. I met him for the first time when I was eighteen, when travelling back from a summer in France with my French pen friend. I caught the train to Southease, walked the half mile or so from the station, crossing over the river Ouse and met him by the church. He was elderly by then. He belonged to a generation before cars and didn’t drive.
His cottage was nested among trees nearby. He shared it with his wife, Jane, an artist, and a fat cat called Pancake. The cottage had glorious views to the river and over the Downs. I was shown my room: pretty, dated, full of light. I remember it all so vividly. I smoked a roll-up from out of the bedroom window, wafted the smoke away as best I could and hoped he didn’t smell it on me. It was like falling into a dream. Utterly idyllic.
I don’t know what he made of me. Eighteen. Northern. All elbows. Within a few months, I’d dropped out school, left home to escape it and moved in with a man I’d known a few weeks.
I stayed with Alec and Jane for a couple of days. Alec was awkward, reserved, but Jane was not. What did I think? I remember feeling stunned that such a life could exist. He’d been something in the Foreign Office in the War; they’d travelled a lot across Europe in the years after; she’d painted and had had some success, with her work collected by the V&A.
Otherwise, I wasn’t sure what Alec did. He told me he wrote. He’d published a couple of books, which he was vague about. Apart from that, he’d spent years researching (and self-publishing) a family history. He was particularly proud of this. The Glasfurd Family 1550-1972.
At some point, we visited Monk’s House, which was only a short walk away. He boasted that Virginia Woolf had once been his neighbour. He told me that the river we were walking along was where she drowned. And then the exceptionally awkward conversation about boyfriends and race came up.
I only met Alec once more, briefly, when he travelled north to meet my twin brother and I. He was clearly appalled at the circumstances he found us in. 1980s northern England. Put it this way. It wasn’t Southease.
Not long after that, his letters stopped. He died a couple of years later. Jane survived him and lived for a number more years after that. We kept in touch by letter, but she never encouraged another visit. After her funeral, I visited the cottage one last time. A pile of photo albums had been left out for me which I brought home. I couldn’t make head nor tail of them. I put them on a shelf, got on with life, which had turned towards writing too.
And that, really, was that. Or so I thought.
What was it sent me to google that day? Sight of those dusty albums, which I took down and still couldn’t make sense of? To attempt to understand a man I’d only met twice? I wasn’t expecting really to find anything. I certainly wasn’t expecting to find this:
I’ve been a socialist all my life, the sort of person Alec’s fascisti would put up against a wall and shoot. The first demo I went on was an Anti Nazi League demo in Manchester, and within a year of meeting Alec, I think. This was a time when the Thatcher government refused to sanction the apartheid regime in South Africa; when it wasn’t unusual to find NF graffiti drawn in the dust on police vans on UK streets. When the police would bring a demo to a halt for no reason, wade in with batons just to bloody a few protestors up.
Lockdown has meant that I haven’t been able to research Alec’s involvement with the British Union of Fascists. And yet, it was all there before me already. And enough to tell me that, even after the War and all we know about the Nazis and what they did, that he was utterly unrepentant.
Italian family? There are no Glasfurds in Italy. What I now realise he meant by this, was the ‘family’ of Italian fascists he got to know in the 1930s and had kept in contact with.
He had been grooming me all along. Haphazardly, admittedly. But with intent.
(*) see also ‘Hitler Youth and Italian Fascists’ from History Today Jan 2012
(**) I think Alec was part of a convoy of allied forces, rescuing Italian citizens from North Africa after Italy’s surrender there. He was fluent in several languages: https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rimpatrio_dei_civili_italiani_dall’AOI