I've been thinking about beginnings this week; beginnings and endings. Autumn is always when the largest proportion of people die, I have discovered, but this autumn a lot of my friends got married or engaged. All in places far away... Canada, Australia, the United States. The deaths didn't come this year. It unsettles me. I think I'm thinking about it because it's getting close to February. I found out that my fiancé (now ex, obviously) had potentially terminal cancer in February a few years ago. Going back six years, it's also the month that my grandfather died. I was heartbroken. The death of my grandfather is something that I've never talked about that much, mainly because the last time I saw him I was seven years old. He looks like me. I look like him... I had bright white hair when I was a child. (There's a photo of me somewhere looking very much like Einstein with my tongue sticking out.) White hair is a genetic anomaly in my family; we're all generally speaking, very dark haired. But my grandfather had light hair. We were kindred spirits despite the vast space of years between us.
He was Danish, as far as I know, born in Sønderborg; possibly with Prussian parents. If the stories passed down are to be believed, his father was a touring trombone player. I know nothing about his mother... In 1941, at the age of 18, my grandfather was dragged away from his work as a coal import/export agent, in broad daylight, by the gestapo. He was charged with anglophile leanings and imprisoned in the concentration camp at Fuhlsbüttel. When I was a teenager, my father reluctantly told me about how his father had described hearing other inmates, his friends, some of them, being tortured and executed with hatchets. I'd seen videos of concentration camps, but that story hit me hard and has stuck with me ever since. Anglophile leanings, in this situation, constituted the patronisation of jazz clubs like Tante Lou's, hanging out with the Swing Kids, wearing English clothes, and walking down the Jungfernstieg with a Washington Post in one's pocket. The August of that year heralded a crackdown on deviant culture and the Swing Kids were an obvious target.
Not only a troublemaker by Nazi standards, my grandfather also managed to be something of a lothario. A well-loved one, strangely. Despite being born with half of his left arm missing, he had relationships with women half his age throughout his life - even a few when he was married to my grandmother, from what I understand. His disability never stopped him from doing anything. He didn't get benefits. He made his situation work. His charismatic personality made him attractive. As a child, I remember his girlfriend, Elke (easily thirty years old to his seventy, odd) babysitting me - running around the paths of Sønderho, weaving around the white picket fences with me on her shoulders... There were almost no roads or cars on the island back then. An idyll, it certainly was. We used to search for amber on the strand, make sandcastles with red tin buckets and spades, and endlessly throw squash balls to the big black dog that lived in a kennel outside the Sønderho Kro, opposite our cottage. He'd bring them back every time.
My grandfather created, perhaps unintentionally, a network of pseudo aunts and uncles for me, all over the world; allegedly there are twins in Japan, twins in Germany, a lady in France (whose name I forget), one who lives (rather bizarrely) in the same city as me and is the spitting image of my German aunt, but is terribly English. My favourite pseudo aunt lives in Stuttgart. I've only met her once or twice. She taught me how to say 'bottle top' in Hebrew. She's only a couple of years older than me - an actress - and she looks like my twin. Twins run in the family, apparently. A gypsy once told me I'd have twins. I hear they skip generations. Great.
It's pretty cool discovering extra family. When I was seventeen my aunt, who is about 5, 2", married a 7 foot tall Croat. The wedding photos were a blast. I discovered three things during this wedding.
- If the interpreter doesn't translate the wording in the marriage ceremony correctly, the marriage can be declared void. For some reason I feel that this is handy information to have.
- The Bezirksamt Eimsbüttel has a paternoster. The only one I've ever seen - probably because they chop limbs off if you aren't nimble getting on and off.
- Weddings and funerals are the times when family you've never met suddenly materialise.
My grandfather ended up becoming an action painter; a reasonably well known one, although sadly there seem to be a lot of forgeries on the market, these days. He won the Prize for Graphic Art at the Biennale in Tokyo in 1960 and the Great International Prize for Drawing at the 1963 Biennale in São Paulo. I've always wanted one of his paintings. The fact that I'm unlikely to ever be able to afford one seems perverse given that I was (apparently) his favourite grandchild. He bought me a shitty red plastic alarm clock once from a shitty electronic goods store in Southwold because I liked the colour and he agreed with me. It was the only thing he ever gave me. I don't even know where it is now... I have nothing of him but stories of the Maelstrom and Minneapolis, his nose, an aversion to any colours but red, black and white, and a fascination with design, engineering, pylons, wires, lines, intersections.
I could photograph pylons all day. For a short while, during my A-level days, I did. On train journeys I find myself taking snapshots of the railway girders and cables on my phone. They pass overhead like visual heartbeats. A metronome. I like how difficult it is to figure out which struts and lines are foreground and which, background... They go so quick that you have no time to think about it too much. It's a quick intellectual turnaround. Whichever angle you choose it's Cubist theory multiplied. The girders and cables are threads attached to pins. Just like families, really. Glorious.
You can read more about my grandfather in his last interview with the Deutsche Bank magazine, here.