Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections: Frances Castle

10th January 2021

It’s time for the annual musings known as Shadows and Reflections. Since so many of our lives were lived in thematic overlap in 2020, we’ve asked our contributors and friends to focus on the small, strange and specific as they look back over the last 12 months. Today it’s the turn of Frances Castle.

In March, when travel and transport became off-limits, I began to focus more closely on my immediate surroundings. I searched online databases and old newspapers for references to my house and street. I had a yearning to look back into the past and see my neighborhood as it once was.

I got into a routine of going for a walk in the early evenings  —  despite everything it was a glorious spring with an abundance of candy pink cherry blossom that blew across the pavements and gathered in heaps in the gutters, and because of my research I was able to see not only what was happening now, but what had happened in the past. As I walked by house number 107 I noted that its gateway was wider than those of its neighbours, large enough to get a car through (at least it would have been back in the 1970s,  when cars were smaller than they are today). In 1976, when the street was well known for its brothels and curb-crawlers, Roderick Maclerie stabbed to death his 80 year old mother and their landlady because they objected to him parking his car in the front garden. Now the house is freshly painted with a low front wall, expensive-looking railings and a small tree, and all is forgotten. I may be the only person who knows what happened here all those years ago.

I made a spreadsheet with dates in one column, and the names of the occupants of my house in the next. I searched censuses, voter’s lists, and telephone directories. The house was let out in rooms, I guess with each occupant taking a floor but sharing a bathroom. Downstairs in the communal hallway when I looked at the floor boards, I knew the names of all the former occupants, whose comings and goings had caused the scuffs and scratches in the wood. I noticed a hole carefully cut in the floor, close to the wall where a gas pipe once ran,  and could smell the sooty flame of the gas lamp, casting shadows in the hall on long winter Victorian afternoons. 

In the evenings when I sat and watched telly in our flat, I saw Sofie’s room like a double exposure, faintly printed on the present. A saucepan bubbling on a single gas ring, a noisy immersion heater, family photos on a cabinet. Sofie was a Jew who fled Austria in 1938 with her doctor husband and two grown up children. First to a flat in Hampstead, then after the war —  her marriage over — alone to rooms in our house in Finsbury Park. It seems like an odd choice, down-at-heel, bomb scarred Finsbury Park, when her husband was living in a mansion block in Marylebone (with a younger woman). There was a Jewish presence in the street, with a synagogue just a couple of blocks away, so perhaps that is what drew her here.

Sometime between 1940 and 1941 during an air-raid, a bomb hit and irreparably damaged number 76. A modern, flat-roofed house now stands in its place. The 1939 census taken just as the war started shows 18 adults in 9 family groups living there — almost four times as many as other houses on the road  —  most with ‘refugee’ marked in red next to their names. What happened when the bomb hit? Did they escape or perish? There is no mention of it in the newspapers and nothing online. How could this be? How could such a horror happen in such a domestic setting  —  my domestic setting  —  and yet leave no trace? 

As spring moved into summer and the plants in the front gardens came into full bloom, people sat on their front walls in the sunshine and talked to friends, safe in the outdoors.

Sofie lived in our house until 1966, when her name disappears from the telephone book. She had lived here for 18 years. In that time, one of the other tenants  — Mrs Wilson, a widow  —  had bought the house from the Prudential Building Society, and by decree had become Sofie’s landlady.

I sat in the formerly split-up rooms and worked on the second part of my graphic novel Stagdale. I thought; ‘if I can get this sketched out by the time things get back to normal, I’ll be doing OK’. The story is about two children who live in the same cottage a generation apart; eleven-year-old Kathy, who moved there in 1976, and Max, who escaped Germany on the Kinder-transport in 1938. When I came up with the idea for the story I had no idea that like Kathy, I had also shared my house with a refugee from Nazi Europe. I wondered if there was anything left of Sofie in the house  —  a small belonging that had dropped between the floorboards, lying deep in the dust, missed by countless builders and renovations over the years. I like to think there might be.

I did more research on those living across the road in bombed-out number 76, and a quick google turned up Bernard Ahrend, who in 1988 had been filmed talking to the Holocaust Resource Center at Kean University in New Jersey. On smeary video footage he talked about his escape from Nazi Germany to an attic room in Finsbury Park, where he had been supported financially by a sponsor  —  he was unable to work in London, as the government didn’t want refugees taking jobs from British people. In November 1939 he got the all clear to emigrate to the USA, thus missing the house being bombed by at least six months. 

I’m still working on the second part of my graphic novel. I managed to sketch it all out in the spring, but things did not get back to normal. I’m about three quarters of the way through colouring it, and hope it will be finished in early 2021.

Retrieving lost and forgotten names from old documents, unearthing the stories of people whose lives played out on the same streets as mine, has been a comfort and a joy — and a reminder of the fact that the past, in many ways, was stranger and scarier than the present.