A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Hooptedoodle #294 - 37 Avenue Foch - Memory by Proxy

This may be difficult to believe, but I do try to stop my blog morphing into a personal diary. I think it is a tricky balance; I frequently see the work of others on social media platforms (especially blogs) and think to myself, "Ouch - I think I would have written that post somewhere private...", and then, of course, I worry a bit about the extent to which I already blur these (rather arbitrary) boundaries.

Whatever, please be assured that, though my writings are always going to be from a personal point of view, I do try to be a bit selective about what I put here. Having said which, I must warn you that this post is about some more family history, so it may be less enthralling to others than I find it myself.

My mother is 92, and is now in a care home, not far from where I live. We had a bit of a saga getting her there, but now it is going well; she is happy, she probably has more friends in the place than she ever had in her life, and she is warm, well-fed and well looked after. Of all the difficult decisions I've had to make over the years, that is maybe the one over which I've had fewest regrets.

I visit her about once a week, at some random time of day, so she can't accuse me of being late (!). She doesn't remember my visits anyway, and I find them rather hard work, though something I am glad to do. I don't suppose we get too many opportunities to care for ageing mothers, so I am getting the hang of things as I go along.

She doesn't walk now, and she cannot see. In both these respects, I am convinced it is mostly because she has decided that this is so. Certainly she had a recent eye-test that confirmed she has fair residual vision (she had a cataract op in the last 2 years) and that the prescription of her spectacles is correct. Problem is that she refuses to understand when to use her glasses, and doesn't expect to be able to see anything when she does. As the manager of the home put it, the problem seems to be one of process rather than a medical condition. No point disputing the matter - if she has decided she cannot see then she cannot see. I'm slowly getting used to this kind of thing.

She is usually in her bed when I visit. Not because she is confined to her bed, but she likes to listen to her radio, and that's a comfortable place to rest. At night she sleeps only a little (probably because she snoozes a lot during the day, though she denies this), and she says she is fascinated by the flow of her memories - she says it's like a cinema show. Certainly in recent weeks she has been rabbiting on about all sorts - mostly recollections of her childhood, in immense detail (bear in mind that she has no idea what happened yesterday, so the older stuff can run undisturbed).

Much of it I have heard before - some of it far too many times for comfort - but some of it is new. Because her parents separated when she was 10, I was brought up to accept some major distortions in the Official Family History. Many of the relationships, places and dates didn't line up very well. As a child you don't question these things. In recent years I've managed to get enough information to correct some of these old myths, so it has been something of an enlightenment.

It's OK - I'm not going to try to give a full run-down of the family history, but my mother has always been obsessed by the years she spent in Paris as a girl. They have had a great, looming influence over her entire life - more than would seem to make sense, proportionally - and I now realise that, since her parents separated in Paris, and her mother brought the children back to England in 1935, her entire recollection of a full family life is restricted to those few years. Her father's memory is certainly enhanced by the fact that she knew so little of him.

Definitely not Paris - this is Liverpool Pier Head, circa 1920 - the Liver Building is
the leftmost of the three big waterfront buildings
He worked, as a very young man, for Lever Brothers - for Billy Lever - the 2nd Viscount Leverhulme - of the family which originally made its fortune out of Sunlight Soap and which became Unilever. Grandfather worked in an office in the Liver Building, at Liverpool Pier Head. My mother was born in Liverpool in 1925, and her birth certificate gives her father's occupation as soap manufacturer's clerk. The company was very successfully importing palm oil and other products from Africa - mostly the Belgian Congo (as it was), and eventually grandfather was offered a job in Paris, working with a European subsidiary of Unilever. He was already married, with a family of three daughters, and in 1930 his wife and family joined him in Paris. My mother at this stage was 5, one year into recovery from a polio episode which has affected her entire life.

My grandparents, alas, did not get on. My grandmother did not like Paris, and does not seem to have cared much for my grandfather either - not least because he seems to have had a succession of lady friends (all of whom, it has to be said, appear to have been more interesting than his wife). By 1935 she had had enough, she brought the girls back to Liverpool. My mother's all-pervading 5-year upbringing in Paris ends there. She did not see her father again until he turned up at her wedding in 1945, and she did not see him after that until 1959, when she and my dad (incredibly, unbelievably) travelled to Paris from Liverpool on a 150cc Lambretta scooter, for a week's holiday. This visit was all a little awkward, since they were to stay with Grandpère, with his second wife and family, at his posh flat in Neuilly (Boulevard Bineau); my grandmother, who was child-minding me and my sister during their holiday, did not know this, and would certainly have been very upset if she had known.

And so the family story chugs on - I'll spare you any more. It's just another family story. The bit which has fascinated me recently was getting more light on my mother's Paris years - a lot of this was new to me.

Place de la Liberté, La Garenne-Colombes - rather before my mother's day
They lived in an apartment in the Avenue Foch, in La Garenne-Colombes. Because of the polio, my mum had treatments which meant that she was often unable to attend school, so she spent many of her most formative days surrounded by the sights, sounds and smells of a strange city. She has told me of the baker's shop opposite - if she hung around there they would give her macaroons or galettes; she loved the smells in the woodworking shop next door, where they made big items of furniture. She had a friend who lived in a house on a corner opposite - a girl of about her age, and there was a big dog and a lovely garden to play in, but the girl seemed to be looked after by nuns, and one day she disappeared without explanation, though the nuns and the dog were still there. At the end of that section of the Avenue Foch is the Place de la Liberté, where there was a big library, a Catholic church and, in the Summer, a fairground. My mum and her sisters used to like to sit out on the little balcony of their flat and listen to the music and the sounds from the fairground.

The church was of interest to the children since there were two statuettes in the entrance - Jeanne d'Arc and the Virgin Mary - my mum preferred Jeanne - she seemed less austere, and she and her elder sister used to spend time relighting all the candles placed by these statues, until the priests chased them. Mum thinks that a whole lot of prayers must have had confusing outcomes as a result of the candles being messed about.

I've never been there, but a few years ago, when she was still able to understand these things, I used Google Maps to download some street views of Avenue Foch, and the first view was the door of No.37 - apparently unchanged since the 1930s. She was thrilled to bits, and we had a look around the area, courtesy of Google. It is clear that a lot of the area has been renewed, as you would expect, and there seems to be a market building where the fairground used to be. The church is still there.

37 Avenue Foch - the scooter is not a Lambretta!
They lived in the second-top flat - a lot of stairs for a little girl with polio. Note the
little balconies, for listening to the sounds of the fairground
Most of the area is rebuilt - the building on the corner, far right of this picture, is
probably where the little girl with the dog lived
The Catholic church is still there, though they were constructing an underground
carpark when the Googlewagen passed
In 1959, on the Lambretta trip, my parents visited Avenue Foch, and went in. The concierge and her husband were still living there, in the ground floor flat, and were astonished that my mother had grown so strong and vigorous, since she had been a very sickly child. The concierge's husband still had to tend to the heating boilers for the building, though they were fired by gas instead of coal. The only other neighbour who remained from 1935 was an elderly lady on the top floor. My mother remembered that she and her husband had a business which made jewellery boxes and cutlery cases - Mum was fascinated by them when she was little. The business was no more. It had ended when the old lady's husband was apprehended in 1941 and sent to Drancy, whence he went on to one of the extermination camps in Poland.


  1. I think family histories are fascinating things and yours was no exception.

  2. Replies
    1. Thank you, Richard. I appreciate that very much.

  3. Having started our family it saddens me how many memories are lost , my dear departed father fought in the Tank Regt. in the last war and never really talked about , I wish now I'd of enquired more when he was alive .

    1. It's tricky.

      I tried unsuccessfully to get my dad to write down his experiences at Liverpool Docks before and during WW2, but it never happened. I agree with your thoughts about your dad entirely. I spoke to a local Liverpool historian about it, and he was going to come up to Scotland to interview my dad (we'd even got in some bottles of Glenkinchie for inspiration), and then both my dad and the historian died within a few weeks! Bugger.

      Back to the point... the historian (before he died) said it is vital that the immediate family should understand their own history in some detail - this was always the case in the days when there were traditions of storytelling, but we've lost it with families who travel more, amuse themselves by watching someone else's life on TV and are obsessed with "today". He said eventually there's a limit to how much of the past we can archive - if we try to publish it, we are going to sell about 3 copies!

      It would be good though. Sad that the people who have the most valuable life memories are frequently the most confused! Also sad that - especially with military experiences - the veterans are often reluctant to talk about it.

  4. Prof De Vries - who has been a very active reader recently - emailed to ask why the prayers would be affected by the candles being re-lit. I think I did not describe this adequately - my mum says that, since they preferred Jeanne d'Arc, they transferred a lot of the Virgin Mary's candles to her when they re-lit them. I think the professor agreed that this, indeed, might cause some confusion.

    Though he may email again after he has thought about it...

  5. That's lovely stuff, thank you. My Dad recorded his memories of childhood visits to the 'family farm', and this was hugely appreciated by other family members and family history fans, but there was so much more we should have got, and it's too late now. I should have set up a recording device on the phone and had some long talks! Maybe you should be taking notes after your weekly visits..

    1. It's like the historian said - you feel that it's too precious to lose, but if we record everything no-one will ever have the time to read it. My mum has (somewhere - probably in my house) a vast manila envelope full of ancient family photos - combination of two fairly complicated extended families. To me (and I've been paying attention, and am interested, and aware of the verbal history tradition) about 70% is completely unknown - I don't know who these people are. I am keen to hang onto the envelope anyway, but I know my kids will not care less - this stuff is all scrap someday, unless one of the relatives turns out to be Disraeli or somebody.

      My father's family have spread like ripples on a pond. There are relatives in Canada, Australia, Indonesia - I see little point in trying to keep track of my cousins' grandchildren. I am interested in where I came from, but everyone else (though I wish them well) can look after their own history!

    2. Speaking from recent experience, if you do only one thing for future family historians (they will be interested, one day), find those photos and write the names of the subjects (where you know them) on the back! And how about showing them to your mother? It might trigger her memories and give you both an interesting afternoon's chat, at the very least..

    3. That's exactly the thing to do. I've actually done some of that over the last couple of years. Problem now is that showing my mum the photos is not possible, since she cannot see them.

      You are absolutely right, though.

    4. Oops, seems I overlooked the crucial detail before hitting the keyboard. That's never happened before...

  6. Mothers, eh? My old Mum refuses to use her new hearing aids because they make everything so loud!

    1. Excellent! My mum's hearing aids are something of a topic here; when she went into the home she told them some ludicrous tale about how much they were worth, and the management flipped. I had to insure them privately, or else the home didn't want them on the premises. Since these things are small and almost designed to disappear down the toilet, the quoted insurance premium was about half the replacement value, so we didn't bother. I agreed with her that I would look after them for her. She manages well enough without - in fact she can't remember that she used to have them, which is useful in a sad sort of way.

    2. Good move. And don't get me started on the collection of walking aids, which mainly fulfill the function of traffic islands around her flat.

      My wife Pauline has a priceless resource of a copy of her grandad's wartime diaries. He was a copious diarist and this is a fascinating record of the Home Front and the comings and goings and correspondence of the various service people in his large family, including his future son-in-law, Pauline's Dad, in the RE in N Africa and Italy.

  7. Following an email exchange yesterday, I have to clarify the address. As was pointed out, the Gestapo HQ in Paris were in Avenue Foch, the big, prestigious boulevard which runs between the Place d'Etoile and the Porte Dauphine. Avenue Foch in La Garenne-Colombes is 10 km away, and a different deal altogether. I have a private, unsubstantiated suspicion that, at the outset, my grandfather must have believed that Lever Bros were setting him up in the posh one. That would have been somehow typical of the man.

    He did well in the end - finished his working career as director of the Paris firm. A classic family irony - he became wealthy long after it was of any interest to my bit of the family! A lifelong smoker, he became very ill and retired to the UK (Bristol), where he had extensive treatment, but died when he was about 70, by which time, I'm delighted to say, most of the family were on speaking terms again.

  8. Did your Grandfather stay in Paris during the war? Sorry - caught up in the story now!

    1. No - he and his new wife (and baby) moved to Leopoldville, which must have been another Lever Bros location - at least part of this was to hide from some very angry relatives - his new wife had been married before as well! After the war was over they moved back to Paris - lived in Puteaux for a while then moved up the street to Neuilly-sur-Seine when he was financially better off. I knew him for a few years when he lived in Neuilly. Nice man - great character and raconteur, lover of good wines and food - especially Flemish and Northern food. Very charming. He and his wife (who was from another emigré English family) used to use oddly quaint pre-war slang - words like 'wizard' and 'ripping'. I think he regarded himself as something of a sophisticate, but he was just another ageing theorist. Shame about the bloody cigarettes.

  9. There is a little more about my grandfather in an ancient post from 2010 - coincidentally also written during a snowstorm! -


    If anyone's interested. I'm interested to note that my own knowledge of the family history has improved since 2010. Late input from the care home...

  10. My mother tried very hard to teach us our family history but alas by the time I became interested, it was too late and she had trouble recognizing her daughter let alone remembering details of the past. (to my sister's annoyance she always recognized me.)

    Interesting thing google maps etc, found one of my father's old school books with his address written in, +1 die of defensive fire if there is an adjacent deployed friend, not itself adjacent to an enemy, who has line of fire to the unit’s melee opponent. looked it up on lines and 90 years later there is still a corner store where my grandmother's shop had been in Montreal.

    1. Ross - I'm a bit confused by your comment - did I just misread it, or did something odd happen with a paste?

      This digital exploring is quite exciting. I found my great grandmother's old dairy without actually going within 200 miles. One big conundrum is that the young are very busy, and couldn't give a rat's for family history. By the time they (we?) develop an urgent interest they may have missed the chance - the elders have died or else forgotten. No way back.

      +1 die...?

    2. Where the %$%$#%$ did that come from? Hunh! Odd how autocorrect tools are happy to try to avoid technical terms etc but ignore non sequitur inserts.

  11. Thanks for this captivating post, Mr. Foy. I was going to make the obvious comment about attaching names, places and dates to you trove of photos in so far as possible and whilst you can, but I see David and you beat me to it. You have probably already done it, but writing down the timelines of the family and its members might help figure out some of the inevitable mysteries.

    I've a similar challenge awaiting me and am running out of elder informants...


    1. Jim - thanks for reading my stuff! The timelines now make a little more sense, since I have managed to sidestep the Official Histories. I am now very friendly with my mother's half-sister, for example, of whom I knew nothing just 20 years ago. France and the Belgian Congo may be a lot nearer than they used to be, but 80 years is a very long time!

      I have some plans for cutting down the bulk of the photos. For a start, I recall that we have numerous complete albums of wedding photos of people I don't even recognise. I think I can cut that down to a couple each! Some of the most fascinating of the pics are the oldest. I have a studio photo of my paternal grandfather, as a boy of about 12, I would guess, taken in front of a painted backdrop of (I think) the River Mersey - on top of his school cap you can just see the little clamp they used to hold kids' heads still during a lengthy exposure. Instrument of torture? Point of interest to me is that at 12 he must still have been living near Warrington, with his father - before yet another marriage hit the rocks!

      Loads of stuff like that. I'll have to set aside some time!

    2. ...I should have explained that my paternal grandfather would have been 12 in 1891 - this wasn't some form of modern ritual abuse in Lancashire...