Research and Development Day 1

Today I started working with director and theatre maker Nicholas Barton-Wines at Colchester Arts Centre to develop the masses of research that has gone into Satellites so far, and to refine it into some kind of coherent piece of storytelling.

As always with R&D, more questions arose than answers. We asked questions like:

  • How do we choose what history to focus on, personally, politically and within families? Do we prefer history that makes us the hero of our own story?

  • What history do we choose to leave behind, and can we ever pick it up where we left off?

  • Is part of the nature of growing up being given access to certain stories about who you are?

  • Why do certain early memories embed themselves in our brains in place of others?

  • Who or what defines your culture and your identity?

  • How do we share our history, both in families and as a culture?

  • What are the markers, the touchstones, that form the centre of our worlds?

  • Who and what do we leave behind when we go?

We also drew a Venn diagram of an astronaut and a duck. But that’s a story for another day.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and responses to these questions- comment below or get in touch and start a conversation!

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The Battle

On the 10th May 1940, the Netherlands was invaded by Germany. The Dutch had been planning to halt the Nazis’ progress using their incredible knowledge of water and their defensive canal line to flood the land where they would make their advance. Unbeknownst to them, the German military had made secret missions to check out the defences long before the planned invasion, and by the time they began to bring the line back into use, the invasion had already started. The four-day Battle of the Netherlands was a David and Goliath situation which ended quite differently. The intense bombing of Rotterdam destroyed the vast majority of the city’s medieval architecture and killed 900 people, leaving 85,000 homeless. The Dutch Resistance was fatally weakened and on the 14th May, surrender was signed and the occupation formally began. The government and the royal family were evacuated to London to govern in absentia.

In his book, Tom wrote of the two choices that everyone faced in that period of time- to collaborate, or resist. It’s a stark choice, and perhaps tinged with the certainty of adolescence. As we age it becomes clear that nothing is so simple. None of us knows what we would do in the same situation- only what we might like to be remembered as having done.

Tom’s first act of resistance at the age of 14 was to bury a selection of saucepans in the garden- the Nazis were raiding homes for iron they could melt to make bombs. The second was to join the underground newspaper that was being printed at his school- one of many such efforts that took place at a hyper-local level.

Tom’s brother and my great-uncle, Cornelis Gehrels, was born in 1906 and died in 1945. At the outbreak of war, having served in the merchant navy, Cornelis was working in the Phillips radio factory in Eindhoven, which was commandeered by the Nazis to manufacture military radios. In private, he began working on a Phillips project called “Operation Free Netherlands”- the setting up of a radio station prepared to broadcast bulletins to the country immediately after liberation.

He took his knowledge of radio technology home, where he lived with his wife Grie and their eight children. He started crafting makeshift radios in the attic to pick up British frequencies. At the Resistance museum in Amsterdam you can see examples of rudimentary radios made by all manner of people, the how-to knowledge passed verbally from house to house. They were clustered around, these ramshackle devices that look like little spaceships, ears pressed close in crawlspaces, cupboards, cellars; dials constantly twiddled to pick up a whisper, a murmur, from London, from Churchill, from Queen Wilhelmina, from anyone who could provide some good news, some hope.

Cor’s other major Resistance activity was the informally named “Gehrels Organisation”, which fundraised among Phillips employees for families whose sons had been commandeered by the Allies or disappeared by the Nazis and thus had no way of supporting themselves. As well as his radios, he smuggled downed Allied pilots out of the Netherlands on midnight boats, delivering Resistance pamphlets and papers and helped to find hiding places for Jews. 

He was arrested in July 1943 and incarcerated. Sometime in September 1944 he was transported.

Cor Gehrels

The Empty Chair

We never talked about our history. I knew fragments, from my grandparents’ generation, but nothing beyond that. I know my father and his siblings grew up on a farm near Amsterdam, where they grew potatoes and sugar beet. I know that farm was sold in the 1980s, so they could build the motorway to Schiphol airport. I know my grandfather, who invented the most bizarre mechanic contraptions for irrigation on that farm, died before I was born, of leukaemia, and that he was missed. Aside from that, there was not much discussion. It was a mystery to me- a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing.

In uncle Tom’s autobiography, he said, were stories that were important for me, because they would help me understand my place in the world. It was not until after he died that I started to read it, and my own hidden history unspooled before me.

It started familiarly enough. He wrote of the flat miles of boggy farmland where he grew up in north Holland, in a place called Baarn, near Hilversum. I have never been there but I know what it will be like- iron grey skies, emerald grass, grazing cows, criss-cross canals with little bridges and low-roofed houses with big windows. 

He wrote of singing old folk songs, of riding his horse, of stargazing, and of being forced to attend the Sunday services at the Calvinist red brick church- most likely with a square steeple, that his father (my great-great-grandfather) revered, because it ‘points our way to heaven’.

He wrote of his older brother Cornelis, who he idolised, who had bright blonde hair and twinkling blue eyes, and rode his motorbike at breakneck speed along the canalside; Cornelis who would die emaciated, feverish and broken, in a camp in Germany- we think- just a few days before the end of World War Two.

Someone had mentioned him before, at a family meal several years previously. It was the night before my aunt’s wedding, and the conversation moved to the people who could not be sat around my Oma’s table that night. We talked about Opa of course, and each of us was given a button from his military uniform to wear on our person at the ceremony. Someone spoke of “Cor”, who “died in the camp”, and moved swiftly on. There was an empty chair at the table, and it’s emptiness was bright and shining. 

The Book

Some time during our postal correspondence, what I received through the letterbox was significantly bulkier. Still the same air mail stickers and stamps, still the same spidery handwriting that all our Dutch relatives seem to have adopted. 

Tom had sent me a book- hardback, with a glossy dust jacket. The photograph on the front was of a lunar-like landscape, all rocky promontories and craters and dust. The book was titled “On The Glassy Sea: An Astronomer’s Journey”, and it was written by him- his autobiography. 

In the accompanying letter he told me that I was probably too young to read this book, because there was a lot of complicated science in it that I wouldn’t be interested in. But he urged me to read it one day, because there were stories in it about our family that I should know. I put it up on the shelf, and for a while I marvelled at the Gehrels name sandwiched up there between Salman Rushdie and George Orwell (we’re not big into alphabetising in our house), but over time it became just another part of the room, and faded into the background.

I’ve had something of a complicated relationship with my Dutch heritage. I didn’t grow up with my father, but thanks to my Oma (grandmother), I have always known my family and visited them regularly. I did not learn the language- something I am now trying to remedy- but to my shame they spoke English with beautiful precision. I hated cycling and am only now forcing myself to overcome my fears of it- they can cycle through a busy intersection while sending a text and eating a sandwich, as if it’s an extended part of their body. When I am in Holland, I never feel fully Dutch; but when I am in the UK, I never feel fully British either.

Oral history is an important component of being part of a family. Being an intermittent visitor to the Netherlands, I missed out on the familial storytelling that makes up a huge part of who we are and how we see ourselves in the world. I knew the histories of the immediate family, but even my grandmother’s past was something of a mystery to me until very recently.

After hearing that Tom had passed away, we were moving house. One of my jobs was to box up the books, and send the ones we were unlikely to ever read to charity. Into my hands fell Tom’s book, and there among the boxes, I started to read.