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 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.