I imagine it was around this same time that I started interrogating my paternal grandmother with similar gusto. Separated from my grandfather when my dad was young, she’d lived in the same house in Thornton Heath, Croydon for as long as I could remember. When I was in nursery, my parents and I moved in with her, with my uncle and aunt and cousins living just next door. We spent various stints of a year or two at a time there throughout my childhood and adolescence, my dad shuttling our small family unit back and forth in a dance that told me that you’re never too old to move back in with your parents. Until one day, the tables turned and grandma came to live with us in a new flat we were renting in Streatham.
In spite of all this time spent in my grandma’s company, I found our communications faltering too. When I asked her questions, she would answer them kindly, but succinctly and without elaboration, so it would feel as if I were tugging the conversation tentatively along. She’d trail off with a laugh, a “well…”, a familiar chuckle that felt more like she was laughing to herself that with me. What’s the joke?, I’d wonder. Then again, perhaps I wasn’t listening properly anyway, because afterwards, I wouldn’t be able to remember the answers. Was it 9 of them there were altogether? Or was it that she had 9 siblings, so there were 10 of them in total? It probably didn’t help that she’d looked confused when I’d asked and queried those same questions herself; counting their names on the tips of her fingers: “Brother, Monica, Sweetie, Carmen, Plummy…”, a pause to register her petname – then: “they call me Plummy”.
My grandma, Cynthia Graham, came from a family of teachers, a highly respected profession in Jamaica which at the time channelled a colonial curriculum moulded in the image of the ‘mother country’. When she moved to England in 1964, aged 35 and hoping to continue in this line of work, she was told that her teacher training didn’t count for anything over here, and to consider instead seeking work on the buses where many recent Caribbean migrants were finding employment. In defiance, my grandmother retrained, and was eventually able to find work as a teacher in Peckham, south London.
She went on to co-found the Croydon Supplementary Education Project (CSEP) in 1982, a Saturday school formed to support black children who were largely being failed by the British education system. The CSEP was one of as many as 150 supplementary schools that were set up across England in the 70s and 80s. The flurry formed in the wake of public outcry, sparked by a pamphlet circulated amongst the black British community at the time of its publication in 1971. The pamphlet written by Bernard Coard, and titled ‘How the West Indian Child is made educationally sub-normal in the British School System’, features in Steve McQueen’s semi-autobiographical Channel 4 tv segment ‘Education’ that forms part of his Small Axe series; referencing some of these historical failures. Musician and writer Akala speaks in his book ‘Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire’ about his own first-hand experiences of navigating the British education system throughout the 80s and 90s, and of the support that black-run local community Saturday schools offered him and his peers. While growing up, I’d hear my grandma talking about “Saturday school”. I don’t think I ever went, and always felt lucky, sly even, to have evaded yet more school at the weekend. But perhaps the joke was on me. Until we sat down together, with a camera, audio recorder, and print-out of my typed list of questions, I didn’t understand its significance or reach. In fact, I think I only really understand its wider context in full now.
Just a month before my grandad died, my great aunt – Aunt Carmen, as she is referred to in the film – also passed away. About four years ago, my sister and I moved in with her; into her tall Victorian terraced house in Brixton Hill with a colour palate of mauve and browns. The mauve was presumably a later modernising update, as the texture of the wallpaper belied a jazzier pattern beneath the painted surface. The house was decorated with crochet doilies on the leather settee, ceramic figurines lining cabinets, wall hangings reading ‘JAMAICA’ in what looked like glittery coloured gel pen on black velvet, and a print reproduction of a painting of a blond-haired blue-eyed messiah – arms outstretched, quelling a storm – hanging in the dining room.
Houses like these were once filled to the hilt with multiple families, recently located to England and squeezed into one or two bedrooms of those who’d have them, those who didn’t subscribe to the “No blacks, no dogs, no Irish” maxim. I imagine it was a little later – as the fruits of pooling community resources via pardner schemes enabled increasing numbers of recent settlers to toe a wrung on the property ladder, shifting residences from house-shares to singular family abodes – that the interior design aspirations of my aunt and her contemporaries were really given the space to come into their own, floral wallpaper and all.
By the time my sister and I joined her, the house had been occupied for several years by her alone. She seemed happy to have us, glad of the company, and very proud to introduce us to her carers as “my grandnieces”. In her early 90s, she was incredibly fit, undertaking three flights of stairs with relative ease; but she was suffering from dementia, and was often confused. “How’s your brother?”, she would ask me, presumably referring to my dad. Conversations were spirited, labyrinthine, and structured by non-sequiturs. There were lots of pauses.
Aunt Carmen features in the film, shot in 2014, several years before the dementia took hold. She sits in her living room with her daughter Shirley. As a guest passing through back then, I did not have the same attachment to the house then as I do now. I hadn’t yet had years to sit in it, and think on it. I’m not sure if I registered it as part of a wider story. In fact, for many years prior, even the relationships between these not-so-distant relations of mine were a mystery to me. Until not long before that point, I hadn’t understood that Aunt Carmen was Shirley’s mother, due to the fact even her daughter called her “Aunt”. And this visit was really the beginning of a much longer conversation.
It’s strange to watch the video back now. There’s a moment in the edit when I play on a pause, accentuating it.
Aunt Carmen: “When she asking me now “who am I”, what mus’ I say?”
Shirley: “You nuh say yuh name?”
A pause… Aunt Carmen turns her head to look at Shirley, and the right-hand screen cuts to a close-up, the head turning to rest in profile. The colours are dark, so you have to look carefully to make out her features. I think there really was a pause at that moment, but I don’t believe it was that long in real life. In fact, in writing this text, I watched that small section back on repeat, squinting at the screen to verify that, yes, I made an edit, stretched out that moment. And it’s clumsy really, but I think it passes.
Aunt Carmen: “I am Carmen Reid.”
To watch it back with the later knowledge of Aunt Carmen’s later illness feels weirdly unsettling; like it’s a sign of the break and slippage to come, a harbinger of memory loss. Perhaps in a way it is, but the prognosis is one that we all in some way fall victim to. The drive of the project is an effort to counter this to a degree, to slow the process of forgetting to whatever extent that is possible. I’m glad I sat and spoke with Aunt Carmen when I did.
It’s perhaps unsurprising to encounter a failure in language, a lapse in memory, to struggle to start, or to stumble on repetition, when attempting to articulate something about work that is itself rooted in struggles with communication; ruptures, breaks and slippages in speaking of past events.
The Petname project began as an excuse to formally interrogate or “grill” my family members; ‘joint statement of consent forms’ in tow. I pitched the project as a family tree of sorts, and within this, the name became an obvious marker or index, a point of focus – at times a truth-teller, and at others a misnomer, slippery and evasive; at all times a signpost that points towards something else. Within the edits we see, there’s lots that isn’t said, lots that exists outside of the frame.
And this outside of frame is twofold. In a very literal sense, there’s a bulk of unedited material that didn’t make the cut – megabytes, or gigabytes more likely, of recorded audio and video footage that I hope to return to at some point. I didn’t transcribe any of the recordings at the time, something I’m now kicking myself for. So when I do return to the surplus material it will be via a slow and steady real-time viewing and listening, sitting in the room with the full conversations. And then there’s the outside the frame, as in the notes in the margin, the unspoken toll of periods of familial separation; the failures of British schooling for black children; the ‘no blacks, no dogs, no Irish’; the institutional racism embedded in employment in the 60s, in policing, in immigration policy; reverberating through to the Hostile Environment policy to come that would create the conditions for Windrush Scandal in 2017/18. These marginal narratives, inscribed in the memories of an older generation of family members, nestle in the gaps.
The project granted me permission to rudely ask some of the questions I wanted answers to – many just small entry-level queries, but also more complex ones, difficult questions. The project pierced through a film of silence, a tacit agreement acknowledged by my grandparents’ generation and their children; a Victorian legacy of youngsters being “seen but not heard”; a “hush, the adults are talking”. It opened up space for inter-generational dialogue that it turned out others in the family were also craving. It loosened tongues.
When Alice got in touch with the invitation to contribute to the FAMILY LINES programme, Petname struck me as an obvious choice. It’s felt really valuable to spend time sitting with the work, and reflecting on it, thinking about what I knew then and what I know now, channelling gratitude for words exchanged with individuals who are no longer here to share their stories. I started working on the film towards the end of 2013, nearly 10 years ago, but as a body of work it still feels potentially open-ended. The chapters operate like modular segments, that might be taken apart and reassembled in a different formation, or added to. And you’re invited to join the conversation. The work was initially shown on three Sony cubes at head-height, so that in some scenes the sitters can eye the viewer almost one-to-one – you’re in the room with the speakers. I hope the online screening, perhaps viewed in a room of one’s own on a laptop, or in the palm of hand on a phone screen, might offer a different intimacy; and that this text might operate as entry point of sorts, another way into the work, a note in the margin.