I woke up on Saturday morning to an email from ancestry.uk, informing me that I had 91 new notifications. Naturally, I rushed over and found that they have uploaded the 1939 census register. I was a bit thrown by this because I had always believed that the protocol is to wait 100 years before releasing the data. I was expecting to have to wait until 2021 before I could next update my family records. And why did they do a census in 1939? was it because they knew that shortly people would be scattered all over the place and wanted a record of where everyone was at the start of the war.
Anyway, among the 91 notifications, was more information about my Uncle Frank. Regular readers will know that Uncle Frank was my father’s brother who I didn’t know existed until long after he’d died. From the little data I’ve manged to glean so far, I was pretty sure that Uncle Frank had some form of learning disability. Last year, I discovered that he spent the last two years of his life in an institution in Derby after living all his life with my grandparents. He was 40 when he died in 1957 (LeDeR report?) two years before I was born.
In 1939, he was 22 and living at home in Southall with his parents, my father and two of his sisters. In the column headed “Occupation”, Uncle Frank is classified as “Permanent Invalid”. It’s the first time I have seen any confirmation that he had a disability.
For a few minutes I felt myself getting cross. Why had the family kept his existence so secret? My anger didn’t last long. We’re talking 60 years ago. My family were very much of their generation and class and lived by the mantra that the world shouldn’t know anything about our business. I’ve often wondered whether it’s about shame but I don’t think shame even comes into it. I suspect it’s as basic as what goes on behind the net curtains, stays behind the net curtains. They also put a great deal of value on self reliance. They wouldn’t have expected help from outside (even if it was there to be given which is doubtful). As his parents, my grandparents would have done their duty and expected Uncle Frank’s siblings to chip in where they could.
Fast forward 60 years and this attitude seems almost ludicrous. There is no differentiation between our public and private space anymore. I’m a part of that as much as anyone. When I write this blog, I’m ripping down our net curtains for the whole world to see inside our Cowley home. When we post a photo of our breakfast on Instagram we are broadcasting our business to the world. We cannot stake a claim on privacy. To compare the times is pointless.
Needless to say, I do compare the times. Foolishly. What would Uncle Frank’s life be like today? What would Steven’s life had been like back then? A couple of things haven’t changed. The language may have changed but the “othering” of learning disabled people still persists. Only a few years before Uncle Frank’s time, his occupation would have been “an idiot”. By the late 1930s, that had become “permanent invalid” and I guess somewhere along the way, that morphed into “spastic” before we got to where we are today. It still marks him out though. That one column emphasizes the difference between him and his siblings. Whether it’s 1939 or 2018, does it need to be mentioned at all?
The other striking thing is that he died at 40. Apart from one his brothers who was killed in the war, all of his other siblings lived well into their 60s and 70s. He died 20 years earlier than the rest of them. They all lived in the same house. In the same town. With the same parents. They would all have eaten the same fish and chips every Friday night. And yet Uncle Frank “had his time” 20 years earlier. This all sounds very familiar.
Over the past two years I’ve felt quite close to Uncle Frank. I don’t know him at all, of course, but I feel the connection. My relationship with time is peculiar. Sometimes, thinking about Uncle Frank, it feels like I’m thumbing through an old sepia photo album of a time that I know nothing about. At other times, it feels like I’m looking into a mirror of 2018 and Uncle Frank is staring right back at me.