I’m sitting in bed writing this on my laptop — the first time I’ve taken my computer to bed. I picked up a rotten lousy virus on my travels, and coughed and spluttered through the last three days of my trip. The last part of the journey, a 2 hour train trip, was the worst, as I ran out of tissues and had to keep re-using ones that were already sodden. I imagine those sitting near me were thinking I should not have been travelling. My middle daughter suggested today that I take a raw clove of garlic, night and morning, chopped or crushed, not heated; she said she does,and never gets sick. So I crushed one up and bound it with a teaspoonful of honey, and it went down quite easily. Now I am still feeling tatty and worn, but I’ve stopped those awful coughing spasms, and feel a small return of energy.
But that’s not what I want to talk about. My flight across Australia was delayed, and for some reason we didn’t have the scheduled plane, but an airbus, which was towed across from the international terminal. So I had the comfort of a little screen in front of me, and the choice of several movies. Since I felt too ill to read, I watched Oranges and Sunshine, a recent Australian feature, directed by Jim Loach. This film tells the story of Margaret Humphreys, an English social worker who discovered one of the worst human rights abuses in the modern Western world: 130,000 children from the United Kingdom who were in state care were sent, or more correctly, deported, to commonwealth countries, mainly Australia. They were promised oranges and sunshine, and for the most part, they exchanged institutional care in their home country for the same but often worse in Australia. Most were forced to labour in spartan conditions in a harsh climate, had only a rudimentary education, and were told that their parents had died. An uncounted number were subjected to physical and sexual abuse. Margaret Humphreys uncovered this abuse almost accidentally, and once she realised the extent of it, devoted her energies to helping the lost children trace their families, if they were still alive, at great cost to her own emotional wellbeing and her family life.
The film is deeply moving, and presents its story without overstatement; one of the most touching scenes is when one of the men Margaret has helped to find his mother, but who has a brittle facade, says to her, when she is falling apart from the stress: ‘you feel it for us; we can’t feel it, we’re empty inside.’
That is the power of life writing. Sometimes, if we have had traumatic experiences in our past lives, we may feel empty and numb. A strange thing can happen when we start to write about it. Repressed feelings may be released, often indirectly, coming out through the imagery that falls out on the page or the scenes we describe. We may not even realise at the time that we are releasing our demons. This has happened to me many times. I have written pieces about my past life, searching for some way to describe what seems to be indescribable. I have a sense of failure, of not having touched bottom. But when I reread it, especially if I read it out loud, I feel all the emotion I thought I had lost.
The same thing can happen when you write someone else’s life. I have a project that I am working on, writing a biography of a group of people who migrated from UK to Western Australia after World War II; they were single parents who were sponsored by the Australian government and by Fairbridge (a philanthropic organisation set up in the early 20th century to give homeless children ‘a better life’ in the colonies) to come to WA. The children were put in Fairbridge Farm School at Pinjarra, while the parents were supposed to find work and somewhere suitable to live, before they could bring their children to live with them. I’ve worked with several parents and their children who used this scheme, and most of their stories have been positive. But there are shadows. One of the women who was a member of the core group I was working with hadn’t said much at all about why she left England. At our second last meeting,she began to talk about it. Her story was very moving, and she disclosed a great sadness and bitterness against the man who had forced her to change countries so she could feel safe and live her life without being harrassed. After I wrote the story, I sent it to her, and she said that she didn’t want it published. On my visit to Perth last week, I was able to talk to her. She said that the story was written right, it was exactly how she felt, but she didn’t want to hurt the person who had caused her to leave. ‘He’s a different man now.’ Then she said that if I changed her name and removed all details that could identify her, she would be happy for it to be published.
Other people’s lives are sacred,and we enter them with care. In my Fairbridge friend’s case, to have her life written as she remembered it was a release, but she wanted to feel sure that it would not hurt anyone else.
Sometimes,though, we just need to tell our story, as the British orphans who were abused and deported needed to tell theirs, to have it heard, to be respected and listened to, not to be waved aside, to be helped to find their origins.
If you want to know more about Margaret Humphrey’s work, here is the link to the Child Migrant Trust. Her book about her work, originally published as Empty Cradles, is now available under the title Oranges and Sunshine.