A migratory species — wandering, wondering and warlike

Ruth HartleyFamily, Migration, War2 Comments

A very faded sepia photograph shows 5 mounted soldiers of the Imperial Yeomanry in Pretoria during the Anglo-Boer war

5 horsemen of the Imperial Yeomanry taken in Pretoria. Among them are two Hartley brothers.

Going back to the past

There is no going back to the past. The past has no memory. It is another place but one that has vanished. As L P Hartley wrote in The Go-Between, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” I’m sad that L P Hartley is not a relation of mine.

Barriers and boundaries

We wander about, wondering about our place in the world. We explore and we tour. Only in our heads can we ever go back to the past. The Rhodesia I was born in exists only on the shelves of the Zimbabwe National Archives. Everywhere in the world boundaries and borders are as fluid and migratory as humans are. Walls and fences go up to mark them but turn out to be as breakable as Humpty-Dumpty. Fences can offer only temporary safety, for we humans are brilliant at overcoming barriers and breaking boundaries.

The photograph shows 4 generations of the Burton family seated in 3 rows round Great-Grandmother Burton who holds the youngest baby on her lap. The man on the top left is in a soldier's uniform

The Burton Family, my grandparents holding my aunt, with Uncle Boet Burton in uniform

Migration and war

I love those visual ideographs that show the moving changing borders of Europe over 1000 years or the ones that follow the migrations of people around the earth.

In my book The Tin Heart Gold Mine I reference the migrations that follow wars in the characters of Oscar, his sister, Bernie and Fred and Monika. My own family history is one of wars and migrations and this knowledge informs my book. While Britain suffered no invasions for 100s of years the British were busy invading and fighting elsewhere and Britain had military checkpoints on its Irish border until 1998.

My migratory family history

My great-great grandmother was a Nelson descended from a cousin of the Horatio Nelson who sacked Copenhagen and fought the French off the coast of Egypt. It was the end of the Napoleonic wars in Europe that drove my mother’s ancestors to risk a dangerous boat voyage to South Africa and a new life. Wars gave people work but peace made them poor again.

The black and white photo shows 8 men in uniform around a rough table under a canvas shelter — They have long shorts and felt bush hats

Soldiers of the Gold Coast Regiment serving in Abyssinia WW2 My father Stephen Hartley second from the right

My great grandfather was a military tailor whose regiment fought all over Europe until it was sent to guard the eastern Cape border against the Xhosa. My grandmother’s Prussian parents fought for the British in the Crimea and then came to South Africa to trade. Two of my father’s uncles were in the Imperial Yeomanry in the Anglo-Boer War.

In the Second World War one of my soldier uncles died in Egypt. Another was a despatch rider in Italy. My father served in the Gold Coast Regiment. He fought the Italians in Abyssinia and was stationed in Kenya.

My stepfather dodged bombs in Malaya. It seems that we British were everywhere as soldiers and explorers. Our histories are very complex. I’m not advocating wars as a way of getting to know the world but wars took place. Can we learn from history and our part in it?

Citizen of the World

Are we citizens of the world?  Do we love and care about the world? I think we are at our most human when we acknowledge our migratory nature and our interdependence as one human race. I am a migrant in the tradition of my family. I ran away from South Africa when I was 22, lived in Zambia through the liberation wars of those times, spent a year wandering through Europe with John and have at last migrated to the south-west of France. Where do I belong? Like you — I belong in the world.

The photo shows 3 childlike drawings by Ruth Hartley on how she as a child viewed the wars her family was engaged in. There is a clok with 14 year old Ruth Hartley's face on it

Photo by Douglas Atfield of part of the Hamera and Hartley Finding Fathers exhibition at New Hall Cambridge 2007. 3 childlike drawings depict settlers landing in South Africa, a tank battle and the battle at Blood River. The clock has 14-year-old Ruth Hartley’s face on it

Exciting News: The Tin Heart Gold Mine official book launch

Since my return from Paris, I have been occupied with preparing for the The Tin Heart Gold Mine official book launch, to be held at the Café du Centre, Maubourguet, at 19:00 on 24th March 2017.

The invitation went out on Friday 3rd March (2 weeks ago). If you want to be there, but haven’t received an email, please click [RSVP to Book Launch] to email me so I know you are coming. The Café du Centre are doing an evening menu that includes Fish & Chips so reserve your table.

RSVP to Book Launch

2 Comments on “A migratory species — wandering, wondering and warlike”

  1. Géraldine de Haan

    Thank you for posting this article Ruth. After our preparations for Femmes d’Ici ‘s 8 March subjects about diversity last year and the globalised flow of health workers this year I find myself and a lot of my friends also implicated in this chain of moving and searching people. Our quest is maybe not out of an economic necessisity, more a creative, spiritual quest to understand the tide and feel our way into it. The impuls to create is being enforced by being in unknown territory.
    Lets keep on the move.

    1. Ruth Hartley

      Your reply reminded me of the book “Songlines” by Bruce Chatwin about the Aboriginal peoples of Australia. He posits the idea that all humans are originally nomads and our music and poetry and stories come from the rhythm and metre of our walking feet. That’s a poetic idea given the reality of forced migration today but I think it has an essential truth.

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