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Five Photos … with Helena Fairfax

  • Post category:Guest Posts

My guest today is writer and editor Helena Fairfax. I bumped into Helena at an event in York some months ago, but somehow missed her at the Romantic Novelists’ Association conference, even though I obviously attended at least one of the same talks! When I started this feature, way back in the mists of time, I did so because I’d been browsing through some forgotten discs that contained very old family photographs. It got me thinking about the records we keep, what the people who come after us will find, and what they will think of us and our lives when all they have to go on are a few faded pictures. It made me think about how important photos really are, and it made me wish with all my heart that I had pictures of more of my ancestors. So it was fascinating for me when I opened Helena’s post and discovered what she’d chosen to write about and why. I can totally relate to this and I’m sure many of you who follow this feature will relate to it, too. 

A few weeks ago I was at the Romantic Novelists’ Association conference. I always leave the conference feeling inspired and I always have something new to think about. This year I attended a talk by Rowan Coleman on developing your ‘voice’ as an author. Rowan had the interesting idea that our voices aren’t just formed by our own experiences, they’re formed through the experiences of our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, and all the generations who have gone before.

For my five photos, I decided to show some photos that show my own family’s history.

Photo one: My mum’s family in Ireland.

This is a photo of my granddad, Pop, looking very handsome in his Sunday best, standing outside my great-grandma’s cottage in a village near Dublin. Next to him is my great-uncle, Barney, who is carrying my mum’s sister, Anne (or Nan, as we call her). My mum is the little girl, and my grandma will have been the one taking the photo, with her box brownie.

There are so many stories in this photo. Pop was my grandma’s second husband. Her first husband, with whom she had a son, my Uncle Bob, died of TB in Dublin. There’s the story of how my granddad had always been in love with my grandma, and how after she was widowed he asked her, ‘Are you going for a walk, alannah?’ There’s the story of my Uncle Barney, and how he looked after my great-grandma in that house in the photo when she began to suffer from dementia. There’s the story of how my mum and her half-brother and sisters came to England in the 1930s during the depression years, and how they lived through the bombs falling on Manchester during the war. There’s the story of how my Uncle Bob was sent as a soldier to Cephalonia (remember Captain Corelli’s Mandolin) and refused to talk about his experiences there again.

There’s also the story of my mum’s youngest sister, not seen in the photo, who died in tragic circumstances nearly forty years ago and who is still remembered. There’s my mum and Nan, now in their 80s and 90s – two remarkably strong women who have lived through almost a century of stories.

Photo two: My dad’s family in Manchester

This is my dad’s side of the family, and my grandparents’ wedding in the Catholic cathedral in Salford, Manchester, in 1919. Again, there are so many stories in this photo. It’s a happy family photo, but one overshadowed by tragedy. There were many family members who should have been there – men gone because they died in the war. My grandma’s favourite brother, Arthur, had died three years before, at Ypres. His letters to my grandma – funny, courageous, thoughtful and affectionate – are now in the Imperial War Museum. Over a hundred years later, my Great-Uncle Arthur’s life seems like ancient history to most, but I remember how my grandma never got over her brother’s death for the rest of her life, and I still picture her distress when programmes about the war came on television. The rather forbidding Victorian lady in the purple hat, to the right of the priest, is my grandma’s mother – my great-grandma. Seeing this photo I wonder how she coped on receiving the news of her son’s death, and I think of the terrible task of her son’s captain, who had to write to her. The letter still exists, and the poor captain, who must only have been a young man himself, speaks of ‘the total inadequacy of words to meet grief’.

Photo three: my brothers and sisters and I in Uganda

Fast forward a lot of years, and after my mum’s family had moved to Manchester from Ireland, they lived next door to my dad, and so this is how they met. They married the boy/girl next door. A big part of their story is how they trained to be teachers and moved to Uganda, where they worked for many years. This is a big part of my story, too, as this is where I was born – a long way from the Ireland and Manchester they knew. I’m the girl with curly hair in the blue dress in the front. I remember lots of details about our lives there. My mum was and still is a great gardener. The flowers next to us are beautiful bougainvillea, and I remember the pawpaw trees she grew and eating the delicious fruit for breakfast. I remember the freedom of roaming where we wanted, and of running everywhere in bare feet – socks and shoes were too hot, and only tolerated for Sunday best.

My six siblings and I all have our own stories now. My older sister – the girl with the black hair on the right – died ten years ago of cancer. Now there is always someone missing.

Photo four: York Minster

We came to England to live in York when I was six, and I remember being very homesick, not understanding the Yorkshire accent, and finding it very cold indeed! The days of my siblings and I roaming where we wanted were over, and the neighbours frowned on our running about the streets in bare feet like ‘peasants’. England also meant school and the craziness of being laboriously taught the alphabet when I could already read fluently. I didn’t understand any of it, and I remember that it’s at this period I first learned the solace to be found in reading, and also how books could help you understand the world around you. All those amazing writers of children’s books have my heartfelt thanks! I did come to love York – a city with thousands of old stories – and after all these years living in the county I’m now proud to call myself a Yorkshirewoman. Well, I’m in Yorkshire, so it was that or leave 🙂

Photo five: my desk

Since hearing Rowan Coleman’s talk I’ve been thinking over all my family history and all the lives that have gone before, and how they have informed my writer’s ‘voice’. A lot of my writing is to do with family, with love and with loss. Although I’ve lived in England for decades, being half-Irish and having arrived here feeling a stranger, there is always a tiny part of me that feels I don’t really belong. I think my writing sometimes shows two strands – one of sympathy for outsiders, and one of comradeship and finally finding your tribe. Writing is a place I go to make up new worlds, but I love the idea that those worlds are still full of all the people who have gone before.

Thanks so much for having me, Sharon. I’ve been loving your series of posts, and it’s been great to be a part of it!

It’s a pleasure, Helena. What a fabulous post! I’m so glad you agreed to take part, and thank you so much for sharing your wonderful photographs and memories with us.

Helena Fairfax is a freelance editor and author. Helena was born in Uganda and came to England as a child, but she’s grown used to the cold now, and these days she lives in an old Victorian mill town in the north of England, right next door to the windswept Yorkshire moors. She walks this romantic landscape every day with her rescue dog, finding it the perfect place to dream up her heroes and her happy endings.
You can find out more about Helena by subscribing to her newsletter for book news, photos, and the occasional free stuff. Visit her website or follow her on Twitter: @helenafairfax. 

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This Post Has 27 Comments

  1. junekearns

    Wonderful, Helena – both the photographs and your poignant explanation of each one.
    Loved this.
    Thank you, Sharon!

    1. Helena Fairfax

      Thanks so much, June! I’ve been really enjoying this series of Sharon’s. Thanks for your lovely comment!

    2. sharon

      Thank you, June. You’re always so supportive of this blog! It’s a great post, isn’t it? Xx

  2. Anne Williams

    What a thoroughly lovely post, ladies – really enjoyed this one, and love this feature Sharon! x

    1. Helena Fairfax

      Thank you, Anne! I’ve really loved this feature, too. Thanks for dropping in!

    2. sharon

      Thank you very much, Anne. I really appreciate all my guests’ willingness to share their precious photos and memories. Xx

  3. Marie Laval

    Wonderful, wonderful post and photographs, Helena! It was a pleasure to read about your family and to share a little bit of your memories.

    1. Helena Fairfax

      Thank you so much, Marie! You might recognise some things in the last photo – the postcards, and the suffragette badges in the bottom right-hand corner 🙂

    2. sharon

      Thanks for dropping by and commenting, Marie. Xx

  4. jjackson42

    Lovely article. What a brilliant idea. I must dig out some of my old family photos.

    There is ALWAYS a story, if only we could find it.

    Cheers! John

    1. Helena Fairfax

      Thank you for your comment, John! It would be great to see some of your old family photos. I expect they include lots of fascinating stories! Thanks so much for dropping in!

    2. sharon

      You’ll always be welcome if you’d like to take part in this feature, John!

  5. Jane Dunning

    I really enjoyed this, too. Very poignant with touches of sadness and tragedy…

  6. sharon

    Thanks for dropping by and commenting, Jane. Xx

  7. Chrissie

    Another fascinating contribution to this series. I love old family photos and their stories, Helena.

    1. Helena Fairfax

      Thanks, Chrissie. We’re really lucky to have these photos to show the next generations. I love hearing other people’s family stories, too. Thanks so much for dropping in!

  8. Sophie Claire

    Great post, Helena – I love your photos! And I’m really enjoying this series, Sharon. So fascinating to get little snapshots (literally) of people’s lives.

    1. sharon

      Thank you, Sophie. It’s been a great way to get to know people much better. Photos seem to coax lots of interesting stories from them, in ways that asking questions never could. So glad you’re enjoying it.

  9. Susan Bernhardt

    I loved this post, Helena. So interesting about your family in the various places you/they lived and your words have such power. Also loved the photographs. Well done!!!

    1. Helena Fairfax

      Thanks for your lovely comment, Susan! I really enjoyed putting this post together. Sharon has had some great posts in this series, and it’s been brilliant being part of it. Thanks so much for dropping in!

  10. Marsha R. West

    Hey, Helena. What a wonderful post. Really makes me think. You’ve had such a fascinating life and I loved all the old pictures. You have surely been gifted with the power of words. I’ve shared. 🙂

    1. Helena Fairfax

      Thanks so much for your lovely comment, Marsha. I’m really touched by it.
      This has been a fascinating series of Sharon’s. Thanks for dropping in and for sharing!

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