Tower House

Today, I am meeting my cousin, Mark at Tower House in Enfield, the former home of his grandparents, Leonard and Mabel Arnold. In his will, Uncle Leonard left the house to a charitable trust and in 1969 Tower House became Arnold House, a care home for physically disabled adults. In the summer of 2020, the facility closed and later this month, the house and land will be sold to a property developer.

Mark has driven up from his home in Devon to reclaim his great-grandfather’s millstone from the garden. I have driven down from Letchworth to hand over two large oil paintings of Uncle Leonard and Aunty Mabel that I was able to retrieve from the house before it was boarded up last September.

Tower House looks forlorn and neglected. The lead-paned windows on the ground floor have been covered over with metal sheets. Weeds have begun to lift the cracked tiles on the patio. The fig tree is heavy with fleshy pips, but soon, it too, will be uprooted and destroyed. George and his wife, Rejoice, who live in a cottage on the property, tell us that, every day, they have to chase away squatters and snoopers.

Mark and I sweep the leaves off a couple of plastic chairs in the summer house. We carry them to the millstone where we share a picnic and childhood memories.  At midday, we strain our ears to hear the 41 gun-salute from the Tower of London, a tribute to Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh, who died on Friday at the age of 99.

Mark’s grandfather, Charles Leonard Arnold, was a gunner captain in WWI. When he returned from France he used his army annuity, together with a loan from his Uncle Percy, to start MK Electric Ltd. In 1919, Leonard invented the three-pin plug, which became the foundation of the British domestic electrical system. He was a man of great integrity with a strong sense of justice. MK was one of the first companies in England to introduce paid holidays for its staff. In an interview, conducted in 1966, Leonard said Money is a very serious responsibility and should not be squandered. When he died in 1969, he was one of the wealthiest men in England. Estate duty, however, was running at 85% and so more than £4 million of his £6 million legacy went to HMRC. His son, Jim said in a press statement My father always abided by the law of the land. He did not believe in inherited wealth. Uncle Leonard donated his home to the Leonard Cheshire Foundation, together with £250K for repairs and alterations. He also left a substantial legacy to the Engineering Department at the University of Bristol.

Last summer, after all the long-term residents had been moved to other facilities, the manager agreed that, as long as I remained masked and socially-distanced, I could visit Tower House one last time. Gina, who had worked as a carer at the home for more than 30 years, took me round. Everyone I met, as we wandered along the echoing corridors and in and out of empty bedrooms, seemed sad to be leaving, describing Arnold House as ‘a family’. Co-incidentally Gina spent 10 years on the assembly line at MK in Edmonton. She spoke about the kindness of everyone at the firm and remembered the annual MK trips to the seaside.

I wonder what Uncle Leonard would have to say about the fate of Tower House? Would he share my indignation that a bunch of fat cats are set to make a killing on the back of his  generosity? Would he be angry that the developers plan to knock down his once lovely home,  parcel the land into plots and build small residences, valued at half a million pounds each?

As I listen again to the recorded interview with my Great Uncle from 1966, I think I hear an answer to my question: Sometimes I despise money. It gives you comforts, but money for money’s sake doesn’t appeal to me. Money can be a curse. Wisely handled it can be a blessing. It needs to be treated with great discretion. Honours and wealth are really very superficial and can generate restless uncertainty, rivalry and jealousy. The things that bring you contentment in life are affection and purpose, because even the longest life is transitory.

Tower House had its day as a family home. Arnold House had its day as an adult care facility and now the land is set to grow opportunities for new families and new memories.

Gruezi, Salut, Ciao, Allegra

Our son-in-law is learning to speak Swiss-German, bravely seeking to communicate in his wife’s mother tongue. The first word he learnt was ‘Pferd’. He subsequently discovered that the Swiss word for horse is in fact ‘Ross’. It was a disappointing start but Mike was not discouraged.  

My Anglo-Irish father also sought to speak his wife’s dialect. Unlike Mike, Dad was easily frustrated and often referred to ‘Schwyzerduetsch’ as a throat disease – harsh and guttural.  ‘Anyway’, he used to exclaim, managing to sound both crabby and defeated, ‘What’s the point? No one understands the language and no one speaks it beyond the German-speaking borders of Switzerland’.

One thing that undoubtedly makes learning Swiss-German challenging is the wide-ranging dialects. Which one should you go for? The gentle, melodic Baernduetsch or the snappy ‘r’ trilling Zueriduetsch? To compound the difficulty of the varying dialects is the absence of a standard orthography.

In the 5th century BC, two Germanic tribes migrated to Switzerland. The Alemanni moved to the north and east and the Burgundians moved to the west. The Alemanni language gradually morphed into Swiss-German and the Burgundians adopted Latin which later became French. Today there are four nationally recognised languages in Switzerland. In a population of 8.6m, 62% speaks Swiss-German, 22% French, 8% Italian and 0.5% Romansh.

Bern, where are ancestors are from, is one of the four fully bilingual cantons. From the age of five, our daughters spent one afternoon a week with the French-speaking Kindergarteners as a way of encouraging early mixing of the two languages. When shopping in our hometown of Biel, you are free to speak in either language. The shopkeeper or the waitress might respond in Schwyzerduetsch or she might speak to you in French. It makes no difference, either to mutual understanding, or to how you are viewed by the other person. 

There is no national newspaper, television or radio in Switzerland. The Swiss Broadcasting Corporation is divided into language departments and each of the 26 cantons broadcasts in the local language. It all sounds very well-balanced and friendly and mostly, it is. There is, however, something playfully referred to as the ‘Roestigraben’. Roesti is a Swiss version of a hash brown potato and the ‘graben’ or trench, is a metaphor for the cultural boundary between German and French-speaking cantons. The Roestigraben is often cited when the two groups make different choices in national voting issues. 

In the 1970s when my parents owned an English language school in Kent, the language to master was English because English, rather than German or French, was the international language of business. My father was an outstanding teacher of English. Unfortunately he was not a gifted linguist and never managed to crack what my friend, Kate has described as the ‘fast and complicated language’ that is Schwyzerduetsch. Dad’s linguistic challenges were no doubt amplified by his continued insistence that Swiss-German was not a socially useful language. As a result, my father was unavoidably excluded from conversations that took place between me and my mother as I was growing up.   

Since the birth of his daughter, five months ago, our son-in-law’s grasp of Swiss-German has improved, particularly in certain areas. He encourages her ‘goerpslis’ (burps), notes her ‘glucksis’ (hiccups) and fuerzlis’ (farts) and listens when his wife speaks and sings to their baby girl. He told me recently that he now gets the gist of what Polly is saying to Thea. Schwyzerduetsch is, in fact, the perfect language for infants as it is richly onomatopoeic and delightfully musical. I am touched by Mike’s thoughtful interest in our mother tongue. I am aware too that our son-in-law’s engagement with Swiss German is valuable, not only from a linguistic point of view but from the perspective of emotional bonding. Thea’s father is including himself in the circle of family communication in ways that my own father was not able to do.  

Whose Life is it Anyway?

As a Swiss passport holder I am legally permitted to travel to the country of my birth and enlist the support of Dignitas or Exit in order to end my life. In England, assisted dying is illegal. In 2002 Diane Pretty, who was suffering with advanced Motor Neuron Disease, was denied the right to travel to a clinic in Switzerland. No one could have prevented Ms. Pretty from getting on a plane to Zurich but, as she was unable to make the journey alone, her husband would have been seen as an accomplice and so run the risk of arrest and prosecution upon his return to the UK. It is this concern for loved ones that is a major obstacle for foreigners wishing to die in Switzerland.

Diane Pretty’s lawyer argued that forbidding her to go to Switzerland, with all the consequences that this would entail, was a breach of human rights, rights which outlaw ‘inhuman or degrading treatment’. A lawyer for the British government pointed out that this referred to treatment imposed by others and did not include a naturally occurring illness. Ms. Pretty subsequently took her case to the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that the right to life included a right to choose whether to carry on living. The court disagreed and said that the right to life was not determined by quality of life.

Switzerland is one of the few countries to accept foreign nationals at its assisted dying clinics. Dignitas reported that in 2018, more than 90% of its applicants were non-Swiss. Some believe that Switzerland has one of the most progressive policies in the world regarding assisted dying; others accuse it of promoting ‘suicide tourism’.

I have no experience of MND or other incurable conditions such as Locked-in Syndrome but, when I walk myself to the far reaches of my imagination, these are some of the questions that arise: What are my choices? How much freedom do I have to pursue those choices? What are my responsibilities as a spouse/parent/child/sibling? How do I end my life with dignity? How do I engage the issue of respect – respect for my right to choose; respect for the opinions and wishes of others? What does fear look like? How do I take ownership of ambivalence in a decision so final? What if I have a change of heart? Will I have the courage to tell my family and friends, with their brave faces and their dry eyes, that I suddenly have reservations about drinking a cup of poison in an unmarked unit on a Zurich industrial estate; that leaving this world, this life, these people that I love, might be harder than I could ever have imagined? Will they support me? Will they worry that I might change my mind back again?

I know of two people in Switzerland who have chosen the path of assisted dying. One had been paying an annual subscription fee to Dignitas for many years. Rather like an insurance policy, there are various levels of service available. In this man’s case, he had paid to die at home with a medical team present. It seems that he had no reservations or second thoughts. He was carefree and relieved. He had made the decision to end his life at a time when his mind and body were still fully functioning. His children and grandchildren, however, were sad and said they couldn’t agree to the man’s request to be with him when he died. In the end they changed their minds, perhaps because they didn’t want to live with regret; they wanted to be with this man, this father, this grandfather until the very end of his one wild and precious life*

On April 29th, 2002, the day Diane Pretty lost her case in the European Court of Human Rights, her husband, Brian, told the press that he felt disappointed for Diane because she had been denied her choice of when to die. He added: I’m pleased in one respect because it means I have my wife here for a bit longer.

Diane Pretty died twelve days later in hospice.  

*from The Summer Day by Mary Oliver

 

 

 

On Being Irish

At the turn of the last century, my Great Uncle Jack was banished by his Catholic father in Ireland for dating a Protestant girl. Henry left money on the kitchen table, together with a note, instructing his eldest son to buy a one way ticket to America.

I tried, for many years, to find a record of Jack’s departure from Ireland and searched passenger lists for sailings between Cobh and New York in the early 1900s. I found plenty of O’Connells but no John O’Connell from Virginia, Co. Cavan. In 2017, a local historian in Waterford told me that many emigrating Irish had chosen to drop the O’ in order to sound more English; the Irish, back then, were bunched together with ‘Blacks and Dogs’ in the shortlist of undesirables.

Last week, it was revealed that the holiday park operator, Pontin’s, had compiled a blacklist of Irish names. The company wished to prevent bookings from Traveller families, even going so far as to employ ‘floor walkers’ to listen in on calls and guide agents through the rejection process. O’Connell is on the list of boycotted names.

In 1982, I was living in New York at a time when NORAID (The Irish Northern Aid Association) was actively fundraising for the republican cause. It was widely suspected that money was being used to buy and ship arms to the Provisional IRA. A street vendor on Fifth Avenue, hearing my English accent, began to yell a tirade of abuse at me, telling me and my people to get out of Northern Ireland and leave the Irish in peace. I was in my early twenties, recently arrived in the city and the angry, shouting man unnerved me. I walked quickly down the street to avoid having further contact with him. If I’d had the presence of mind to stop and the courage to articulate my feelings, I could have told him that, in spite of the way I sounded, I was the great granddaughter of an Irishman who had cared very deeply about his country’s politics. Henry O’Connell had also hated people who sounded just like me. The love he felt for Ireland and his Catholic faith had been stronger even than the love he felt for his firstborn son.

I have an undated photograph of Uncle Jack at the Statue of Liberty. He’s a dead ringer for my father, one of the many nephews he never met. No one knows for sure what happened to Jack. He wrote to his mother for a year or two, after which the letters stopped. Some family members say that he moved to Chicago, others that his outspoken political opinions almost certainly led to his early death in a street fight.

Locked Down. Locked Up.

The end is in sight. If we do as we’re told, many of the restrictions on our daily lives will be lifted on June 21st.  Naturally, I’m delighted and excited. Dan and I will get to see family and friends again, eat out in our favourite restaurant, go to the theatre, swim at the pool, maybe even fly to Chicago for our nephew’s wedding in July. A life without limits in just one hundred and ten more sleeps.

The trouble is that after eleven months I have grown rather used to my pandemic-life. Being inside makes me feel safe and I have come to accept the predictable content of my every day. I have discovered how to enjoy slow and have learnt how to love quiet. I welcome the absence of external pressures and obligations. I appreciate my four walls and my daily walks to the far corners of my town. I suppose I could make a conscious decision to sustain my recently assumed habits, but I suspect that continuing to be a tortoise in a world filled with hares is something I would find quite challenging.

In 1980, I was a student at the University of Reading. My friend, Martin was a prison visitor at Reading Gaol and, every week, he would drive over from his home in Beaconsfield to support a man called Jim with his reading and writing. Jim grew up in the East End of London and had spent 40 of his 60 years behind bars. This time though, he assured Martin, he was going to mend his ways and lead a better life. On the morning Jim was released from prison, we invited the two of them round to our student house for breakfast. I remember Jim as short and stocky, with iron grey hair and a deeply-lined face. He told us stories about life on the inside and his friendship with Reggie Kray, one of Britain’s most notorious criminals. He also re-iterated that he was fully committed to the straight and narrow. He wasn’t going to let his friend Martin down.

Jim’s social worker had found him a job as a gardener at a Catholic monastery. For eighteen months he seemed settled and content. In May of 1982, Pope John Paul II came to England and all the monks travelled up to London to see him. While they were gone, Jim stole a radio from one of the cells. This theft, albeit petty, was in clear violation of his parole and he was sent back to prison.

Jim’s life on the inside lacked freedom but it gave him structure and routine. He lived in a small, regimented and institutionalised world that was filled with people just like him. Life in prison offered Jim predictable content. Being inside was safe. It provided him with four walls. It made things simple but, above all, it’s what he was used to. Jim was a tortoise not a hare and even his new monastic life didn’t manage to replicate the familiarity of all that he had left behind.

It’s in the Blood

I live in Letchworth, the World’s First Garden City. Population 33,600. Founded in 1903, the town is also known for its religious freedom and spiritual diversity. Over the course of its one hundred and eighteen year history, it has welcomed Anglican, Catholic, Liberal Catholic, Orthodox Jewish, Congregationalist, Pentecostalist, Theosophist, Spiritualist and Quaker. Today there are also Buddhist and Sikh temples and an Islamic Society.

My husband was raised in a Catholic family near Chicago and, for 9 years in the 1990s, he lived as a Zen Buddhist monk in rural Kentucky and in Korea. When people say to him:  ‘Dan, you’re Buddhist, what’s your opinion on   – – -?’, his response is invariably: ‘I am not a Buddhist. I was raised Catholic, I am a practicing Catholic and my life has been informed by Buddhism’. I was curious as to why he, of all people, should say such a thing. So, one day, I asked him and he told me the following story.

In 1981, he was living and serving in a Jesuit parish in Detroit when a young woman wrote with a request to be released from her Catholicism so she could become a Jehovah’s Witness. The Jesuits replied that they had no authority to grant such a request. She had been born into the Catholic faith and if she wished to follow a new religion then that was entirely up to her; they, however, had no power either to authorise or forbid such a thing. I suppose it’s a bit like wanting to divorce your parents. You can choose to turn your back on them and align yourself with another couple you like better, but you can’t separate from them because they are, and will always remain, an innate part of your genetic history. As the Eagles song goes: You can check out any time you like but you can never leave.

My own legacy is Catholic and Baptist. My grandfather attended the seminary in Ireland and my grandmother became an evangelical Christian. I wasn’t raised in either faith because my father didn’t want me to get ‘all mixed up about religion’ the way he had been as a child. Dan’s story of the Jesuits in Detroit leaves me feeling oddly comforted.  Although I have tried, over the years, to re-trace and re-connect with my grandfather’s Catholicism, I have, to date, been unsuccessful. It is consoling therefore, to know that some part of me is and will always remain Catholic. Whether I embrace it or reject it, makes no difference. I am both free to do as I wish and am forever linked to the religions I have inherited from my ancestors.

Wilhelm Tell’s Daughters

In her final year at the University of Bristol, our daughter, Lucy wrote an essay she titled: Wilhelm Tell’s Daughters – The Myth of Autonomy and the Long Road to Women’s Self-determination in Switzerland. My English grandmother, Grace was given the vote in 1918. Lucy’s two Swiss grandmothers were not authorised to vote, in either cantonal or federal elections, until 1971, at which point both women were in their mid fifties.

February 7th, 2021 marks the 50th anniversary of Swiss women’s suffrage. Not all of them, however, received the right to vote in 1971. It was not until 1990 that the women of the two cantons of Appenzell (Innerhoden and Ausserhoden) were given their ballot papers. Husbands, fathers and grandfathers continued to vote against their wives, daughters and granddaughters and eventually the Swiss Supreme Court intervened, declaring that if a woman wished to vote she could register a constitutional appeal and would subsequently be issued with voting papers. Not all women in Switzerland wanted to vote. Some preferred to be guided by their husbands and others expressed a lack of interest in politics. There is a Swiss saying: ‘A man is head of the family but his wife is the neck’ and some women chose to wield their influence in other, possibly more subtle ways.

Voting in the canton of Appenzell takes place in the village square on the last Sunday in April. Issues are decided by a show of hands and this has been the tradition since 1403. Until 1991, men carried their ancestral swords, the only identification required in order to participate in the assembly. Today the men, like the women, are more likely to have paper documents but the ceremonial sword remains a valid form of identification.

My mother married my father in 1955 and consequently she was voting in English elections 16 years prior to being able to vote in her Swiss homeland. Lea was an ardent supporter of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first woman prime minister (1979 –  1990). My Liberal voting father was appalled by his wife’s open admiration for a woman, seen by many as a ruthless and divisive leader. My mother was generous-hearted and compassionate and I too was mystified by her respect for a woman who demonstrated such a fervent disregard for those who ‘refused’ (were not in a position) to help themselves. Lea, like many of her Swiss sisters, was not particularly interested in politics; what impressed my mother was Mrs. Thatcher’s assertiveness vis a vis her all-male cabinet. Margaret Thatcher was not only the ‘neck’ of the world in which she lived, she had successfully managed to stage a coup on the ‘head’ and, this, above all else, was what Lea considered to be the Prime Minister’s crowning glory. My mother was never able to articulate why she so admired Thatcher, perhaps because this would have required her to openly criticize Switzerland, something she rarely did. Beneath her respect and admiration, however, my mother must have cradled more complex feelings: resentment, indignation and rage that, for the first 55 years of her life, it was men who cracked the whip and ruled the roost. As my Swiss mother-in-law used to say: ‘In my next life, I intend to return with hair on my teeth’.   

In the Green Room

And I do choose life. Every day. I choose life in all its complexity; aware of its beauty, its pain, its hope, its fragility, its love. Life, I believe, is a gift of unimaginable proportions. I don’t know what the future holds – for me or the world – but I have faith in the extraordinary power of humanity. I am thankful that I can say this. I am full of love. I am full of hope. I choose life.         Clemency Burton-Hill

I recently heard a radio interview* with Clemency Burton-Hill who, in January of 2020, experienced a massive brain haemorrhage. This was her first broadcast interview since she was released from hospital. She spoke haltingly but eloquently and with great heart. I found myself deeply moved by everything she said.

‘Clemmie’ is originally from London but now lives in New York where she works as the creative director of classical music at New York Public Radio.

Apart from being enormously inspirational and utterly authentic, I was struck by something she said about her time at Mount Sinai Hospital. After having been in a coma for 17 days, Clemency describes being presented with a clear choice: she could leave or she could stay. This was not a choice offered by her medical team. It came from a place beyond time and space. Leaving/Dying, she was told, would be easy. It would be painless and mark the end of her suffering. Staying/Living would be much harder and more painful. Clemency Burton-Hill chose to stay. She chose Life over Death.

In 2017, I was undergoing chemotherapy treatment for triple negative breast cancer. I was bald and weak and grateful to be spending Christmas with my husband and two daughters, my soon-to-be son in law and his family. I had the best Christmas Day: I joined the family on a walk, ate turkey, opened gifts and even had enough energy for games and a Christmas quiz. For those few wonderful hours, I forgot that I was sick. I forgot that, on December 27th I would be returning to the hospital for further treatment. In bed that night, I remembered. It felt painful to remember after I had forgotten. Since my diagnosis in July, I had thought a lot about death. I had feared it, denied it, believed those who told me that I was strong and would survive it. Then, at some point over the course of those weeks and months, I made peace with death. I developed a strong faith in the goodness of an after-life. I believed, and continue to believe, that one day I will be reunited with those I have loved and lost. Dying no longer seemed like the worst thing that could happen to me because life, even when it’s good, is not always easy.

But, on December 25th, 2017 what I remembered, alongside what I had forgotten, was that dying meant leaving my family. It meant being invisible in time and place, it meant not being there for the milestones in my daughters’ lives, it meant watching from afar as Dan grew old alone. I recognised that death might mark the end of my suffering but it would be the beginning of theirs. Unlike Clemency, I was not offered a choice but I suddenly understood that leaving/dying was the easier option and yes, Life is a gift of unimaginable proportions.

*Woman’s Hour, BBC Radio 4, January 20th, 2021

Bones and Bricks

Any intervention must come to terms with the structure of the place   Luigi Snozzi   (1932 – 2020)

Switzerland’s most famous architect is undoubtedly Le Corbusier (1887 – 1965).  Luigi Snozzi is a name that is less well-known outside his home country. He died last month of Covid in Minusio near Locarno.

Snozzi believed that understanding history was crucial to his work: Architecture must not invent but must be rediscovered, he said. He taught his students the importance of learning about a city before attempting to design or re-purpose any of its buildings. He used Trieste as an example, a city which was once part of the Roman and Habsburg Empires, was invaded by Napoleon and occupied by the Wehrmacht during WWII; a city with many layers, all of which, according to Snozzi, needed to be respected and understood.

Luigi Snozzi’s best known project is at Monte Carasso in Switzerland’s Ticino. In 1968, he was commissioned to design a new elementary school. He refused orders to build it on the outskirts of town and chose instead to centre the new building within the grounds of a decaying church and monastery at the heart of the village. This created a new sense of community and a vibrant public space.

Snozzi once said that in his long career he had never knocked down a single wall. He wished, not to break with the past, but to understand it. He realised the importance of synthesis and integrity and recognised the value of acknowledging those things that had been significant and meaningful to his predecessors.

As the writer, Lisa Iversen says We are not as original as we think we are and if we disconnect ourselves from our history, be it architectural, social or ancestral, we are at risk of losing something substantive, including the ability to nurture and express our own originality.

A Pied Piper in Switzerland

Tomorrow was created yesterday. To ignore history is to ignore the wolf at the door.

                                                                        John Le Carre

The Swiss government has recently admitted to ‘oversights’ in adoption regulations that resulted in 900 babies from Sri Lanka being illegally sold to Swiss parents between 1973 and 1997. Following an in-depth investigation, prompted by a parliamentary question, it transpires that the Swiss federal authorities were aware of what was happening as early as 1981. Illegal adoptions were also negotiated with Germany, Scandinavia and the Netherlands.

Unfortunately, Switzerland’s practice of separating children from their birth parents has a long legacy. Between 1860 and the early 1970s, a practice known as ‘verdingen’ (indentured servitude) operated in Switzerland. Children, considered to be at risk of poverty, were forcibly removed from their families and sent, either to orphanages or to work as farm hands. Unmarried, divorced or widowed mothers were rarely allowed to keep their children. Many ‘Verdingkinder’ were sent to live in neighbouring cantons and lost touch with their parents and siblings. The Swiss government took the view that hard work and self-discipline were a natural corrective for these potentially wayward children and would provide them with the means to support themselves as adults.

In 2016, I was researching my own Swiss family history and I met with a group of former Verdingkinder. Their stories were heartbreaking: many spoke of relentless hunger, of eating slops from the pig trough and stealing fruit from the orchard. Some slept in attics or on old sofas in the barn. Others were beaten with leather belts, wooden posts or the ‘Teppichchlopfer’.

We had a Teppichchlopfer at home, a carpet beater which my mother used to discipline the dogs. She insisted that it didn’t hurt them but that the whistling sound passing through the bamboo paddle frightened them. Teppichchlopfer was a word both labradors learnt to recognise early on and the mere mention of it would send them cringing to their beds.

One former Verdingkind I met back in 2016 has since become a family friend.

Gottlieb Brunner was born in Zurich in 1931. When his father, a bricklayer, lost his job during the Great Depression, he turned to petty theft. ‘Godi’ was sent to live with his grandmother before being verdingt to a Bernese farmer. Although his grandparents lived in a neighbouring village, the eleven-year-old was forbidden from visiting them. The farmer’s wife persisted in telling the boy that he was a good-for-nothing scoundrel, just like his father. When he was fifteen, he was sent to a psychiatric clinic near Bern where he spent twelve months undergoing treatment for bed-wetting. He was medicated, given injections and forced to undergo electric shock therapy. Godi apprenticed as a joiner and at the age of 20, he was finally released to his own fate. He found work as a hotel porter, a butcher and later as a construction worker on the Jungfraujoch. On Saturday nights, he would go dancing in Bern and it was on the dance floor that he met a young widow with two small children. As he had nowhere else to stay, he began spending his weekends with Getrud. Three months later, Godi was called to attend an interview with social services where a panel of four administrators informed him that, unless he married this young woman, both she and her two children would be sent to an institution. He saw no alternative but to comply.

Godi will be 90 years old in March and has been happily married to his second wife, Renate for more than 50 years. When our granddaughter was born, Godi carved her a Swiss chalet. It has a cedar-shake roof, red shutters, window boxes full of flowers, a neatly stacked wood-pile with its own tiny axe and a water pump. The chalet also doubles as a money box. Godi told me that he had inserted a flap behind the slot so that any deposited coins could not be retrieved by searching fingers. Thriftiness is a quality many former Verdingkinder have in common. They recognised, early on, that financial independence offered greater freedom of choice and self-determination, something very few of them had experienced as they were growing up.

Thea’s chalet bank sits on the shelf of her nursery, as yet empty of coins, but overflowing with the generosity of a man she has never met.