These were drawings in Cresswell Dale: first, the wooded valley floor, probably first carved as a subterranean river then collapsed leaving steep sides and a flat uneven floor, with the waters sunk out of sight. It is overgrown, gloomy and moist, with shaggy moss covering the dry stone wall and fallen branches. Light filters in and captures the leaves.
I thought about my mother’s life as elections, starting with the story of the night of the axe. This must have been the 1966 general election, when Harold Wilson held power for Labour. We were asleep, my parents listening to the results on the radio. They were interrupted by loud shouting. Upstairs, two women shared a flat and undertook sex work. Taking a night off, they had invited friends over to listen to the election, and these lads had casually decided to rape them. My father stormed upstairs (we held their spare key?) wielding the wood axe, and my mother heard the boys shinning down the drainpipe outside our window. All was put to rights. Some hours later, the shouting started again. Back he went again with the axe, this time cornering the boys. They had come back for the beers they had left behind and they trooped off sheepishly. This is not intended as a funny anecdote – but has a feel of time and place.
This drawing is of Peter’s Stone, a local landmark which juts out of the hillside, in the dale near Tideswell where my mother lived. The lowest image is of the field sketch, in watercolour and conte crayon. I re-worked this many times, lifting and replacing the crayon and eventually drawing into it in graphite. Photographing it in different light changes the image.
That was told to me as a story and so comes complete. Much more recently, my memories are fragmented – made up of conversations at the time, not documented or rehearsed. My mother was in Malawi in the early 1990s and the first democratic Malawian election was held then in May 1994. The first South African post-apartheid presidential election was just 3 weeks before. I think I have this right – she served as an observer for both elections. This established her as an experienced election observer in difficult places. So then she was again an observer, this time in post-conflict Balkans. I thought she served in Serbia and Montenegro, but I cannot track that election. Was it the Bosnian 1996 election? What I recall her telling me was that people were returning to vote in areas from which they had been ethnically cleansed and those who had persecuted them stood their ground, armed. Most observers were British ex-army mid-rank officers, pompous and ineffectual. She was a short round grandmother and so commanded respect: she stood her ground. The memory that troubled her was that the people who must surely have committed crimes, more than crimes perhaps, were affable and funny. As she kept order and gave space for people to exercise their franchise, these men flirted with her and she liked them despite herself.