Preserving the Memories: Family Photos, Glimpsed Moments, Tattered Stories

A time it was, and what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence
A time of confidences
Long ago it must be
I have a photograph
Preserve your memories
They’re all that’s left you…

(excerpt from Old Friends, Bookends  by Simon and Garfunkel)

In a cupboard at my parents’ house are boxes of jumbled photos. Faded black and white prints – some as big as postcards others as small as postage stamps. Sorting through these pictures is like watching a tantalising film of worlds that existed a long time before I was born. So many fragments and tatters of stories, so many questions left unanswered, so many glimpses into half told truths…and that inexplicable excitement of staring at an unexpected  moment from the past…

Left to Right: my grandmother (Isabelle Stanley nee Monteiro) and her three daughters , friends and relatives of my grandmother

There is my mother in a cotton frock – a sweet faced school girl with her friends, in the tropical heat of Malaya, and my Portuguese Eurasian grandmother with her siblings and relatives (many of whom were killed by the Japanese during the war).

Left to Right: my mother (Yvonne Stanley), my mother and her friends, my mother, her sister, my grandmother and great grandmother, my grandmother, my mother and her friend in front of the convent in Kuala Lumpur

There is my maternal grandfather whose name, Lawrence Stanley, was picked out like a silk cravat from a bundle of ragged scarves. No history is attached to this name. My grandfather’s real name was Ujagar Singh and he came from the Punjab. I don’t even know if I have spelt that name correctly. I am not at all familiar with it. It was a hidden name – a secret which we found out much later in our lives. All stories about my grandfather are dipped in mythology so we are left with Lawrence Stanley who made his fortune in Malaya and became a wealthy owner of rubber estates and tin mines. He was an adviser to the British, played the stock market with astonishing success and was an engineer of repute.


My grandfather and my grandmother

And there is my mother again, changed from a round faced school girl into a glamorous beauty. I gaze at photos of her in post war England (where she was a student at Nottingham University) dressed in elegant woollen skirts and cashmere jumpers or gorgeous Hollywood style ball gowns. She loved English literature and the glorious English countryside. She was a talented painter and went to art classes in a Chelsea studio. On the backs of many of the photos are the loving notes she sent home to her parents.

Left to Right: my mother at Nottingham University, my mother and her friend in England, my mother at various balls and formal events

In other bundles are photos of my father – a Gujarati boy who grew up in Kenya and was sent to study Medicine at Glasgow University. I shuffle through dozens of photos of a handsome young Indian student wearing a well cut suit or tweed coat, making himself at home on the streets of British cities, sipping champagne, smoking a pipe, laughing with friends, catching the eye of street photographers in Glasgow and Aberdeen.


My father (Babubhai Patel) and his university friends photographed by a street photographer

My father’s history starts in these pictures of a young man transitioning joyously from one culture to another and relishing every moment of his new life..

Left to Right:  my father with his university friends, my father in Scotland

Who was he before that time? A little boy alone in Nairobi – brought up by some “aunty.” His parents away in India for nine years. A boy who reads English encyclopaedias, school books, billboards and the labels on tins of British produce…and comes first in his class year after year. He is sent to Britain on a pittance and competes in cryptic crossword puzzle competitions in English newspapers to double his tiny allowance. He falls head over heels in love with a Stanley girl from Malaya and never returns to his family.

Left to Right: my father smoking a pipe, my father at his graduation from Glasgow University

My parents met as students in the bleak cold of Scotland. What did they talk about – these young colonials so far from the sunshine of their homelands?


My parents, my mother’s sister and friends at the Coconut Grove in London in the 1950s

They got married in Glasgow on 9 November, 1957 and embarked on an adventure that has lasted nearly six decades…


My parents’ wedding photos

Time it was, and what a time it was…

© Anita Patel, 2016

Thank you to my husband, Scott for scanning hundreds of family photos…


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