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On Chapel Sands: My mother and other missing persons

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That was the beginning of the journey that is recorded in this book, a journey that Laura Cumming made in the hope of filling in the gaps in her mother’s memory and allowing them both to understand why her early life played out as it did. The mystery that unravels is cleverly structured and the revelations are judged and timed perfectly. Some are unsurprising but others made me stop and re-evaluate what I knew and what I thought I knew. It reveals a remarkable human story, aspects of which I know will resonate with many readers, and firmly rooted in its place and time.

BBC Radio 4 - On Chapel Sands

Words and images . In life as in art we do not always see what is going on at the edges, or even the foreground, do not notice what seems irrelevant or superfluous to our needs and theories. Perception is guided by our own priorities." To my surprise the truth turns out to pivot on images as much as words. To discover it has involved looking harder, looking closer, paying more attention to the smallest of visual details - the clues in a dress, the distinctive slant of a copperplate hand, the miniature faces in the family album. I loved the way that she used words to paint vivid pictures of her mother and the world that spun around her; and the way that she scrutinised images – both paintings and photographs from the family album – and gained understanding of both the subject and the creator.

The girl became an artist and had a daughter, art writer Laura Cumming. Cumming grew up enthralled by her mother’s strange tales of life in a seaside hamlet of the 1930s, and of the secrets and lies perpetuated by a whole community. So many puzzles remained to be solved. Cumming began with a few criss-crossing lives in this fraction of English coast – the postman, the grocer, the elusive baker – but soon her search spread right out across the globe as she discovered just how many lives were affected by what happened that day on the beach – including her own.

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming, review: kidnapping, lies On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming, review: kidnapping, lies

I’m not so sure. To be of therapeutic benefit, I presume any story we tell ourselves about the void has to be coherent. We are, after all, engaging in a kind of personal theology in which the creator-spirit must provide some rationale for the way we are. Even if that creator-spirit turns out to be a less than benign demon, therapy only works if that demon is rational according to its own lights. All the beach photographs in the Elston family album were taken by George. He would not yield his Box Brownie to anyone else, which is why he never appears on the shore with his daughter. But on the other hand, neither does Veda. I did not notice these absences as a child, leafing through the illuminated treasury of my mother’s early life, images to go with the stories she told, but of course they strike me every time I look as an adult. George Elston is there, recording the moment, but his wife is not. My mother has not a single memory of going to the beach again with Veda.

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To get here from London, I will drive the A1 as far as Peterborough, and then peel off via Spalding, Boston and Wainfleet. Along the way, there will be the names of the fabled horticulturalists from whom I buy tulip bulbs every year. There will be potato and brassica farms, one after another, and roadside stalls selling ripe cherries. Scudding through the flatlands – like a ship on water, as my mother used to say – the towns get smaller the closer we get to the sea and signs direct visitors to parks for caravans and tents. I’ve stayed in farmhouses, coastal cottages and even, one year, in couple of rooms in a 19th-century windmill. I guess there are hotels, but the Lincolnshire coast is not devoted to luxury.

On Chapel Sands: My mother and other missing persons

Or so Cumming infers from the memoir she persuaded her mother to write about her childhood (generous extracts from it are quoted as evidence). The low point came when George removed Betty from Skegness Grammar School, to which she had won a scholarship at 10 and where, despite her shyness, she had begun to flourish in drama and art. School was a blessed escape from George but when she was 16 he curtailed that freedom by installing her at the village post office, where she worked for 18 months in a windowless cubicle, more cut off from the world than ever. She did eventually get away to art college, first in Nottingham then in Edinburgh, where she married. She slipped her name, too, dropping Betty in favour of Elizabeth. Her relationship with George didn’t recover. When he died a few years later, she skipped the funeral.A memoir based on her mother's disappearance as a child, On Chapel Sands: My Mother and Other Missing Persons, was published in July 2019 by Chatto. [4] It was shortlisted for the 2019 Baillie Gifford Prize. [5] Career [ edit ] And I am glad I have company! 😊 Nominated for The 2019 National Book Critics Circle Award, one of NPR’s Best Books of 2019

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