Saturday, July 11, 2009

Saturday Morning Musings - more on the Belshaws

This has been a very Canadian period on this blog. This is likely to continue for a while yet. My wife had the camera with her. Now that she is back in the country I can access my photos.

I couldn't help wondering what my university results might have been like if had had put half as much effort into university as I now do in writing and reading. Then I was too interested in student life. Mind you, I probably couldn't do some of the things I can do now without that very particular university background.

I presently have very limited time. I have to squeeze all my reading and writing into a few hours a day. As a student who always left things to the last moment, I had to learn to do things fast. These techniques remain. Fast, intense reading, then write.

In Saturday Morning Musings - five things that I am proud of I discussed the results of the meme I started on pride. Now in Pride comes before a fall, Legal Eagle has written an interesting piece exploring aspects of pride. Of all the seven deadly sins, pride is the most interesting one because, of itself, it is not necessarily a bad thing. There is good pride and bad pride.

Interesting email from KVD on A Belshaw family photo; the photo shows three generations of Belshaws standing in line on the front steps of my grandparents' house. KVD was struck by the way the photo captured differences in dress and stance between the three.

Grandfather in his pullover, with his arms folded. I never knew my grandfather, but Cyril as a child thought of him as a cuddly bear in a pullover. Then we have Horace in his sports coat, hand in coat pockets. Next comes Cyril in what today might be called cargo pants, with his hands in his pocket. As KVD points out, he bears a striking resemblance to Harry Potter. KVD also pointed to the way that Cyril's clothes actually capture a recurring fashion trend - at least 1940s, 1960s and today.

I said that I never knew my grandfather.

The same thing happened with my daughters because I married late. When Dad was born as the youngest, his father was forty five. Dad was thirty three when I was born, so my grandfather in New Zealand was then eighty eight. I was forty two when eldest was born, so Dad would then have been seventy seven. It's a little hard for my daughters to fully understand the Belshaw line given the complete absence of living Belshaw ancestors.

These simple stats explain too why the Belshaws span such a long time period in so few generations. I noted that just three generations took you from modern Sydney back to industrial revolution England of 1867. If we go further, four generations takes you to the early nineteenth century when England was embroiled in the Napoleonic Wars, five generations and the First Fleet has still to sail for Sydney.

I actually find it hard to believe that in just five generations, the history of the Belshaw family is older than European settlement in this country.

The Belshaws and our family history have been another theme in my posts since my return from Canada; while I have written about the Belshaws, seeing and talking family history is not something that I do a lot of, simply because the family is nogroup to identifyt there.

This photo, again from around 1943, shows three generations of the New Zealand Belshaws in what must be one of the last of the family snaps. Missing are cousin Michael, my father and Aunt May's husband Vic Fisher.

On the right are my grandfather and mother. At the back are Uncle Horace, his wife Marion and son Cyril. In front Aunt May with son Keith and daughter Elaine. I have check to confirm that I have Marion and May the right way round, by the way. I initially had them the other way round!

I mentioned that I had just four first cousins on the Belshaw side, so this photo shows three of them. You can see the age gaps in the photo between Cyril at the top, Keith and Elaine at the bottom. I am not yet born.

I mentioned in Just back - and another book to complete! that I thought that I should write a history of the immediate family because I thought that it was something of a remarkable story. In an email Cyril suggested that it was perhaps not so remarkable, but more a story of a particular period in history when boundaries, national and intellectual, were not so rigid. His wife's family showed the same pattern.

Writing a good family history, and especially in a small family, is a complicated task because you have to deal with relationships and tragedies. This is hard for an insider to do properly because of personal bias, as well as the likely impact on others.

By reason of doubr The pain created by the tragic murder of Betty Belshaw, Cyril's subsequent arrest for her murder and then his acquittal in Switzerland on grounds of reasonable doubt continue to this day. This was a huge media story at the time and not just in Canada; it made the Australian media as well because of the family's prominence. It wasn't just Cyril, but also Diana's role as one of Canada's better known actresses. It also inspired at least one book, Ellen Godfrey's By Reason of Doubt.

I met Betty once when she, Cyril and Dianna came to Armidale for Christmas. Adrian was probably there as a baby as well, but I do not remember this. Cyril has a photo of Diana and I together in Armidale at the time and has promised to send me a copy when he finds it. After they moved to Canberra, Betty would send us Christmas presents, generally books about Canada.

I remember Betty vanishing. Then, when Cyril was arrested, my father was completely distressed reading clippings from around the world. The pain for the Canadian Belshaws was of course more intense. Adrian and Dianna had first to cope with their mother's disappearance, then the fact that she was murdered, then their father's arrest.

While I don't think that any in the family really doubted Cyril's innocence, the damage done by something like this continues to this day. For Cyril, the case really marked something of an end to what had been a stellar academic career. Everything had changed. The strain and damage on the kids and on Betty's family was at least as great.

Today Cyril talks about Betty and her family, the links between Betty's family and Cyril continue, all the time. I don't mean that this is the sole topic of conversation, but in the many hours I spent with Cyril in Vancouver she was always present. You cannot put the past aside when that past stands like a rock in your memories.

Musing in Vancouver about writing a family history, I asked Cyril his views. If I wrote a proper history I would have to deal with Betty's death and the subsequent murder case. Cyril thought strongly that I should, although he also mentioned that Diana might have different views because of the possible impact on her daughter.

I have no doubt that the Belshaws would make a good book. Yet should I if it might cause pain?

Somewhat similar issues come up when dealing with family relationships.

Over the last few generations, and like most families, the relationships between parents and children has been somewhat complicated.

A Kiwi in Cowboy Country In his A Kiwi in Cowboy Country, cousin Michael Belshaw refers to his complicated relationship with his parents.

I never met Michael, now I know why. Cyril fleshed the details out a little. There were strains between Michael and his parents that finally lead Michael to essentially sever all links soon after his arrival in New York on what had been a horror voyage with his mother.

It is a little easier for me to write about Michael because I did not know him. He is also, like so many family members, a fascinating person. Overshadowed in some ways by father and brother, he carved out a fascinating life in the US. The Quivira Coalition description of his autobiography gives a feel for part of the man:

Initially the author had the privilege of being on the faculty of Prescott College, until its bankruptcy. This became the launching pad for what might be considered the adventures, misadventures, and learning experiences recounted herein. These included: being hung in effigy for having the temerity to challenge a bunch of land speculators; being exposed to the morass of bureaucracy in a state planning agency and an Indian tribe; developing a new way of building with the earth; solving to his satisfaction the site and perpetrators of the murder of John Wesley Powell's men; living with a pack of wolves for almost twenty years; learning about rattlesnakes with more than desired intimacy; building homesteads in wild and lonesome places in New Mexico; surviving both cancer and bush flying. All this with a sense of wonder at life in the Southwest, yet unable to sunder his roots down under.

You can see why I think that that it might be an interesting story. But should I write it and if so how?

10 comments:

Legal Eagle said...

Gosh. That's an amazing story. You would have to check with Cyril's daughter first. And I guess you'd also have to disclose your own bias as a relative of Cyril.

My Dad's family seems to have married later than my Mum's so his family has been here for 6 generations, Mum's for 7. You Belshaws have beaten our family with your 5 generations since colonisation.

Anonymous said...

Jim you should write your family’s story for your children, and for their children.

As for bias, most if not all written history is biased; but you at least will have a reasonable excuse. Good luck. kvd

Jim Belshaw said...

LE, if you click through on the link to Ellen Godfrey's book there are enough excerpts to bring the story of the trial alive. I stand in awe given the description of Dian and Adrian giving evidence in fluent French.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi KVD and thanks. I will certainly ensure that the girls have some access once they become interested.

Kanani said...

Well, I really think that in order for it to be a compelling book, you'll have to write about the parts of the family you really care about, or have some personal insight into.

As for causing hurt feelings --oh, my! Well, that can often cause times of compromise, and waffling back and forth. Best to write the book you want. You can always edit the final draft, later!

Neil said...

Quite a story indeed. Even in my own family history pages I had some qualms about what I revealed, as some of it had been very hush-hush at one time.

I had similar inter-generational thoughts when I contemplated the five generations of Whitfields gathered in 1972 to celebrate cousin Beverley's Olympic gold medal. Dad's Aunt Annie was still alive then; she used to tell of the old man with the white beard whose knee she sat on c.1880 (when she was five). He in turn, assuming it was her grandfather, had arrived in Sydney as a boy in 1826 on the "Thames", but his father arrived four years earlier, being born (probably) in 1774. So when he arrived Macquarie's successor Brisbane was barely in the second year of his term.

All that made Australian (European) history seem short. There I was talking to someone in 1972 who had sat on the knee of someone whose father was born before the colony started and arrived just 34 years into its existence when it had a population of 29,600. (1822 was also the year they started building Darlinghurst Gaol.)

Jim Belshaw said...

That's an interesting and helpful thought, Kanani. Wearing my writer/Historian hats I don't like editing my writing. If I write fully, I don't have to publish the whole thing at the time if I judge against it for family reasons at that point. But the full story is still there at least for family reading.

It will be a little while before I can write anyway. I need to complete my other projects first!

Jim Belshaw said...

That's a nice story, Neil, that exactly illustrates my point. I feel a short post coming on!

Eddie Romero said...

Belshaws pose an interesting subject and Michael in particular to me as I knew him in NM for a short spell. My interest now is to locate him if he is still living and rekindle our earlier friendship. If you can help it would be greatly appreciated. Ed Romero, former resident of Los Cerrillos, New Mexico (Broken Hill Ranch) 61e.romero

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Eddie. Sadly Michael died a few years back.