I was born in London and schooled at a Comprehensive in Sussex, at London University and at Film School in Beaconsfield. My real education, on the other hand, has come from doing menial jobs for lousy pay, from curiousity, conversation, motherhood, my beautiful daughter, marriage and bereavement. My literary roots are in the bed-time stories my mother shared with me and in the novels I read while holed up in the school toilets when I should have been in class learning chemistry.

I have recently discovered that two of my ancestors were published authors. William Scully, my grandmother Miriam’s father, emigrated from Ireland to find his fortune in South Africa. He arrived in Port Elizabeth in 1867, an illiterate boy of twelve, and spent his youth prospecting for gold and diamonds. Having taught himself to read by studying Shakespeare and the bible – a fact reflected in his fancy prose style – he eventually became a magistrate. His memoir, Unconventional Reminiscences, has recently been republished and is interesting as social history, at least to me. I enjoyed, for example, his account of returning to the place of his birth in Gardiner Street Dublin, a sketch which might describe my own house on a bad day:

‘The premises were in a filthy condition and the inhabitants looked more than ordinarily villainous. On the steps a red-faced crone sat pulling at a clay pipe and a reek of stale porter came through the hall doorway.’

Ronald Ross, my grandmother Dorothy’s father, was ‘a dreamy and imaginative boy whose main interest was in writing poetry.’ Ronald studied medicine, however, scraped through his exams, spent two years as a ship’s surgeon and worked in India where he established that mosquitoes transmit malaria. He also penned a number of novels, one of which I now have. Called The Spirit of Storm it was given to my mother in 1935, a second hand copy since the book was out of print. A brief excerpt illustrates why:

‘ The lightless vacuum of the night seemed to ache through its spacious chambers; the vault of heaven was a cranium racked with agonies; the whole universe was a stunned, aching brain.’

I find it touching that my grandfather, who won the Nobel Prize for his work on mosquitoes, never lost his desire to tell stories. The results demonstrate that – whatever other accomplishments a person may have – it is almost always a mistake to try and write a novel.

My grandmothers left no books behind them. Miriam Scully quit South Africa for London in 1912 with a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Art in London. There she fell in love, got married, abandoned her studies and had seven children, two of whom – Patrick and Bridget – died as babies. A ‘wild colonial girl’, as she described herself, her considerable energy was to find outlet only in the domestic arts. She wove beautiful cloth, was an average cook, a wonderful seamstress and a gifted gardener who spent a lifetime battling to recreate, in English gardens, the colours and scents of her native South Africa.

Although she lived in England for more than seventy years she never considered it home. Her experience made her an outsider. She had witnessed the brutality of the British during the Boer War – the burnt homesteads, salted fields, butchered livestock and poisoned wells; the mass internment of Boer and African civilians. At the age of eight she had accompanied her mother, defying British soldiers who threatened to shoot them, to deliver food to the starving women and children imprisoned in British concentration camps – camps where more than forty-six thousand civilians were to perish from hunger and disease.

Miriam Scully clearly inherited her mother’s rebellious genes, or perhaps memes. In 1938 she helped arrange shelter for child refugees from the Spanish Civil War. Because they were the children of communists the local vicar refused them permission to use the church hall as a school. Inventing a new protest genre of guerrilla-gardening-graffiti, my grandmother crept to his house in the middle of the night and planted crocuses which bloomed in spring to spell ‘Mark 10:14’ on the vicarage lawn. The reference is to a biblical chapter and verse: ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of God.’ My grandmother disliked the Church as much as she disliked the English establishment. Fierce, bloody-minded, tenacious, earthy, a pagan through and through, she was the kind of woman who – a few hundred years earlier – would have been burned at the stake.

Sadly, I never met my grandmother Dorothy. I know she loved poetry, clothes, sweet-peas and cats, that she was playful and had extravagant tastes, and that she was an accomplished artist. I have one of her pictures – a winged sprite perched in a tree, the full moon behind her. The painting is beautiful and dark, with that hint of the macabre that is the thrilling hallmark of all good fairy tales. Dorothy, like Miriam, abandoned her own creative pursuits when she got married. Both belonged to a generation of women who did not work if they did not have to and were supposed to dedicate themselves entirely to their husbands and children. They also belonged to the generation of women whose husbands and brothers fought in the First World War and whose sons fought in the Second. Both women lost brothers in the trenches of World War I. My own mother, Rosemary, recalled how Dorothy used to weep on Armistice Day as she remembered her brother and the other young men she had known and loved and lost. Her sister Sylvia died in childbirth a few years after the war and Dorothy eventually took her own life when my mother was twenty-five.

Rosemary did not leave a book behind her, either, but she did write a short account of her experiences of the Second World War. Just seventeen, she was living with her parents in Ireland when the war broke out. Determined to do what she could in the fight against fascism, she left Belfast for London in 1941 and worked as a nursing auxiliary. The following year she volunteered as a driver with a Civil Defence team in Lambeth and she stayed with them for the rest of the war. Their job was to dig the dead and injured out of the rubble of bombed houses. The experience showed her, first hand, the terrible cost of modern warfare. She became a committed pacifist and she remained one all her life. She went on ban-the-bomb marches in the nineteen-fifties. She protested against the deployment of American missiles at Greenham Common in the nineteen-eighties. In January 1991, as Britain and America bombed Iraq for the first time, she stood vigil at a roundabout on a busy junction with placards against the war.

It was my mother who taught me that the icon of the heroic soldier – the talk of bravery and sacrifice and the sombre ceremony of flag-draped coffins which is staple media fare for each new military adventure – obscures this unpalatable fact: that out of the many, many millions of people who have been killed by warfare since 1918 half were not soldiers at all, but civilians.

Rosemary never lost faith in the peace movement, the belief that we can find a more rational way to resolve conflict; she never lost faith in the power of our imagination. But in September 2002 – aged eighty and afflicted by painful arthritis – she decided she could not travel to London to march against the renewed war on Iraq. I had mixed feelings about going myself. We had been bombing Iraq sporadically since 1991 and no-one in Britain really seemed to care. In December 1998, when America and Britain launched a four day blitz against the country, less than a hundred people protested outside Downing Street.

That day in September as I joined the crowds gathering by the Thames I realised this demonstration was going to be huge – around 400,000 people as it turned out. It was the first of a series of marches which culminated on the 15th of February 2003 when millions of people around the globe staged a co-ordinated protest, the biggest political protest in human history. That September morning, moved to tears, I telephoned my mother to tell her the news. That night she told me she had come to London, after all, and hobbled onto Waterloo Bridge ‘just to see’.

miriam day haneen dedication

Rosemary Langstaff, her mother Dorothy Ross and my grandmother Miriam Scully.