DAY 5: Wed 18 Mar

A bit of family history and historical faction.

Another slow start. Why am I waking so late? Did not hear the 7:30 birdsong alarm on my phone, or the radio which had been on all night, and emerged shortly after 8:30. Looks grey out there again.

Inevitably I scanned emails and Twitter even before a breakfast of muesli and almond milk (there was only enough cow’s milk left for one pint of builders’ tea.)

My main displacement activity this morning, apart from becoming engrossed in all that Twitter has to offer, has been to thoroughly clean all the bird feeders. I do hope they appreciate my efforts on their behalf.

One tile broken and another dislodged from my roof in recent storms. But will I be able to get anyone to repair the damage under present circumstances? We shall see. It shouldn’t cost more than the ’excess’ on my house insurance policy which I managed to renew today. I also achieved a dramatic reduction in the premium having discovered an error in the policy details – I  might not have noticed that in the normal run of things.

A cousin has forwarded her appreciation of the plans by Jempson’s supermarkets in Rye & Peasmarsh <> to provide a home delivery service for the housebound during the pandemic. 

This is distant branch of my father’s family, as is the transport company John Jempson & Son Ltd <>  I remember hitching lifts on their lorries as a student, but the drivers never seemed to be impressed when I pointed out my name. 

I met Stephen Jempson in the Peasmarch superstore for the first time last year. A Brighton-based nephew later transported an anniversary cake they had made for Roland Jempson here in Frenchay, Bristol. Roland is the family genealogist <> whom I met for the first time soon after I came to Bristol.

I knew of Bristol only as the base for the Irish side of our family. My grandparents came over from Tipperary (Dempseys) and Carlow (McCabes) at the end of the 19th century, and my mother and my older sister were both born here. 

I had no idea there was a Jempson connection until Roland saw my name on an article in the Bristol Evening Post and got in touch. At one time we found ourselves in the same signing-on queue at the job centre! He had no trace of our side of the family on the massive family tree he had compiled. 

He alerted me about a book about the transport company. Theo Barker’s The Transport Contractors of Rye. The pictures in it not only displayed family likenesses but actually confirmed stories my father had told about his childhood. But he had run away from home as a teenager in 1935 and the only relatives we every got ot know were his parents in Herne Bay.

Some years ago we discovered there is a plaque in a local Anglican parish church commemorating another Jempson. And during commemorations of the end of WWI my grandsons and I came across a display in Whitehall Library about the awarding of the Distinguished Conduct Medal for ‘conspicuous gallantry in action’ to ‘brave Bristol soldier’ Lance-Corporal H. Jempson of the Gloucester Regiment. Such a small world.

But a world full of distances too. My house guest learned today that the flat his wife rents back home blew up last night – a suspected gas leak from the landlord’s faulty pipe work! Luckily she and his son were visiting relatives, but they have lost everything, including important documents. Can’t imagine the trauma, especially for refugees who can do nothing for their loved ones so far away. Many I have known have lost parents and siblings to war and disease and been unable to properly mourn, attend funerals or visit graves. 

In a sombre mood this afternoon I took down copies of Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year and Preparations for the Plague from my bookshelves, wondering what connections I might find to our current circumstances. Both were written long after the Black Death ravaged Britain in 1665 and, counter-intuitively Preparations came after the Journal in 1722. 

Defoe was very young during the actual plague and may only have had some childhood memories of its terrors, but there were plenty of original sources he could draw upon as an adult. He always had an eye to the main chance, and he was capitalising on fears that the plague, which had reappeared in Marseilles, might again hit England. He was also anxious to ensure that the authorities were more properly prepared should the Black Death return. ln one passage of Preparations he describes how a St Alban’s family shut themselves in their house from 14 July to 1 December to avoid contamination. Sounds familiar?

Great chats with family and friends on the phone, and by Skype and WhatsApp today. Much as I missing being with the grandchildren, I cannot imagine how those with young children are going to manage cooped up inside with them for long periods during bad weather. Jigsaws might come in handy, and board games may come back into fashion (although electronic games are more likely to prosper). But just chatting to the young ones and reading them stories cheers you up.

A healthy supper of garlic, onion, tomatoes, courgettes, pepper, coriander and hot spices (a form of chakchouka) eaten with semolina flatbread and fruit juice, made a pleasant end to the day while catching up on the wondrous ‘This Country’ and the easy to digest “The Trouble with Maggie Cole’.

Mike J

Journalist, trainer, editor; storyteller; amateur historian.

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