Sunday, July 7, 2013

Who's Karl?

Just recently I've been plaguing my parents with request for old family photographs. I wanted to get my hands on a particular photo for this blog, and the majority of the family pictures are at my parents' place, some 400 miles away in the south of England. When I was a child, most of the photographs from my father's side belonged to his parents, my grandparents. I can still remember where they were kept: in a drawer in the fairly hideous dark wood Art Deco sideboard in their house in Rayner's Lane. That sideboard, though ugly, was a repository of all kinds of treasures, including a black tin tray with pictures of cocktails on it and matching magnetic coasters - I thought that was terrifically sophisticated at the time. 

Anyway, most of those photographs now belong to my parents, so I had to prevail upon them to take time out from their busy schedules to look through them. Luckily my sister volunteered to help, and we had a merry afternoon during which she posted some of the ones she found to Facebook so I could look at them. There were so many and they were so interesting (even the ones that were clearly not the one I was after) that in the end we resorted to skyping each other, and she waved the photographs at me via the webcam. Here's one of them:

This is a pantomime staged during World War Two. That's my grandfather in the centre of the back row, the only one in uniform (I think he was the stage manager or something so escaped the indignity of having to wear a frock and a blonde wig).

I love exploring the past - not just the past of my own family, though I do find that especially interesting. "Exploring the past is like planning a trip to a foreign country," I told my Dad, who was somewhat bemused by my urgency to find the picture I was after. "Well," he remarked, "it should keep you occupied, it's a BIG country."

Sadly, the photograph I was looking for failed to surface, although I am hopeful that it may turn up in the end; some other pictures were also missing which suggests that somewhere in a forgotten and dusty corner there is another package of photographs waiting to be found.

The one I was so keen to share was a postcard-sized portrait photograph in black and white or sepia, taken around 1930. It showed a man with rather angular features standing at a slight angle to the camera; he was dressed (I think) in a light-coloured trench coat over a dark suit. He may have been wearing a hat too. This, according to my grandfather (now dead some years) was his German friend Karl, whom he knew before World War Two. My grandfather was a silk buyer for Chatillon, Mouly, Roussel Silks Ltd of Mayfair and sometimes travelled to Paris on business, so possibly he got to know Karl there. That is absolutely all I know (or surmise) about Karl. In 1931 my grandfather left that firm and he spent the rest of his career working in insurance, which was considered a much steadier job. No more foreign jaunts after that until he went back to Europe as a military motorcyclist in World War Two, and by then he and Karl were on opposing sides. So far as I know, they were never in touch again.

That photograph always intrigued me. Not, perhaps, as much as the one of my great-grandmother Louise in pearls, lace and velvet ribbons, or the one of my maternal grandmother posing on a beach in a very modest bathing costume and with a parasol - but it intrigued me all the same, to the extent that when I wrote The Glass Demon I put Karl in it. "Uncle Karl", Lin's German relative, is my grandfather's Karl, miraculously transported from 1930. The book is set in the early 21st century but Karl still has a rather old-fashioned (though suave) look: "I unlocked the door and opened it to find the tall angular form of Uncle Karl, looking like a 1940s private eye in a tan-coloured mackintosh with the collar turned up. Uncle Karl had a stern face, all square jaw and razor-sharp cheekbones, but he generally had a twinkle in his eyes which showed that his bark was worse than his bite. Now, however, he looked severe..."

I'd love to be able to show you the photograph of Karl. I don't believe it's gone forever; I'm 99% sure I have seen it since my grandmother died and her house was cleared. However, my father and sister went through all the photographs they could lay hands on, and the only one they could find of an unidentified man of about the right age was this one (below left).

I don't believe this is Karl, unless either this or the lost photograph happens to be uncharacteristic of him. I'm still hopeful that the lost picture may turn up. In the meantime, Karl - at any rate, my Karl, as I remember him from the lost picture - exists only in my memory - and in the book. I'm glad he has a role in that.

Whilst my sister was posting likely photographs on Facebook, my other sister, seeing them, posted, "Who's Karl?"
Who's Karl? Well, now you know.


  1. My goodness! This has the makings of a wonderful mystery to unravel. Paris in the 1930s must have been a very exciting place! There was a similar idea once called "Three Lions" about three different nationalities who were friends before WWII but then were forced to become enemies as a result of conflict. I think they met on the battlefield of something... It was a classic book and film! Thanks for the fascinating read. I love these old photos too.

  2. Still no photo of Karl...but since I wrote the post above I haven't been to my parents' place. I still hold out hope that it will turn up in the end!