Flip was presented as a case study as part of the emerging critics workshop and curatorium, In Memory of a Name, by participant Scott Wark. Initiated by Indonesian artist FX Harsono, the project aims to provide emerging cultural practitioners with a unique professional development opportunity, to gain invaluable insight into a creative methodology for art making and thinking. The project invited a handful of individuals to research the socio-cultural implications of changing one’s name and what we can learn about representation and identity from this process.
In a pause between recollections, my partner’s Eighty-eight year old grandmother, Flip, said that she didn’t know where the memories spurring her stories and musings came from. The waves of her voice breaking over us appeared from an indistinct part of her past, lacking a linear chronology for her or for us. True to this mode of experience, I am going to tell the story of her name(s) as I know it, partially and disjunctively, speculatively and digressively, from her, from my partner and from their family.
Flip lurched from reminiscence to reminiscence between mouthfuls of peanut-encrusted biscuits as we sat with her in the house she’s lived in for over forty years. We were talking about a few things: family, childhood memories and politics (she is a self-described “humanist” and the member of a number of political societies, not to mention an inveterate writer of complaint letters). I was talking about the way strong emotion seemed to seal events in our memory, remembering raging arguments between my parents from when I was young. This recollection prompted talk of her father, Heinrich Filipp, a German man who worked as a barrister.
A resplendent black, red and gold flag shone in her speech, hanging vividly and nonchalantly from the front of their indistinct terrace house. He was politically active, she was saying, “always defending the wrong people!” (- those who “didn’t have any money”, she insisted with satisfaction). More information was not forthcoming; she changed tack as the memory of a famous German tennis player visiting her village swelled in her mind.
Watching a mind rescue memories from oblivion is profoundly strange. The fading of this thought precipitated another. Inside her house, 1933 or ’34, she remembers what she called an “awful row”. She was ten or eleven. Heavy boots hitting the floorboards; pounding, thumps, yells muffled by the walls. She was hiding with her sister in their bedroom. Later, they came in to the kitchen. Her father was on the ground, bloodied and bruised. Nazi thugs had visited their home and bashed him badly. He was an active dissenter; they disagreed with his politics. She remembered her father’s injuries afterwards, “the only time he had been really sick”.
Flip, her sister and her mother left Germany for the UK not long after. It was not her father’s politics that endangered them. Though her father was German, her mother was Jewish; so, therefore, was Flip. Flip mentioned visiting her father again after the war, ten or so years later. She does not know the details, but she spoke of him feeling a duty to stay on and remain active in his community. At one point, she said he had to travel from village to village to evade Nazi authorities.
Later in his life, she and her sister tried to save enough money to bring him over to England. She said he wouldn’t come. He was attached to Germany, he didn’t speak English and the money was stolen, anyway.
Flip worked as a nurse in England, first in London and then in Cheltenham where she lives to this day. Her maiden name, when she first started nursing, was Marianne Felicity Hedwig Filipp: hence, “Flip”. Actually, this is not the whole thing. She has another middle name but can’t remember it. After decades of non-use it’s been abandoned to the past. For Flip, I think this forgetting is indicative of her unsentimental character. She is “Flip” to everyone; she’s not mum, grandmother, nanna or anything else.
For me, this kind of straightforward disdain for formality is utterly strange. Flip simply doesn’t seem bound to the traditions that garland her past. It is not as though this past plays no role in her life, though. She’s a hoarder. Her house is an ad-hoc archive. The lounge room is strewn with teetering stacks of newspaper clippings long fallen into irrelevancy. They sit alongside piles of junk kept in case one of a number of unlikely but not impossible scenarios might one day eventuate. She washes and reuses ephemera (like plastic bags) until almost inoperative. That’s the funny thing about her forgetting of her name – she holds on to every object that still contains a semblance of utility. Unmoored from their sentimental function, I think that her memories are like the objects that she hangs on to. They operate as a kind of raw accretion from which her personality is, was, hewn. Forgetting her name, I think, was a pragmatic action; it was no longer of any use.
Later in life, Flip took the name of her partner, Ernest Basil Charles Thornett, to become Marianne Felicity Hedwig Thornett. They had a son together, Paul, my partner’s father. They never married. It later transpired that he had left his wife without getting a divorce, so they never could. Because marriage never meant much to her, taking his name and discarding hers seemed to be, simply, a concession she had to make to convention. It’s as though she took his name earlier in life as easily as she forgot one of hers later on.
Ernest himself is a strange and secretive character. His career was the reason they moved from London to Cheltenham, in the Cotswolds region of the English countryside. He worked for the Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ), one of the UK’s three intelligence agencies (the other two being the Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service, or MI5 and MI6). I learnt this piece of information about him very quickly. The acronym ‘GCHQ’ entered Flip’s reminiscences frequently, seeming to loom as large in her life as the GCHQ building (nicknamed ‘the doughnut’ for its squat, circular shape) looms in Cheltenham’s landscape.
My first guess was that he was an intelligence analyst, a kind of spy, but a combination of mid-century male reticence and the exigencies of his occupation means that Flip doesn’t really know much about his working life. I later found out from family friends of Flip’s son that he was involved in code-breaking work at Bletchley Park. Bletchley Park was the location of the team that broke the code that the Nazis used to encrypt their communications. This friend seemed to think that he was a major part of that operation, breaking the codes made by a machine called ‘Enigma’.
In the late 30’s Ernest wrote puzzle-based crime fiction under the pen names of Rupert Penny and Martin Tanner, publishing eight novels in total. Organised around logic games, they suit my picture of him as a Hermes-like hacker avant la lettre, his vocation to render legible or to obscure information at the secretive GCHQ. He still remains a mysterious figure for their son, not least because Paul doesn’t really know specifically what his father did. His identity is occluded, now, by facts and habits recollected from too distant a past. Even his novels are hard to come by; they are only just kept in print by an enthusiast publisher called Ramble House, run out of somebody’s garage.
Flip and Ernest split when Paul was young. Flip explained it by saying that Ernest had thought he wanted a son but “when it came to the crunch”, couldn’t bring himself to be interested. After Ernest, Flip took up with another man, Ben Roston. She married him and became Marianne Felicity Hedwig Thornett-Roston, deciding, despite their relationship breaking down, to keep Ernest’s name. I haven’t heard much about this man. My partner told me that it didn’t end too well. Flip is credited with saying that she doesn’t know if he’s dead or alive and “doesn’t really care”.
Flip lives by herself and has done for many years, but she is still, officially, Mrs Thornett-Roston. As with other conventions, names have a way of being burdensome to some and a mere formality to others. Though she took the names of her two partners, the nickname she earned was never allowed to decay. I think “Flip” might have been her way of asserting an identity that she fashioned. The other names she picked up during her lifetime had so little bearing on her self-image that some could be simply forgotten.
Flip’s names are a register of her past, a kind of potted history. As with all histories, hers conveys as much through what is written as what is not. So, it’s not just that one of her given names has fallen into disuse. She no longer knows if she can speak German, her native tongue, and she certainly never practiced the religion into which she was born and which had such an influence on the course of her life.
There’s another story that Flip told about her father. She doesn’t really know the details, but after a fight with the local priest, the family never went back to church again. Over her lifetime, Flip developed her principled stubbornness into a staunch personal resistance to what she sees as authoritarian tendencies in thought and action. Maybe it was the experience of displacement and discrimination that inspired this; my partner’s more inclined to believe, though, that it was a family trait inherited with her father’s values. Either way, her own brand of “humanist” politics – a mix of atheism and action that, apart from letter writing, has inspired her to join protests and even start a charity for the homeless in her local town – grows from the negation of the culture(s) that she disinherited, consciously or not.
Flip has only recently been reunited with Paul. She estranged herself from him when he left the UK to live near Sydney with his wife (an Australian) and their three young children. My partner was five when they left and twenty-three when Paul and Flip saw one another again. Though the children had more contact with her, Paul and Flip would speak only once a year. She was so angry with him for leaving that she passed through Australia to visit her sister in New Zealand without even telling him she was in the country.
Despite all this acrimony, she has always been generous toward her three grandchildren, saving away what she could in bonds and deposits for them to use as they wanted. I think she saw Paul leaving as a matter of principle. As he was just as principled (or stubborn), it took a concentrated campaign by one of his children to get him back to the UK before she died.
This is why the family’s knowledge of Flip’s past is so partial. She simply hasn’t featured in their life at all until recently, when the kids started to use the money she’d saved to visit her. What they knew of her as a grandmother is limited to a five-year-old’s recollection of, say, being given smarties in the waiting room whilst her mother was in labour, or eating sardines on toast with tomato sauce during a visit. For my partner, then, Flip’s recollections help paper over the gaps between these childhood memories and the person Flip now is.
By happenstance I’m finishing this piece on the train from Paris to Berlin. As we watched the countryside pass, my partner and I spoke of the German part of Flip’s, her, heritage. It’s now a distant fiction, no longer quotidian fact. Partly remembered but mostly forgotten. As Marc Augé says in Oblivion, “memories are crafted by oblivion as the outlines of the shore are created by the sea”.
Scott is a young writer based in Sydney. In 2010, he completed an Honours thesis on Wyndham Lewis at the University of Sydney, during which time he curated Damage at Verge Gallery and co-authored the accompanying catalogue. He has had essays on Guo Jian and Will French published in 4A’s Last Words catalogue and an essay on community art published in Das500. He is interested in contemporary art, literature and critical theory, particularly theories of technology.