Tuesday, 15 February 2022

My grandfather Darcie: thwarted murderer ...

My grandfather was a man inclined to direct speech. So when he issued instructions for the murder of his wife, he didn't beat around the bush. 

Some men might have said: 'Son, I've been reflecting for some time on the state of my marriage, the conjugal and other responsibilities I feel my wife is disinclined to discharge, and on reflection, after due consideration and some consultation with other interested parties, I've decided to do away with her.'

But that wasn't my grandfather's style.

Darcie Cranna. War hero. Thwarted murderer.
'Son,' he said, to my father, who was fifteen at the time, 'Get out to the woodshed and bring me that axe. I'm going to kill Jamesina right now.'

My father didn't go to the wood shed, but leaving Darcie in an alcoholic stupor on the floor, walked instead to the police station in Peterhead, Aberdeenshire and dobbed him in.

Darcie was brought before the courts, where the decorated WW1 veteran listened to his fifteen year old son give evidence of his murderous intent. Darcie was summarily dealt with, and my father became family breadwinner as a clerk in a local law firm.

He never forgave Darcie for any of this, and spoke of the humiliation of having to give evidence against his own father in a public court of law. 

Twenty years earlier, in August 1915, at the age of 23 and part of the Scottish Horse, the handsome Darcie had landed at Gallipoli, where the Scots received heavy casualties at Suvla Bay. Much has been written of the botched Dardenelles Campaign, presided over by Winston Churchill. Many young New Zealanders were also killed or wounded on that beach. 

Darcie's unit was so badly decimated it was disbanded and reabsorbed into a larger force. Three year's later, Darcie's beloved younger brother, William George, a member of a machine gun unit know as 'the suicide squad' was killed on the front line in northern France. In his memory, my own father was named William George.

My father, a passionate musician, who escaped the torment of his family through retreat into the arts, and as a teenager was organist for the churches of Peterhead, was playing Chopin's Funeral March one night on the family piano. Darcie entered the room and punched my father so hard that he was pitched backwards off the piano stool onto the floor.

'Never play that again in my house,' said the war hero.

Its hard to escape the conclusion that Darcie was traumatised by war, by the death of so many of his comrades and his beloved brother. At the time, shocked and traumatised soldiers who ran from the battlefield were put before a firing squad and summarily executed by their seniors in the British Army. 'Pour encourager les autres'.

Darcie - handsome devil
Jamesina came to live with our family here in New Zealand. She was so affected by the continual diet of violence visited upon her by Darcie that she had entered a state of helpless dependency. I watched her as a teenager, puzzled by the rarity with which she left the house. She went out once a week to play bowls. Everything had to be done for her. Her only companion was my younger brother Andrew, who as a result acquired a broad Scottish accent at the age of five.

Eventually, she took a substantial overdose of sleeping pills and had to be rushed to hospital, and was rescued again from premature death by my father.

Arguably the largest influence on gender relations, and in fact on 20th century culture in New Zealand more generally, were the two world wars - particularly WW1, where New Zealand lost a larger proportion of its men-folk than any other British dominion. The cenotaph in every small New Zealand town, with its marble gold-lettered roll of honour, speaks of the trauma of countless families.

Only in recent years have psychologists begun to reveal the intergenerational impact of this kind of trauma. The legacy of violence, depression, anxiety that emerge in the wake of these major conflicts. In his magisterial study of returned soldier trauma, The Body Keeps the Score, the psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, tells of the incomprehension that greeted traumatised soldiers (in this case Vietnam veterans) as recently as the 1980s.

These vets were medicated to the eyeballs, ostracised, or otherwise relegated to the back wards of mental hospitals. No one knew how to treat them. Van der Kolk writes of the uncontrollable emotions these veterans suffer, and their retreat into a myriad of substance abuses. Van der Kolk writes: 'They ... alternated between occasional bouts of explosive rage and long periods of being emotionally shut down."

Had my father been able to understand this, he might have been able to forgive Darcie. William Cranna served in the Royal Navy in World War II but was spared engagement in battle. His subsequent life was defined by his hostility to his father: emigration to another country; utter commitment to the role of reliable family bread-winner; distaste for the use of corporal punishment against his children. 

But his fulminating rage at Darcie persisted to the end; and in an ironic mirror of his father's eventual demise, also drank himself to death, perhaps driven by the demons of his childhood. 

And thus is trauma, undiagnosed, and untreated, visited upon the future generations, and the vicious cycle continues.

As for my own more nuanced experience of all this; at the age of 23, after leaving Wellington with a degree in sociology, I went to live for the 1980s in London's most violent red-light district. Hillview estate, Kings Cross, was a centre of immigration; political refugees and other foreigners, many of whom had fled war zones in the developing world. 

My job was to evict a bunch of violent drug dealers and pimps who ran the Kings Cross heroin trade, one of the most active in London. Big Jo stalked the estate clad only in luminescent green shorts, a machete tucked into the waistband. His wingman, Sparky, aka Mr William Patterson (a lavish brass name plate on his door) had acquired his moniker from his Molotov cocktail attacks on fellow pimps.

For several years I lived with a rope ladder under my bed and a steel box bolted to my front door letter-slot to repel Sparky's special cocktails. One morning, from my first floor window, I observed Sparky attacking an underling who he had cornered in his ground floor flat. On this occasion, Sparky's instrument of correction was a carving knife. The man punched out windows in his desperation to escape the onslaught.

At the end of this impromptu execution attempt, Mr William Patterson, himself a Scot, looked up and into my eyes.  His own eyes seemed flat and reptilian, devoid of emotion. I called the police, packed an overnight bag, then walked smartly to the station, took the tube to Heathrow, and caught a flight - any flight - out of the country. Hunkered down in Palermo, Sicily, I lay low for a couple of weeks until the dust had settled. 

The sound of that smashing glass is still rivetingly present, forty years on.  

After ten years, I returned to New Zealand with case of what Van der Kolk calls hypervigilance -  evidenced for many years by a tendency to walk down the middle of Auckland roads at night (the safest place to walk in Kings Cross). I had also become a heavy drinker. 

My dependence on alcohol was a chilling echo of the habit that had killed both my father and grandfather, so eventually I sought out an expert in the field.

My therapist listened with patience to my stories of  mayhem on the streets of Kings Cross, including two attacks I had experienced myself. Once I was dragged backwards out of my office chair by a self-described 'servant of Lucifer', and kicked with a fair amount of satanic energy to the floor. When I put up my hands up to protect myself he shattered my fingers. He was eventually dragged off me by other office workers. On another occasion I was attacked in an estate stairwell by a man with a welding hammer. As I looked at him through a veil of blood, I had the distinct impression he would have been quite happy to kill me. A glancing blow, another trip to University College Hospital, and seven stitches in the head. 

My therapist had trained in the 1960s, prior to the recognition of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which as Van der Kolk points out only became truly understood in the 1980s. After some time listening to these tales, my psychotherapist, in despair of a solution, prescribed anti-depressants ... which I declined, convinced that I wasn't really depressed. 

That there was something else wrong.

Recently, I came upon the body - stiff with rigor mortis - of a friend who had died of a heart attack, one of his feet was lifted strangely in the air, like a mast. Richard lived on his own and had failed to answer his phone. I rang him several times, sensing something was amiss. When I got into his flat, I discovered he had been dead for 18 hours. Slipping into my Kings Cross pattern, I managed the situation with efficiency, searching his desk for contact numbers, talked to the ambulance man and police for hours, rang his shocked relatives, informed the neighbours. 

I was pleased at how well I had managed the situation. 

Three days later, my car and some possessions were stolen from outside my workplace in central Auckland. The car was found shortly afterwards, written off; my belongings suitably pillaged – in Dargaville. On going to survey the vehicle, I observed with detached surprise the mess the thieves had left. The loss of the vehicle was an echo of Kings Cross, where my car had been stolen five times. On one occasion I had caught the thief, and over the course of an hour, had dragged him bodily and resisting to the local police station. 

That weekend, my girlfriend didn't answer her phone, when I knew she had walked home alone at night from her office.

I watched myself with detachment as I fell to the floor, unable to stand. I began to let out the most abject groans. Lying on the rug, my body was wracked with convulsions. My heart went into extreme palpitations. This went on for half an hour or so until I shakily got to my feet - a sense of having been projected sideways into a parallel universe of uncontrollable fear. 

My girlfriend had been talking to a flat-mate in another room, and a de facto arrangement to talk had slipped her mind. But the body keeps the score, and years of proximity to violence and death in Kings Cross and the recent discovery of Richard's cold, blue body, had left their mark ...

What this taught me, and what is so eloquently laid out in Van der Kolk's book, is that violence is deeply encoded in the body, and that triggers can release the traumatic pattern involuntarily, even if that trauma has been laid down decades before. 

Since then, reliably and painfully, I have been doing trauma therapy every two weeks, aware that I have a unique opportunity denied my father and grandfather. My new therapist gets me to recall the events from the past, and to tune in through a 'felt sense' to the visceral signals in my body when I do so. Like many writers, and in fact many New Zealand men who grew up in the latter 20th century, I have a tendency to work from the head - to analyse my experience through the higher brain.

But emotional shock is encoded in the limbic system, and only through a more sensory attunement and adjustment can this 'ancient brain' be eased out of its stage of frozen trauma. After eight sessions or so I observe some progress. My girlfriend reports a more likeable person. I no longer walk down the middle of Auckland streets at night. The palpitations are less severe if she misses a late evening call. But I sense the beast is still lurking there in the undergrowth.

Whether I will ever be free of the demons of Kings Cross remains to be seen. 

I recall sitting in the Kings Cross police station and talking to Inspector Bill Nelson about one of my neighbours who had been murdered. Patsy Malone was a lesbian prostitute who boasted of never having had normal sex with a man in her life. Her body was found in three plastic bags in the Epping Forest. A few months later it was revealed she had been killed by a policeman during a violent sex session. Constable Swindell was a member of the diplomatic corps and had once guarded No 10 Downing Street. He was acquitted of manslaughter but sentenced for disposing of her body. 

Patsy's killing has stayed with me ever since. 

Sometimes, Kings Cross prostitutes would sleep in my stairwell. A refuge if their pimp (Sparky, Big Jo) became too violent. I had a deep compassion for these women who, like my own father, were often in flight from violent families. Many had been been sexually abused by their fathers. Most of them were substance abusers, usually heroin, who used the drug as a brief and delusional respite from their emotional pain.

Van der Kolk, with his remarkable book, has done a great service to trauma sufferers. These are truly the benighted of the earth. Ostracized and imprisoned for their actions. Unable to live - or love - civilly, tormented by their past, prone to visiting their inexplicable rage upon those they care for most. Truly cursed and deeply misunderstood. When I think of the young Darcie, getting back on his troop ship as a callow 23 year old, leaving behind the tortured shapes of the bodies of his friends in the Turkish sand, I think of a whole generation who were changed in ways that were inexplicable to both themselves and to their loved ones. 

In the final scene of All Quiet on the Western Front, the great anti-war novel by Erich Maria Remarque, the hero of the novel reaches out to touch a butterfly in the mud and degradation of the trenches. The German soldier Paul is traumatized by the acts he has had to commit and by the death of so many of his friends. At the precise moment of reaching for the butterfly he is shot dead, his hand stretched before him. “His face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come ..." 

What great healers like Van der Kolk and his colleagues have offered is a respite before death for the most severely afflicted by trauma ... a butterfly that can truly be touched, gently, and taken into the heart for healing.

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