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One of my favourite stories about the sinking of the Titanic is the one about the extreme localist agenda of a Scottish newspaper reporting on the disaster. The headline that appeared the following day was: “Aberdeen Man Lost at Sea”.

More conventional newspaper response to Titanic disaster

For my Mexican family, the story that had passed down the generations was that their English ancestor, my great grandfather, Arthur Greenhalgh, went down with the ship. The belief that they had clung to for the best part of a century, until I came along to ruin it all, was that he was on his way back to Mexico to be with them. As I wrote a week ago, the Titanic’s departure from New York on April 20th1912 was one that he might have been on, had he been further held up by revolution and flood, and had the Titanic survived its maiden voyage. There was however, a link between my great grandfather and the ill-fated ship.

Shipping chart from New-York-Herald April-14-1912 showing positions of Caronia and Titanic

When researching The Mango Orchard in the Caird Library in the National Maritime Museum in London, I came across a telegraph that was sent by the wireless operator on the SS Caronia – the ship on which my great grandfather was travelling. The message was sent at 9am on April 14 1912 to the Titanic coming the other way. It was sent from close to where the Titanic went down. And the message?   “Look out, there are icebergs” …

… especially if you are from Aberdeen.

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My great grandfather just before leaving Mexico

I wonder if anything will happen this weekend to cause people to look back in a hundred years’ time.

Exactly one hundred years ago, it was also a cold Easter weekend. I know this as when I was researching The Mango Orchard, I spent weeks in archives looking into my great grandfather’s escape from the Mexican Revolution.

At the end of March 1912, following a tip-off from a local bandit, my forebear left Mexico in a hurry. Counter-revolutionary forces were encircling the town; his life was in danger. He had to pack and leave the country which had been his home for 13 years, in an afternoon. He kissed his Mexican family goodbye on March 26th, and fled to San Blas, where he boarded a ship bound for San Francisco. He would never see his Mexican family again.

Mississippi Flood 1912

He probably thought he’d had his share of trauma, but a storm was blowing across the US. He stayed in New Orleans en route to New York, where, after days of heavy rains, the levees broke. The city was flooded by “the greatest volume of water in the history of the Mississippi”. My great grandfather himself was nearly swept to his death. The New York Times reported that one man only escaped the rising waters by cutting a hole in the roof of his hotel room with a can opener.

In the same edition of the newspaper, very likely one that my great grandfather read, were the ads for steamers sailing for Liverpool. If the floodwaters subsided, he was aiming to be in New York to catch the Cunard ship, the Caronia, on April 10th. If they didn’t, there was another ship he was considering. It was scheduled to sail on April 20th at 12 noon: the Titanic.

New York Times Shipping ads April 1912

More in a few days…

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Out of the blue I receive an invitation to an awards ceremony. It’s not just any old awards ceremony; it’s the History Today Awards, run by the country’s most respected history magazine. The invite comes on a crisp white embossed card. It looks so smart I give it pride of place on the mantel piece. I even take down my Christmas cards.

I wrote a piece for History Today last year, about my great grandfather’s role in (kind of) starting the Mexican Revolution. It was not an easy article to write. Every claim had to be checked, referenced and backed up.  I struggled to hit the deadline; I sent off final copy from a train with a dodgy internet connection with about an hour to go. Could it be that my hard work was being recognised with an award?

The event is held at the Museum of the Order of St John, a Hogwarts-style oak-beamed hall just inside the old London city wall. It has a 900 year old history, and its distinguished visitors include Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare.

I imagine the event will be full of pear-shaped professors with Dennis Healey eyebrows, peering at each other over half-moon spectacles and full glasses of port. When I get there, I notice my name badge is one of the few which doesn’t

have Dr or Prof or an aristocratic title on it. And yes, many of the guests are pear-shaped and have Dennis Healey eyebrows. There are also a surprising number of young people, glamorous women and TV celebrities.

I walk into the crowded hall. I know no one.  A young woman smiles at me. She has the authoritative air of someone hosting a party and I wonder if she has she seen the list of winners, and recognises my name. Then I notice her tray. ‘Would you like a drink, sir?’ she asks.

I accept a glass of white wine and begin to mingle.

I hover on the fringes of a large group and try to follow the conversation. A man with a red face and barrel chest says, ‘But of course, what do you expect with the Tudors?” Everyone laughs heartily.

I move on.

A man with a voluminous grey beard leans into a group of young admirers. ‘And I ask myself the question: “What would Milton do?”’ The group all nods thoughtfully. I ponder the wisdom of asking which Milton he is referring to. I decide against and move on once more.

‘How are you getting on?’ asks a woman I had met at the entrance.

It’s nice to see a friendly face. She introduces herself as Sarah Wise, a journalist and writer of several books on Victorian social history. She is charming, and regales me with stories of the underbelly of London life in the 1800s. The woman who had given me a glass of wine, offers us both another. And then another. It’s only when the presentations begin that I remember that I am at a prestigious awards ceremony. I have the outline of an acceptance speech in my pocket but I can’t find it.

Sarah holds my drink as I turn out all my pockets. It’s gone.

The roof of my mouth goes dry as the first category nominees are read out. I have no speech, and even if I did, am in no fit state to deliver it.

It is with a mixture of disappointment and relief that my name is not on the list. Nor is it included in any of the following list of nominees.

I don’t know what I would have done if I had won. But if I met Milton on my way to the podium, I’d have asked for his advice.

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First of all, an apology to all those people to whom I promised I would write regularly during my recent trip to Mexico. Initially I was just enjoying the holiday; for the first time in several years, I was not spending every waking moment trying to carve copy out of what I saw round me, and then, after a few weeks of not doing very much, the only thing of interest that was going on was something which I couldn’t talk about. Still can’t. Maybe I’ll explain in a few weeks.
Apart from kicking back and doing very little with the sun on my face, the main purpose of being in Mexico was to visit the family, and take The Mango Orchard home. The family held the book like a newborn. Their faces shone with excitement and pride. And then they flicked through the book to see what I had said about them.
The BBC took advantage of my trip by giving me a camera to film some scenes for a documentary, due to be aired later in the year. They asked me to film some typical Mexican scenes, as well as me talking with the family, and visiting the cotton mills where my great grandfather worked… and from where the initial sprouts of rebellion that became the Mexican Revolution began.
After a few weeks with the family, I went on a road trip around the country, often finding myself in Cotos Privados – gated communities with identical houses, arranged round swimming pools, pristine lawns and 24 hour security. These places are safe, that’s why people like them. Children play in the street, doors remain unlocked, but I couldn’t help feeling I was on the set for the Truman Show.
Staying in these new, posh estates gave rise to the Great Dilemma. Not about whether or not it is morally right to have great swathes of urban space from which the general public cannot enter. No, something of much greater importance: this is the ultimate social quandary… about toilet paper.
In most bathrooms around Mexico, and indeed of all Latin America, next to the toilet is a wastepaper basket. Everyone knows not to throw paper (or anything else) in to the loo.
But surely the people who had built these state-of-the-art houses in which I was staying had bothered to install modern plumbing, no? It’s not a question you can easily ask, though.
You are suddenly faced with a predicament: what would be more embarrassing, to be responsible for blocking the pipes with paper they weren’t designed for and flooding the house with raw sewage, or to put your soiled toilet paper in a bin normally used for cotton buds and empty shampoo bottles?
It’s a question I pondered long and hard. I generally felt that flooding the house with raw sewage would be marginally less embarrassing.
Any thoughts?

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 The day does not begin well.
When I stumble out of bed I get a sharp, stabbing pain in my lower back. It’s a familiar pain which afflicts me every six months or so, and over the years has kept several osteopaths, chiropractors and acupuncturists in gravy.
The most painful part is always getting dressed. I hop around my bedroom, swearing loudly for about ten minutes, trying to get my trousers on. What I really want to do is swallow handfuls of strong pain-killers and go back to bed but I have to get up. I have things to do.
I rub in some deep heat cream and hobble to the bank to order my travellers’ cheques for my trip to Mexico next week, and then hobble back in time to be interviewed over the phone by the Manchester Evening News.
Interview over, I set about tidying the flat in preparation for the arrival of a film crew from Televisa, Mexican’s biggest TV network. And just in case they want some tea, I pop out to the shops to buy some milk. I have never known any Mexican to drink tea, but you never know.
The rushing to the shop and bending over to pick things off the floor does my back no favours. I swallow some pills and rub in more deep heat cream. I realise the flat is beginning to smell like a rugby changing room.
It’s five minutes until Televisa are due to arrive and I remember I need to send a text to someone I am due to meet this evening. But where is my phone? I looking on my desk and in the kitchen, I pat my pockets, look in the jacket that I wore to the bank. It’s not there. I call my number from the landline so I can track it down. It goes straight to voice mail. That’s what happens when someone steals your phone: they take out the SIM card so they can sell the handset.
I swear again. And again.
It’s now 3pm. The Mexicans are due to be here, but I need my phone so I can concentrate on my interview. If I have left it at the shop, the sooner I get there, the more likely I am to find it.
My mobile is not at the shop. That must meant that unless I dropped it on my way to or back, my neighbours, the ones I have only seen once, when I asked them not to make so much noise in the mornings, must have broken in to my flat and stolen it. The bastards.
When I get back, there is a Mexican film crew standing at my front door, looking at their watches. I lead them upstairs and try to forget about the phone. It’s my first interview in Spanish, and I am a little apprehensive; in any interview one needs to be pithy and concise. That’s tricky enough in English, much more so in a second language.
We are standing on the roof terrace and I am talking into a Televisa microphone that the journalist is holding towards me. I try to imagine my Mexican aunts and uncles eating their breakfast sometime next week, and what their reactions will be when I suddenly appear on the screen.
“Ay, mira, es Robiiiin!”
After the interview they film me sitting at my desk pretending to be fascinated by what’s on my computer screen, looking through the photos of Mexico, and finally, of me walking out of the door with my rucksack, pretending to go to the airport. The pain my rucksack gives me when I sling it over my shoulder for the camera does not bode well for my trip to Mexico.
I now have to sort out my stolen phone. I spend over an hour cancelling and replacing the SIM card and convincing the insurance company to give me a new handset. They eventually agree, but say they can’t deliver it straight away. I won’t receive it until July.
It’s 5.30pm now and I remember I am meant to be meeting someone at 6pm. Her number is of course on my phone which has been stolen and the SIM cancelled. I send her a mail, hoping to reach her before she leaves the office. My laptop has gone into hibernation mode and as I wait for it to warm up, I move some papers. And my mobile phone falls on the desk.

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