I must have been fourteen or fifteen when I went on my school trip to the Isle of Wight. It was with my geology class; an exploration of what is now known as the Jurassic coast. The British tourist industry obviously recognised the marketability of many young peoples’ obsession with dinosaurs and fossils and gave the Dorset coast the honour of being Britain’s Jurassic Park. Not only this, UNESCO awarded the area World Heritage Site status, further recognising its magical appeal but also its scientific wealth.
The Isle of Wight is close by and is an absolute geological treasure chest.
To me the Isle of Wight is the island of landslips and limestone, unconformities and ammonites, clays and flint geodes. I look at the coloured sands of Alum Bay and see vertically folded sedimentary deposits slumped against Cretaceous chalk and not pretty colours to be loaded into a glass phial. Alum Bay also reveals the famous, or is it infamous London Clay. The scourge of attempts to extend the London tube network south of the Thames as it is impossible to tunnel through.
For me, it is also the place where Bob Dylan made his triumphant return to the stage following his motorcycle accident.
But it is also the subject of one of my most treasured possessions. My Grandmother, Doris Chapman, nee Mankerts visited the Island in June 1929, aged 12. A two-week, school sponsored sojourn, courtesy of St Paul’s School in Tottenham.
I remember preparing for my trip and her telling me that she went once. She then produced from an upstairs chest the journal that she kept. I loved it. Pages of neat, tiny copperplate script, carefully cut out pictures from brochures and magazines, postcards, pressed flowers and seaweed and folded maps.
I remember returning from my field trip and comparing the pictures of the Needles from 1929 with my Kodak Instamatic snaps of the same. I looked for signs of weathering and recorded changes in my field trip notes. It all went down rather well with my teacher, Mrs Ashworth, After all, who else had a grandmother who not only went on a trip to the Isle of Wight in 1929 but also kept such a sweet and charming journal? And who else had a grandmother who had then held onto her journal through her teenage years, into marriage, through a war and up to the point where she handed it to her grandson? I was a very lucky boy.
It also connected me with her on another level. From an early age I have loved keeping scrapbooks, cutting and pasting and documenting. I’ve never grown out of it. Even now, every theatre ticket, aeroplane boarding pass, flyer and paper-related ephemera from everywhere I go is collected obsessively and stuck in a book. Everywhere I go there is always, at the back of my mind, a reminder to collect ‘stickage’, the self-invented word for what will eventually become the ‘official’ record of my visit. It beats keeping a diary and is better than a photograph. I can flick through the pages of my numerous albums and I am transported back in time.
And this is why when she died in 2001, the only personal item of hers I really wanted was this journal.
My personal resonance with the Mankerts side of my family has another element worth mentioning. Doris’s brother Gordon was a merchant seamen, lost at sea during the Second World War when his ship, the SS Ceramic, was torpedoed in the Atlantic Ocean. My only knowledge of him is based on a few of Doris’s other possessions, a grainy black and white photograph, a few letters from him to his family whilst sailing the world and a large collection of 78rpm records, also in my possession. Doris always said my obsession with music and records was me ‘taking after Gordon.’ I like that and have always imagined that if Gordon had survived, he would have been my favourite uncle. In fact, even though we never knew each other, he secretly is my favourite uncle anyway!
Two weeks in the Isle of Wight must have been quite an event in the young life of my grandmother; I wonder about the sacrifices made by her parents to get the money together for the trip. I also wonder about the excitement or trepidation of being away from home and family for two weeks. More than likely the keeping of a diary was all part and parcel of the learning process; she indeed mentions in her journal the diligent diary keeping of her and her classmates. One slightly frustrating element of her recording and documenting, however, is the politeness of it all. There is little emotion behind the writing, in fact, the only mention of excitement relates to her return to Waterloo and the sight of ‘friends’ waiting for her and her party on the platform.
We learn of Mr Johnson of the Ingersley Hotel. A constant source of hospitality and sandwiches; we read of building sandcastles and paddling and boat trips. Cheeky Robins and perky little dogs but unfortunately there is no feeling behind it. It is typically the record of a pre-teen. I guess the hormones that fire the feelings weren’t there yet and in a way that brings a sense of mystery to the book. What must it have been like for the young Doris Mankerts?
Her trip to the Isle of Wight is now eighty years gone. I was looking at the journal a few months ago and realised this. It is literally a lifetime ago. I felt that maybe it was a good time to recognise this. And this is why I am about to return to the Island. To try to retrace her visit. To commemorate the young Doris Mankerts, and her adventure.