The third most-used Sherlock Holmes quote, from Chapter 6 of The Sign of the Four (1890), provides the title for this personal saga of the author to establish just who and what her parents really were. It tells of a long-running battle to find the various clues that each in turn had to be proved or discarded over a period exceeding 30 years before the truth could finally be established.
As a young child Penny Graham often wondered why, unlike her peers at school, she had no grandparents, uncles, aunts or cousins. Her father Denis told tales of the things he had done, but there was almost a blank canvas when it came to family, and questions were fobbed off. Graham’s mother was in poor health with TB and died when Graham was ten, so she was not able to provide any information by the time Graham was old enough to be able to apply serious reasoning to her suspicions. In 1984, at age 42, Graham returned to England to Taunton, her parents’ place of birth, as a starting point in her quest for answers. No record of their births over a reasonable span of years was to be found, or of her paternal grandfather, who she had been told, had been Member of Parliament for Somerset in the first of the century. Then she realised that her father’s telling of the family’s history was a fabrication to suit his own purposes in life, and that probably her parent’s names and ages were not even correct. Having two older brothers that were prepared to accept the status quo, Graham only had her husband’s support in her quest to find the truth.
The first real breakthrough came when her mother’s relatives living in Perth saw a Women’s Weekly report of Graham’s brother’s marriage in 1972. They found the father’s names in the ACT telephone directory, but not wanting to butt into his life, took no action. When a suitable bone marrow donor could not be found for their daughter Christina, they finally rang Graham’s father in 1988 in the hope of finding a marrow match for her. Denis said the children were all overseas and then failed to answer a following letter. A phone call to Graham’s brother Derek in the ACT resulted in Graham’s phone number being given to her mother’s relatives. This contact provided the tip of one of the ‘icebergs’.
Examination in 1990 of a photocopy of a pre-War employment agreement with Dunlop Plantations Limited in Malaya found in a drawer by Graham’s brother Tony provided an English address for Dennis. By long-distance telephone conversations, trips overseas, driving hundreds of miles in Great Britain and Europe in cheap hired cars, cruising down the Volga from Saratov in Russia to visit her mother’s birthplace to seek archival records of her birth, the family trees of both her parents were eventually able to be drawn. Graham’s greatest regret is that because she did not know of their existence, she did not have the opportunity to meet or simply speak by telephone to so many of her relatives who passed away while she was still searching.
The two family trees that are the endpapers to the story are a fine testament to the research skills of the author. The sheer numbers of her forebears located, consistent with the large families that existed in the early 20th century, and are indicative of the her determination to ‘look under every rock’ no matter how long or how much effort it took. One of her first jobs was in the Australian Reference Section of the National Library of Australia, so the skills Graham attained there have stood her in great stead in her long quest. Admitting there are still unfilled gaps in the family history, Graham still has hopes of making another trip to Russia to trace more of her family heritage.
This is an absorbing work that gives full descriptions of life from the mid-1930s in Malaya, the evacuation of Singapore as it fell to the Japanese in February 1942, post-war days in suburban Australia, and the experience of raising a young family in the latter decades of last century.
“The Royal United Services Institute of Victoria Library wishes to thank the publisher for providing a copy for review.”