The life of an illegitimate orphan, born in 1936, with an African father from Sierra Leone and a white, mother, a fashion designer, living in Hampstead is described in this fascinating autobiography by John Edward Bankole Jones.
This is dedicated to
my dearest wife Evangeline,
to my son Stefan and
to my daughters Jenny,
Gwendoline and Evelyn and
to my grandchildren
Ashton, Seriya, Kumari and Kara.
A special thanks to my dear friends
Amelia Broderick and to Mary O’Reilly,
who both took a lively and linguistic interest
in what I had to say and how I said it.
I have fleshed out my life story as best as I can. I have been able to complete this project with much support from my precious wife Evangeline and with consistent prodding from my children and grandchildren who I am ashamed to say do not know that much about their Gramps.
My hesitation in pursuing this project with any urgency has been that I do not like writing about myself at all. Ego and vanity has that streak, but I find it hard from so many different perspectives to go down that road. On the other hand, I realize that there is some virtue in handing down the family heirlooms. For instance, there is much to be gained from avoiding the pitfalls I have fallen into, so that others do not make the same errors of judgment.
I was born at a time when there was a great divide between black and white and the culture that it spawned. British white colonialism was running rampant around the world. As the imperial culture its rules of behaviour, its laws and its interpretation of history and geography predominated and defined all, indigenous cultures were, where possible, obliterated.
This was the era in which I was born. But my story needs to be put into perspective. Everyone has a story. Mine is just one of them. It is not a rant against anyone who was responsible for my upbringing either. They did the best they knew how, in the context of their individual circumstances. It was what it was, and it is what it is.
My early life takes up a significant part of the story. My working life and anecdotal stories of what happened to me as an unlikely diplomat and civil servant creep in towards the middle and end of the story. It was an uneasy confrontation with power. My father’s rooting in education was firmly based on the rule of law and on democracy in a multi-party system that naturally rubbed off on me and led to amusing confrontations between me and authority; not only in politics and the civil service but also among the cobwebs of the judicial system.
I take full responsibility for historical inaccuracies which may appear from time to time. They are merely used to illustrate certain points. This is not a historical document.
I hope that after a good read that my children and my grandchildren will unwrap more easily the enigma that is John Edward Bankole Jones. My story is not written for publication. But if anyone thinks its worthy of such merit I will not stand in their way.
I did not know who my mother or my father were until I was about ten to eleven years old. Until then I was solely in the charge of someone who I grew up to know as, and to call Auntie Winnie. At the age of ten or thereabouts I met my father for the first time and his wife, who was introduced to me as my birth mother (Mummy as I called her from then on). It all seemed to fit. She was light skinned in colour and my father was black. In my mind that explained my own complexion well enough and why I was not white like all the other children who I grew up with. At last all the nagging questions about my personal identity and that of my parents were answered, or so I thought. Not quite. Barely a year had passed when Mummy, my father and I were on a passenger vessel on our way home to Sierra Leone. The day after we sailed out of Liverpool my father told me out of the blue, that Auntie Winnie was in fact my real birth mother and not Mummy! What follows is my story.
Although Aunt Winnie was just Aunt Winnie to me until I left England for Sierra Leone she remained Aunt Winnie to me for the rest of her life until she passed away in 1991. She never ever allowed me to call her Mother! In the story that follows I of course freely, albeit posthumously, refer to her (at last) as Mother to avoid any possible ambiguity.
As a child I had no idea why I was here or where I came from. I had a sense of being alive, of being conscious, of my own physicality and boundless energy. None of this was open to question. That is how it was. It took some time before the brutal realisation of the world into which I was born, sunk in – its cruelty, its prejudices and society’s vacuous cultural norms behind which human decency, love and compassion were interned. I wish I was ever the child and never the father of the man who I became.
I was a coloured baby, not black but, more to the point not white either. I was born in Essex in England on the 1st of September 1936 of a white English unmarried mother and an African unmarried father from Sierra Leone on the west coast of Africa. It was an England as far removed socially and culturally from the present day as is planet earth from the sun or the moon. My arrival would have been the subject of vicious gossip among my mother’s family, friends, associates and workmates. Unmarried and a black father, despicable!
My mother therefore made absolutely sure that my arrival was kept as secret as possible. It had to be on a strictly need to know basis only. For my delivery, she made her way from her home in an elite London suburb in Hampstead to the obscurity of a town called Havering in the outer east London suburb of Romford. From then on, I existed in a twilight zone and was shunted around covertly from one family to another and from one part of London to the other.
I remember very little about the first three to four years of my life. This never struck me as strange or in any way odd until much later. In my random philosophical and religious readings, I found out, apocryphal or otherwise, that some people could narrate in some detail, experiences of their early childhood, including awareness of being in their mother’s womb. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately for me, my memory does not go back that far.
Nevertheless, I have always been curious about my early years. There are still gaps of course, but I have tried to piece together as much of my story as I can. Most of what I think I now know is based upon conjecture, hearsay and half-truths. Snippets of information were slowly drawn out of my mother who preferred not to talk about those years. For her own sanity she actively blocked chunks of my early childhood from memory. Nothing but irritation and a brewing temper surfaced whenever I questioned her about my past.
My father volunteered some facts over the years, but he was not particularly forthcoming either. I was an episode in their lives that was buried in the past and too painful to exhume. They were understandably reluctant or embarrassed to talk to me about it, although, strangely, I always sensed and still do, that each in their different ways – albeit never demonstrably – had a deep affection for me. It is strange isn’t it how enslaved we can become to the cultural values and mores of our times? It is so dehumanising when in the name of conformity, we find the need to incinerate our innermost feelings and cease to be human.
Those who attended my birth must have jumped out of their skins when out of my mother’s womb popped this unusually dark baby with curly matted African hair. Bizarrely my mother complained that my father was nowhere to be seen at the time of my birth. I can’t imagine why. After all she had gone to great lengths to make my arrival as secret as possible.
The last thing that she would have wanted was to have her coloured child’s father bouncing around attentively in the labour ward! There is some evidence however to suggest that he was in touch with my mother around the time of my birth or soon after. Some of my father’s friends from those years, whom I met and got to know later on in life, and who knew both my mother and I as a baby, contradict my mother’s implied assertion that my father had somehow dishonourably absconded.
They remembered carrying me as a baby and always referred to my mother as “Win” – short for Winifred – and as someone who they knew quite well. A close friend of my father never missed an opportunity of reminding me that he carried me in his arms in swaddling clothes as a baby. I too recall seeing a rare photograph of myself being carried by my father. Even more conclusively, my name on my birth certificate appears as John Jones which presumably could not have happened without my father’s consent. I suspect that my poor student father went undercover for a while until he deemed it safe to join the white race again! Such were the times in which they had lived. Appearances had to be maintained at any cost.
Thus began the story of my life. I was a coloured baby born at a time when society was viciously intolerant of unmarried mothers. My mother was trapped in a web of hostility from most of her family, as well as from society in general and she had to decide what to do with me. To her credit she never sought an abortion when she probably could have or an adoption after my birth.
Instead she chose to find foster parents to look after me. That speaks volumes. It tells me that she stubbornly resisted societal disapproval and was determined to keep me, albeit at a distance. But I was never abandoned by her. She had made a choice. She did not want me around but she never let go either. It was a difficult choice to make in the times in which she lived. No one would choose to be jeered at and taunted by their peers and lose everything. She had to move on and live her life and more importantly, earn a living to pay for my keep, once the choice had been made.
Although my mother and I were often seen together publicly she owed no one an explanation. It was not anyone’s business. She had an uncomfortable year or two of intrusive questioning and probing by the community in which she lived, as well as by close and distant friends. But they soon learned the hard way to shut up, rather than incur her wrath. Of course, the gossip and twittering never ended; it merely retreated to a safe distance. When I came back to England years later she told me that no one outside the immediate circle of her family ever knew that I was her son. As far as the rest of the world was concerned I was an orphaned child whom she had adopted. My past was not a subject she liked to revisit. She dealt with it by blanking it out as completely as she could; a form of selective amnesia I suppose.
For this reason, I was never allowed to call her mother in public or in private. She was always Aunt Winnie to me. As a child it never mattered. I hardly knew the difference between a mother and an aunt anyway! Little did I know that the foundation had been laid for a troubled and tempestuous relationship that never completely resolved itself until dementia or some such affliction set in. Being two people at the same time is never easy. To conceal the fact that she was my mother and to pretend that she was just my aunt must have been a considerable strain on her faculties. It certainly brought into our lives unforeseen, embarrassing and dare I say, hilarious scenarios. The further away from the truth one travels the more complicated life becomes.
Be it mother or Aunt Winnie she was always there for me though. She paid the fostering fees and chose my foster parents with great care and she meticulously monitored my upbringing as closely as she was able to. Throughout my childhood she was the only constant figure in my life. My relationship with the person who I called Aunt Winnie never bothered me until much, much later when I started to go to school. Other children had aunts and uncles and mothers. I recall asking Mother once whether I had a mother like other boys did.
All she said with a broad smile was, “Don’t be silly, of course you have a mother and you will find out who she is one day.”
That was as far as I ever ventured. My asking questions about the mother who I thought I had never met made her very cross. I stopped asking. Fathers were not too much of a problem. Children rarely spoke about them. If they weren’t already dead most of them were in the army fighting to prevent Britain from being overrun by Hitler’s Germany.
It is difficult for me to narrate events in my life in a strictly chronological order or to relate them to any particular age. There were no birthday parties that stand out in my memory. Of course I have flashbacks. They come in quick succession like flashes from a photographer’s camera, flashbacks of events in my very early childhood, all jumbled together meaninglessly. Kids’ stuff – climbing walls, walking along beaches, being hoisted onto some man’s shoulders and then tossed up into the sky and caught again, bread and butter sandwiches spread with lashings of raspberry jam, listening to Winston Churchill’s voice booming through the airways whilst toasting crumpets by the fire, the threatening sound of war sirens and dashes to bomb proof shelters – kids’ stuff.
As I grew older and I became more aware of my surroundings my life developed a fairly regular pattern. I had a sense of constantly being on the move, on foot, on buses, on trains and in cars, as my mother shuttled me from one foster parent to another or back and forth from the same one. This was my normality. I looked forward to these moments I had with her and to the bus and train rides with anticipation and excitement. To this day I get a kick when I remember being out there in the manic rush of human existence, constantly guided by a protecting hand.
As long as my mother was around I felt protected. She was the only person who I knew and who I had a relationship with until her sister, my dearest Auntie Vi, bounced into my life. Away from my mother with strange people and in different environments I felt vulnerable. I sensed my foster parent’s embarrassment each time that they took me down the high street or when visitors came. I heard the gossip, most of it unpleasant. Their curiosity never waned as I was the only coloured child who they had seen in their neighbourhoods.
I wanted my mother to come and take me away from these people, knowing instinctively that I did not belong with them. She came to my foster homes from time to time to take me out for the day or for the weekend. I felt happy then. Being with her was enough. I felt secure. We usually stayed at a hotel for several days or with friends of hers until she had a home of her own.
And then came the dreaded parting and the journey back to wherever with tears and goodbyes until the next time. It was around this time probably at the age of four or five that I became aware of my colour and that I was different from others around me. It never bothered me unduly. It was a problem for other people but never for me. If anything, it made me feel rather special. The world around me took an interest in this strange phenomenon in their midst.
My mother’s family and maiden name was Bale. The Bale’s are from Wellington in Somerset. Her mother died early in life, tragically. Her father was a train driver on the line from Paddington to the West Country. She had five sisters, Aunts Violet, Sybil, Edith, Ethel and Ivy. She spoke proudly of her heritage.
In a country and at a time of strict class consciousness and divisions she never tired of saying to me, “We don’t come from nothing you know. We are descendants of the Duke of Wellington.”
A surreal flight of the imagination I thought. But a lineage to the man who had defeated Napoleon at Waterloo and was twice Prime Minister of Britain is worth holding on to. Each time she repeated this narrative to me down the years I was tempted to ask her whether the lineage to which she lay claim was a direct line from the duke or whether he was up to some mischief of his own. But my dear mother never appreciated this kind of dark humour, so I let sleeping dukes lie!
My Aunt Edith has written copiously in her diaries about the Bale side of the family and its family connections. Unfortunately, I am unable to decipher her handwriting sufficiently to grasp a coherent understanding or picture of the story she tells. A large part of the diaries look like a daily account of the goings on and toing and froing of her sisters, family and friends which are what diaries are about anyway.
Aunt Edith was the eldest of the sisters and after her mother’s death, she took on the role of the head of the family and stayed with and looked after her father (my maternal grandfather) until his death. She ran the family home. Although the sisters were dispersed around the country they always returned home periodically to bond with one another. When I did eventually meet Aunt Edith she was always kind and affectionate towards me and never shied away from taking me in her arms and stuffing me with cakes and biscuits. She was very “proper” though and she saw the world in simplistic terms. Everything was black and white with no greys in between. Things were either right or wrong. I must have been “wrong” in her eyes but she never voiced or demonstrated her disapproval of me. She and her sisters forgave their sister Winifred for her alleged indiscretions and they all embraced me as their own. And then there was Aunt Vi who was as different from Aunt Edith and the rest of her sisters as a priestess was from a music hall variety entertainer.
I have memories of visiting my grandfather at his home in Wellington after he had retired. I never got to know him that well, but he was very supportive of my mother during those difficult early years of hers and my life. Going home to Wellington was like going into a retreat for my mother, an escape from a harsh and unrelenting world. I remember him as tall and distinguished in appearance. He and my mother looked remarkably alike, almost military in their bearing, with long pointed noses. On my visits I spent most of my time in the back garden lined with apple trees. I loved climbing the trees and picking apples. After a while we stopped visiting and he was never mentioned to me again. He had clearly passed on without me knowing any-thing about when or how he had passed.
Death is not something that the English are comfortable with. It is spoken about in hushed tones. The memories of the dead live on no doubt as they did in my mother’s case (she never stopped talking about how wonderful a man her father was) but the actual passing and its accompanying rituals are quickly despatched with. The body is interred and life seemingly returns to normal as if death itself came as an unexpected surprise and should never have happened.
Strangely, whenever I look in the mirror I think of my grandfather, as my mother forever drummed into me that I have a Bale nose. I guess this was part of her subliminal dislike of my father who, in her eyes, had wronged her deeply. From her point of view, she had nothing to do with her own perceived misfortune even though she was a willing participant in it!
God forbid that I should look like the Bankole Jones who she spurned! Bale-Jones or Jones-Bale would have suited her nicely! It is farcical the lengths to which people will go to obliterate a bad memory. Sadly, for my mother, I was that memory and I remained so right there in her face until in her late eighties and early nineties, when her brain cells were no longer able to reach out into the distant past. The angst had gone and my father had miraculously morphed into a gentleman and a fine specimen of a man!
My mother was a dress designer and a seamstress. In the early nineteen thirties she moved away from her home in Wellington to London where she had learned her trade in the big fashion houses of that great city and eventually she got a fairly high-ranking post in one of them. In those more prosperous times of her life, she lived in the exclusive suburb of Hampstead with her sisters Sybil and Violet. She looked back on those years nostalgically and she proclaimed that they were the happiest years of their lives.
Mother loved London’s West End with its theatres, music halls and cinemas. She and her sisters had a ball. They were musically inclined (they could hold a tune through several notes until it all went awry!) and they loved to go out dancing. There is no doubt that they were gay, immensely happy and carefree. When I grew up and I got to know them they lived out their memories in song and dance. I suppose it’s all a matter of perception. The early nineteen thirties were the years of the Great Depression. At the end of that decade the Second World War began. My mother and sisters lived through both World Wars with the Depression sandwiched in between.
We all make a habit of looking back on our youth through rose tinted glasses. How rosy was it for my mother? Two World Wars, the Depression and a baby thrown into the mix. I suppose the reality is that we all live through good times and bad times. It is the good times that make the bad time bearable. In my story, echoes of this state of the human condition bounce back and forth all the time.
Mother was a tallish, imposing woman with a good crop of hair cut short, a longish face, a prominent nose and a sharp chin, good looking and quite striking without being pretty. Her demeanour was always severe. It repelled rather than attracted conversation. People had to mind their Ps and their Qs with her. Since my arrival on the scene she was imprisoned behind her own skin, in case anyone asked her about me. She could look really thunderous if she wanted to. She firmly believed that people should mind their own business and that it was rude to ask personal questions.
John Bankole Jones is an excellent ‘raconteur’. He propels you with an irresistible force that leaves you no time to dawdle over an incident or a description. You simply have to get on to the next bit.
His story is extraordinary. Amongst other things, an enigmatic mother, the clash of two cultures – all of which he survives without self-pity or bitterness.
His mastery of English and his longstanding passion for reading are evident throughout the narrative. He uses understatement with humour which is infectious but controlled.
Sierra Leonean readers will find the inside story of the Siaka Stevens regime very revealing, as told by one who worked in both the Civil Service and the Judiciary of the day. His is one of the most compelling analyses of how galloping corruption stifled development in our country. Like many of his compatriots he suffered as a result of it, and reluctantly found himself leaving a country he loved.
We are left with an image of the author’s warm personality, of someone whose honesty and modesty are among the lasting attributes of this exceptional memoir.
A thoroughly satisfying read!
A Mother's Dilemma - 21.09.2018
A rare kind of story told with deep restrained feeling. The story grips and holds one's interest throughout the book.