Parky At the Pictures (24/1/2023)
(Review of What You Leave Behind by Nick Pourgourides)
Family clearly means a lot to Nick Pourgourides. Memories of watching old films with his father inspired More, Please!, his 2020 memoir of the popular British actor, Kenneth More. Now, he mines some recently unearthed documents to connect with the grandfather he never knew in What You Leave Behind.
Born in Limerick on 20 November 1885, Patrick Joseph Gleeson was the middle child of seven born to a deeply Catholic pig buyer and his wife. Despite having little formal education, he travelled to London in his early twenties in order to secure employment with the Imperial Maritime Customs Service. Primarily based within the International Settlement at Shanghai, Patrick rose steadily through the ranks and was a respected civil servant when he met nurse Mary Lillian Julia Pearce, who has been born in Mile End on 23 January 1898.
Despite the age gap, the couple married in October 1935 and settled into a comfortable lifestyle in Hankow, which is now part of modern-day Wuhan. Having endured the loss of two children, the Gleesons were delighted when Christine Mary (Pourgourides's mother) was born in the International Hospital in September 1941. Three months later, however, Japan (which had been at war with China since July 1937) bombed Pearl Harbor and expanded its bellicose operations throughout the Pacific.
The Gleesons were interned at a camp on Yu Yuen Road, where Patrick was regularly subjected to brutal torture. Somehow, the family managed to survive, but they realised it was impossible to remain in China and returned to London before starting again in the Wicklow town of Bray. Broken by his inhumane treatment in the Japanese camp, Patrick passed away in 1960. May, however, lived to the grand old age of 97. Yet she never spoke of the past and Pourgourides was nettled by the distance she maintained from him as a child.
As Pourgourides reveals in a poignant coda. he and May had more in common than family ties, as he and his wife, Rebecca, also lost a child before discovering that they couldn't have any more. The pain of being denied the chance to be a father is palpable, as Pourgourides ponders how he might leave a legacy to prove that he had existed. But the emergence of the records relating to Patrick's time in China has afforded him the opporunity to make an indelible mark by publishing this fasscinating memorial to his grandfather.
It might have been nice to learn more about the family's time on the Irish coast in the 1950s and something about how Pourgourides and May rubbed along after he ceased being the small boy she felt should be seen and not heard. But this is a brief and bittersweet reflection on human transience and the cruel caprices that forge character and determine destiny. It's written with sincerity and integrity, as Pourgourides reveals the vulnerability we all share when it comes to recalling lost loved ones and fathoming how we would want to be remembered.