Echoes of the past.

Uncle Patrick was a legend. He was my Stepmother’s Uncle. He grew up in Dublin in the 1920’s. 

In my childhood, he lived mostly in New Zealand and often came here and lived with us for the whole summer to escape the winter in the southern hemisphere and spend time with his beloved family here. He had irish eyes of pure glacial blue, an irrepressibly outrageous spirit and a wonderful talent for spinning yarns; sometimes appropriately at times, sometimes not. 

He was like a grandfather to me, inspiring me with tales of adventures. On my first major backpacking trip in 2009/10 I planned in a stop in New Zealand to visit him. Sometimes life sets a path for you… He had been very sick (yet active and wild as ever) for many years. He simply refused to give in to the calling of the Great Sleep. However, while I was in New Zealand elsewhere, I received a call. Patrick told me I must come to him as soon as possible. I said I’d do what I could and make arrangements to travel. I called him the next day and his friend answered and said he was in hospital. I spent my last few hundred bucks on a flight later that day. I spent the next few days staying alone in his flat and visiting him in hospital. Watching the tears of rain rolling down the window pane. I was there when his body gave up. I held his hand as they wheeled him in to surgery, both knowing it was goodbye. He somehow pulled through the operation, and the hospital called me to say I could come and see him in intensive care. The paraphernalia of supported life pulsating and whirring all around. Low ceilings with the dim glare of fluorescent lights. The winter deluge distorting the darkness outside. 

As I approached, all was calm. His body was being kept alive, but I knew upon seeing him that his self was gone. It was a pivotal moment of knowing that this is what it feels like to be an adult, to let the crashing waves of life wash over you, far from home, alone, but strong. The overwhelming sensation of gratitude for peace was upon me. I knew the surgery was an act of kindness. One that allowed a brilliant man to pass from this world without pain. 

He always encouraged me to travel, to be brave and wild. I remember asking him about his tattoo when I was young, and he said ‘don’t do it; you’ll regret it’. But I know if he could see me now he would be a great champion of my path. 

Now imagine you’re sat around a big wooden kitchen table, slippers on and tea in hand, and enjoy a snippet of one man’s amazing story. Let it make you think of those you love with fondness, and how each tattoo tells a story.

Transcript of original letter from Patrick Browne to Anna Garvey. Postmarked 14.01.10

My Dear Anna,

Thank you for such an interesting letter; particularly your interest in my tattoo on my left forearm.

I’ve told nobody of the origin of the tattoo. On lots of occasions when I happened to recall incidents in my past certain members if my clan interrupt with “get to the point Uncle; get to the point.” Then I lose interest. Seeing your interest, you will be the first to know. Here goes. I hope you are not too bored by the finish.

After the end of the war in Europe early 1945, our Battalion Manchester machine gun Regt were posted to Sth Wales near Pembroke. We immediately began intensive training maneuvers up and down the coastline. Twenty four hours a day. Night and day. After a short time we began to get used to air sickness by being flown in [Ansom Akio?] aircraft twice a week for 4 hours. Every day they would send out platoons and the Girls i.e. WAAFS.That is would fit us out with the …..? With the harness and chutes.

There was 2 RAF stations and a fleet…? Station we used. I learned later on we were to change to an airborne unit ….?

A lot of activity about. We were bumping into allsorts during ….?mechanised ….? Really high density. Not long after the atom bomb was dropped in Japan and the war ended. Immediately training stopped and everyone dispersed as quickly as they appeared. Orders were to proceed to the Island of Malta to …? The garrison. But mainly to supervise the thousands of German prisoners of war in camps. Remnants of Rommels(??) African Corps. Prior to going we were told the guys we were to relieve were a motley bunch so not really up to it. And the jerries used to give them trouble, and riot now and again. And generally take advantage of their weaknesses.

We sailed from Southampton. Guess what? Uncle Patrick couldn’t miss this. A whopper of a storm in the Biscay. It was a cracker. Life jackets on 24hrs. I spent most of the time available to me on deck. At one period I saw unforgettable sights. They sent an aircraft carrier to assist as necessary. The name of that carrier was ‘The Ocean’ She was dancing around in those seas doing impossible you a would think gyrations. My heart skipped many a beat at the sight. The next happy event took place when we arrived in Valletta harbour. There’s no docks in Valletta so we had to come down rope nets into landing craft and go ashore that way. The sea was choppy and a lot of the guys were seasick. L.C.M.’s as they were known as they were notorious seasick vessels. Had my share of vomit spewed around.

We settled in around the P.O.W. camps and had no bother with them. They were told we were a hard and bitter outfit specialising in eating SS units for breakfast. At first they were apprehensive, and behaved by the book. Then they saw we didn’t give a shit what they did. The war was over and all wanted to was to get out and home. As far as we were concerned soldiering was over, and they could do what they likes as far as we were concerned. We changed a lot of the routine to make their lot a lot better. There was no rationing on Malta after the war unlike Britain where it continued for years. We would barter for the POW’s for what they wanted for their products they made in the camps. They had it easy all around.

Malta in these days was one of the world’s largest Naval installations. Sailors at every turn. And where sailors congregate to, a sleazy quarter appears. And Valletta had one of the biggest. Called the GUT aka Strait Street.

10 metres wide approx, adn approx 400 metres long on a very steep incline. Each side of the street all the way down had holes in the wall. Each containing a Bordello, a Bar and here and there a tattooist. And other holes blaring out music with ….?

To the tattoo at last. I don’t think I would be wrong in stating that 90% of the Jack Tars(?) in the British Navy got their tattoos in Malta between the wars. My tattoo was done by a tattooist from the Gut. A heart, a scroll through the centre left to right with the words mother written in the scroll. In other words a shape in this fashion.

Stage one of recreating Patrick’s tattoo.

The tattooist told me the red dye would disappear in a short while. I remember at the time being very disappointed. He said the red dye was imported from Japan. When Japan entered the war that was the end of imports. It must have been a secret formula. No doubt that problem doesn’t exist today. One of our guys had a tattoo that impressed me in a big way. A large dagger piercing a scroll with the words Death Before Dishonour. Because he had this tattoo, I formed my own opinion of him which was of very high regard. Imagine my shock on coming back from a shower parade one day and one of the platoon called out his watch was missing. We had a ships search on the spot. Guess what? It was in Death before Dishonour’s bag. Lots of times I would ponder, why he got that tattoo. In these we were all servicemen and any tattoos were 90% for loved ones. One that note all finite. I’m very tired at the moment and I would like to wish you my very best wishes. I’m very pleased you are heeding the golden rules. When in doubt, get out.

I’ll be in touch. Lots of love. Uncle Patrick.

The finishing touches to the recreated design.

I don’t think I need to say much in closing this. Just that this is a happy story, not a sad one. That we have these moments of joy and beauty in our life experience is all the more powerful through it’s fragility. I’m grateful to those special people that have been with me on some of the roads that lead to now.

Writing this has spared many more musings to do with our relationship with tattoos, so stick with me and read the next few blogs for some delving deeper.

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