“I’ve always been of the mind that I’m just a person“
It’s not often that you come across a cliff-hanger.
An honest-to-goodness “what happens next?” moment.
Or, in Pauline Nevins’ case, it’s more of a “what happened then?” Life doesn’t happen that way, or so we like to think. It’s the purpose of fiction to have that kind of structure and form. It’s only in stories that the good win out and the evil punished. Existence is far too chaotic and cruel for such pat conclusions.
Naturally, I place it on either side of the Plastic Pedestal interval. If life hands you the occasional dramatic device, you’d be a fool not to use it.
On reflection, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Pauline Nevins’ life has always had the makings of a biopic. Her memoir, Fudge, is subtitled “The Downs and Ups of a Bi-Racial, Half-Irish, British War Baby”: an elevator pitch if ever I read one. All the elements are there in the details, too. The unknown wartime father, now returned to the US. The boozing, violent “old man”. The cruelty of family. The kindness of neighbours. The dawn of rock’n’roll. The secrets held for decades. The cliff-hanger, maybe two.
Contrary to the popular phrase, you could make it up.
But you don’t have to – it’s all there in Fudge.
For a women with a highly-dramatic past, Pauline Nevins treats her tale with a surprising level of equanimity. The title of her book comes from a less-than-flattering nickname given her by her mother, the defiant Betty. She recounts “the n-word” being frequently sung during music lessons in school, as well as the unease the presence of Robertson’s jam and its golliwog mascot gave her at teatime. It would be easy to be bitter.
Such is the significance of her story that The Mixed Museum has focussed on it in two exhibitions, one in conjunction with The Association of Mixed Race Irish, the other about the “Brown Babies” of World War Two. But you wouldn’t know any of this when she speaks from her California home. Pauline is a bright and generous interviewee, someone you simply want to spend more time with. Just a person.
Yet it’s one thing to talk about your past – even with a stranger in a podcast – and another to write it down in a book for all to read. Something more permanent, less offhand. As she points out, she couldn’t possibly have written Fudge while Betty was still alive, and you get the impression that – with at least some of her relatives – there has been a price to pay for her candour.
Because this is life and not a novel.
I often comment on the generosity of my interviewees for The Plastic Podcasts. The fact they are so willing to share their experiences, thoughts and feelings with me – and, by extension, with you – constantly surprises me. But it’s only down to Pauline that I’ve recognised the bravery of those who agree to talk. These discussions may not have the heavy significance of the written word but they are still the private made public, and for that they deserve both credit and thanks.
When The Plastic Podcasts started, it was all about the passport and authenticity and identity. Those issues haven’t gone away, but now these interviews have come to mean something else. They’re a chance to have stories told by those that haven’t been heard much up until now, if at all.
It’s only recently that the Irish in Britain, the Diaspora – the Plastic, Elastic and Passport Paddies – have felt confident enough to put their heads above the parapet. Whether you thank The Pogues or Jack Charlton or whoever for this is down to you. One thing that’s beyond argument is that we’re visible now, and we have to be sure we don’t disappear again.
So, for as long as long as there are voices to be heard – among the black and mixed-race Irish, the travellers, the nurses, the artists – and stories to be told of hostels, asylums and building sites – then we’ll be there. Giving them space and asking: “How you doing?”
Which ones are next? Well, that’s our cliff-hanger