Sands of time
Laura Cumming’s mother was kidnapped as a child from the beach at Chapel St Leonards. The incident is at the centre of a remarkable new book, which blends mystery, memoir, art criticism and Lincolnshire history. Interview by Yusef Sayed.
It is a story that will unsettle any reader. Betty Elston, aged 3, was at the beach with her mother, Veda, on an autumn afternoon in 1929. From there she was taken, when Veda’s attention was elsewhere.
Five days later, Betty was found unharmed in nearby Hogsthorpe. Betty had no memory of the incident and only learned of it in 1986, when she received an unexpected letter.
Her daughter, Laura Cumming, now the chief art critic for The Observer, has investigated the event, drawing on family photographs, first hand conversation, and her professional skills, to solve the mystery and reveal the untold history of her family.
“My mother had an extraordinary communication from two people writing to her and failing to say who they were,” Cumming recalls.
“They thought my mother would know perfectly well who they were, because they knew perfectly well who she was. That is to say that, even at the age of 60, a lot of people knew who she was and she still didn’t.
“I was in my twenties and I was completely riveted by the whole story but also by the idea of her being gone from this beach.”
Cumming, who grew up in Edinburgh, had holidayed on the Lincolnshire coast with her parents as a child and had heard stories from her mother over the years but there were significant gaps in the telling.
“She had no memory of being kidnapped. To her this beach was an amazingly beautiful playground. I used to go there as a child, we used to stay at the Vine Hotel. Edinburgh was very cold, but we went to Lincolnshire and it was exotic.
“But when I discovered that she had been taken from this beach, it began to take on a very singular strangeness to me and I began to think, how did they take her off the beach when everything is in such plain sight? I still don’t understand the details of it.”
Betty, known to her children as Elizabeth, had written an account of her Lincolnshire childhood, given to Laura for her birthday, which captivated her.
“She wrote me this birthday memoir that featured all these characters in the village of Chapel St Leonards in the 20s and 30s. Very much an ‘Under Milk Wood’ cast, a really beautiful piece of writing.
“But she never got past the age of 13, when the incident on the bus occurred,” Cumming adds, referring to another episode in Betty’s story, when as a teenager she was approached on the bus by a woman unknown to her.
“It occurred to me that she couldn’t go beyond that because she didn’t want to. I don’t think she could have done all the things she’s done and have the life she’s had if she had kept returning to the past.
“I’m returning to it because I want to understand. The people in the memoir were people and I wanted to learn more.”
Realising that her mother would not undertake to solve the mysteries of her childhood, Cumming set out to delve deeper. She visited the Lincolnshire coast again two years ago, staying in a farmhouse near the beach of Chapel St Leonards and immersed herself in the places that shaped her mother’s early experiences. Collecting her own writing, family correspondence and local history, the resulting book, On Chapel Sands, does so much more than seek to solve the beach kidnap.
As its title suggests, referring to that key location, the book not only takes an investigative approach – Cumming using her sharp eye to aid her detective work – but is also essayistic, exploring personal questions about family and secrecy, the contours and character of the Lincolnshire landscape, and the ways in which paintings from the past can richly inform the present.
Many figures from the county’s history appear, too, from Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Sir John Franklin, to the local baker, drapers and school teachers familiar to Betty. Cumming scrutinises family photos and famous masterpieces, from Ghirlandaio and Brueghel to Degas, comparing and reflecting, never settling for a single, or simple reading, learning more about her mother’s true identity and tracking the shifting emotions she feels towards her grandparents as she learns more. Aware of how the passing years and new revelations inevitably change one’s perspective, Cumming’s writing is full of generosity.
Returning to the landscape that she was writing about was central to the creative process.
“I had her memoir, I had my writings over many years about her, who I love very dearly, and I had many thoughts about this story. And I told the story, a specific aspect of the story, which is the baker’s van, which arrives from the windmill at Hogsthorpe and never stops at her house. I wanted to get to the bottom of this and I saw the thing to do, with my mother’s blessing.
“I went to Chapel St Leonards. I took a room in a farm nearby and I spent a long time on the beach. Every day I’d go to the beach and I’d think about this scene.
“I’d go up to the Beacon and I went to the house where my mother lived and I’d have a drink in the Vine. I went round and round. I did the walk from Chapel to Mablethorpe. I did the walk from Chapel to Skegness and I thought about this period in time. And local historians in and around Chapel have done a wonderful job of publishing a lot of beautifully written local history. In Skegness Library you can look up old copies of the Skegness Times. It was very evocative.
“The book came into the form it’s in simply from being in the landscape in Lincolnshire. I’d stand on those sands and she was there, my grandfather was there, the Vikings were there. The compression of time was a great advantage for me.”
Cumming also hoped to find the windmill in Hogsthorpe, of great significance in Betty’s story.
“I spent a lot of time in Hogsthorpe and I could not find the windmill. But a charming man who has a food van at Skegness on the front, he lives there and [his] garden has the rings in it. He let me in. From these relics you evolve your story. Then find photographs.”
Cumming’s previous books, on a lost Velázquez painting and the art of self-portraiture, seem to be of a piece with On Chapel Sands, recovering objects and people, with Cumming reflecting on her own relationship to her mother and grandparents.
Though the story is one of many twists and extending over many decades, Cumming distils so much into memorable aphorisms throughout: ‘Life reproves the imagination: look closer,’ she writes. Her similes are suggested by the surrounding environment, too. ‘I sieve the evidence like flour,’ Cumming writes, once the family relationship to the local millers has been uncovered. The fate of the explorer John Franklin, hindered in frozen seas, is beautifully compared to the way that her ‘mother’s feelings for her father took years to freeze into fixed aversion, and I wonder now whether they could ever be melted.’
The story may be unique but the themes are universal, with family secrets and estrangement all too common.
“Everyone has a mother, everyone has an uncle who wasn’t really their uncle, or whose sister was in fact their mother, or whose grandparents aren’t their grandparents. It’s completely common. All family photo albums are full of things we don’t notice and that’s the campaign of the book: look more closely. There’s always a figure in the background or someone who is not there. Who’s taken the photograph?
“Although this is a very common story about lost identity, I think the conditions in which this occurred, it couldn’t happen now, probably. I think that’s not a bad thing because the conspiracy of silence I think is what held my mother’s life back and gave her this false start.”
As Cumming puts it succinctly in the book, ‘Suppression thwarts precision.’ In the days since publication, readers have already contacted Cumming to share their own stories from the past.
“My mother wrote about the people in Chapel and some of those lovely portraits of characters are in the book and I did slightly hope I would hear from the Parrish family, or the family of Lily Boddice from the draper’s store, or somebody from Stow’s Stores. And indeed I have now heard from three members of those families.
“One was a sailor who sailed away, like so many people in the book, and he now lives in Nova Scotia. I do know that one other story is coming to me about another sad, dreadful thing that happened on Chapel sands.
“I wanted to celebrate Chapel very much but I think that like every village it has other secrets and I’m not sure all of them are joyful.”
On Chapel Sands is published by Chatto and Windus.